Melancholia and pathos are no strangers to artists and, like so many before him, Guru Dutt’s heart ached so much for his art that it consumed him. The filmmaker was only 39 when he died of an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills in 1964.
Yasser Usman in Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story (2020) says that when Dutt was finally able to make the movie he so desperately craved, his most iconic film Pyaasa (‘One Who Thirsts’, 1957), he “perhaps also set off on a path of unquenchable creative perfection—eventually derailing every other dream he held close”.
Dutt was one of the most brilliant filmmakers of the Golden Age of Hindi cinema. This was a challenging time for India. The country was emerging from the shadow of colonialism, broken in many ways and yet looking to script a story all her own. That is why films of the 1950s and ’60s resonated so strongly with the Indian audience.
But Guru Dutt pushed the boundaries of Hindi cinema, demonstrating that movies could be commercially successful while also being artistically appealing. They could be real and still connect with common folk.
Dutt made his directorial debut with Baazi (1951) but it was Pyaasa that was his masterpiece, the story of a poet trying to achieve success in a hypocritical, uncaring world. In many ways, it was the story of Dutt’s father. Dutt had nurtured the script for ten years, and when he made the film, at age 32, it struck box-office gold.
But his next film, Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) flopped, a semi-autobiographical story of a tragic love-affair set against the backdrop of the film industry. Unable to come to terms with its failure, Dutt began to unravel. Although he continued to act and produce, he never directed another film.
In this excerpt from Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story, Yasser Usman offers an insight into the demons that Dutt wrestled with on the road to making his dream project come true.
‘Pyaasa’s theme was inspired by my father’ - Lalitha Lajmi
India was recently free from a long British rule of two centuries. There were dreams of a new nation, a better India. The 1950s, often termed as the ‘Golden Era’ of Indian cinema, witnessed films like Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver (1950), Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953) and Devdas (1955), V. Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Hath—all much talked about for the social concerns they brought to fore.
Three actors were ruling the Hindi film industry—the triumvirate of Dilip–Dev–Raj. Each one with a distinct style of their own and each one from a Punjabi-speaking background. By 1956, Guru Dutt had secured his place as a promising filmmaker with four big successes as a director—Baazi, Aar Paar, Mr & Mrs 55 and C.I.D. The commercial success brought within reach all the dreams that the thirty-one-year-old Guru Dutt had harboured since his days in Calcutta.
The time had come to realise these dreams.
Guru Dutt had by then achieved the quintessential tinsel-town success—a bungalow in the posh Pali Hill area of Bombay, marriage and children with the legendary singer Geeta Roy, and his own film banner as a producer-director-actor—Guru Dutt Films Pvt Ltd.
This finally catapulted him to pick the story he had been waiting to tell on the big screen for more than a decade—the classic, Pyaasa.
Pyaasa was a personal story inspired by his early days in Bombay as well as the struggles faced by his father. His father’s lifelong ambition was to engage in creative writing but he could only become a clerk. This exasperation he felt manifested itself in a childhood marred with his bitterness, reclusion and constant fights in the house for Guru Dutt and his siblings. He never could grow out of the need to be the breadwinner of the family and engage in creative pursuits.
Lalitha Lajmi said, ‘Yes, Pyaasa’s theme was inspired by my father. Father was very creative and well-read… Guru Dutt inherited my father’s temperament.’
Guru Dutt had written the story some time in 1947. This was the time when India had just achieved independence but was suffering the bloody aftermath of the Partition. A twenty-two-year-old Guru Dutt had come to Bombay and lived with his family in a small rented flat and was struggling to make ends meet. This was also the time when he had realised how difficult it was for a creative man to survive or to make a place in the cut-throat culture of the film industry.
He went door to door of many film producers but couldn’t get work for almost a year. In that frame of mind, he wrote the story about the frustrations and anguish of an artist and called it ‘Kashmakash’. The same story became Pyaasa ten years later with some crucial changes in the plot.
‘You will realise that though he made it ten years later [after writing the story] he always wanted to make Pyaasa but there was less commercial angle so he was a little hesitant and the distributors kept on dissuading him,’ Guru Dutt’s son Arun Dutt had said in an interview.
The subject of Pyaasa, despite being extremely close to his heart, went through a whole process of to-do-or-not-to-do. He had already tasted success in the Bombay film industry riding on the popularity of mainstream romantic comedies and thrillers inspired from Hollywood. But in his heart, he longed to tell a tale that would establish him as an artistic and serious film-maker.
But he was not confident. So before taking up Pyaasa, Guru Dutt had toyed with halfhearted ideas of other projects. Here’s what was announced in the Screen India magazine before he announced Pyaasa: 'Guru Dutt’s next venture will be based on a famous Bengali poem.’
This announcement was followed by another one indicating that the idea has been scrapped: ‘Guru Dutt has put off the idea of making a popular Tagore poem into a film as reported earlier.’ He was now working on a new idea.
The announcement in Screen India said: ‘Guru Dutt’s next, the life story of a diver will be launched this month. Mostly it will be shot on location at Calcutta and in the Ganges River, the backdrop of the story written by Duhrit Kar, Chief Assistant of composer S.D. Burman. Guru Dutt will play the role of a diver. Hemant Kumar will compose the music.’
And then an unexpected collaboration with the legendary director of Mother India, Mehboob Khan, was reported too: ‘Guru Dutt is likely to direct a film for Mehboob Khan.’
This perpetual indecisiveness remained Guru Dutt’s Achilles’ heel throughout his career and to an extent in his personal life too. Spending time on these ideas also meant wasting a lot of resources and money without any visible achievement.
But writer and close associate, Abrar Alvi, who was part of Guru’s A-team, clearly said money was just a means for Guru Dutt and never the end. He said, ‘Nobody could ever have cared less for money. I have seen him squandering lakhs—not for personal indulgence but for his art. So many artists were signed and paid but never utilised, so many stories were bought which never went on the floors, so many films which went on the floors were never finished.’
Guru Dutt was busy working on the script of Pyaasa with Abrar Alvi. They were spending more time at Guru’s house and sometimes at the farmhouse writing the screenplay. Abrar said, ‘Those days, I would go home with Guru Dutt every evening and we would sit around with a drink each, discussing work. We started with C.I.D., then the story and picturisation of Pyaasa took over our lives. And it was in those long fruitful evenings that I learnt a lot about Guru Dutt’s technique and cinematic expression. He was a man obsessed with cinema.’
That obsession—added with his new-found success— was a heady cocktail. Guru Dutt now had money and clout. He now wanted to be recognised as a filmmaker with a difference. With two hit films as a lead actor, he could have opted to work as a hero in films outside his banner. It would have been an easier, more comfortable and starry career choice. But he had a deep desire to create films—artistic films.
– Having his own film production banner boosted his status as a successful producer. It also suited his temperament of shooting over long periods of time. But running a company meant incurring huge costs and a regular flow of money was required for maintenance and salaries.
A creative soul, Guru Dutt always found himself more at home with story ideas, song situations and creating magical moments on celluloid; however, as the studio boss he was also required to give his time to the administrative and financial health of his company. His trusted chief production controller, Guruswamy, handled the day-to-day functioning of the studio.
He also felt responsible for his staff. So many families depended on him for their livelihood. So it was important that his company should produce successful films regularly. There were bonuses when a film did well. His kindness was duly acknowledged by people who worked with him.
“ ‘There was a certain nobility about him. Once an artiste who had been helped on many occasions, monetarily or otherwise began to give constant trouble. Once I pulled him up and reminded him of the help we had given him on many occasions. Later, Guru Dutt called me to his office and told me, “Never mention about helping someone. It hurts human pride’,” recalled Guruswamy.
But while it wasn’t possible for Guru Dutt to shoot every day, it was important that his staff had regular work even when he was busy planning his next film. For that, the company had to churn out more films on a regular basis, even if it meant hiring directors. Also, it was of prime importance to produce commercially viable films first and then invest in artistic ‘dream projects’ like Pyaasa.
So Guru Dutt decided to follow a simple rule: in his production company each commercially successful film would be followed by a ‘risky and artistic’ film. Commercial success was always very important to Guru Dutt. Guru Dutt had already begun shooting a few sequences of Pyaasa when his previous film, C.I.D., was being made. He had filmed three reels but wasn’t satisfied with what he had shot. So he scrapped the entire footage and decided to shoot it again.
Pyaasa, which literally means ‘The Thirsty’, was finally in the making. With this dream project, Guru Dutt perhaps also set off on a path of unquenchable creative perfection—eventually derailing every other dream he held close.
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Excerpted with permission from Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story (2020) by Yasser Usman, published by Simon & Schuster. You can buy the book here.