cinema Reviews

‘Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story’ review: Black, white and shades of grey

Think Guru Dutt, and we are immediately transported into the fabulous trinity of Pyaasa (1957) Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). We think of the poetry of light in Kaagaz Ke Phool, the “crucifixion” shot of Pyaasa and the limpid beauty of Meena Kumari’s bottomless eyes in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.

Guru Dutt made other films too that were highly entertaining with lovely songs and deft little touches. For all his angst of the schism between art and commerce, Guru Dutt was intensely aware of the need for films to be commercially successful. He ran a production house and was deeply mindful of the fact that others depended on him for their livelihood.

Ode to cinema

The director’s too short life lends itself easily to countless iterations in print and other media. Television journalist and film biographer Yasser Usman’s Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story is the latest in the many tomes on him. Quoting extensively from books including My Son Gurudutt by Vasanthi Padukone, Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema by Nasreen Munni Kabir and Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey by Sathya Saran, and articles, Usman puts together an accessible portrait of a filmmaker who fought many an inner demon to leave behind an extraordinary body of work.

Starting in Berlin, 1963, where Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was India’s official entry at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival, the book follows Dutt’s childhood as his artistically inclined father chafed under the need to do soul-crushing jobs to provide for his young, growing family. His uncle and mentor, B.B. Benegal, encouraged Guru Dutt to follow his dreams, and study dance. He later got him a job at Prabhat Studios in Poona (as it was then called).

The book is divided into 15 sections — with the title Building of a Dream alternating with Destruction of a Dream. The final section is simply called 1964, the year Guru Dutt died of a suspected overdose, after consuming copious amounts of sleeping tablets and alcohol at the age of 39.

Guru Dutt’s tempestuous marriage with singer Geeta Roy, his relationship with Waheeda Rehman as well as his lifelong friendships with actors Dev Anand and Johnny Walker and writer Abrar Alvi find mention. His struggles with depression and alcoholism are detailed. While a psychiatrist was consulted (only once because he was considered too expensive at ₹500 for a session!), the family seems to have gone with the commonly held belief of the time that one can will oneself to get better of mental illness.

There are interesting nuggets in the book such as Gurudutt being a single word till the director put a space between them to make Dutt seem like his surname. He sent cinematographer V.K. Murthy to London to learn the latest techniques and Murthy had the chance of working on The Guns of Navarone. Also interesting is the fact that Guru Dutt was planning to adapt Wilkie Collins’ seminal work of detective fiction The Woman in White into a film called Raaz with Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. He abandoned the film after shooting two songs by R.D. Burman (It would have been Pancham’s debut).

Usman, who has written biographies of Rajesh Khanna, Rekha and Sanjay Dutt, has peppered the book with many touching remembrances from Guru Dutt’s sister, the artist Lalitha Lajmi. There are a bunch of photographs in the book including the famous Pyaasa shot and one of a chubby baby Guru Dutt. Some of his letters and post cards to his sister and mother make for fascinating reading.

Usman’s book with its short chapters and easy prose is a perfect introduction to one of our most important film makers. Wish the book had been edited more carefully though, the spelling and grammatical errors are quite an eyesore.

Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story; Yasser Usman, Simon & Schuster India, ₹599.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 12:55:24 PM |

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