Guru Dutt, the Artist, the Humanist

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On his 93rd anniversary, the life, career, and personality of the versatile Guru Dutt still stands as an example for the times.

Through his roles, the legendary Guru Dutt showcased the empathy he felt for his fellow beings. | Portrait by Pauline Gagnon

‘What can I say about this great city that hasn’t been said before?’

In Wake up Sid, Konkana Sen Sharma’s character, Aisha Banerjee, is caught up with this deliberation, while planning her debut piece for the magazine where she’s been working for a couple of months. The monthly, Mumbai Beats, is about the eponymous city in question, and Aisha decides to name her column ‘New Girl in the City’, having arrived in Bombay / Mumbai (the city’s referred to by both names in the film) those few months ago. In the end, after several crumpled sheets of paper and some inputs from Sid, she decides to write from a personal place. Her love for the city, she realises, comes from the love she’s found with the guy (Sid) she met on her first night in Bombay.

When planning this tribute piece, I had a similar rumination. “What can I say about this genius artist that hasn’t been said before?” There are over 10 books on him, one feature-length documentary, regular mentions in biographies of his contemporaries, and countless articles and videos on the Net. In the end, like Aisha, I decided to pen from my personal perspective.




Like Aisha to Bombay, I’ve come to Guru Dutt recently. But what I’ve lacked in time I’ve made up for in intensity. I’ve watched all his films (directed, produced and acted, under his banner and outside it) and the documentary at least twice, read all those books (and also the one on his wife, Geeta); consumed copious amounts of content about him online. And got consumed in the process.

While I’ve of course come to ♥ him as an artist (and here, I include all his talents of direction, acting, song picturisation, choreography and cinematography), I realised, perhaps just like Aisha did with Sid, that what drew me to him was something personal: humanism. His own, as well as that of his characters. And in the case of GD (as he is fondly referred to by many), those two universes are pretty much the same.

It’s there right in the opening scene of his most beloved and worshipped film, Pyaasa (1957). The poet Vijay is being perfectly poet-like: lying in a field, casting casual glances at the gentle ways and sways of nature. Fittingly inspired, soft couplets emerge from his soul and being, Nature acting as the muse and the idol. The poet’s blissful eye then moves to a bumblebee come to grace — or rob — a flower. Soon, heavy and intoxicated with the sweet fresh nectar, the bee decides to loll about on the ground and, a moment later, is crushed by a callous foot. The poet is devastated by the symbolism of this sight, and decides to hasten back to the real world.

Then, the names of his characters themselves. Hardly ever with a surname (be it Vijay of Pyaasa or Preetam of the 1955 film Mr & Mrs ’55), or if so, then of indeterminate community or region — Kalu Birju of Aar-Paar (1954), Suresh Sinha of Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) and Ajoy Kumar of 12 O’Clock (1958). Although his parents and he were Karnataka-born, GD was often taken to be Bengali. He had spent his formative years in then Calcutta, could speak the language fluently, had shortened and split his name (from Gurudutt Shivashankar Padukone, which itself was changed from Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone after an astrologer’s advice) to the Bengali-sounding Guru Dutt and, of course, got married to Geeta Roy. Notwithstanding his great love for all things Cal and Bengal (evidenced in many of his movies), GD himself is known to have said, “I am part Hindu, part Muslim, part Christian...”



And then, the characters themselves. People either living on the streets or cast onto them through choice or circumstance (as depicted in four successive movies — Aar-Paar to Kaagaz ke Phool); working hard and honestly to manage a living — his sweaty fisherman cameo in the self-directed Jaal (1952) to the simpleton farmer in Bharosa (1963) to the earnest professor in his last film, Suhagan (1964); or even if they are presently well-off, having emerged from humble beginnings — from Aslam who comes to eventually reside in a mansion in Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960) to the doctor who has toiled to own a house and car in Sanjh aur Savera (1964). And of course, GD’s most celebrated and touching character — the creative soul seeking recognition as an artist but not at the price of his soul (Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool).

As my discovery of GD deepened, I uncovered further examples of his humanism. Some were right there at the outset — in the opening credits of his movies. For all the films he both produced and acted in (through his film company), the name of his leading lady always appeared before his. Be it the lesser-established Shyama in Aar-Paar, the striving Mala Sinha in Pyaasa, the luminous and firmly-established Meena Kumari of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), or his frequent co-star Waheeda Rehman. This was 60 years before SRK pledged the same in 2013 (to mark 100 years of Indian cinema), starting with Chennai Express.

Still on opening titles, this next one had me signed and sealed on GD’s side. In most of his movies (again, the ones made by his company), the comedienne Tun Tun, who acted in several of them, was credited under her real name, Uma Devi. In other words, in GD’s films, she was referred to as a lady rather than as a sound.

In an especially lit scene of Mr & Mrs ’55, the high-society women’s activist, Seeta Devi (Madhubala’s character, Anita’s aunt played by Lalita Pawar), sizes up the meagre room where Preetam (GD’s character) is put up, and can’t help asking how he manages to live in such a spartan way. Preetam promptly replies that she’s possibly not aware that a good part of India lives this way and that his condition, at least, is better than many others’. Piqued by his strident response, she retorts, “Kya tum communist ho? [Are you a communist]” He volleys right back, “Jee nahi, cartoonist hoon [No, just a cartoonist].” Aunt and accompanying assistant then swivel their necks to notice the numerous cartoons bedecking the hovel’s interiors.

To that, this fan/admirer would simply like to add, “And a humanist too.”

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