Guru Dutt

9 Jul 1925
10 Oct 1964
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Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone (9 July 1925 – 10 October 1964), better known as Guru Dutt, was an Indian film director, producer and actor. He made 1950s and 1960s classics such as Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool , Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Chaudhvin Ka Chand. In particular, Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool are now included among the greatest films of all time, both by Time magazine’s “All-TIME” 100 best movies and by the Sight & Sound critics’ and directors’ poll, where Dutt himself is included among the greatest film directors of all time. He is sometimes referred to as “India’s Orson Welles”. In 2010, he was included among CNN’s “top 25 Asian actors of all time”.

He is most famous for making lyrical and artistic films within the context of popular Hindi cinema of the 1950s, and expanding its commercial conventions, starting with his 1957 film, Pyaasa. Several of his later works have a cult following. His movies go full house when re-released; especially in Germany, France and Japan.

Guru Dutt was born on 9 July 1925, in Bangalore to Shivashanker Rao Padukone and Vasanthi Padukone in a Konkani Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin family. His parents were originally settled at Panambur, Mangalore in South Kanara district (present day Dakshina Kannada) of Karnataka. His father was initially a headmaster, and then a bank employee. His mother Vasanthi, while initially a housewife, later taught in a school, taught private classes and also wrote short stories and translated Bengali novels into Kannada. Vasanthi was 16 when Guru Dutt was born. His mother outlived him and died in 1994, 30 years after his death.

Guru Dutt spent his early childhood in Bhowanipore area of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and he grew close to Bengali culture and intellect. He even adopted the name Guru Dutt, Dutt (more commonly Datta or Dutta) being a common Bengali surname. He spoke fluent Bengali. He was joined by three younger brothers, Atmaram, Devidas and Vijay and a younger sister, Lalitha. The Indian film director, Kalpana Lajmi, is Lalitha’s daughter.

Guru Dutt wired home to say he had got the job of a telephone operator at a Lever Brothers factory in Kolkata. But soon he got disenchanted by the job and left it. He later joined his parents in Mumbai in 1944.

However, his uncle found him a job under a three-year contract with the Prabhat Film Company in Pune (then called Poona) in 1944. This once premier film producing centre had already seen the departure of its best talent, V. Shantaram, who had by then launched his own production company called Kala Mandir. It was at Prabhat Film Company that Guru Dutt met two people who would remain his good friends for life- actors Rehman and Dev Anand.

Guru Dutt acted in a small role as Sri Krishna in Chand in 1944. In 1945, he acted as well as assisted director Vishram Bedekar in Lakhrani, and in 1946 he worked as an assistant director and choreographed dances for P. L. Santoshi’s film, Hum Ek Hain.

This contract ended in 1947, but his mother got him a job as a freelance assistant with Baburao Pai, the CEO of the Prabhat Film Company and Studio. However, after that, for almost ten months, Guru Dutt was unemployed and stayed with his family at Matunga, Mumbai. During this time, Guru Dutt developed a flair for writing in English, and wrote short stories for The Illustrated Weekly of India, a local weekly English magazine.

It is during this time that is considered that he wrote the script for the “almost” autobiographical Pyaasa (Hindi: the thirsty one). Its original name was Kashmakash (Hindi: struggle), which was changed later to Pyaasa and was written at his home in Matunga.

While Guru Dutt was hired by Prabhat Film Company as a choreographer, he was soon pressed into service as an actor, and even as an assistant director. At Prabhat, he met Dev Anand and Rehman, who both became stars. These early friendships helped ease his way into the film world.

After Prabhat failed in 1947, Dutt moved to Mumbai, where he worked with two leading directors of the time, with Amiya Chakravarty in Girl’s School, and with Gyan Mukherjee in the Bombay Talkies film Sangram. Then, Dev Anand offered him a job as a director in his new company, Navketan, after the first movie had flopped.

Thus, Guru Dutt’s first film, Navketan’s Baazi, was released in 1951 . It was a tribute to the Forties’ Film Noir Hollywood with the morally ambiguous hero, the transgressing siren, and shadow lighting.

There exists a very interesting anecdote behind this new job. Guru Dutt and Dev Anand used the services of the same laundry man when they were at Prabhat in Pune in 1945. One day Anand found that one of his shirts had been replaced with a different one. On arriving at work as the hero of Hum Ek Hain, he found the film’s young choreographer (Guru Dutt) wearing his shirt. On being questioned, Guru Dutt admitted that it was not his shirt, but since he had no other, he was wearing the replacement. This developed into a great friendship, since they were of the same age. They promised each other that, if Guru Dutt were to turn filmmaker, he would hire Anand as his hero, and if Dev were to produce a film then he would use Guru Dutt as its director.

Dev Anand fulfilled his end of the bargain with Baazi, but regretted that his friend Guru Dutt did not. Guru Dutt indirectly did fulfill his promise. His studio, Guru Dutt Movies Pvt. Ltd., produced “C.I.D.” which starred Dev, but the film was directed by Raj Khosla (an assistant director to Guru Dutt). Thus, technically, Guru Dutt never directed Dev Anand under his production company.

Guru Dutt and Dev Anand would make two super-hit films together, Baazi, and Jaal. Creative differences between Guru Dutt, and Chetan Anand (Anand’s elder brother), who was also a director, made future collaborations difficult.

Remembering his old friend Guru Dutt, Anand quotes, “He was a young man he should not have made depressing pictures…”

Recently, Anand quotes, “my only true friend in the film industry. We got close to each other while working for Prabhat, one of the big banners of those days. I gave him his big break in Baazi and he cast me in some of his movies like C.I.D.”

In 1978, Prabhat Chitra Mandal held a ceremony in Mumbai near Marine Lines station in honour of Guru Dutt on his birth anniversary which was attended by Guru Dutt’s mother as well as Shri Dev Anand. Guru Dutt’s mother told a touching story in her speech about their friendship. In his young age, Guru Dutt was about to commit suicide, it was Dev Anand who succeeded in preventing him. The mother said, thus the Guru Dutt you all know is not the son I gave birth to but one whose life Dev Anand saved.

Baazi also highlights two early key technical developments in Indian movie-making that are attributed to Guru Dutt. The use of close-up shots with a 100 mm lens – there are over 14 in the movie – which became known in Indian movie-making as the “Guru Dutt shot”, and the use of songs to further the narrative in the movie. Guru Dutt also introduced Zohra Sehgal (whom he met at Almora) as the choreographer in the movie, and he also met his future wife, Geeta Dutt during the making of the movie.

Baazi was an immediate success. Guru Dutt followed it with Jaal and Baaz. Neither film did well at the box office, but they bring together the Guru Dutt team that performed so brilliantly in subsequent films. He discovered, and mentored, Johnny Walker (comedian), V.K. Murthy (cinematography), and Abrar Alvi (writing and directing), among others. He is also credited for introducing Waheeda Rehman to the Hindi cinema. Baaz was notable in that Guru Dutt both directed and starred, not having found a suitable actor for the principal character.

Fortune smiled on Dutt’s next film, the 1954 Aar Paar. This was followed by the 1955 hit, Mr. and Mrs.55, then C.I.D., Sailaab, and in 1957, Pyaasa – the story of a poet, rejected by an uncaring world, who achieves success only after his apparent death. Guru Dutt played the lead role in three of these five films.

His 1959 Kaagaz Ke Phool was an intense disappointment. He had invested a great deal of love, money, and energy in this film, which was a self-absorbed tale of a famous director (played by Guru Dutt) who falls in love with an actress (played by Waheeda Rehman, Dutt’s real-life love interest). Kaagaz Ke Phool failed at the box office and Dutt was devastated. All subsequent films from his studio were, thereafter, officially helmed by other directors since Guru Dutt felt that his name was anathema to box office.

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, a critically and commercially successful film, was directed by his protégé, writer Abrar Alvi, which won him the Filmfare Best Director’s award. The film’s star Waheeda Rehman denied rumors that the film was ghost-directed by Guru Dutt himself. Guru Dutt also has his influence on his last box office smash hit Chaudhvin Ka Chand.

His legacy to direction of Hindi cinema is unmistakable and accepted by many leading Hindi directors of the day, including another of his protégés, Raj Khosla.

In 1964 he acted in his last film Sanjh Aur Savera directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee opposite Meena Kumari.

On 10 October 1964, Guru Dutt was found dead in his bed in his rented apartment at Pedder Road in Mumbai. He is said to have been mixing alcohol and sleeping pills. His death may have been suicide, or just an accidental overdose. It would have been his third suicide attempt.

Guru Dutt’s son, Arun Dutt, said that he views this as an accident in an interview with India Abroad in October 2004 on the 40th anniversary of his father’s death. Guru Dutt had scheduled appointments the next day with actress Mala Sinha for his movie Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, and Raj Kapoor to discuss making colour films. According to him, “my father had sleeping disorders and popped sleeping pills like any other person. That day he was drunk and had taken an overdose of pills, which culminated in his death. It was a lethal combination of excessive liquor and sleeping pills.”

At the time of his death, Guru Dutt was involved in two other projects – Picnic starring actress Sadhana, and director K. Asif’s epic, Love and God. Picnic remained incomplete and Love and God was released two decades later with Sanjeev Kumar replacing Dutt in the leading role.

The extra-feature on DVD of Kaagaz Ke Phool has a three-part Channel 4-produced documentary on the life and works of Guru Dutt titled In Search of Guru Dutt.

Most people, especially Abrar Alvi, figured it was a suicide. Abrar and Dutt had many-a-times discussed ways of committing suicide and both had tried at least once but had failed. Abrar and Guru Dutt sat late that night discussing a movie, and according to Alvi, during their conversation, Guru Dutt was very morbid in his thinking and conversation.
He was, according to many, distressed by his personal situation – his wife, Geeta Dutt, had distanced herself from him. He had a sleeping disorder that made him take sleeping pills, and he had been drinking since 5:00 pm that evening.

According to Asha Bhosle, Guru Dutt called her at midnight before his death to ask whether his wife Geeta was with her to which she replied in the negative. She was the last person who spoke with Guru Dutt.

A Doordarshan documentary on Guru Dutt aired on 10 October 2011.

In 1953, Dutt married Geeta Dutt, a well-known playback singer. They had been engaged for three years and had to overcome a great deal of family opposition to marry. They had three children, Tarun, Arun, and Nina.

Dutt had an unhappy marital life. According to his brother Atmaram, Guru Dutt was “a strict disciplinarian as far as work was concerned, but totally undisciplined in his personal life” (Kabir, 1997, p. 124). He smoked heavily, drank heavily, and kept odd hours. Guru Dutt’s relationship with actress Waheeda Rehman also worked against their marriage. At the time of his death, he had separated from Geeta and was living alone. Geeta Dutt herself died in 1972 at age 41, after excessive drinking which resulted in liver damage. According to an interview with Abrar Alvi, one of Dutt’s close friends and his assistant director in films, Dutt did not “open up” to discuss his thoughts and problems, even though they were spending many hours together.

Guru Dutt was at first mourned as a matinee idol but as the years passed, it became ever clearer that it was as a director that he would be remembered. Starting in 1973, his films were shown at film festivals throughout India and the rest of the world. Despite being a commercial director, he appealed to the same intelligentsia who made Satyajit Ray an international favorite. He also has a place in the hearts of many ordinary Indians for his song picturisations and the many vivid characters sketched in his films.

Contrary to a general belief about the viability of his film projects, Guru Dutt more or less produced commercially successful films. Over the years the commercial nature of his projects saw a trade-off with his creative aspirations. Movies like C.I.D., Baazi, Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam were rightfully the first of their kind in Hindi cinema. The only movie produced by Guru Dutt and termed a box-office disaster was Kaagaz Ke Phool, now a cult classic. He lost over 1.7 million producing that film, a large amount by the standards of the time, which was more than recovered by his next project, Chaudhvin Ka Chand. He never lost faith in his team or in the distributors of his films. Once a project was over, he would begin anew – with little concern about the commercial success of the previous project. He was part of an exclusive school of Indian film directors, including the likes of Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan and Bimal Roy, who were able to achieve a healthy blend of artistic and commercial success between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s.

Pyaasa was rated as one of the best 100 films of all time by Time Magazine. In the 2002 Sight & Sound critics’ and directors’ poll, two of his films, Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, were among the top 160 greatest films of all time. The same 2002 Sight & Sound poll ranked Dutt at #73 in its list of all-time greatest directors, thus making him the eighth highest-ranking Asian filmmaker in the poll.

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