Guru Dutt and the Struggle to Break Free of Convention

Guru Dutt’s poetic magnum opus, Pyaasa (1957), is often considered among the greatest cinematic achievements of all time, even named by Time Magazine in the list of top 100 films of the century. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find someone more defensive of the genius that is Guru Dutt than yours truly. Pyaasa is an evocative film that explores one man’s search for humanism in the cold cynicism of post-independence Indian society. People often contrast Guru Dutt with his contemporary, famed actor and director Raj Kapoor, who shot hits like Shree 420 (1955)–a song-laden, fun rags-to-riches story with a clean happy ending. In contrast, the melancholic, disillusioned tone of Guru Dutt’s poetic films usually leave me feeling like my heart has been slowly torn out, but so beautifully done, I don’t even want it back anymore.

But I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and ask those who know and love both films, does it not seem that Pyaasa and Shree 420 both actually stemmed from the same reaction to the ideals of Nehru’s India under the “mandate of modernization?” Perhaps the creed of the heroic tramp of Shree 420 that spoke to the working masses is not so far from that of the starving poet of Pyaasa that stirred the minds of the intelligentsia. When Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, or any contemporary film-maker for that matter, sought to fill a void in their country’s cinema, despite such seemingly different approaches, they represented the emotions and wants of the same people. When you look closely, in fact, Pyaasa falls into many traps of the very conventions Guru Dutt wanted to break.

According to Raj Khosla, Guru Dutt believed the soul of Pyaasa was contained in the lines of hero Vijay’s song of lament: “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par, woh kahaan hain?” (“Where are those who are proud of this India?”), and Prime Minister Nehru himself is rumored to have been quite upset upon hearing this line, a direct invocation to the government for change.

Appalled and disillusioned, Guru Dutt's hero stands Christ-like in the doorway of a ceremony to honor his own death.

But if that’s the case, what the heck is the chintzy “Hum aapki aankhon mein” dream sequence in which hero Vijay and Meena sing and dance in a heavenly courtyard of swirling mist and starry skies doing in the film? Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to learn that the song was not originally intended to be in the film–it was only added in later to appease the distributors who believed it to be unmarketable without at least one glitzy, expensive Bollywood song. The other songs in his film mesh seamlessly into the narrative, as if they are not songs at all, but mere continuations of dialogue–a novel technique pioneered by Dutt.

A greater travesty is, did you know the film was actually supposed to end with the high-angle crane shot of Meena all alone in the grand room with papers flying everywhere after Vijay leaves? To me, the scattered pages are a symbol of Vijay’s poetry whose role as a commodity in the film is in turn a symbolic attack of the loss of romanticism in the realities of the industrialization process. It’s as if to say, society must also honor the man who breathes life into the poems, not merely the price of the written words.

But as Dutt’s assistant recalls, Guru Dutt, “changed the ending because of how the distributors reacted. They felt the ending was too heavy. The financiers requested, ‘Why don’t you have a happy ending?’” Now Pyaasa finishes with Vijay finding spiritual fulfillment with the companionship of Gulabo and the two making their way into the hopeful sunset. I mean, isn’t this the kind of “all’s well that ends well” of conventional cinema he wanted to fight against?

So ultimately, the very focus on wealth and profitability that Guru Dutt chastises in his film is actually the force that proved overpowering in its production. Though Guru Dutt himself wanted otherwise, the distributors, believing to represent the mass market, were able to convince Dutt to change his plans and take fewer risks. He becomes just another flaw in his own criticism against Nehru’s India, greatly compromising the effectiveness of Pyaasa’s commentary. Essentially, the “solution” presented in a film like Shree 420 to try to work the system as best as possible, is all that Pyaasa shows is possible–try to be “purposeful” (as Guru Dutt wanted) within the limitations of the system. Recalling Vijay’s own lines, “Isko hi jeena kehte hain, to yuhiin jee lenge,” (“If this is life, then this is how we’ll live,”) Pyaasa often invites a sentiment to conform to the status quo rather than fight or question it.

Or am I reading too much into this?

–Mrs. 55

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11 thoughts on “Guru Dutt and the Struggle to Break Free of Convention

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  6. Raj Kapoor in my opinion was a soft socialist whereas Guru Dutt was a bit hard in his socialism. Raj Kapoor’s films were a mix of art and business. Guru Dutt was emotional film maker.His business sense was not as good as Raj’s. Only once Raj Kapoor’s mathematics went wrong and he gave a wonderful film Mera Naam Joker. Raj was for the masses and Guru for classes.Thanks again for giving such beautiful article.

    • Hahaha, I love that line–“Raj was for the masses and Guru for classes!” How aptly put! Dutt’s films were by far more emotional and from his heart than most any filmmaker of his generation. You can absolutely tell how much he means what he says in these films–and you’re right about Mera Naam Joker with Raj Kapoor. It was a commercial fail, but was straight from his heart! This was also tragically the case with Guru Dutt’s film about the life of an entertainer, Kaaghaz Ke Phool. These films were just not appreciated they way they deserved in their time.

  7. Finally someone I can talk to about Guru Dutt! Piyush Mishra has paid a beautiful tribute to him in his song “O ri duniya” in Gulaal. Beautiful song and a fitting, modern day tribute to the original song from Pyasa “Ye duniya agra mil bhi jaye to kya hai”.

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  9. in life as in film, guru dutt displayed a gloominess that in the loo years of cinema-both before his era, and after, is rare……………some of the songs in his films hauntingly reflect not only the film’s trajectory, but is reflective of guru dutt’s mood in real life………

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