Birth Anniversary Feature: Guru Dutt’s Works are Noted for Close-ups

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Guru Dutt birth anniversary
Guru Dutt his known for his intensely melancholic characters

Guru Dutt was born in Bangalore on July 09, 1925. He was christened Gurudutt Padukone but with time, his first name split into two and turned into the name he became famous by. The name ‘Guru’ was given to him because he was born on a Thursday, which is called ‘guru’ in most Indian languages. He was the eldest of five children– Gurudutt, Atmaram, Lalitha, Devi and Vijay in a family that belonged to the Saraswat Mangalorean community; Saraswat Mangaloreans are Brahmins who trace their roots back to North India. The name Saraswat is derived from the river Saraswati in Kashmir. They are said to be a creative and artistic community. Dutt’s sister Laliltha Lajmi lived on to become an internationally acclaimed artist while her daughter, Kalpana Lajmi, became a filmmaker.

Dutt’s early childhood was spent within the cramped space of a small flat in Matunga in Bombay (now Mumbai). His father shifted from one job to another, leaving the family in a perpetual state of economic instability. In 1929, Vasanthi, their mother, took Dutt along with her and went to Calcutta (now Kolkata). Shivshankar, the father, joined them later where he finally settled down to a job with the Burmah Shell company for 30 long years. However, while in Calcutta, the family shifted residence several times. While they lived in Bhawanipur in south Calcutta, Guru Dutt became an avid fan of jatra (popular folk musical theatre from Bengal) performances regularly performed in an open space next to their house. He learnt to speak Bengali fluently and this stood him in good stead for the rest of his life. His mother’s cousin B.B. Benegal, a designer and painter of cinema hoardings, influenced the Padukone children, and had a special role in the moulding of Guru Dutt. 

Guru Dutt on the set of his film

He finished his schooling in 1940 and soon after, became a telephone operator. During this time, in the company of his cousin Sudarshan Benegal, Dutt began to photograph the animals and plants at the Alipore Zoo and Calcutta Botanical Gardens. His first performance on stage was a piece Guru Dutt choreographed and composed himself. A painting of a man with a snake coiled around his body done by B.B. Benegal inspired him. He performed for an event organised by the Saraswat community of Calcutta and drew applause including a prize of Rs.5.00 from a member who was later to distribute Guru Dutt’s C.I.D.

Soon after, with the help of B.B. Benegal and another family friend, one S.R. Hemmad, Guru Dutt won a five-year scholarship of Rs.75 per month to study dance at the Uday Shankar Culture Centre at Almora. He trained under Uday Shankar from 1942 to 1944. Guru Dutt left Almora when the Culture Centre closed down. By then Padukones had shifted to Bombay. Dutt went to Bombay to join the family. B.B. Benegal who took him to Pune and introduced him to Baburao Pai, Chief Executive of Prabhat Film Company[1] and studio, who helped him sign a three-year contract with Prabhat as dance director. During this three-year tenure, Dutt also functioned as an occasional actor in some B-Grade productions of Prabhat and assisted the director.  He patiently learnt every aspect of filmmaking.

From left: Guru Dutt, Dev Anand, Raj Khosla and Waheeda Rehman

He met Dev Anand, who became a close friend for life, during the making of Anand’s first film as hero, namely Hum Ek Hain (1946), produced under the Prabhat banner. Dutt left Prabhat in 1947 and came back to Bombay. After Independence, he joined Gyan Mukherjee as assistant. Mukherjee was famous for Kismet (1943), the biggest hit till that time. Film production had shifted from the studio system to the star system. Financiers who had made a lot of money on the black market during the war offered big money, including cash payments, to actors. Technicians and music directors also began freelancing on a contractual basis. 

Guru Dutt’s first directorial film Baazi, released on June 15, 1951, at Mumbai’s Swastik cinema[2]. Navketan, a production company founded by ex-members of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), including Dev Anand, produced the film. In 1954, Guru Dutt started his own production company, Guru Dutt films. This was the year Aar Paar released. His last film was Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). He was found dead on 10 October 1964, reportedly from an overdose of barbiturates. He did not leave a note. 

Apart from the telling lyrics and music, Guru Dutt’s works are noted for his imaginative use of the close-ups and rhythm in editing, signposts for the films he made after his first film Baazi (1951.) Baazi focussed on Guru Dutt’s imaginative use of songs that did not intrude into the narrative but formed an integral part of the story and the film. At the same time, the songs defined an independent identity unto themselves, were an audiovisual delight for the audience, are timeless and have strong archival value. 

In Jaal (1952), boats at sea, village fairs, Sunday church services, fisher folk at work created an ambience enriched by the absence of the synthetic plasticity of a studio set. Jaal, shot in black-and-white by V.K. Murthy who cinematographed every Guru Dutt film after this, evokes a sense of nostalgia of the period it was set in. In Pyaasa (1957) the soulful music composed by S.D. Burman complemented by the rich lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi and turned out to be the hallmark of the film. Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Mala Sinha and Johnny Walker were lauded for their acting skills.

Apart from the telling lyrics and music, Guru Dutt’s works are noted for his imaginative use of the close-ups and rhythm in editing, signposts for the films he made after his first film Baazi (1951.) Baazi focussed on Guru Dutt's imaginative use of songs that did not intrude into the narrative but formed an integral part of the story and the film.

His most outstanding films over his brief career were –  Pyaasa, about a poet who is distanced from the mainstream and fails as a poet while alive, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam adapted from a novel by Bimal Mitra who became a close friend over discussing the script of the film and Kaagaz Ke Phool which was Indian cinema’s first cinemascope venture about a film director who is very successful to begin with but fails when estranged from his wife, daughter and the actress he gave a break to and later fell in love with. But they get separated when he becomes a failure and she becomes a famous star. This remains one of the most outstanding self-reflexive films in the history of Indian cinema.

Some 15 years after his death, a revival of extensive interest in the works of Guru Dutt began, a trend that continues to this day. Film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla wrote a monograph on Guru Dutt in 1973 [3] under the aegis of the National Film Archive, Pune. Delhi and Mumbai began to have sporadic screenings of his films at morning shows, pointing out to distributors that Dutt still had a dedicated following and a market pull. Sometime during the late Seventies and early Eighties, his films began to draw international attention. Henri Micciollo, a French critic, during his posting at the Alliance Francaise in Mumbai, happened to attend a morning screening of Pyaasa. Though the film was without subtitles, Micciollo was moved and intrigued by both the film and its director. He wrote an excellent study of Guru Dutt’s films. It was Micciollo’s writings that sparked off interest in Guru Dutt in the West much before they had a chance to see his films[4].

Notes:

  1. Ibid.p.19. Prabhat Film Company was originally founded in Kolhapur in 1929 by V.G. Damle, S. Fatehlal, S.V.Kulkarni and V. Shantaram. They moved to Poona (now Pune) in 1933 where they set up a lavish and well-equipped studio. Prabhat, New Theatres and Bombay Talkies were considered the most influential North Indian studios of the 1930s, each producing highly-acclaimed films. The considerable land area on which the studio stood along with the structure were given away to the Government of India when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting set up the Film and Television Institute of India in the early Sixties.

  2. Kabir, Nasreen Munni: Guru Dutt – A Life in Cinema, OUP, Delhi, 1997, pp.21-23.
  3. Rangoonwalla, Firoze: Guru Dutt, 1925-1965: A Monograph, National Film Archive of India, Pune, 1973.
  4. Ibid.131-32.
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