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November 9, 1999


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Without Overkill

Varsha Bhosle

Guru Dutt That I come from a filmi family is not strictly true. For, apart from the fact that some of my folks work for the industry, we, the "children" of the household, have hardly anything in common with, say, the Kapoor dynasty or the Chopra clan. Their innocents, I'm sure, were gently encouraged into the family business and milieu, and had thus established fruitful relationships within the gregarious film world, well before their teens.

I didn't have much sympathy from my supposedly normal school chums, either. My friends expected me to burst into a song on the slightest cue, or grace the birthday parties of only the likes of a Sanjay Dutt or Sunny Deol. No one believed that I didn't (and still don't) know either of them. Or that my mother and aunt had never given me lessons in musical scales. The reality was that Aai required from me nothing less than a single-minded pursuit of academic brilliance. Preferably in biology or chemistry: the dream of every bourgeois Maharashtrian is to breed a doctor in the house... All *I* wanted, was to see films. It was the escape from my will-o'-the-wisp world...

My grande passion with cinema began with my very first experience at the age of five: a Marathi film by Bhalji Pendharkar, called Chhatrapati Shivaji. No, we weren't taken to the cinema hall; Didimavshi (Aunt Lata) had her own 16mm RCA home-projector and roll-up screen -- the precursor of the video. Most evenings, our drawing room, with curtains drawn and furniture rearranged, was where the handsome Shivaji Maharaj cleverly eviscerated the perfidious Afzal Khan, chivalrously released the Begumsahiba mistakenly lifted with the Kalyancha khajina, and hoodwinked the evil Aurangzeb. I jubilantly galloped to victory, and wept at the humiliations along with his soldiers.

The other regular feature was Minerva Movietone's Sikander, starring the young Prithviraj Kapoor as Alexander. I didn't really like this film, mainly because the hero, who I thought looked silly in a skirt, was a foreign invader, and also because of the dirge-like songs in terribly unfamiliar voices. See, the fundie begins young...

Anyway, by the time I was eight, I could thread the film and operate the machine all on my ownsome. It was either that, or be at the mercy of the chief projectionist, Aunt Usha. But, these were the only two films I saw in the interim.

Oh, I knew that Aai and Didimavshi were constantly on the radio -- I played on the shoulders of Jaidev, C Ramchandra and Roshan, and even went regularly to song recordings -- but somehow never associated music with cinema. At school, my lack of savvy must've been disgusting. However, when a certain uncle presented Aai with stacks of those familiar, peculiar-smelling flat cans, all hell broke loose. The man was Guru Dutt, and the Pandora's trunk contained 16mm copies of most of his films, from Aar Paar to Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. You can imagine the effect these films had on me, after my steady diet of historicals...

Shyama and Guru Dutt in Aar Paar What struck me the most at that age was the potent combination of O P Nayyar and the modern woman on screen -- above all, the delectable Shyama in 1954's Aar Paar. There has never been another who wore grease-stained dungarees nipped in so neatly at the waist like she did while cavorting in a garage, singing Sun, sun zalima, pyar humko tumse ho gaya... And Shakeela, the vamp-with-the-heart-of-gold, in slinky gowns, face half-hidden behind a cascade of waves, drunkenly slurring Hoon abhi main jawan, ai dil... Or Noor (off-screen, Shakila's sister and Johnny Walker's wife), teasing Walker with Arre na-na toba-toba, main na pyar karungi... In CID, Shakeela returned as the prim heroine, whilst Waheeda Rehman was introduced as the gangster's moll, crooning Jaata kahan hai diwane...

And on the seventh day, God created Madhubala. Time stood still when she mussed up her hair and looked through the crook of her arm in Mr & Mrs 55, singing Udhar tum haseen ho idhar dil jawan hai... Due to the unquestionable depth of Guru Dutt's latter works, people tend to overlook this light-hearted film which proves his mastery over what he used the least: the comedy form. I suppose it doesn't give critics much scope to use terms like "symbolism," "juxtaposition," "central phase," "linear narrative," etc -- all essential for films which usually put ordinary people like me to sleep. I lost myself in this blithe movie then, and I enjoyed it just as much 30 years later. I'm afraid I can't say this about most of our "masterpieces."

As I watched Mr & Mrs 55 yesterday, I was shocked to find that -- and you're going to lynch me for my volte-face -- Madhubala got on my nerves. The Marilyn Monroe-esque charisma is there, no doubt, but the mannerisms are cloyingly overplayed. Give me Nargis any day! Guru Dutt, on the other hand, although a far cry from the mould of handsome Punjabi men, what with his little paunch and most non-hero-like curly hair slicked back, looked sexier than I remembered! I went into paroxysms each time he frowned and squinted his eyes. And he does it all the time! His voice and tone, so disarmingly soft and yet so distinctly virile, reached certain zones where even Bachchan's hasn't.

I found a lot of similarities in the screen personae of the early Raj Kapoor (when he wasn't playing the irritating, cuckoo tramp) and Guru Dutt: Their use of the pushed-back Homburg, the trenchcoat, the hands-in-pockets stance, and the way they play with a cigarette: now striking the match, narrowed eyes sizing you up through swirling smoke; now twirling it, now tapping the ash -- devastatingly suggestive, all of it.

The theme of the film itself points to, dare I say it, the chauvinism of the man. To wit, the virtues of traditional Indian womanhood personified by the bhabhi, played by comely Kumkum, who happily produces three children in four years -- as opposed to the villainess, the proselytising divorcee played by Lalita Pawar. Never mind, no director is perfect. One detail does irk me though: Dutt drives for a few hours from Bombay to his village, where Kumkum appears wearing a Bengali sari! Hello?? An obsession with Bengali culture led this Karvari, Guru Padukone, to adopt the "Dutt," marry Geeta Roy -- and produce two of the finest films set in Calcutta: 1957's Pyaasa and 1962's Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam.

In Saheb..., Dutt portrayed the zamindars and the mores of that age so perfectly that it was like reading a Sarat Chandra: Sapru spending thousands on a cat's wedding, the pigeon-fights with yes-men clucking in attendance, the daily nautch-girls -- it was deliciously a man's world. Witness the plight of the badi bahu -- washing her hands 63 times, walking in a tented purdah to the horse-trap, which is chased by her blouseless maidservants running all the way to the Ganga ghat. The attitude of the ayyash Chowdharys is summed up in just one line: Mard bahar na rahe to mard kaisa? Nikkama samjha hai kya?!

Guru Dutt To touch such a subject, Dutt may have begun to empathise with women. At the same time, his delicate portrayal of the purer-than-snow chhoti bahu, who breaks a fast only after drinking the water touched by her husband's feet, and who then becomes a drunkard just to keep him at home, left me thinking that there is nothing so boring as devotion. I wonder what he...

Pyaasa is my own favourite. People speak of poetry in motion, but if I understand the term at all, it's in relation to this film. It's the only movie in which I invariably weep. It's also the only movie which I don't really like to discuss, except to say that I wish I were a Sahir, Abrar Alvi, Dutt or Rafi -- in that order. Even the lightest of moments contain a heart-wrenching twist, as when, just after that delightful RD Burman song (yes, the late Rahul Dev's song), Sar jo tera chakaraye... Johnny Walker, as Sattar Maalishwala, offers to massage Dutt. The poet answers, "Zamane-ne hi itna masal dala ki maalish ki zaroorat hi nahin." Wow! What a stinger! And yet, it never degenerates into melodrama. RD is present throughout the film -- the plaintive mouth-organ piece that cues one to the poet's broken heart in every scene with Mala Sinha, was played by him.

One of the hallmarks of a good director is apt casting, and then, the eliciting of superlative performances therefrom. Recall Meena Kumari as chhoti bahu in Saheb... and the scene when she totteringly drapes her sari -- did you for a minute think that she wasn't really drunk?? Meena Kumari transcended mere technique with Guru Dutt. Recall Gulabo in Pyaasa, on the staircase landing when Vijay finally returns to her. Or Shanti in Kagaz Ke Phool and Jamila in Chaudvin Ka Chand -- did Waheeda Rehman ever look so breathtakingly beautiful, or emote as subtly, with anybody else? I even liked the otherwise-insipid Mala Sinha with Dutt! Rehman, Sapru, Tuntun, Walker, Kumkum, Shakeela, Minoo Mumtaz, Mehmood -- everybody who worked with the director, gave their best performances. Even those regulars whose names are ever in small type.

Guru Dutt's references to Bombay used to always intrigue me -- those in the mould of "saudagaron ki nagari" (Mr & Mrs 55), and in that wonderful song from CID: Ai dil hai mushqil jeena yahan... insaan ka hai, nahin naam-o-nishan... Then, much later, as I assimilated Yeh kooche, yeh neelaam ghar dilkashi ke in Pyaasa, and Dekhi zamane ki yaari in Kagaz Ke Phool, and also learnt the form of Dutt's demise, the reasons became all too apparent. It must have stemmed from an inability to form calluses on the heart.

There's one qawwali in ...55 which speaks volumes more than all the blatant slum-scenes that have become the order of the day: Street-singers playing to the homeless on the footpath, with one barely visible lady-of-the-night in the background, leaning against a wall: Meri duniya lut rahi thi aur main khamosh tha... Even in a comedy, Guru Dutt made his statement, and as always -- without overkill.

The reason I notice poignancy more in his songs is not just my own musical background. It's because no one picturised a song as fantastically as he did -- not even Raj Kapoor. Well, perhaps, Vijay Anand. The song I play and replay on the video is Sakiya aaj mujhe neend... where only the dancers accompanying Minoo Mumtaz are perpetually in shadow, wondrously, through all the motions and gyrations. I still can't figure out how he lit the entire sequence. And Waqt ne kiya... with every mote of dust visible in that denuding shaft of light in the hazy studio. And remember the Christ-like figure against the backlight of the doorway as Rafi sings, Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai...? And the tight close-ups of Cuckoo, exactly and only when she returns to the languorous line, Neele aasmane... That man knew his music better than today's music composers.

Speaking of which, I finally understood what my family was into when I heard Aai for the first time on screen -- Shakila singing the sad version of Leke pehla-pehla pyar in CID. I *hated* it (still do). Then, Aai burst in with Meri jaan, achcha nahin itna sitam and Bhanwara bada nadan hai. Ok, thheek hai, not bad. Then came that frightfully lusty song, whistles and all, from Chaudvin Ka Chand: Dil ki kahani rang layegi, and I was utterly and helplessly in love. There are legions of Asha Bhosle's songs by O P Nayyar, Roshan, R D Burman and all the maestros, songs which I'm fanatical about, but this is a special something -- a first cinematic discovery of musical love.

Guru Dutt Music brings us to words -- another vantage element in Dutt's films. He selected the very best poetry of Sahir, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh. When I saw Pyaasa, I just had to know exactly what the words of the song meant, when Vijay lurches through the red-light area. Much later, when I learnt Urdu and then saw the film yet again, it was a hundred-fold more desolating. Again, his reliance on Abrar Alvi for the scripts ensured a quality of language, dialogue and one-liners seldom matched in Hindi films. These days, you may as well be deaf. Incidentally, Alvi appeared as the public prosecutor in both, Mr & Mrs 55 and CID.

Confession time: After Johnny Walker's antics and double-takes in all of Dutt's films, no other comedian tickled me, till Deven Verma in Angoor. I still roll with laughter when I remember the criminals' line-up scene in CID, when Walker has to identify Mehmood -- get a cassette and see it *today*. And, Mehmood should have stayed the villain Dutt always made him -- I wanted to kill him in Pyaasa; and in CID, he was every bit a murderer. Tuntun, too, was superbly handled: He gave her a kind of dignity in her obesity, exploiting only her cuteness and timing.

I guess, Dutt changed everything for me. Oh, I know that Chaudvin... is attributed to M Sadiq, and Saheb... to Abrar Alvi. But who's kidding whom? CID is credited to his assistant Raj Khosla. Could be -- it drags. Each time I watched Guru Dutt's films, I noticed something new, something that had previously eluded me because of my own lack of experience. Like the treachery of relatives and friends in Pyaasa. Or, the pathos of all the bahus in Saheb... Or the plight of the director, the routine expediency of mankind, and the peculiar attitude of the so-called educated elite towards filmwallahs in Kagaz... One aspect of Kagaz... I understood even then -- the cruelty of children as they bait Baby Naaz with the gossip about her filmi father.

As I grew to perceive the gray areas between the black and white, the films became all the more addictive. Films as a whole became a passion. Soon, Daulat & Co, the 16mm film-renting firm at Opera House, Bombay, couldn't keep up with my demand for more. Friends became co-conspirators in forays to Roxy or Lotus during school hours. Which caused endless tension at home. And, all the time, the fire was fueled by a quest to see something that measured up to the standards set by Guru Dutt.

Musically, many, many films were far, far better. But, rarely did they gel as a whole. Some did, but you couldn't really brood over them. When Bollywood discovered "new-wave," "brutal reality" and "the alternate cinema," I was subjected to a spate of bizarre films, which I yawned through nonetheless. One horrible memory is Sara Akash, which I always think of as "Sara Cycle": yards and yards of celluloid focused on rotating bicycle wheels. I've obliterated the name of another film from memory, a Kumar Shahani number, but cannot forget a scene therein -- a woman with a lamp walks along a wall for nearly three minutes! WHY?? Where are the passions, the anguish, the universal truths, all cloaked in song and dance, and highlighted only by cinematic finesse and fineness, so people like me can enjoy them today, and peel back the layers of fluff gradually, at our pace, and with wonderment...?

I tell you, Guru Dutt has spoiled it all for me: He ruthlessly raped my innocence with his sugar-coated bitter pills.

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