Monday, October 13, 2008

Guru Dutt: Genius? (Introduction) - 1

At the outset let me lay out my disclaimers bold and clear. I am not a journalist, I am not a film critic and I am not a student of cinema. And however much I would have loved to, I never took a course on film appreciation either. Hence my opinions are all the unfettered rambling of an average film-goer and are based purely on instinct and observation.


The month of October marks the death anniversary of Guru Dutt. It was on 10th of October 1964 that the sensitive actor-director abandoned life in a late night over-dose of sleeping pills. Guru Dutt Shivshankar Padukone or Guru Dutt as he is better known has been widely acknowledged as a path-breaking genius who gave Indian Cinema some of its genre defining classics.

The Burden of Genius
Genius.. it is a mantle that sits heavy on the shoulder it chooses to adorn. Not only for the restlessness and turmoil that is inherent to its constitution but also for the back-bending load of myths and legends that the world tends to heap on it. Guru Dutt's shoulder has been exceptionally burdened, with the legends of his genius and with the myths of his checkered life.

His was a life that chillingly imitated art, its own art….

I have often wondered how much of the world's evaluation of artists like Guru Dutt is colored by the tragic nature of their life stories. Would KL Saigal have been as big a legend as he is if he had lived till his voice starting faltering, a la Lata Mangeshkar? Or conversely imagine if Lata had not lived beyond the 1970s (may God bless her with a long life!), I daresay her legend would have surpassed even that of Miyan Tansen. On second thoughts, maybe not… The legend of Tansen after all is fuelled by imagination and in today's age live recordings ensure that imagination does not have as free a run. Yet, it is suffice to say the myth of Lata Mangeshkar would have been far greater than Lata Mangeshkar herself.

In similar vein, Guru Dutt's myth has been largely fuelled by his life story. It is difficult for even the most objective reviewer to sit through 'Jaane woh kaise log the' and not associate it with his checkered love life, or to watch a broken director slump into eternal sleep in Kagaz Ke Phool and not think his suicide a couple of years later. The critical opinion on Guru Dutt has witnessed a maniacal swing over the decades. From the times when his films were written off as pieces of self-indulgent celluloid trash to the times today when even his lesser films are heaped with superlatives, the pendulum has only seen the extremes. In such circumstances the truth and hyperbole often mesh into one single gooey mix making it difficult to navigate the true strengths and weakness of an artist.

Even though world regularly doles it out like easy alms, the truth is that genius needs to be acknowledged with care. Talent and genius are as similar as innovation and invention. Not every great talent is a genius. It is a good practice to sometimes stand back and question genius, sacrilegious as it many seem. It is almost always an eye-opening exercise. Thus here is that attempt to look at Guru Dutt the artist, without letting the legend of Guru Dutt color the mission.

Contribution
Guru Dutt contributed to Indian cinema in the capacities of an actor, director, producer, choreographer and writer. While his entry into the film world was as a choreographer in the film 'Lakhrani', his output as an actor/director/producer is his real claim to fame. Film historians largely remember Dutt for spear-heading the noir movement in Indian cinema, for pioneering works in the field of cinematography, for his sensitive performances and mostly for the lyrical treatment of all the subjects that he chose to explore.

Let us examine each of these roles in some detail

Actor
As an actor, Guru Dutt acted in about 16 films, most of them for directors other than himself. His acting career was a product of frustration. Tired of trying to get Dev Anand, (his lead actor of his earlier films) to abandon his mannerisms and skeptical of pushing him too hard and ruining their friendship, Dutt decided to don the greasepaint himself. It is a record that for all his films, he had another actor in mind before he took on the role himself. Being an actor by compulsion, he never really excelled in the craft. His performances can be rated as adequate at best. He did well with the brooding roles that immortalized him however it can be argued that films like 'Baaz.' 'Aar Paar' and 'Mrs and Mrs 55' would have benefited with a more suitable actor(read extrovert) playing the lead role. One has to admit that acting was not where Guru Dutt's genius lay. We need to turn to his role as a director to justify the accolades heaped upon him.

Noir
As a director, Guru Dutt is largely identified with his semi-autobiographical brooding classics 'Pyaasa' and 'Kagaz ke Phool' and over the years they have come to be the brand ambassadors of his cinema. However any half-serious student of cinema also knows that this characterization is not completely accurate. Dutt's repertoire boasts of a decent variety of genres. There is the swashbuckling high sea drama (Baaz), the dark love story(Jaal), the social satire (Mr and Mrs 55) and most prolifically the desi noir (Baazi, Jaal, Aar Paar).

Noir was introduced to India in the early 50s. Even though this genre evolved in the Hollywood of the 1940s, it was not before post-independence that Indians found a social context for its adaptation. Sangram (1950) was one of the first few films that ventured into the territory. However it was Guru Dutt's 1951 debut -Baazi that is best remembered for blowing the bugle of noir in India.. The birth pangs of a newly independent nation saw a large scale migration to cities and young-men placed out of their social context and protection often took to crime in desperation. These films introduced a sympathetic outlook towards this underdog which was a marked digression from upright and moralistic stance of pre-independence India.

It was legendary actor Balraj Sahni who co-scripted Baazi along with Guru Dutt. The film admirably entwined the song-dance format into a genre that is genetically dark and brooding. It can be argued that the elements of noir stayed with Guru Dutt long after he moved onto other subjects, particularly in the lighting of his shots. However, despite the memorable output and pioneering adaptation, Dutt's contribution to the noir movement was essentially in the successful 'parathasizing' of the pancake, a skill that Indian cinema has mastered to a perfect art over the years. It is also a credit he shares with other directors like Raj Khosla and Vijay Anand.

To be continued in part 2

Originally published at the Passion for Cinema blog at this link







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