Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Guru Dutt : Genius? (Subjects) - 2

Subjects and Characterizations

The grays in Guru Dutt’s cinema deliciously mellowed the starkness of the black and white era

The main subjects that Indian cinema explored in the 50s and early 60s were strongly social in nature. Idealism was in the air and despite the low rumblings of discontent; films were essentially bright in the eyes. All significant film makers of the time - V Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Navketan, Mehboob Khan etc. were wedded to social causes. In this context it is interesting to explore Guru Dutt's choice of subjects. We notice that he did little sermonizing. The only film where he takes a strong moral stance is surprisingly a regressive one. The satire of Mr and Mrs 55 was a comment on the new divorce law passed that year. The film albeit delightful, endorses the view that the ultimate place of the woman, however ‘modern’ is at the feet of her husband. For a man whose wife and mother were both were career women, this comes as a mild surprise. But then seeing the ultimate state of his marriage... maybe not!

However beyond Mr and Mrs 55 Guru Dutt's subjects were mostly non-judgmental. He seemed to have been magnetically drawn towards exploring flawed characters, the ones that floated between the black and white ends of the spectrum. In an era that celebrated human infallibility in the face of extreme adversity, that was certainly a trailblazing trait (albeit on a trail less tramped). Kagaz Ke Phool, as a serious self-portrait, remains a pioneer and the true flag-bearer of its genre. Years later Raj Kapoor attempted something similar with ‘Mera Naam Joker’, (another film accused of being self-indulgent), but his subject area was sufficiently far-placed from the world of cinema ensuring Kagaz Ke Phool kept it’s unique position in the history of mainstream cinema.

Dutt’s lead characters usually had their internal demons to fight and more often than not, they succumbed to them. The line drawn between the hero and the villain, the heroine and the vamp was porous. Characters flitted from one side to the other. The grays in Guru Dutt’s cinema deliciously mellowed the starkness of the black and white era. Dev Anand’s ‘Tony’ in “Jaal’, Geeta Bali in ‘Baazi’, Mala Sinha in ‘Pyaasa’, Vijay in ‘Pyaasa’, Suresh in ‘Kagaz Ke Phool’ and the most memorable of them all ‘Chhoti Bahu’ in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Here was central character that was stubborn, uncompromising and rebellious yet vulnerable, passionate and devoted. She battled her fate using all the wrong moves, yet battled with valor. By killing her before she could be consumed by her own demons, Dutt put a halo around her head and it can be argued succumbed to the pressure to deify the character. Despite that it would not be hyperbole to say that Chhoti Bahu is a high water-mark in the art of character shading for mainstream cinema. **(see note)

In addition to the lead characters is can be noted that he created many memorable roles for supporting artists as well, notably Johnny Walker. On the flip side, his films and their stories are often accused of being juvenile and under-developed. Kagaz Ke Phool, despite the brilliant treatment is good only in parts. Even though the lead characters or the 'inner world' of the protagonist are well fleshed out, Guru Dutt's view of the 'outer' world was often replete with clich├ęs. His films would have been far more interesting, if these characters had sympathetic undertones as well.

Take for example his brothers in ‘Pyaasa’. They are single dimensionally black. If the director had explored the conflict of the outer world which wants to help but cannot work with the waywardness of the poet it would have put the entire effort a couple of notches above it's current perch. Similarly in KKP, he gives no voice to the wife. There is no exploration of the internal battles that the spouse of an intensely creative person may have had to fight. It is common wisdom that it is not easy to be wedded to an achiever, esp. if he is an artist. The film industry has many such suffering spouses to espouse as an example (Krishna Raj Kapoor being most legendary of those). Yet Dutt chose to take the safe path of coloring the wife in unrelenting black.

To sum up it can be said that characterization was an area in which Guru Dutt attempted to break the mould, displayed sparks of genius and created many memorable characters in the wake. But at the end of the day, he could not carry it to a depth that could truly bracket his work as path-breaking.

To be concluded in part 3

Originally published at the Passion for Cinema blog at this link

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