Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guru Dutt : Genius?(Songs & Cinematography) - 3

Continuing from

Song Picturisations

Indian cinema has long been accused of looking westward for inspiration, both in subject matter and in technique, a charge that is not completely baseless.

However, despite all the inspiration the truth is that our stamp is uniquely ours. If one dwells for moment on what distinguishes Indian main-stream cinema from that of the rest of the world the answer flashes in bold letters. Songs!. The use of music as a part of the narrative is unique to our cinema. The west has it’s musicals but they are nothing like our musicals. For the west music is a form of recreation and a tool for intellectual expression. For us, music is all that and much more. It is a form of expressing the innermost stirrings of the soul, of a pathos that is deep and unfathomable and of a joy that is unmitigated. Basically music in our cinema expresses all that words and outward expressions cannot. Film-maker Chetan Anand very telling summarized this feeling saying ‘Dialogues are like the outer-covering, the clothes a person wears. Music is the like the inner-core, the soul of a person. It is an indispensable tool for cinema’.

Great film-makers over the times have recognized this tool and used it to enhance the emotional content of their films. There are many such moments in Indian cinema that would not have been possible without songs. Can you imagine the climax of ‘Bandini’ without the soul-searing ‘Mere saajan hain us paar’ or a depiction of Radha’s struggles in Mother India without ‘Duniya mein hum aaye hain’? Guru Dutt holds a place of pride in this elite club of great musical moments.

In an era where an entire 4 minute song could be shot with the lead actors sitting in one place and staring in the same direction(and that is infinity!), Dutt infused his picturisations with innovation and imagination. The talent was apparent early on. From the first film 'Baazi' where Geeta Bali's dances were shot with elaborate camera movements and evolved choreography way down to SBAG Guru Dutt was always on top of things. In ‘Jaal’ the variety is out for all to see. There is the mellowness of dusk in ‘Pighala hai sona’ where the camera rocks gently with the boats and capturing the hues of twilight in black and white, the inspiring ‘Zor lagake haiyya’ where the mundane act of pulling a fishnet out water is used as a focal point to weave an entire song around, the choral folk dance of ‘Door kahin ek taara - Maria’ and the innovative picturisation of ‘De bhi chuke hum dil nazrana dilka’ using tight-closeups with the lead characters swinging on the branches of a tree (drives home the point that our ancestors were apes!).

It was also common to see songs picturised on characters other than the lead players. Passers-by, vendors, halkers, construction site workers, anyone could pitch. In that sense the song picturisation was very natural. It is more likely a street singer would burst into a song at the most opportune moment (e.g Ab to ji hone laga) rather than a character who is pre-occupied with important thoughts and emotion. Background songs have always been a very powerful tool for taking the narrative forward.

Like Raj Kapoor, the symbolism in Guru Dutt’s songs is deep. The Christ like resurrection of the poet in ‘Pyaasa’ is symbolized by the iconic shot in of Guru Dutt framed by backlight in ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye'. The indifference of the world to the inner beauty of the poet is tellingly captured by oblivious boot trampling the metaphorical bee in it's uncaring stride ahead, in ‘Yeh hanste hue phool’.

In Guru Dutt’s songs, it was not only the concept but the execution that was innovative as well. Dutt had spent his earlier years in Uday Shankar’s troupes and rhythm was inbuilt in his system. In his cinema the shot compositions, the trolley movements, the lighting and the characters all seem to be move to a sub-aural symphony. This observation was confirmed by his cinematographer, VK Murthy, who admitted in an interview that they would try to cut their shots in rhythm with the beat-cycle of the song! That subtle ode to the rhythm runs through all Guru Dutt films.


The topic of song picturisation leads us to it's natural ally - cinematography, for which Dutt is widely celebrated. The cinematography in Guru Dutt’s films was undoubtedly the high point of his art. Dutt’s treatment of his subjects has an Oscar Wildesque irony to it. Like the 17th century writer, Dutt was extremely lyrical, deeply romantic and intensely poignant. His frames are rich and expressive and extensive use of tight close-up shots (a pioneering technique) helped his actors get intimate with the audience.

The tonal quality of Dutt's frames is rich, intense and is so replete with details of light and shade that one has no choice but to invoke the hackneyed 'poetry on celluloid' phrase. It truly is just that. I go further to say that it is a moving collection of paintings. A good litmus test to verify the truth in my observations would be to pause any frame in any of his films and observe the framing. You can print it out and hang it up on the wall. This greatness, ofcourse could not have been achieved without the genius of VK Murthy, his comrade in arms.

The examples are numerous, esp. in the song picturisations. 'Aaj sajan mohe ang lagalo' is an oft quoted, yet stunning example of Dutt's use of cinematography for mood creation. The brightness in 'Chori Chori Meri Gali', depicts the light and joyous mood of the characters. The dark and despondant hues of 'Jinhe naaz hai hind par'. 'Sakiya aaj mujhe' is another example of clever lighting where the lead dancer Minoo Mumtaz is bathed in bright light and the chorus remains swathed in the shadows.

Observing the fim-maker's repertoire down the ages, an interesting trait comes to light - The influence of noir in his cinematography. The enigmatic play of light and shade typified by the noir genre shows a strong presence in Guru Dutt's lighting choices. Even in situations and films that were far placed from noir, he showed a propensity to employ this technique of light and shade . An interesting example to demonstrate this trait would be the college reunion scene in 'Pyaasa'. The setting is a large auditorium with a gathering of students. A setting like this expects bright lighting esp. on the stage. Yet, in the song 'Tang aa gaye hain kashmakashe zindagi se hum' we see a lot of shadows. Shadows on the face of the poet reciting his poem on stage, on that of his ex-lover and her husband. It is as if through the use of lighting in this setting Dutt is trying to convey that the events of the past continue to cast a shadow on the present. Every person in the auditorium has a past lurking in the shadows. Even though the mood of such a setting is exuberant, through his lighting he has infused a sense of sombreness. This trait repeats in many other places, where there seems to be conscious choice to use shadows in settings that are typically brightly lit.

On the flip side, it is interesting to note that Dutt faced flak for the same visual lushness that we celebrate today. Like Sanjay Leela Bhansali is criticised for his opulent sets, in his times Dutt faced the same criticism. Critics of the era were of the opinion that the richness in his frames distracted the user from the main storyline!

The fact that Guru Dutt was under-appreciated in his life-time has no disputers. But did we over-c0mpensate in the later years by giving him a crown too big for his head? As we wind off, one is tempted to ask again ‘Was Guru Dutt truly a genius?’. The answer to this question be can be summed up in Oscar Wilde’s extremely insightful self-evaluation

‘I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.’


Note :

* - The film 'Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam' is officially credited to Abrar Alvi, yet we work with the assumption that Guru Dutt as the producer would have had some kind of input into the character development. That he worked on the song picturisations in the films not directed by him is a documented fact.

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Appendix - Videos

The videos in this section demonstrate some of the points discussed in the main article

Video : Influence of Noir in lighting - Pyaasa college reunion scene

Video : Pioneering use of tight-closeups - De Bhi Chuke (Jaal)

Video : Lyricsm in camera movements and outdoor photography - Pighala Hai Sona (Jaal)

Video : User of central motif to weave song picturisation (sarees)

Chal Diya Banda Nawaaz (Mrs and Mrs 55)

Video : User of central motif to weave song picturisation (Pulling out a fishing net)

Zor Lagaake Haiyya (Jaal)

Video : Mood creation through use of light and shade
Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Lagalo (Pyaasa)

Video : Clever use of lighting in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam - Saakiya Aaj Mujhe

Video : Dark Despondant mood and beautiful framing - Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par(Pyaasa)

Video : Imginative shots of Waheeda amongst the the pillars - Jaane Kya Tune Kahi (Pyaasa)

Video : Desi Noir in Babuji Dheere Chalna (Aar Paar) (note the sense of mystery created by keeping the dancer in shadows)

Video : Songs picturised on extras and bit role players - Mohabbat Kar Lo(Aar Paar)


  1. I suggest :
    Start a hindi movie production house in India.
    You are excellent with your posts.
    Claps !

  2. @ Hobo : Thanks for your kind words, but remember the old saying -

    "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it"

    My production house will very likely never see any production :)