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Guru Dutt – the legend would have turned 83 today

This is my all time favorite song from Pyaasa.

Guru Dutt, the legendary Indian movie director, if he had been alive would have been 83 today (July 9). Just for the record, he is my top of the favorites list of Film Directors. Raj Kapoor follows him close. He has many movies to his credit, but three – Pyaasa, Kaagaz ke Phool, and Sahib, Bibi, aur Gulam are my three top favorites. I loved his sense of humor (YES! he had it despite the pathos of his movies and the ability to bring out pathos without sounding help-less and needy).

Lets see something about his life:

Early life

Guru Dutt was born Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone in Bangalore to Shivashankar Rao Padukone and Vasanthi Padukone. His parents were Chitrapur Saraswats, originally settled at Panambur, a village in South Kanara district of Karnataka. His father was initially a headmaster, and then a bank employee. His mother Vasanthi, while initially a housewife, later taught in a school, gave private tuition and also wrote short stories and translated Bengali novels into Kannada. Vasanthi was only 16 when Guru Dutt was born.

Guru Dutt had a tough childhood with financial difficulties, and a strained relationship between his parents. As a child he had some bad experiences; the hostility from his maternal uncle’s family, a frightening encounter with his insane maternal adopted uncle, and the death of his seven-month old brother (Shashidhar).

Guru Dutt was initially named Vasanth Kumar at birth at the suggestion of his mother’s elder brother, but after a childhood accident, he was renamed Guru Dutt, which was felt to be a more auspicious name. He was joined by three younger brothers, Atmaram, Devidas and Vijay and a younger sister, Lalitha. The Indian film director, Kalpana Lajmi, is his sister’s daughter.

He spent a great deal of time with his mother’s cousin, Balakrishna B. Benegal (known to the family as Bakutmama) who was a painter of cinema posters. The Indian film director, Shyam Benegal, is the son of Sridhar B. Benegal, Balakrishna’s younger brother.

Inspiration

His sister recalls that at age 14 Guru Dutt would use his fingers to shape images on a wall lit up by the flickering light of their grandmother’s diya as she performed the evening arathi. Though untrained, he could produce inspired movements as he did when he persuaded his uncle, Benegal, to photograph him performing a snake dance, based on a painting by the latter. The snake dance was later performed at a gathering of Saraswat Brahmins at Calcutta for which Guru Dutt was even given a cash prize of 5 Rupees.

He was a good student, but never went to college, partly because of financial troubles at home. Instead, he joined the performing arts troupe of Uday Shankar, the older brother of the better-known Ravi Shankar.

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The Uday Shankar India Culture Center at Almora taught dance, drama, and music. It aimed at combining the best of the Gurukula system with a modern Arts University, and tried to turn out well-rounded students, at home in many disciplines. A young Guru Dutt joined the center at age 16 in 1941 on a five-year scholarship of Rs. 75 annually (a lot of money then), and studied at Almora until 1944, when the advancing World War II forced the closing of the center.

First job and early career

Guru Dutt wired home to say he had got the job of a telephone operator at a Lever Brothers factory in Kolkata. But soon he disengaged himself from the job, and joined his parents in Mumbai in 1944.

However, his uncle found him a job under a three-year contract with the Prabhat Film Company in Poona in 1944. This once premier film producing centre had already seen the departure of its best talent, V. Shantaram, who had by then launched his own Kala Mandir. It is here that Guru Dutt met two people who would remain his good friends – actors Rehman and Dev Anand.

Guru Dutt acted in a small role as Sri Krishna in Chand in 1944. In 1945, he acted as well as assisted director Vishram Bedekar in Lakhrani, and in 1946 he worked as an assistant director and choreographed dances for P. L. Santoshi’s film, Hum Ek Hain.

This contract ended in 1947, but his mother got him a job as a freelance assistant with Baburao Pai, the CEO of the Prabhat Film Company and Studio. However, after that, for almost ten months, Guru Dutt was unemployed and stayed with his family at Matunga, Mumbai. During this time, Guru Dutt developed a flair for writing in English, and wrote short stories for The Illustrated Weekly of India, a local weekly English magazine.

It is during this time that he is supposed to have written the script for the almost autobiographical Pyaasa (Hindi: the thirsty one). Its original name was Kashmakash (Hindi: struggle), which was changed later to Pyaasa and was written at his home in Matunga.

It is in this phase of his life that Guru Dutt was almost married twice! The first time he eloped with a girl called Vijaya from Pune, and later his parents had him almost married to his maternal niece, Suvarna, from Hyderabad.

While Guru Dutt was hired by Prabhat Film Company as a choreographer, he was soon pressed into service as an actor, and even as an assistant director. At Prabhat, he met Dev Anand and Rehman, who both became stars. These early friendships helped ease his way into the film world.

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After Prabhat failed in 1947, Dutt moved to Bombay, now Mumbai, where he worked with two leading directors of the time, with Amiya Chakravarty in Girl’s School, and with Gyan Mukherjee in the Bombay Talkies film Sangram. Then, Dev Anand offered him a job as a director in his new company, Navketan, after the first movie had flopped.

Thus, Guru Dutt’s first film, Navketan’s Baazi, was released in 1951 . It was a tribute to the Forties’ Film Noir Hollywood with the morally ambiguous hero, the transgressing siren, and shadow lighting.

Dev & Guru’s promise

There exists a very interesting anecdote behind this new job. Guru Dutt and Dev Anand used the services of the same laundry man when they were at Prabhat in Pune in 1945. One day Dev found that one of his shirts had been replaced with a different one. On arriving at work as the hero of Hum Ek Hain, he found the film’s young choreographer (Guru Dutt) wearing his shirt. On being questioned, Guru Dutt admitted that it was not his shirt, but since he had no other, he was wearing the replacement. This developed into a great friendship, since they were of the same age. They promised each other that, if Guru Dutt were to turn filmmaker, he would hire Dev as his hero, and if Dev were to produce a film then he would use Guru Dutt as its director.

Dev Anand fulfilled his end of the bargain with Baazi, but still regrets that his friend Guru Dutt did not. Guru Dutt indirectly did fulfill his promise. His studio, Guru Dutt Films Pvt. Ltd, produced “C.I.D.” which starred Dev, but the film was directed by Raj Khosla (an assistant director to Guru Dutt). Thus, technically, Guru Dutt never directed Dev Anand.

Guru Dutt and Dev Anand would make two super-hit films together, Baazi, and Jaal. Creative differences between Guru Dutt, and Chetan Anand (Dev’s elder brother), who was also a director, made future collaborations difficult.

Remembering his old friend Guru Dutt, Dev quotes, “He was a young man he should not have made depressing pictures…”

Recently, Dev quotes, “my only true friend in the film industry. We got close to each other while working for Prabhat, one of the big banners of those days. I gave him his big break in Baazi and he cast me in some of his movies like CID.”


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Desh Kapoor

The panache of a writer is proven by the creative pen he uses to transform the most mundane topic into a thrilling story. Desh - the author, critic and analyst uses the power of his pen to create thought-provoking pieces from ordinary topics of discussion. He writes on myriad interesting themes. Read the articles to know more about his views and "drishtikone".

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2 thoughts on “Guru Dutt – the legend would have turned 83 today”

  1. Hi Desh,

    A great article. Guru Dutt is one my favourites too. I was working on article on him, but got too tied up with work to finish it and missed the deadline :). Will have to put it up on te week-end now. Was glad to see you commemorate his anniversary.

    Since you have dwelt on the biographical aspects of his life, no mention of Geeta Dutt?

    Cheers
    Ritu

  2. Hi Desh,

    A great article. Guru Dutt is one my favourites too. I was working on article on him, but got too tied up with work to finish it and missed the deadline :). Will have to put it up on te week-end now. Was glad to see you commemorate his anniversary.

    Since you have dwelt on the biographical aspects of his life, no mention of Geeta Dutt?

    Cheers
    Ritu

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