Guru Dutt Padukone was born on July 9, 1925, into a Konkani-speaking lower middle-class family. He grew up in Calcutta, where as a teenager he learnt dance under Uday Shankar. But the young Guru Dutt preferred to work in cinema, and in the late 1940s joined the celebrated Prabhat Studios in Pune as an assistant, then choreographer. In 1951, he made his first film, Baazi, thanks to Dev Anand, a close friend from the Prabhat days. In the next decade, Guru Dutt directed or produced movies in nearly every genre: suspense (Baazi, Jaal, CID), costume drama (Baaz), Muslim romance (Chaudhvin ka Chand), light-hearted comedy (Aar Paar, Mr & Mrs 55), melodrama (Pyaasa, Kaagaz ke Phool), and period film (Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam). While working on Baazi, Guru Dutt decided to be the film’s hero—not an unusual decision, for other directors like V. Shantaram and Raj Kapoor had shown how one could own a film studio, and produce, direct, as well as act in one’s own productions.
It was during the making of the hugely-successful Baazi that Guru Dutt met Geeta Roy—she was recording the Sahir Ludhianvi/S.D. Burman ghazal Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le. They fell in love and married three years later, in 1953. Besides helping her husband preserve his link to Bengali culture with all its natural elegance and emphasis on the understated, Geeta Dutt’s extraordinary voice (along with the voices of Mohammad Rafi and Hemant Kumar) was essential in creating the unrivalled musical atmosphere of Guru Dutt’s movies.
Unlike many Hindi films that are unevenly paced, directed and performed, each component in a Guru Dutt movie is there to support the realism of the story. And that is perhaps why every tracking shot, strain of music, poetic song, turn of phrase, set or location, look and gesture or every line of dialogue flows so flawlessly together. Audiences who lose themselves in Mr and Mrs 55 or Pyaasa can forget that these films are the result of an extraordinary professionalism. Guru Dutt also inspired the best in his brilliant collaborators, including screenplay writer Abrar Alvi, music directors S.D. Burman, O.P. Nayyar and Hemant Kumar, poets Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi, and of course, the cinematographer par excellence, V.K. Murthy. His gentle handling of his co-stars and their unaffected natural performances are among the many reasons why his films will never date. The charming Dev Anand, the vibrant Geeta Bali, the gorgeous Madhubala, the delicate Waheeda Rehman, the suave Rehman, the mysterious Meena Kumari, the bumbling Tuntun, the endearing Johnny Walker—all of them joined to make his intimate dramas stand out and endure.
Guru Dutt’s films are strong social statements that speak in whispers, showing a vision of a secular, modern, non-religious India in which artists are seen struggling against demons, both external and internal. His inimitable style does not encourage mediocre copies because it has little traces of the formulaic. He perfectly understood the strengths of cinema and the power of melodrama in which society, not the individual, is the villain. Besides, the dilemmas and psychological traumas of his characters so clearly mirrored his own life that there is a constant blurring between Guru Dutt the film director/actor and Guru Dutt the man. His self-questioning, his attraction to suicide, his close yet uneasy relationship with Waheeda Rehman, his habit of starting and shelving films, his passionate and difficult marriage to Geeta Dutt—many of his own emotional storms were reworked in his movies. Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool have premonitions of his early death and show his intense belief that success and recognition are the gifts of artists long dead. This belated recognition was indeed Guru Dutt’s own fate as his films drew an ever-increasing number of admirers from the 1980s.
Who knows if Guru Dutt would have cared that some 40 years after his suicide, countless people all over the world swear by his talent? But success and fame always contrasted sharply with his private reality and loneliness. And despite the glamorous cinema world that he inhabited, Guru Dutt died alone on a Saturday morning on October 10, 1964. He was found by his cook Ratan in his Ark Royal apartment on Peddar Road where he had lived for a year, after he separated from Geeta Dutt and their three children. Abrar Alvi was the last person to see him alive—they sat drinking the night before and discussing the script of Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi. Seeing him lying on the bed, his sister Lalitha Lajmi recalls how she could not believe that he had died quietly in the night. The ceiling fan was on, she says, and was blowing the pages of an open book by his bedside like an image of his own creation. Even in death, he remained an enigmatic master who left so many things unsaid. His colleagues and family continue to remember him as a man of few words. Murthy recalls with a half-smile: "Guru Dutt was a shy man, but, on the sets he was a tiger."
(Oxford University Press will be publishing a new edition of Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book Guru Dutt, a Life in Cinema to coincide with his 40th death anniversary in 2004. She has also made a three-part documentary, In Search of Guru Dutt.)