Of all the films Guru Dutt directed in his short-spanned career, Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) are truly iconic much as the director’s own life. Not out of a perverse sense of curiosity but almost out of necessity, one must refer to the personal while examining the external, at least when it comes to Dutt. An estranged wife, a devoted muse, a restricted artist and a self-destructive escapist are all themes that overlap in both his personal life as well as the films he directed.
The protagonists Dutt created for his films are never helpless and conforming. Rather they are street-smart men who strike deals and talk business on their own terms. They have high morals and value their ideology more than money and success. They are not tragic in the sense that they cannot control the events that befall them. Instead it is a kind of modernist disillusionment that finds a channel through the protagonist’s conscious and informed decision of denouncing the immoral and the material. This sense of tragedy extends to not just the society the protagonist lives in but also his personal relationships.
Dutt uses various techniques to portray this worldview. In most of his films, Dutt uses the twowomen point of view. Right from the very beginning in Baazi (1951) to the end in Kaagaz ke Phool, Dutt continues to use this duality.
First is the upper-class maiden who is often portrayed as naïve and finds herself in direct clash with the hero and his lower-class surroundings. In Baazi, when Madan (Dev Anand) meets Dr Rajani (Kalpana Kartik) for the first time, he questions her authority as a doctor and talks about the ethics of the poor: “Memsaab, hum gareeb log joota phat jae silwa lete hai, kapra phat jae khud see lete hai. Yeh nahi ki jis cheez mein zara sa nooks paida hua ke ghar se utha ke bahar phek diya (Madam, we are poor people who don’t discard things that can be mended).”
A similar sentiment is reiterated in the mocking portrayal of Sita Devi (Lalita Pawar), in Mr & Mrs ’55 (1955), who fights for the right to divorce and forces Anita (Madhubala) to live according to her wishes. It is this upper-class woman’s figure who inspires love in Dutt’s initial films (albeit she is someone who needs to be shown reality first) and later turns into the image of the selfish lover who chooses material comforts over love. This upper-class maiden is quintessentially the modern woman who believed in her liberation.
Juxtaposed against this is the figure of the prostitute. The woman of the streets might be looked down upon for selling her body but the protagonist values her for her moral integrity and the purity of her soul. This figure of the prostitute becomes more prominent in Dutt’s later films and metamorphoses into that of the muse as she becomes a platonic love interest for the protagonist. In the last few minutes of Pyaasa, Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) rushes out in her feverish state, pushing her friend aside saying, “Kisi ne pukra mujhe. Mujhe jane de Juhi, mujhe jane de.” As she rushes down the stairs and peeps from a balcony, the music changes from urgent to religious, like that of a kirtan. A shadow appears on the door and Vijay (Dutt) enters. Gulabo rushes down much like Devdas’ Paro would. The camera inches closer to Vijay and cuts away to Gulabo’s close ups, communicating her anticipation. The scene transforms Vijay and Gulabo’s love into something spiritual.
It is through the figure of the devout muse that Dutt’s protagonists seek deliverance. As Gulabo agrees to follow Vijay wherever he goes, the two walk into the foggy mist as silhouettes. A different kind of foggy mist is used in Kaagaz ke Phool for yet another union. In the iconic song Waqt ne kiya, Suresh (Dutt) and Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) stand facing each other as a light beam streams between them. As Geeta Dutt voices the artful lyrics, Suresh and Shanti’s shadows walk towards each other and merge into the light.