A mention of Guru Dutt’s name invariably evokes the image of Vijay, the struggling poet from his 1957 masterpiece Pyaasa. More than half a century later, the scenes of the movie are still fresh in mind and the melodies fresher. For who can forget the hauntingly beautiful lyrics Sahir Ludhianvi penned for the film that have not lost their relevance even today: “Har ik jism ghaayil, har ik rooh pyaasi / Nigaahon mein uljhan dilon mein udaasi / Ye duniya hai ya aalam e bad-hawaasi? / Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai? (Bodies are wounded, souls are parched / Turmoil in eyes, distress in hearts / What world is this, so utterly distraught? / What good is it if the whole world be mine?)” It is as much Dutt’s persona as Mohd Rafi’s soulful voice that has made the song immortal.
Deemed as one of the greatest auteurs of cinema, Guru Dutt was born Vasanth Kumar Shivshankar Padukone to Shivshankar and Vasanthi Padukone on 9 July 1925. His initial days in Bombay were full of hardship and he lived literally in a box. But he refused to be weighed down by his circumstances and stubbornly battled against all odds. His entire life is a medley of events that are romantic and tragic at the same time. For some, like Bollywood’s Kapoor clan, who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, the journey to stardom is a cakewalk. But Guru Dutt belonged to another class of celebrities that included Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Meena Kumari and Nargis, all of whom had to struggle for years to work their way to the top.
Struggling to find a foothold in Bollywood alongside Guru Dutt were two other well-known film personalities — the evergreen Dev Anand and character actor Rehman. In a field where friendships hardly endure, Dutt and Dev Anand struck a chord and became fast friends. Dutt, Dev Anand, Rehman and Ram Singh worked together at Prabhat Studios in Pune. They come across as a team in the films Dutt directed later.
At the studio, Dutt choreographed dances, while the other three took up acting. It was the first step in a journey that was to establish him as a legend. In the beginning, he agreed to do films playing such minor roles that they were hardly noticed. One such movie was Mohan with Dev Anand in the lead role. This continued for many long years.
In those years of struggle, the trio — Dutt, Dev Anand and Rehman — would go cycling around the streets of Pune. One of those days Dutt and Anand made a commitment that whoever gets to direct a movie first will give the other a break. Then Hum Ek Hain happened. It was Dev Anand and Rehman’s first film together and was a hit at the box office. Dutt had played a forgettable role in it but Dev Anand never looked back after the film’s success.
After working for Prabhat Studios for some more years, Dev Anand moved to Bombay and started an independent career. Dutt followed suit but, finding no work, his life took a coarse turn. Financial crisis forced his mother to take up private tuition besides teaching at a school. His younger brother, Atma Ram, quit studies to look for work. For an entire year he struggled to make ends meet. It is primarily this dark period of his life that finds expression in his films through the stark themes and characters he created. It was during this time that the first draft of Pyaasa was scripted. Tough financial conditions and growing marital discord between his parents had made him even more determined to achieve success.
When Dev Anand set up his production house, Navketan Films, he kept the promise he once made to his old friend and invited Guru Dutt to direct Baazi. It was a moment Dutt had long awaited. Released in 1951, Baazi was a formula film, a soft crime thriller. It is chiefly remembered for its song sequences and was widely acclaimed for its direction. It established Dutt’s style of filmmaking as unique. The character of the taxi driver, played by Dev Anand, gained such popularity that it inspired Anand’s brother Chetan Anand to make Taxi Driver in 1954 in which Guru Dutt did a cameo.
Dutt keenly followed Alfred Hitchcock’s style of captivating the audience and keeping them focussed on the plot. Dutt was now a well-known name in the industry. His next project, Jaal, was also a crime thriller but due to differences with Chetan Anand, Dutt found another producer for it, TR Fateh Chand of Film Arts. It did not affect his relation with Dev Anand who played the film’s protagonist. Dutt was lauded for his fine depiction of the Christian fishing community in the film.