As you know, if you read my blog regularly, I went on a trip recently. And I decided the perfect time to finally watch Guide was on my smartphone on the flight. And it was perfect! I had no other options, so I couldn’t put it off any longer. And I was able to watch it with intense focus, since I was holding the screen right up at the end of my nose. And this was a film that really really really deserved close watching! And close analysis, which is why I am starting with a post that just gives background before I even talk about the film itself.
This is such a fascinating movie! In every way, including the initial inception of the idea. So, let me start aaaaaaaallllllllllllll the way back with that. The film is based on a novel by R. K. Narayan, a popular English language novelist.
Now, today, Chetan Bhagat is a popular English language novelist whose works are frequently made into films. And there are occasional think pieces and complaints and so on about how he writes in English, and he talks about Western type stories and values, and his books are just “popular” but not very well-written. I can’t really speak to any of those complaints, but what I can speak to, is the idea that all of these are “new” issues. Reading about Narayan, he sounds very very similar to Bhagat. Wrote a lot about upper middle-class issues, issues with education, with love marriages, all of that. And wrote it with a light comic tone, and very simple language. And in English. So Chetan Bhagat’s books, and their popularity, may not be quite the new thing they appear.
In a broader sense, the whole idea of “Westernization” and globalization may not be such a new thing. The West likes to think that it “discovered” India. That is, western artists and all, they have this idea sometimes that until The Beatles studied with Ravi Shankar, no one had ever thought about appreciating Indian art. But R.K. Narayan was mentored and encouraged by Graham Greene, a British novelist. Not because of some elaborate inter-cultural exchange, but just because Narayan sent over his manuscript to Greene in England, and Greene liked it and helped him get it published. And Greene didn’t like it because it was all “spiritual and exotic and Indian, oooo!”, but just because it was a good book. In this one small way, I feel a kinship with Graham Greene. Because I also like artistic products from Indian artists, not because they are “different and exotic and unusual and ooooo!”, but because I just like them.
(Although I still blame him for the twist in this book that inspired the really really stupid twist in Jab Tak Hain Jaan)
There may have been a reason that Narayan had to look overseas for support for his work. Not because white people have better taste or anything like that. But because the statements he was making were radical in an Indian context, so he had to find overseas publishers who wouldn’t notice how radical they were. Narayan was writing about abusive marriages, the problems with horoscope matching as part of marriage ceremonies, abusive educational practices and problems with rote learning. These are things which, outside of India, no one would even notice as controversial (the same way no one in America really “got” what 3 Idiots was trying to say). But in the Indian context, they were real hot potatoes.
Going back to the English language idea (which is a running theme in the film Guide, so it’s worth exploring here), the very fact of writing in English is making a political statement, just like it is making a statement for Chetan to be writing in English now. Narayan was a southern Brahmin who rejected his status. He even wrote for a while for an anti-Brahmin newspaper. Which makes me think that he wrote in English not because he wanted to show off his education, or reach a global audience, but because he was rejecting the power structures that surrounded the use of written language in India. Literacy and knowledge for so many years had been one of the tools used by the elites to retain their power. On the flipside, of course, literacy and knowledge was also something the British used to build their power (as is shown surprisingly well in Salman’s crazy period action drama Veer). So the use of English can be seen as propagating colonial power at the expense of the native Indian culture and pride. But, based on Narayan’s background and political leanings, I suspect his use of English was more a conscious decision to write in what would be a “neutral” language. Especially considering he was Tamilian, and the use of the Tamil language versus Hindi was one of the most fiery political issues of post-Independence India. English allowed him to reach an audience of anyone who spoke English, no matter the region or the caste. That alone is a political statement, and one that I am pretty sure Graham Greene and his British publishers had no idea they were making by helping this Indian author get his books published.
(Here’s a cartoon by Narayan’s brother Laxman, famous cartoonist, about this very issue)
Building on my suspicion that Narayan had to go out of country to get published not because his work wasn’t good, but because it was too controversial, Narayan eventually ended up self-publishing a lot of his books. And found immediate success, once he was able to get them directly to the consumer without going through the established systems.
Narayan’s international connections stayed in place, although he was now revered at home. Michigan State University bought the American rights to his books and published them, and Narayan came to the US for several tours. And these international connections made him a natural fit for the idea of a US-Indian film co-production.
In the 1960s, Dev Anand was one of the top 3 actors in film, and also one of the top 3 producers/filmmakers. Think like Aamir Khan now. His two brothers, Chetan and Vijay, were both scriptwriters and directors, and all three brothers together ran the family production house. Officially, Dev “just” starred in and produced the films. But unofficially, as all stars do to this day, he also worked on the scripts, the directing, the editing, the costumes, the locations, every single aspect of the film. And it was him, not his director or writer brothers, who had the final word on whether or not they would make a film.
On the other side of the world, there was Pearl Buck. Like perennial white guy character actor Tom Alter, Pearl Buck was the child of missionaries. Not in India, but in China. She was raised there in the late colonial era (or whatever they called it in China, the “restricted trade agreements and client state era” maybe?). She fled China in middle-age to return to the the United States once Japanese aggression began to ramp up, planning to return shortly, but was never able to. In her “home” country, she quickly became a controversial writer and speaker, arguing that China had no need of missionaries or “guidance” from outside, and the Chinese were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. She was an outspoken critic of colonialism and, after WWII, also an outspoken critic of the worst atrocities of the Communist regime in China. And, small side-note, she was also married twice and started a new relationship at age 65 after her second husband died. She wished to return to her “home” China for the rest of her life, but was never able to, as the government considered her an enemy. She died in America and was buried here, but asked that her name in Chinese characters be carved onto her gravestone.
While India is not really Buck’s area of expertise, the clash between Western and Eastern cultures, gender issues related to that, and the struggles of modernization versus tradition in village life definitely are. And, more importantly, Buck was perhaps one of the few people in America who would properly respect Indian film of this era, and not merely see it through their Western blinders as “quaint”.
There are varying reports of who talked to who first, but what is clear is that Pearl Buck, Dev Anand, and a director and producer Tad Danielewski got together and decided to find something that could be turned into an American-Indian co-production. Tad Danielewski is someone else with a fascinating back story. Refugee from Poland, survivor of the Polish underground and a German work camp, founded The Professional Actors Studio classes in New York, head of the drama department at USC. A fascinating dinner guest, and someone who would be open minded to different life experiences and cultures. But, on the other hand, not someone who necessarily had one overriding passion in his life. Remember how I just read the Karan Johar autobiography? Karan talks about how his entire life is film. That’s all he does, goes to work and thinks about films, falls asleep thinking about film, wakes up in the morning thinking about film. Everything else in his life is secondary to that. When you read a biography of an artist like that, whether they are film directors or actors or painters or writers, you can tell. No matter who they were married to or where they lived or how successful they were, they were only doing one thing. Tad Danielewski, his bio doesn’t read like that. Smart, talented, wonderful person-but not that kind of crazy obsessive born and made for only one thing talent some people have.
This is the talent that Dev Anand had. Dev, and his brothers. They, ultimately, cared about nothing so much as their films. Which is why Pearl Buck and Tad Danielewski may have brought him the idea, but Dev took control. He was the one who thought of Narayan as the possible source for the story. He was the one who picked the book Guide and read it in one sitting. He was the one who approached Narayan and begged him for the rights. And only then did he go back to his collaborators and talk about money and scriptwriting and filming and all the rest of it.
There is an English version of the film out there somewhere, it was shown at Cannes in 2007 and may have had a New York premiere when it first came out (accounts vary). I am sure discussions about the script for it, what to cut to keep it under two hours, where to film, all of that, had an influence on Dev’s vision. I am intrigued at the idea of how Buck’s experience as an unhappy wife and woman with no home might have influenced some elements of Waheeda’s character. I am also interested in how Tad’s outside ideas of acting styles and film techniques, and more importantly his experience of starvation and despair in his youth in Poland, may have played a hand in the final product.
But mostly, I believe, this is a film that sparked in the minds of the Anand brothers. It is their passion and obsession and ambition and genius that we are seeing onscreen in full bloom. The English version, and the original idea of an Indian-English co-production, may have inspired them to certain heights. But the final result is pure unadulterated Indian genius.
(Not many pictures of all 3 brothers together. Here they are, lined up youngest to oldest)
The Anand brothers, Chetan, Dev, and Vijay, all came to film young. Chetan was the first, he was a schoolteacher who wrote a script on the life of Emporer Asoka. He left his hometown of Lahore (same town the Kapoors, Dilip Kumar, and Shahrukh’s father were from. Very handsome men there) to come to Bombay to sell it, and ended up working as an actor. His first film came out in 1944, when he was 23. 2 years later, at 25, he directed his first movie which went on to win the Grand Prix at Cannes that year (okay, one of many films to win it, at the time that was a much more open category). By the time he was 30, Chetan and his brothers had already set up their own production house and he was constantly producing, writing. or editing films. This is what I mean by a biography that tells you this person was born to do only one thing in their lives. WWII was happening, India was a boil with the Independence movement, Partition happened, India gained Independence, and none of this had any affect on the Anand brothers. Well, I am sure it had SOME effect, but still it did not distract them from the primary purpose in life, making filmic art.
Dev’s first film came out when he was 23 too. He had finished college, and then come to Bombay to work, and join his brother in the People’s Theater collective group. He finally got his chance at the Prabhat theaters in Pune. But it was Ashok Kumar, India’s first movie star, who spotted Dev’s real talent. He gave him the lead role in Ziddi in 1948, when he was 25, and it shot Dev to superstardom. He promptly parlayed his popularity into production deals and he and his brothers set up their Nevkatan studios.
And finally there was Vijay (known as “Goldie”), the baby of the family. He joined his big brothers in Bombay in the 1950s, and was given his first movie to direct at age 23 (apparently a magical age in the Anand family). While Chetan was the brilliant director and producer, and Dev had the magical screen presence, Vijay had the best stories. Every script was golden, and perfect, and unbelievably complex and yet still clear.
Vijay helped on the script for Guide, but he wasn’t supposed to direct it. A big project like this should have been handled by Chetan, the big brother. But then there were issues between the Hollywood team and Dev. The production was postponed, Chetan took on a different project, and then when filming picked up again, Vijay was the only one free to step in. Thank God! I don’t know what Chetan would have done with this film, but I can’t imagine it could have been better than Vijay. Vijay somehow filmed a character drama as though it was a suspense thriller, and managed to make it twice as powerful.
Dev, by this point, was known as a romantic star. He had started out as a bit of a crime drama hero, film noirs were his place. But as the 50s changed to the 60s, he became more of an urbane romantic hero type. But his reunion with Waheedaji in this film called back to those early days.
Dev was Waheedaji’s first hero. Back in 1956, when she was 18 and he was 33, she had played the “Vamp” in his CID. The co-starred multiple times since then, and they also were intertwined in their personal lives, as Waheeda was the muse for Dev’s best friend, Guru Dutt.
(In the urban dictionary next to “sexy artist type”, there is this picture of Dev and Guru. Or at least, there should be.)
Famously, Guru and Dev met when they were both struggling artists trying to survive in Pune. They used the same laundryman, and he delivered Guru’s shirt to Dev and vice versa, which inspired their first meeting. They immediately became friends, with Dev swearing that if he ever turned producer, Guru would direct his first film, and Guru declaring that if he ever turned director, Dev would be his star. And then CID was that film. And while filming, Guru fell passionately hopelessly in love with Waheedaji.
I saw a comment about Meet Me in St. Louis once, saying you can see Minalli falling in love with Judy Garland shot by shot, the camera saw her with the eyes of love. Which is true! Now, take Meet Me in St. Louis and multiply it by ten, and that’s the magic that happens when Guru Dutt’s camera is on Waheeda Rahman. It’s like she’s the moon. Literally the moon, glowing and distant and otherwordly. And then it ended, Guru went back to his wife although he never fully got over Waheedaji (there’s a whole other story there). And Waheeda continued to work, slowly coming to be acknowledged as the greatest actress in the history of Hindi cinema. To this day, she is still sought after and acknowledged as the master. And she got over Guru as well, marrying a doctor in 1974 (and continuing to work after marriage). But she never quite had that magical glow again. She’s amazing in this film, but oh! It’s nothing to the way Guru used to film her.
(That’s also Guru singing to her in this song. He used to co-star with her sometimes too)
Waheedaji was 18 in her first Hindi film, but she had already been working down south for a year already. She was also a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, from a good family, who had to turn to film after her father died. And she was Muslim, which was common at the time, but the Muslim-Southern combination was a little unusual.
For Guide, Waheedaji was an amazing choice. The dancing training to allow her to play those scenes, but also the incredibly expressive face and sensitive expressions to be convincing in every other scene. And the natural familiarity of 10 years close friendship with her co-star.
So there are all the pieces in place. A unique book used as a basis, with a variety of influences on the adaptation to film. 3 stunning talents, Chetan as producer, Dev as star, and Vijay as director/writer, are brought together to midwife it into production. And finally, the finishing touch, the greatest actress in the history of Indian film is brought in to play our leading lady.