Yesterday I did an in depth post on the whole behind the scenes process of making Guide and who all the personalities involved where and what their background was and so on and so on (not including the Murder and Sex Cult part of the Anand brothers’ story, because those hadn’t happened yet). I wanted to say aaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllllll of that before I got into discussing the actual film. Which is what I will do now, only I will be referring back to stuff from the other post, so read this first!
Where to start? Without even getting into plot details, what can I say about the film? There’s SO MUCH! I guess let’s start with technicolor and slowly move on until we get to religion and colonialism and the Big Thoughts.
Color film came late to India, as did all technological advances. Because the British were restrictive, and later, the Indian import laws were too. Guide was Vijay’s first color film as a director, despite being 8 years into his career. And the color is spectacular! Gorgeous visuals of dance performances in a grand excess are the centerpiece. But what I find more remarkable is the way the film builds to those moments.
We open in greys and browns, our hero in strict black and white. It is only after his flashback starts that we enter a world blooming in colors. And these colors build and build until the first full performances by Waheeda. Notice, in her very first unofficial performance, Dev uses a color wheel to provide changing filters on her face. They may have no props or elaborate sets, but he still manages to provide a changing color for her art. And it is these color changes which fade into her full performances.
In the middle portion, her brilliant performances burst forth, as the scenes off stage become darker and darker. Showing the ways in which the two halves of her life have become farther and farther apart, unlike in the earlier scenes where her few unofficial dance performances were no more brightly lit and varied than the rest of her life.
And then finally we come to the end. In which the colors have become mottled and confused and yet still individual. The stones are grey, the earth is pale brown, but the people crowd through the screen in a variety of colors, and our hero himself has taken to a brilliant saffron or white, slicing through the rest of the screen.
While the use of color is remarkable, equally remarkable is the use of shadow. There are several scenes in which we see shadows lengthen or shrink, or suddenly appear around corners. There are an equal number of scenes in which light will suddenly appear, a door opening and a shaft of light coming in. And of course, the scenes in which characters move in and out of light and shadow. Vijay Anand combined a trained sensitivity for light and shadow as it was used in the black and white films with the new possibilities opened by the full range of the color palette, to create one of the first great color films of India.
I guess next I can talk about songs? They are pretty, by SD Burman (RD’s father, and thus Asha Bhosle’s father-in-law). What I find most remarkable is the variation in how they are filmed, the smooth movement between diegetic and non-diegetic songs, and the grey area in between. “Diegetic” means elements that are within the world of the film. So, Wadeeda’s stage performances which are consciously stage-y, as it were, and which we are to believe as being rehearsed and choreographed and performances for an audience within the film, those are Diegetic. Versus the song that plays in Dev’s head as he wanders, which is not sung within the film, it is just there for us in the audience to hear in order to get into his mindset, that is non-Diegetic. Kind of unusual to have both kinds in the same film.
What makes it really unusual is the other two categories, the kind of diegetic and the kind of not diegetic. If Waheeda’s elaborate stage performances are clearly planned and rehearsed, what about her spontaneous dances of anger or frustration earlier in the film? Did those “really” happen just like that, or are we suspending disbelief a little and assuming that the performance is more polished and perfected than it would normally be in this scene? And then there are the other songs, the duets and love songs. Did they really look into each others eyes and sing a song? Or is this just a filmic representation of their conversation? Where does it fall on the diegetic scale?
(Is he “really” singing to her, the same way she is “really” performing an elaborate dance number on stage? Or is this just an aural and visual metaphor for their conversation?)
I’m dealing with this as kind of a mental discussion, but it doesn’t feel like a mental puzzle while watching the movie. It feels natural, like of course this song would be like this, this other one would be like that, there is nothing to think about. And that. again, goes back to the director. And the composer and lyricist too. They all worked together to craft a variety of visuals, music, and lyrics which were related and yet working on different levels depending on the scene.
Let’s see, what else? I don’t want to get into acting stuff without getting into character stuff, ditto specifics of costumes, sets, all of that. Okay, it’s time for religion and colonialism!
Remember how this is based on a novel that was originally written in English by a radical anti-caste Brahmin? That English thing, and the general idea of a new kind of society, comes up a lot in the film. Our hero is a “Guide”, initial helping strange people navigate his city, acting as an interpreter and conduit between societies. Later, he becomes a Guide in more of a Guru sense of the word, helping people to understand the bigger issues of the world. But it’s more than just a clever wordplay, the film argues that these two aspects are in fact one. Our hero never has a big moment of rejection of his former life and values, and his main goals remain the same through out.
In the early period, we see that he is committed to the safety and enjoyment of his “followers” (tourists). The same is true later. His secondary goal is to impart knowledge to them. The same is true later. And finally, he wants to destroy anything that might threaten either of these first two goals. The same is true later. You could argue that his relationship with the village at the end of the film is a second chance at his relationship with Waheeda in the beginning. Both of them start out with clean intentions, but while the first relationship with his follower descends into selfishness and self-interest, in the second he is able to fight through to purity and clarity of purpose.
What this film is arguing, explicitly in some scenes, is that it doesn’t matter if you come from an English modern secular background, or a traditional village background, what matters is your intentions. Our hero is ultimately a holy man, definitely a holy man. More holy than the fat Brahmins who have been restricting knowledge and holding on to old ways in the village. And also more holy than the TV reporters from the West who cannot conceive of his purpose. The outer gloss does not matter, what counts is the inner intention. English may be a language of colonialism, but when it is used to overthrow the abuses of the traditional Brahmin Sanskrit speaking powers, it becomes good.
Okay now, after alllllllllll of that, I think I am ready to talk in specifics about the plot and characters. So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The plot is kind of shockingly simple. So simple that if you read a description (as I have multiple times over the years), you can’t imagine how a whole movie can be made of it.
Our hero Dev Anand was a spoiled son of a loving mother, who had a concession to run the bookstall at the railways and supplemented that income by acting as a popular tourist guide to the city. One day, a new client arrives, a demanding older type and his bored young wife Waheeda. The client wants to explore ancient caves, while his wife would rather see the city. Dev tries to make them both happy, taking Waheeda to see snake charmers where she spontaneously dances and then begs him not to tell her husband, and leaving the husband with supplies and servants in the caves. Finally, Waheeda attempts suicide, which makes Dev see just how unhappy she is with her husband. She shares with him the story of her life, born a courtesan, and always wanted to be a dancer, but her mother would not let her, instead marrying her off to the first wealthy man who offered. Now she is slowly wasting away with a husband who does not love her and forbids her from dancing. Finally, Waheeda leaves her husband, and Dev takes her in because she has nowhere else to go. His respect in the neighborhood plummets now that a dancer is living in his house, he can’t find work as a guide, and they lose the bookstall as well, but he refuses to give her up. Finally, with his support, Waheeda is brought to the attention of the local artistic community and rapidly becomes nationally famous as a dancer. Dev proposes but suggests that they wait until after “one more tour” before they marry and she settles down. Dev becomes obsessed with his new wealth, and borrows more and more money from Waheeda. Separately from that, he forges her name on a document related to her ex-husband, afraid she will go back to him. When her ex-husband gleefully reports the forgery, Waheeda believes that his greed has lead him to steal from her and he is sent to jail.
Dev is released from jail 6 months early and chooses to keep this a secret from both Waheeda and his mother. Instead, he wanders away from the city where they live, slowly wearing out his clothes and shoes, buying simple clothing to replace them, and finally ending up sleeping in a temple in a small village, where he is mistaken for a holy man because of his clothing. The villagers ask for his help in solving a family dispute and, when he is able to solve it, greet him as their new Guru and set him up in their local temple.
Back in his home city, Waheeda and Dev’s mother meet up, both having forgiven him. But they do not know where he is as he was released from jail early and has already wandered off. Meanwhile, in the village, there is a great drought which is affecting the entire region. Children are starving to death and the villagers are rioting over the small amount of food remaining. Dev announces he will fast until there is peace in the village. But his announcement is miss-reported as him fasting for 12 days until there is rain. Dev initially tries to back out, but after seeing the peace and hope this has brought to the village, decides to continue. After a few days, he tries to run off, desperate, but is seen by the cynical Brahmins who never trusted him, and their jeers drive him back to his fast. After a week, he has become a figure of hope for the whole region, hundreds coming to view him at his temple. This is reported in the paper, attracting the attention of Waheeda who comes to see him. And his mother, who comes just to see the holy man and finds her son instead. With the support of the two women he loves, Dev manages to complete the fast. Just as rain finally falls, he slips away from his body.
So, that’s more or less the plot as I knew it over the years. The first thing that made me sit up and take notice when watching the film is that we don’t actually see it in chronological order like that. Instead, the majority of the film is a flashback, while the “present day” in which we open is Dev leaving his jail.
(Gorgeous opening shot. Remember how I said it was a color film that used shadows like a black-and-white?)
Always before when I had read the plot, it seemed so odd for this Holy Man ending to be tacked on to a love story. But actually, it’s the opposite. The love story is the tacked on part. Well, not exactly “tacked on”, but subservient.
The point of the film is to look at how a Saint is created. This is the life of a Saint, just like any other story we have from any other tradition. Saint Paul, who was a persecutor of early Christians until he had his vision on the road to Damascus. John Newton, who was a slave ship captain before he wrote “Amazing Grace”. Valmiki, who according to some traditions was a bandit before he became a sage. One is not born perfect, and the road to perfection is not smooth and straight. In order to appreciate Dev’s elevation to a higher plane at the end, we have to understand where he began. And learn the lesson that any beginning, no matter how worldly and petty, can still lead to divinity.
Which is why the film is structured like it is. We open with Dev leaving jail and choosing to turn away from worldly things to become a wanderer. Not because he is seeking enlightenment, but because he is ashamed of his past life and afraid to return to it. As he wanders, his identity and possessions slowly get stripped from him. His jacket tears, his shoes have holes, his photos fall from his pockets, and his money runs out. He buys a simple white outfit and wooden sandals not because they are holy, but because they are cheap and practical for his life as a wanderer. He accepts the gift of a saffron shawl, not because he wants to indicate his status as a Guru, but because he is cold at night. And finally, he accepts food and help at the village, not because he feels he deserves it for Godgiven wisdom, but because he feels he has earned it by using his wits to settle inter-village disputes.
The scene around which this all revolves is the moment when the villagers bring in in triumph back to the village and are confronted by the two old Brahmins who refuse to accept him. The Brahmins put him through a test, asking him to translate the Sanskrit they speak and laughing when he cannot. But Dev pauses only a moment before responding with a fierce speech in English, a language the Brahmins cannot understand, and driving them off.
(Uch, the Brahmins are so disgusting! I love it!)
From one side of things, you could say that Dev is “tricking” the people. That he is playing on their ignorance by using a language they cannot understand in order to win a religious debate and make himself appear as a sage. But, is he?
The idea of religious figures learning Sanskrit to understand religious texts, or Latin in the West, or Arabic for Muslims, is that they can act as translators for these complex concepts. They have studied for a lifetime to be able to understand this language and therefore receive wisdom. And then it is their job to pass that wisdom on to others who have other tasks in their lives and therefore cannot devote as much time to study. But the Brahmins have failed in this responsibility, they are keeping this knowledge for themselves to enhance their power. Dev does not know Sanskrit, but he does know English. And through his knowledge of English, he has been able to see the wider world. And this knowledge of the wider world is what he has to bring to this village. He may not be able to recite the Gita, but he can use logical reasoning to solve a dispute, he has no fear of their petty tyrants, and his superior knowledge rather than making him feel “better” than the villagers, makes him feel an obligation to serve them.
Dev’s character doesn’t think he is a religious man, he thinks he is pulling a harmless con on these villagers. And we in the audience think that as well, it’s all kind of harmless but a little funny. Only, looking back from the end of the film, is this all a con really? Or is all religion this same “trick”? Are Holy Men born, or are the made through trial and error? What is the difference between a convict choosing to live homeless and without attachment instead of bringing shame on his family, and a mendicant purposefully giving away his possessions? Is Dev already on a path to sainthood merely by turning away from the city at the beginning, choosing to leave behind him the concerns of his past life? And that single decision leads to a great awareness of the true values of life, not his possessions that weigh him down and wear out, but the inner joy he gets from helping others?
It is only after we see Dev find and commit to his new “home”, that we return to the city to see what he has left behind. This is the story of the past, the story he has outgrown and no longer cares for. The mother who raised him and the woman he loves.
I had forgotten until just now, re-watching the film in my head, how much the middle of it is a woman’s story. The story of Dev’s mother and his lover and the conflict as Dev is torn between them and what they each represent. Dev is merely an observer in this story, not in control of his own destiny. His purpose is to help them achieve theirs. And again, this is the life of a Saint. His goals may be very different in different parts of the film, but his purpose is always to sacrifice himself in the service of others.
Our first real flashback is not Dev’s story. We saw him briefly at the opening, as he remembered his years as the most popular guide in the city before choosing to turn away from it all. But that was just to give us a sense of the self he was leaving behind, it wasn’t truly telling his story, or any story.
Waheeda is the first to tell a story. And, significantly, she is telling it to Dev’s mother. The two women came together outside the jail, both looking for Dev. And with their loss of him as an object to be fought over, their conflict ends as well. Waheeda takes her home, and Dev’s mother invites her in. And, for the first time, asks to know her story, why she is like she is.
Waheeda’s story is simple, and beautifully shown in just a few quick flashes. It is not only an efficient use of screen time, it also helps us to get into her mindset, where her life seemed to change overnight. Waheeda was the daughter of a courtesan, and loved to dance. But her mother did not want her to have the courtesan’s life, and saw the only escape as marriage. So they found a matrimonial ad from an older wealthy man, her mother arranged their first meeting (drinking cokes at an outdoor cafe), and they were married in the registry office. That night, the camera moves into their bedroom to catch him sleeping, and Waheeda crying on the otherside of the bed. Later, she is rehearsing her dancing in the living room when her husband comes home, and declares his wife will not dance, throwing out the musicians who have come to work with her. Some time after that, her mother comes to visit, and Waheeda tearfully cries that she will never be a mother. And that is it, that is her backstory, from dancing girl to miserable lonely wife.
And it’s time for me to back-up and talk about courtesans, or Tawaifs. Tawaifs were part of Muslim northern culture (possibly not a coincidence that they cast a Muslim woman to play this role, who also happened to be a trained dancer). In “olden times”, before the British arrived, the Tawaifs were powerful and respected. They lived free lives in their own homes, were well regarded for their learning and intelligence, and would have long term relationships with powerful protectors, as well as performing at elite gatherings. This power and respect and everything else slowly got whittled away as the British came in and started trying to make the Indians feel bad about all sorts of things in their culture. Plus, you know, just changing times.
In the “olden days”, a Tawaif was highly educated because she learned dancing, poetry, and to have a quick entertaining conversation with a man. But as the world moved forward, suddenly those weren’t enough skills to survive. They would still learn dance and singing and dressing and make-up and all that. But they moved from being respected advisers and independent, to entertainers looking for a “protector”.
There were certain practices that have carried over to the present day in a Tawaif’s life. For one thing, there is the elaborate negotiations surrounding her virginity. Her mother or another older woman would act as a go-between with her and a variety of wealthy suitors. Finally, the most generous one would be selected. Usually also one who was known to be kind, considerate, experienced, etc. The goal was to make this experience a success, just the start of a career, not the end of it. There would always be a certain loyalty to this first man, sometimes a Tawaif would continue in a relationship with him for the rest of her life. Sometimes she would gently extricate herself after a few years, or be let go, and move on to another protector. Or set up an independent household where she would perform for private audiences until another protector appeared. Or failed to appear.
(Remember Hema Malini in Laage Chunari Main Daag? Whispered about in the neighborhood, but only seen by an elite few men. But she was also living in faded glory, struggling to survive in this new unfriendly world)
Somehow, the dancing and singing and poetry came to be inextricable from the sexual favors. A woman who danced in public, was automatically considered as available for sex. Which meant if you were a respectable man or woman, you would cross to the other side of the street to avoid her. And if you were a less good man, you would rape her.
Guide was made during, and shows, a fascinating transition point in how these performing women were treated. Waheeda is born into a brothel. Her mother, and her husband, both see dance as only associated with brothels and prostitution and do not want that for her (for different reasons, her husband because of his prestige, her mother because she wanted a better life for her). But Dev and Waheeda, in the new generation, know there is another way. That dance and performing had moved back into the realm of the respectable. On the flip side, the brothels still had enough of a tinge of respectability to them, left over from the old days, that Waheeda’s mother was able to arrange her marriage to a wealthy respectable man. There was an understanding that Waheeda was well brought up and could fit in with elite society, thanks to her origins. Well, so long as the marriage was kept strictly neutral and modern. Their first meeting taking place at an outdoor cafe, not the brothel or his family’s house, and the marriage itself being merely at a registry office.
What takes this to another level is when you consider the meta-meaning of Waheeda playing this role. Waheeda herself lived this change. As an actress and dancer, she was seen as sexually available and also had a certain amount of freedom that a normal respectable middle-class woman would not enjoy. And so she was able to have her well-known affair with Guru Dutt. But 18 years after that, dancing and acting had become increasingly respectable, and she was married to a nice middle-class doctor.
(Looks like a nice man, I guess)
Also meta, have you noticed how familiar the whole “selling virginity” process sounds to the way actresses are launched nowadays? Yeah, not a coincidence. Supposedly many of the early stars came out of Tawaif families (Nargis Dutt, for instance). And they were essentially “sold” into their first film, after a producer had multiple meetings with their mother or aunt or other older woman, they would be shown the girl, and then asked what they would offer for her. In terms of signing bonus, and also guarantee for future work, promotion of her launch, compatible co-star, etc. Now, I don’t think the virginity is on the table along with everything else. But the process is still very similar for a lot of these younger actresses. If you want that virginal youthful glow, you have to talk to the mother first, woo her, work out the details, offer as much as you can, and then sign the daughter. And if you want your daughter to get a good launch, you start her young, only let her be seen a little by certain potential buyers, work out the best possible deal, and then hand her over.
(Alia’s memory of signing Student of the Year is that she sat in the corner and ate a cupcake while Karan and her mother went over the contract and signed it)
What is generally the case whether we are talking about a film launch or a virginity sale in the 1600s is that the main goal is a man who will respect and care for her. It’s not said explicitly in the film, but you have to wonder if perhaps selling Waheeda to a traditional costumer of the brothel might have been less ultimately damaging than selling her to Marco, her husband. Her mother was so eager to let her go to any man who would give her a name, there was no discussion of her likes or dislikes, or why exactly he wanted to marry her. The marriage itself was seen as the ultimate importance, and the other important considerations somehow got lost along the way.
Marco’s problems, as we see them in the film in bits and pieces, are fascinating to consider. He isn’t just an angry abusive husband, one who hits her all the time and so on. He also isn’t just cold-blooded and unloving. No, it is a sick combination of the two. He barely notices or cares for her most of the time. But it is implied that he also has perverted sexual desires, which make him occasionally call on her to be available to him.
But the greatest abuse is mental. Mental abuse is something we are struggling with acknowledging and understanding even today, how a person can be completely broken down and afraid for their life, even if there is not a mark on them. And here is a movie from 1965 that shows it brilliantly. Marco keeps her isolated, makes her feel useless and weak and hysterical. Makes her believe that no one cares for her, or ever will. Cuts her off from the possibility of having children, the one thing she wants. Waheeda needs rescuing not by a big strong man who will beat up her abuser, but by an understanding man who can build her up again so she can rescue herself.
And that is what Dev is. His first meeting with Waheeda comes after we have seen her flashback, when we enter into the fuller flashback which is not from any particular perspective. While we in the audience know that she is a tragic and abused figure, to Dev she is merely the complaining wife of his newest client. And her husband is merely a somewhat odd scholarly type who is obsessed with the nearby caves.
Which is where we get into colonialism! Her husband is named “Marco”. What an odd name! Possibly from the Portuguese missionary influence, but he doesn’t not appear to be Christian. In fact, most of his signifiers are British. His clothes, his interests, his manner of life. But he speaks perfect Hindi, and sought out an Indian wife. And yet he hates that wife now that he has her, and wants her to stop dancing and otherwise being “Indian”. But he will spend days hunting through caves looking at erotic ancient sculpture and drawing its beauty. And finally hiring a dancing girl to entertain him in the caves while his wife is left at home.
It’s not explicitly stated, but all of this, along with Marco’s complete lack of family and tons and tons of money, makes me assume he is the child of an Indian woman and a European man. He inherited part of a name and plenty of money from his father. But that came along with deep seated issues of hatred mixed with desire towards Indian culture. As is shown by his abusive relationship with Waheeda, in which the very elements which attracted him in the first place, once he owns her, he wants to destroy, and instead find them only with different women who are not his possessions.
You could look at it as Marco’s issues stem from colonialism and the odd position he has within that tragedy. Or you could look at it as the entire Waheeda-Marco relationship is a metaphor for the unhealthy relationship the West had with India. We wanted to possess it, and then once we had it, suddenly we hated the reality (Waheeda, his actual wife) and loved the fantasy (the ancient culture of the caves, the modern culture that panders to our whims of the dancing girl).
(Marco wants this kind of India, he doesn’t want fair trade agreements or human rights issues.)
Speaking strictly in terms of narrative and character, it is important that Waheeda’s marriage is so complex and hard to fathom, because we must understand why Dev does not at first grasp the situation. He understands that it is strange that his new employer does not want his wife with him, or even seem to care what she does. And that it is strange that this wife is always angry and fighting. But he accepts it as none of his business, marriages are like that. Even when he takes Waheeda by herself to the snake charmers and sees her be carried away by dance, he finds it strange, but no more. A respectable married woman normally would not be able to dance like that, and would not have such anger and conflict inside of her shown through dance. But again, it’s none of his business.
Waheeda seems odd, but then so does her husband. And Dev has a similar “unusual, but not my place” reaction to him at first. Marco wants to visit these hard to reach caves, and then he wants to stay there, with a servant and supplies that Dev has to arrange, and refuses to be bothered by concerns about his wife or anything else. At this point, both people are equally strange, and Dev has no opinion between the two.
Remember how I said that Dev was always a Guru, he just never realized it? At this point, he is a very petty kind of a Guru. He is still serving and teaching his followers, but instead of the meaning of life, it is just where the snake-charmers can be find and showing them the old local caves. But it is still guidance, it is still knowledge that he is sharing with them. And his main concern is getting them the right knowledge, the knowledge they need. In the book, apparently (I still haven’t read it, but I am picking it up from the library on the way home), his character at this point is a little more amoral. He is out for money and fame and so on. In the film, it comes across more as enjoyment of his job, but also a sincere interest in helping his charges to enjoy their lives while they are in his care.
And that sincere interest, in a natural way, leads him to become increasingly entwined with Waheeda.
You know how I know a movie is really really good? If I have either nothing or way too much to say. I’m probably never going to write about Kaagaz Ka Phool, for instance, because all I would be able to say is “[sob] [smile] [sob] [cry and smile at the same time because it’s so beautiful I don’t know how to feel]”.
(Speaking of Waheedaji and unspoken desires….)
And then there’s this movie, where I am on my second post, and already over 5,000 words in, and not even a third done. So I’m going to stop for now, and come back tomorrow or on Monday or something. Also, if you ever wonder why I don’t write much about the “classics”, this is why. In order to do them justice, I have to give up days and days of my life and acres and acres of blog real estate while all my readers sit there thinking “When will she just be done already?????”