Hindi Film 101: Guru Dutt, Hindi Films Great Martyr to Art

I said if I was in the mood, I might finally write a Guru Dutt 101. Well, the rain kept me awake all night, it’s still overcast and drizzling now, but at the same time the light on the lake is so beautiful in the rain that the beauty is worth the melancholy. Perfect time to think about Guru Dutt.

Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, but this is how things look to me from a great distance.

I do not believe that suffering creates great art. I think that is a dangerous statement to make, I think it hurts people when you tell them they must suffer for art. I also think that there is very little art in the world that is worth the price of suffering. If an alcoholic can only create art while drinking, I would rather they stop drinking and live for their family and loved ones than keep making art for strangers.

But in certain rare cases, I do believe that great art can lead to suffering. Guru Dutt is one of those cases. He had a vision of such beauty in art, beauty of feelings, of visuals, of humanity, that by contrast reality became almost unbearable. And then truly unbearable. He sacrificed everything at the alter of this beauty, and it ripped his soul in half until he had to kill himself for the pain of it.

Kaagaz ke phool, Guru Dutt's creative laser-beam - Let's talk ...

Guru Dutt had 3 small children when he died. For their sake, I wish he had been able to close his mind to the beauty he saw, to accept the tasteless reality of the world instead. But by golly it is a close thing!!!! The art he created is at a level that, were I given the power to let him see that beauty in reality instead of just art, to see that in his children and be happy, I would almost be tempted not to use it. To say “the world needs the films you created more than your children needed their father”. Almost. In the end, there is nothing that weighs in the balance against 3 children needing their parent. But Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool come within a hair’s breath of it.

Most of Guru’s life is proof that suffering does not lead to art. He had a happy life in all outward ways. As a child, he lived with his parents and sister in a smallish town and was loved and safe and given all he needed. As a teenager, he ran away to join Uday Shankar’s modern dance troupe, he made friends and was talented and successful there. At 19 he left the troupe and reunited with his family, now living in Bombay. His uncle helped him get a solid contract with the Pune based Prabhat film company as a choreographer, he liked the work and was good at it. And he made friends easily, including his lifelong friend the aspiring actor Dev Anand. At 25, he met a pretty talented successful young playback singer and they fell in love. They dated for 3 years and slowly wore down their families, before marrying for love when Guru was 28 and his new bride Geeta was 23.

Guru Dutt And Geeta Dutt's Love Story: Tragic And Untimely Death ...

Two years before their marriage, Guru made his first movie as a director (Baazi) which proved to be a hit and he worked steadily as a director from then on. He was respected in his profession, had many loving close friends around him, was married to a talented intelligent woman he loved, had a loving family around him (his sister also entered the artistic world of Bombay and remained close to him his whole life), and had 3 healthy young children. There was no suffering there, far less than in the lives of those around him even (Dev had an unfulfilled love affair, Raj Kapoor had the tragic childhood deaths of his siblings, Dilip Kumar lost his mother at a young age, and so on). And yet, Guru was followed by sadness all his life.

There’s a story I read years ago about Guru that stuck with me. His younger sister, who went on to be an artist herself, remembered when they were children Guru would entertain her by making shadows on the wall in the light of the lamp. Light and shadow and movement, that was already all he cared about, even as a child. And then I thought, “what would have happened to that little boy if he had been born before the invention of film? Before there was a place for him to put his passion?” And then I thought, “what would have happened to him, is what did happen to him.” It was never enough. Guru had a vision inside of him that simply could not be satisfied. Maybe he was born in the wrong time, maybe 100 years from now there will be some new form of art as radical as film was 100 years before now, and we will finally understand what was driving him. To have this vision of something just barely out of reach, to get closer and closer to it and never quite touch it, that could drive someone truly mad.

Guru as a young man seemed like all other young men in film. He was perhaps a bit more determined to direct than was common, most directors sort of fell into it backwards, certainly a handsome graceful young man would be more likely to dream of acting than directing. But beyond that odd quirk, Guru seemed like all the other post-Independence dreamers who landed in film. Literally interchangable, which is how he met Dev Anand. They were both young men staying in lodgings near the studios, and the laundry deliver man gave Guru’s shirts to Dev and vice versa, because one young man was just like another. Guru and Dev met and swapped shirts, and swapped stories and dreams, and became friends. Dev swore that if he made it big as an actor, he would make sure Guru got his chance to direct. And he did, he gave Guru Baazi.

How Dev Anand met Guru Dutt - entertainment

Baazi was a clever fun film noir thriller with fun little touches in the filming. Guru followed it up with a series of fun clever film noirs and lighter films. His Mr. and Mrs. 55 is a straight up comedy. And then came Pyaasa, and everything shifted. Or rather, I suppose, then came Sailaab and everything broke and reformed.

Guru Dutt didn’t have a total history of success until Sailaab, but no major failures. In life or in film, it took him a while to get married but he did marry for love eventually. His friendship with Dev had some rough patches, it took him a while to get his first directing job, but nothing really bad. And then there was Sailaab. A Shakuntala story, a city boy crash lands his airplane in a remove village and falls for a village girl, but then forgets her when he returns to real life. Guru directed, and his wife Geeta sang the songs and was the producer of record. It proved to be a massive flop, driving Geeta and her brother who co-produced to declare bankruptcy. Plans for their next film had to be canceled midway as the money ran out, and Guru started writing Pyaasa.

Pyaasa (1957)

Pyaasa is a heartsick cry from a tortured soul who is looking for understanding. Someone who’s greatest pain is that he made the best of himself and tried to give it away, and it was rejected. This isn’t a man who is sad from loss of money, or time, or fame, but sad because he poured his soul into a gift and the world rejected it. On the one hand, it makes him question who he is if his gifts have no value. On the other hand, his art keeps driving him on and on to create, to risk rejection again and again.

Just before Sailaab came CID, and Waheeda Rahman. The legend goes that Guru fell for Waheeda and she for him and their romance brought perfect hopeless misery to all involved. Personally, I don’t believe in that. Based solely on the evidence of Guru’s films. If he could make something that beautiful, I don’t believe any woman could compete. I think that if Sailaab had been a hit, if Guru had felt fulfilled in his art, the love for Waheeda would not have come near affecting him as it did. It was art first, then love.

Waheeda was a teenager, a classically trained dancer from the south. She had been in a handful of southern films and done well in them, Guru Dutt saw one of those films and offered her a chance to come to Bombay and be in CID. She was only 18 at the time. In CID, Waheeda technically has the smaller heroine part, but her face somehow just took the camera and stole the screen from Shakila. She has a remarkable face, fluid and expressive, and yet also still and featureless somehow at the same time. Guru could treat her almost as a blank canvas, as he raised and lowered the shadows on her face a whole new person was seemingly revealed over and over again.

The Great- Waheeda Rehman - Bollywoodirect

Guru didn’t use her for Sailaab, taking the established Geeta Bali instead. But he went back to Waheeda for Pyaasa. Once again, she has the seemingly lessor part. Mala Sinha plays the vibrant exciting lost love from college, the one who gets the youthful flashback and meaty dramatic moments in the present. But once again, somehow she came to the fore. This time in the narrative as well, the film is a story of Guru letting go of his intended recipient for his gift and accepting Waheeda instead. The wealthy and powerful, his family, his collegemates, his first love, they may all reject him. But this humble pure powerless prostitute, she can appreciate him.

Somewhere during the filming of Pyaasa, it began to be rumored that married man Guru Dutt was in love with his young star Waheeda Rahman. And then Pyaasa flopped as well, and Guru started sinking into alcoholism. And working on his magnum opus, Kaagaz Ke Phool.

Part of Guru’s odd not-of-this-world artistic power is that his films did not merely reflect his life, they predicted it. Pyaasa was about an artist whose greatest work was dismissed and forsaken, whose first love grew apart from him, and who found solace in a young untouched woman who understood his work. Pyaasa was Guru’s greatest work, and it was dismissed, and he grew apart from his wife and towards Waheeda. Kaagaz Ke Phool is about a successful director who discovers an amazingly talented new natural actress and builds an expensive ambitious film around her, while his marriage crumbles. The film fails, the relationship fails too, and over the next few years he sinks deeper and deeper into depression, forgotten by the world that once loved him, until he dies of a broken heart. And, tragically, that was also a prediction of Guru’s life.

Vintage - Guru Dutt, Geeta Dutt, Waheeda Rehman pics | PINKVILLA

Kaagaz Ke Phool was supposed to be the amazing ambitious fun popular movie that would put him back on top and pay back his debts. Instead, it turned into the film within a film, the one that cost too much and failed, leaving the actress a star and the director/producer nothing. He predicted his own doom. The Waheeda relationship ended at some unknown point, but it was too late for his marriage, he and Geeta were living like two miserable strangers. After Kaagaz, Guru was afraid to even put his own name on a movie, there are two more films that are generally considered unofficial parts of the Guru filmography, although he was the mere producer-writer of record not director, Chaudvin Ke Chand and Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam.

Chaudvin Ke Chand and Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam end up predicting the life of the two women Guru loved. In Chaudvin, Waheeda is torn between a passionate love and marriage. After much drama, her lover dies, and she settles into happiness in her marriage. Which is what happened in real life, Guru died in 1964 and ten years later, Waheeda married a nice man and had a nice married life with him.

Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam predicted the sad ending of Geeta Dutt, Guru’s singer wife. Meena Kumari’s sad Choti Bahu was lonely for her husband who went out to watch dancers every night. To keep him with her, she started to drink and share his melancholy. Until eventually she over took him in sadness and alcoholism. Geeta was an enormously talented woman, deserving a place on the short list of Greatest Playback Singers of All Time. She was successful before marriage, and after marriage. But somehow whatever dark swamp swallowed her husband ended up coming for her too. Eight years after Guru died, Geeta died as well, of complications from alcoholism.

Geeta is best captured not by her face but by her voice

Maybe that’s why Guru was put on this earth? To tell, on film, the story of these three people, himself and Waheeda and Geeta. Or just to tell these three almost universal stories, the artist tormented by an uncaring world. The woman tortured by a lover she cannot have. And the woman tortured by the husband who does not want her.

No one knows how Guru died exactly. He had tried to kill himself twice before, both times talked out of it by his friend the comedian Johnny Walker. Just as Johnny appeared to bring light and humor to his films, so he appeared to bring light and humor to his life. Guru was living alone by now, he was a poor husband by all accounts, so driven by his art and work that he was barely around in the home and he and Geeta were separated. Guru was in the process of planning a new film, he had meetings all day, and meetings all the next day. He was hyper at such times and struggled to sleep. He was also an alcoholic. So he had his nightly alcohol, and his nightly sleeping pills, and then he never woke up. Was it suicide? Did he know what the combination would do to him? Or did he plan to wake up the next day, go to those meetings, continue his life?

Johnny Walker & Guru Dutt. Johnny Walker was an indispensable part ...
Johnny and Guru

I think he simply burned himself out, one way or the other. So physically wound up he required higher and higher doses of sedatives to fall asleep until the inevitable collapse occurred. Or on such an emotional peak at all times that one night it took just a fraction of pressure to push him to take a few extra pills and never wake up.

To give this a bit of a happy ending, Guru and Geeta’s three children are doing far better than you would expect. After Guru’s death, and then Geeta’s, they were raised by relatives. Loving supportive kind relatives. They went on to be successful members of society, and Guru’s son occasionally acted as a family spokesperson and representative, giving interviews and appearing at film festivals that feature his father’s work. Before he also died at a fairly young age (58), so okay, that’s not the happiest of endings.

Sydney to witness 'Gardish Mein Taare' play based on Guru Dutt and ...

Overall, it is a sad story. A person who had everything you could wish for in the world, loving parents, a successful career, devoted friends, marriage to the woman of his choice, but because the world did not appreciate his art, he could not find it in himself to survive in this world.

To be fair to Guru and his family, there are a couple of myths I want to specifically disprove: Guru was not a failure. Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, his two greatest films, were massive flops. As was Sailaab, as I mentioned. But everything else he directed or wrote or produced was a success. His career was in a stable place at his death, as it had been for most of his life. Guru did not die because the world did not appreciate him, he was not an unknown unsung cult director. He just sometimes felt like he was.

And second, Waheeda Rahman did not single-handedly destroy his happy home and happy life. The work obsession, the dissatisfaction, the depression, that was already there and was what lead him to look for something outside of his marriage to make him happy. This was not a happy home in the first place, Waheeda or no Waheeda. She did not break his marriage, and she did not break his heart, she was just one thing that happened to him in a period of struggle.

6 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Guru Dutt, Hindi Films Great Martyr to Art

  1. Enlightening. As sympathetic as one wants to be, this statement “This isn’t a man who is sad from loss of money, or time, or fame, but sad because he poured his soul into a gift and the world rejected it.” is troubling at multiple levels. It’s ego, selfishness and perhaps also male privilege along with all the more pitiable things you’ve mentioned. Somehow brought to mind your reading of several Ranbir Kapoor roles.


    • As I said, Guru Dutt is a very very rare case for me. I think he, and others like him, inspire those Ranbir Kapoor roles, but what is not understood is how rare they are. Guru Dutt’s movies are perhaps the greatest films ever made. I say that not as a fan, but as someone who has 6 years of film studies. While other times it might be male ego and selfishness to make someone think their art is vital and no one appreciates it, Guru is one of the rare cases where he was right, his art was something unnatural. He had reason to devote himself to creating it above all else, and to be sorry when it failed. I should also say, Guru isn’t exactly like those characters. He probably had actual medical depression, but there wasn’t really any self-pity. He was sad, but he didn’t enjoy it and he didn’t expect anyone else to help him. Definitely no ego at all, two of his greatest films he removed his name from them so they could get a fair chance at the box office, his name was meaningless so long as the art got out there. I don’t know if even male privilage tracks, he was a man of course, and worked in an industry dominated by men, but his greatest roles tended to be female characters, his greatest discovery was an actress, and he encouraged his sister to be an artist as well and supported her career.


  2. GD was a largely successful film director,and I feel that the overwhelming love Pyaasa received worldwide towered above box office.I think,though I don’t have a proof to validate my point,that he took Kaagaz ke Phool too personally.And he worked personally on it and spent so much money on it.I mean the budget would not have been as high as Mughal e Azam or Pakeezah,and those movies took decades and proved successful.Besides the personal losses in Pakeezah mellowed down anything about money,it was useless.But GD saw his dream shatter in a span of years.His inspiration from foreign industries was crystal clear,but at moments it felt like copying.The pace and theme were beautiful,but Suresh comes off very rude in his dealings with Shanti,who was bound not only by love but by legal affairs.And while Pyaasa feels so real because the protagonist doesn’t hold back at his chance to do so,KkP felt too idealistic.But at the same time it is even more real,because one would expect his character to withdraw from the film world(like in Bhumika) but the sad truth is it is impossible to do so.Nobody remembers actors who left cinema as good businessmen,they have to carry that tag of “flop actor”.I feel KkP was cinematic brilliance on the part of GD,but narratively it was weak.Perhaps that’s where GD fell-he couldn’t accept that the failure of his film wasn’t his failure.He followed with Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam,which has its own hallowed place when it comes to period dramas(it surpasses Chaudhvin ka Chand,not aesthetically but narratively).
    GD,I feel never had the I don’t care attitude that is borderline cynical,but a necessary wrong.I mean,Gulzar had such a light life by “Bollywood” standards,his credibility as a director often gets questioned(with false data about box office gross)and he literally won an Oscar,but he would forever be THE lyricist of Bollywood.His popularity in this aspect exceeds that of AR Rehman,who in my opinion is not consistent in his efforts but it is always good to take breaks and go easy before a mammoth soundtrack.Then there is Shabana,who rose above the confines of parallel cinema,alternate cinema,even Indian cinema and is perhaps the greatest actress India ever produced(I don’t mean best,because I keep juggling between her and Meena for that spot),but box office and marketability is a joke to her.Not necessarily a joke but you know what I mean.But GD perhaps lacked that easiness of letting go.KkP somehow became a sad reality,if he took it as easy as Shanti who decided to leave as soon as situation escalated,the story would have been different.
    On a related note,I don’t think it is good to include the personal details like matters of love from ambiguous sources,or do mention the source because I know hard it must be for you to gather information about someone from the 60’s who lived in a different country.Sometimes those sources are not backed by some valid data.Not with this article,but some other pieces like an actress aborting and being unable to conceive children.Those stories lack enough proof so some people might get triggered,especially if they believe it to be untrue.Your articles are so well written,many people read these and it feels bad when they quote the false facts and mention this website.It is your personal blog so the articles are your thoughts(when there are so many contradicting statements you will naturally pick one that you feel true,otherwise the article will look like a Wikipedia page about an extinct species)but some people don’t understand that.
    When I first came across your “Hindi film articles” and movie reviews(a couple of years ago),I thought that you were two separate people because the writing style was so different in both.It never hit me that one would go crazy if you write every single one with the same poetic flourish as this.


    • Interesting thought, that some people are able to just let go and move on when they face failures in art, and others aren’t. You’re right, I can think of many gifted artists who either simply stopped when it got too painful and moved on to other things, or were able to shrug off the failures and be happy. For whatever reason, Guru couldn’t. He had to keep making movies, and he kept being hurt when folks didn’t appreciate them.

      On Sat, Jul 11, 2020 at 11:38 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  3. Have you watched Waheeda Rehman’s interview with Simi Garewal? She talks about Guru Dutt as a man and a director in it and says something along the lines of “he saw too much sorrow in the world”. The entire interview is worth watching but the Guru Dutt part starts around minute 17. They keep switching between Hindi and English. I am not sure how much Hindi you can understand, but if you need help with specific parts, I can translate for you.

    With the Guru Dutt, Geeta Dutt, Waheeda Rehman triangle, I can never get over the fact that some of Waheeda’s best songs were sung by Geeta and some of Geeta’s best songs were filmed by Waheeda. I wonder how it must have felt to the people involved. Even that interview I linked above ends with Waheeda singing Waqt Ne Kiya while they show an image of her walking hand in hand with her husband.

    I had not even realized until reading your piece that Guru Dutt did not direct Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam and Chaudavin ka Chand. I feel like most people have just accepted that those were his movies. I even remember Doordarshan had once done a retrospective on films by Raj Kapoor, and Guru Dutt and they included both those movies. In fact that was the first time I had ever watched a Guru Dutt movie and I got to watch five movies (Pyasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam, Chaudavin ka Chaand, and Mr & Mrs 55) within one week at the age of 9 or 10. As if that was not enough, the next week was Aag, Barsaat, Awaara, Shree 420, and Sanga for Raj Kapoor. I have no idea how my brain must have processed all of that at that young age.


    • “He saw too much sorrow in the world” is such a lovely way to put it. He didn’t hate the world and people, he loved it too much, and it made him too sad when he saw what was happening in it.

      On Tue, Jul 14, 2020 at 4:40 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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