Guru Dutt was born in 1925 and died in 1964, at the age of 39. Between the decades that have whizzed by, the Pyaasa auteur's reputation has only soared to unimaginable heights. Time has been kind to him, as it usually is to great artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Heath Ledger — lives and careers that were snuffed out young prompting them to fall head-first into the mysterious and undefinable trenches of myth.
In Hindi cinema, the 1950s is considered to be the Golden Era and even in an era dominated by such forces as Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, B R Chopra, and Mehboob Khan, the name 'Guru Dutt' was spoken with respect. Of course, like the filmmaker he's most often compared to — Orson Welles — Dutt's work started getting its due only after his tragic death.
But one assumes that the industry must have taken note of Guru Dutt's intense obsession with his art and unparalleled attempts at making films his way. So unmistakably artistic they are, packed with glorious music and evocative motifs, that you know it's a Guru Dutt film when you see one. Dutt, whose real name was Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone, started out as a choreographer.
He met three people in the show business who changed his life — for better or worse, we will never know. One was Dev Anand. Dutt and Anand's friendship goes back to the time when the latter, not yet a big star, was acting in Hum Ek Hain (1946). The newcomer Dutt was a choreographer in the same film. The two met accidentally one day at the Prabhat Film Studio in Pune when Anand saw Dutt wearing his shirt.
The laundryman, it seems, had sent Dev Anand's shirt to the wrong man. The duo had a hearty laugh over the confusion and became good friends soon afterwards — so much so that Anand promised Dutt that if he ever turned producer he would hire Dutt as a director and Dutt would return the favour by casting his handsome buddy as a hero whenever he donned the producer's hat. As history would prove, they kept their word.
No talk on Indian cinema is complete without the mention of Guru Dutt. In the annals of Hindi film history, he keeps company with the likes of Bimal Roy, V Shantaram, K Asif, Mehbood Khan, Kamal Amrohi, BR Chopra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Yet, his works have an incandescent quality to them. Working within the boundaries of mainstream Hindi cinema, his sensibilities were rich, modern, and subtle. It shouldn't come as a surprise that one of his most memorable films, Pyaasa, figures in Time magazine's All-Time 100 best movies list.
His cinema is full of pathos and pain – emotions born from rejection. Both Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool told the story of a sensitive person's disillusionment with society. And yet, Guru Dutt never cut a picture of misery in life as such. Pyaasa was a commercial success though Kaagaz Ke Phool set him back reportedly by Rs 17 lakhs, a huge sum then. He recovered much of his money with his later films, Chaudhvin Ka Chaand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
Guru Dutt had earlier had a successful run with comedies and thrillers – Aar Paar, Mr And Mrs 55, Baazi and CID — all saw Guru Dutt as an actor-director or as a producer (example being Dev Anand starrer CID). Guru Dutt is also credited to giving Bollywood some of its best talents – he introduced Waheeda Rehman, discovered talents like Badruddin Kazi (popularly called Johnny Walker), writer-director Abrar Alvi and ace cinematographer, VK Murthy.
Guru Dutt's personal life too was topsy-turvy. Guru Dutt had it all love, family, money, fame and validation from his audience. His untimely death by suicide at the age of 39, that too after multiple failed attempts, had shocked the entire film industry. But what led to that fateful night when he tipped his hat and said his final goodbye?
His story is a richly layered account of a troubled genius. His films are still celebrated and revered by viewers, critics and students of cinema the world over, not only for their technical brilliance but also for the eternal romanticism and their profound take on the emptiness of life and the shallowness of material success.