The 1950s hold the reputation of being the golden era of Indian cinema. Perhaps, because it was graced by artists such as Guru Dutt. Just as India got its independence, our film industry also witnessed a liberation of sorts. Having gone through a lot, there were many stories to be told in the newly independent India. While the medium of cinema was primarily being used to tell happy-go-lucky stories as a means of escapism, few chose to use it as a reflector of the ills of the society. Dutt was one of the latter.
Dutt was a visionary, often credited with making films way ahead of their times. The gloomy theme of his films maybe didn't sit well with the audience at the time. Not to say he didn't know what people wanted, having made films such as Baazi (1951) and Jal (1952), which became instant hits. However, he always had something more to say. He believed a little too much in the art of cinema, the art he was in love with and the art he had mastered.
Two of his greatest works, Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke phool (1959) were a product of Dutt's desire to say something more, something different. Both the films revolve around the tragedy of being an artist. They foreshadowed the fate of artistry and how commercialisation always triumphs over it, which stands true to this date.
In Pyaasa, he plays a struggling poet, desperately seeking validation of his art. The film tells how brave is the choice of being an artist. Defying the conventional notions of the society of what art should speak about, in Pyaasa, Dutt's Vijay pens down the tragedies of his life. Disowned by his family, repeatedly rejected as an artist by the society and betrayed by the love of his life, Vijay has little to be happy about. It is but natural that his art is reflective of his personal experiences. He uses his art to call out the double standards of the society, to give voice to the plight of prostitutes, to talk about his broken heart and to reject the corrupt society. While publishers refuse to publish his poetry because it isn't any sort of romanticism, after his reported death, the same work is published and loved by everyone. But Vijay refuses the newly found fame and credits of his work, something he strived for his whole life.
Kaagaz ke Phool is his another classic, where he plays Suresh, a troubled film director. With his familial life already in turmoil, he falls in love with an orphan woman and makes her a star. Here again, he plays an artist who trusts in his vision and works with integrity. He knows what he wants for his film and won't budge from his idea for anything. However, a couple of unsuccessful films lead to his downfall as he is forgotten by everyone over years.
Both the films are reflective of the tragedies of Dutt's own artistic journey. With these directorial ventures, Dutt wanted to draw the attention of people to a side of society that was barely seen on the big screen. He wanted to tell stories that someone's who isn't Dutt might not tell. However, both the films weren't well received at the box office, only to claim the status of cult classics over years. Today, when someone talks about the golden era of Indian cinema, the conversation cannot end without the mention of these two classics.
These films are testament to the unconventional and futuristic vision of Dutt as a filmmaker. While marriage was and still is considered as an endgame of a love story, these films flout this notion. In Kaagaz ke phool, Suresh's marriage is a failure and he falls in love with another women. In Pyaasa, Meena, his childhood love, who is married to someone else, still holds a hint of love and care for Vijay. In the same film, a prostitute is given the freedom to fall in love with the protagonist and eventually, her love pays off.
This brings me to another major element of Dutt's filmography which sets him apart, the dignified treatment of women in his films. In Pyaasa, Waheeda Rehman plays a prostitute named Gulaab. However, she is treated with utmost respect throughout the film. She has the freedom to fall in love and is outspoken and confident about what she wants. In Kaagaz ke Phool, Rehman's Shanti is an orphan and sets off to seek a job and make a living for herself. In the same film, there is a female vet who rocks a crop top and high waited pants to a horse race.
This theme follows well into another classic starring Dutt, Saheb Bibi or Ghulam (1962). There, Jaabha, played by Rehman, helps out her father with his business, writes poetry and seeks the man she loves. While Dutt maybe the protagonist of the film, Meena Kumari's Choti Bahu is its soul. The film again is a tale of tragedy, the tragedy of a wife who yearns for the love and attention of her husband, while he sets out to a courtesan to seek pleasure.
Although Choti Bahu is unbelievably beautiful, she comes from a humble family and only knows that the greatest happiness of her life is that with her husband. For that, she'd go to any lengths, even resolving to alcoholism. She finds a confidant in Bhootnath, played by Dutt. While many may assume both of them to build a romantic relationship, their bond remains purely platonic throughout the film. Meena Kumari's Choti Bahu isn't afraid to ask her husband to stay at home with her. She has a voice and makes sure to use it.
Not directed by Dutt, the film is made by his friend Abrar Alvi and surely carries influences of Dutt's filmmaking techniques and treatment.
All three of these films also attest the fact that Guru Dutt wasn't a big fan of happy endings. While in Pyaasa, he refuses to take credit of his work and sets off to somewhere afar, in Kaagaz ke phool, the director's chair, where he once rose him to success also ironically hosts his tragic death at the end. What is this if not pure art?
This story is a replug on the occasion of National Cinema Day.