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‘Guru Dutt was an immensely poor communicator in real life’

Award-winning journalist-writer Yasser Usman’s new book Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story delves into the enigma of the brilliant-yet-troubled filmmaker who ultimately took his own life at 39, cutting short a life with endless possibilities


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 11 Mar 2021, 4:16 PM

Neil Diamond’s song Done Too Soon, where he names those (Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice, Mozart, Albert Camus, among others) who “having sweated beneath the same sun, having looked up in wonder at the same moon, and having wept when it was all done... for being done too soon” doesn’t have Guru Dutt in the line-up.

He would have been an apt fit. I’ve always wondered what would have become of Guru Dutt had he lived a full life. Would he have, for instance, become the best-known filmmaker from the region? Would he have won an Oscar? Would he have been the toast of Cannes?

Indian television journalist Yasser Usman, while bagging the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award and three News Television awards, has also chronicled the ‘untold’ stories of Bollywood stars Rajesh Khanna, Rekha and Sanjay Dutt. His fourth biography, Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story, published by Simon & Schuster, was released recently. Guru Dutt’s death — in 1964 — seemed too abrupt even after all these decades, says Yasser. “As if there was no closure. His sister Lalitha Lajmi said during one of our conversations that his story remained unfinished. Had he lived longer, he must have made more brilliant films. Indian cinema’s history would have been different.”

I had asked Yasser to state “three things we probably don’t know about Guru Dutt”. He gave me: “He was a voracious reader, could read English, Hindi, Kannada, Bangla and had a collection of hundreds of books in these languages”, and that “he was a phenomenal dancer”. But what smacked me in my face was the revelation that Guru Dutt “had a very poor eyesight and while acting couldn’t even locate the camera without his thick glasses”. In other words, “the films where you could see him acting intensely through his eyes, remember, he couldn’t really see clearly”. Excerpts from an interview with Yasser:

On why he chose to write about Guru Dutt: was there a trigger... And how is he and his craft relevant today?

It was 2004-05 in Delhi when I watched most of Guru Dutt’s films on ‘big screen’, during one of his retrospectives. I was immensely fascinated. But when I read most accounts on him, I realised everyone is talking about how intensely personal his cinema was. He was mirroring his own life in his films. There was an odd line saying he was disturbed. But no one explained why. What ultimately consumed the genius filmmaker? This story was missing. No one really talked about what he went through while making these classics. Why was he repeatedly trying to end his life? Was he suffering from some mental issues? Was it due to his turbulent personal life or was it because a relationship went wrong? Was he heartbroken after the dismal failure of his magnum opus Kaagaz Ke Phool? Why did he attempt suicide multiple times? I wanted to tell this story that ran parallel to the making of his classics.

His cinema is still relevant because of the emotional connect of his stories. Emotions never grow old.

Also, a crucial aspect of Guru Dutt is that he achieved a spectacular balance between commercial success without ever compromising on artistic satisfaction. Look at Pyaasa — the philosophical ‘Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye, the searing ‘Jinhe naaz hai hind par’ coexist with peppy chartbuster ‘Sar jo tera chakraaye’. But while he was creating these classics on celluloid, he was going through hell in his personal life. This aspect intrigued me the most.

On what struck him most about Guru Dutt while doing research for the book.

That there is not even one interview of Guru Dutt in public domain. Yes, that’s the fact. It was as if he did not exist. As if he was making these masterpieces in isolation and no one from the media was interested in talking about Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool or Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam with him. It sounds strange but shocking.

In all accounts, Guru Dutt’s persona is constructed through the memories of people close to him.

On the fact that Guru Dutt attained way more fame after his death than while he was alive — a throwback to Vijay’s (the lead in Pyaasa) metaphorical death and how he attains fame after a life of trying to be “heard”.

Truly metaphorical. Also because all his films were mirroring what was happening in his life. He borrowed immensely from his personal life. You will be shocked to know that there was little media coverage of him when he was alive. The fame really happened almost two decades after his death.

On the dichotomy Guru Dutt espoused: a meticulous director, a passionate actor — yet a personal life that went haywire.

During my research for the book, various accounts of Guru Dutt’s colleagues, close friends and his family members suggested that despite being at the peak of his success, his constant refrain used to be, “Mujhe lagta hai mai paagal ho jaoonga [I think I’ll go crazy!].” He finally died at 39, a death similar to what he predicted in his quasi-autobiographical Kaagaz Ke Phool.

Talking about Guru Dutt’s turmoil, his sister Lalitha Lajmi told me Guru Dutt never talked about the reason why he tried to end his life so many times, “Sometimes he used to call me, and I would rush to him even in the middle of the night. But he would sit quietly, not say anything. I felt he wanted to say something. But he never did. Never.”

She still regrets there wasn’t much awareness on mental issues in those times, “In those days, no one really talked about such things. We called a psychiatrist but he charged Rs 500 per visit. My brother Atma laughed that he was ‘just talking’ with Guru and was so expensive. We never called him again.” It moved me that she was honest enough to admit that sometimes she blames herself for not doing enough for her brother who she thinks was silently crying for help.

For someone who communicated human emotions so brilliantly onscreen, Guru remained an immensely poor communicator in real life. His inner turmoil ultimately consumed him.

On Guru Dutt, reportedly, sharing a complex relationship with his wife Geeta Dutt: they couldn’t live with each other, yet they loved each other deeply.

I call Geeta Dutt the trump card of Guru Dutt’s cinema. Without her contribution, the films would not have been what they became. She was the star when they got married while he was a struggling filmmaker. This equation changed. Also, Guru Dutt did not want her to continue singing outside his film company. It was a major flashpoint, and harmed their relationship a lot. Then, [because of] his association with Waheeda Rehman, there were constant fights with Geeta. But when Guru Dutt came out of coma after his second suicide attempt, all he asked for was Geeta. She remained the love of his life.

On his relationship with Waheeda Rehman. What role did she actually play in his life?

Waheeda was his muse and the lead actress of all his classic films. They inspired each other. Guru Dutt’s sister told me that they were very close while they were working together. Guru’s mother thought she would be the ideal partner for Guru Dutt. But what transpired was tragic. It’s a complicated story and there’s a lot about it in the book.

On Guru Dutt’s biggest contribution to Indian cinema.

His films, his characters, his emotions were truly rooted in Indian culture and society. He borrowed some finer aspects of Hollywood and European cinema but moulded them in an Indian scenario. Also, he did everything in the mainstream format. He was very particular about the fact that his art should reach the masses. He really cared about commercial success. His films are technically brilliant and do not seem dated even now.


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