Time Capsule: How critical and commercial success of 'Pyaasa' made Guru Dutt a force to reckon with

Released in February 1957, the film also marked the beginning of a mental health struggle and tumultuous personal life behind the screens

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 9:23 PM

Much has been written about Guru Dutt’s remarkable film Pyaasa (1957), but as a biographer of Guru Dutt, what startled me was that the legendary filmmaker-actor, while creating timeless masterpieces like Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool and Sahib, Bibi our Ghulam, was simultaneously trying to end his life till he succeeded at the age of 39. This disturbing turn of events was narrated to me by the eminent artist and Guru Dutt’s younger sister Lalitha Lajmi, who passed away this week. She’d strongly believed it began with his most celebrated movie Pyaasa.Pyaasa was a personal story inspired by Guru Dutt’s early days in Bombay, when a 22-year-old Guru was struggling to make ends meet. This was also the time when he had realised how difficult it was for a cre-ative man to survive or to make a place in the cut-throat culture of the film industry. He went door to door of many film producers, but couldn’t get work for almost a year. In that frame of mind, he wrote the story about the frustrations and anguish of an artist and called it ‘Kashmakash’. The same story became Pyaasa 10 years later with some crucial changes in the plot.

As a film director, Guru Dutt’s debut Baazi (1951) had brought him instant success. It was followed by two light-hearted hit films Aar Paar (1954) and Mr & Mrs 55 (1955). In his personal life, he fell in love with Geeta Roy, the star playback singer and married her. In a quick meteoric rise, the couple acquired a beautiful bungalow in posh Pali Hill in Bombay. He then began work on his dream project ­— Pyaasa.

By all accounts, these were the most blissful years of his life. But when Pyaasa was nearing completion, a piece of news came that suggested Guru Dutt had attempted suicide. It was the year 1956 when the 31-year-old filmmaker had swallowed a copious amount of opium.

People close to Guru Dutt could never really know if the attempt to end his life during Pyaasa was due to skirmishes in his personal life, mood disorder, or just poor impulse control. Lalitha remembered, “When the news came, we were stunned. I remember his body had turned cold and his vision had blurred. He kept repeating, ‘I’m becoming blind, I can’t see.’ We took him to the hospital. He was saved.” She told me Guru Dutt never really communicated his inner turmoil.

With scarce conversations around a socially stigmatised topic and big money riding on the magnum opus Pyaasa, perhaps Guru Dutt found little time to address what was happening to him. He did not seek professional help after he was discharged from the hospital. The commercial and critical success of Pyaasa catapulted Guru Dutt into stardom. But people close to him said he was at an emotional low during the making of the film due to his deteriorating relationship with wife Geeta and reports of his association with lead actress Waheeda Rehman.

His state of mind was never the same after Pyaasa. The rejection of the world and life itself was a prominent theme of the film. Beginning from Pyaasa, it was as if the characters of his stories and real life merged into one. His next film was the brooding, semi-autobiographical Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). It mirrors Guru Dutt’s own story, his unhappy marriage with his wife and his confused relationship with his muse. It also eerily ends with the death of the filmmaker after failing to come to terms with his acute loneliness and doomed relationships.

Kaagaz Ke Phool, now considered a classic, was an absolute disaster when it was released. It broke his heart and confidence so much that he never officially directed a film after Kaagaz Ke Phool. Sleep evaded Guru Dutt. He was shelving films regularly after shooting major portions. He constantly used to tell his friends and associates: “I think I will go crazy.” The celebrated cinematographer V.K. Murthy recalled a heartbreaking conversation with Guru Dutt after the dismal performance of Kaagaz Ke Phool. “While scouting for locations in Baroda for Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), he narrated me a line from Pyaasa: ‘Agar yeh duniya mujhe mil bhi jaye to kya hai’ (So what if I conquer the world!). I asked him why he said that suddenly. “Mujhe waise hi lag raha hai. Dekho na, mujhe director banna tha, director ban gaya; actor banna tha, actor ban gaya; picture achcha banana tha, achche bane. Paisa hai, sab kuch hai, par kuch bhi nahi raha’” (“I am thinking, I wanted to become a director, I became one. I wanted to become an actor, I became one. I wanted to make good films, I made them. I have money, I have everything, but there’s nothing”).

Though Guru Dutt’s next Chaudhvin Ka Chand became the biggest hit of his life, the emotional turbulence remained. Lalitha Lajmi recalled, “Though Chaudhvin Ka Chand was a big success, Guru Dutt’s personal life was really disturbed and it seemed he was going through full blown depression by then.”

Almost a year after the release of Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, which went on to receive the President’s medal, Guru Dutt swallowed 38 sleeping pills one night. His second attempt at suicide. He was saved again.

Lalitha Lajmi said Guru Dutt never spoke about why he tried to end his life. “Sometimes he used to call me. 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.”

Guru Dutt had fame, wealth, stardom — things most people crave for. Then why did he seem so dissatisfied with life? “I am not dissatisfied with life, I am dissatisfied with myself,” Guru Dutt had once told his friend, writer Bimal Mitra.

A beautiful verse by lyricist Sahir appears in Pyaasa, which describes the poet’s frustration, perhaps also applied to Guru Dutt’s state of mind. It was as if his soul was bared:

Tang aa chuke hain kashmakash-e-zindagi se hum (I am weary of this troubled life, weary of this troubled existence)

Thukra na dein jahaan ko kahin bedili se hum (In my grief, may I not reject the entire world).

Guru Dutt’s final rejection came soon. On October 10, 1964, he was found dead in his room.

Lalitha Lajmi believed he internalised the serious characters of his dark films. “Initially, when he was making happy, romantic films, he was a happy man. But starting from Pyaasa, the serious films he made started affecting him badly. He kept to himself and became very lonely.”

Could there have been more to it? Lalitha Lajmi deeply regretted that there wasn’t much awareness on mental health back then. “I was much younger than him and in those days, no one really talked about such things. In 1963, as suggested by his doctor, we also called a psychiatrist but he charged INR 500 for a visit. My brother Atmaram laughed that he was ‘just talking’ with Guru and he is so expensive. We never called the psychiatrist again,” she said regretfully. She often blamed herself for not doing enough for her brother who may have been silently crying for help.

After 65 years, Pyaasa, which literally means ‘the thirsty’, remains Guru Dutt’s most celebrated masterpiece. A classic that also set him off on a path of unquenchable creative perfection — eventually derailing every other dream he held close.

Usman is an author and film commentator based in London


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