Before there was Bollywood, there was Indian cinema, and at last, one of the major auteurs of its golden age, actor/producer/director Guru Dutt, is receiving an overdue retro in these parts in the New York Film Festival’s “Masterworks” sidebar. Dutt’s best films are unrivaled, not only for the fluidity of their musical sequences—he was the first Indian helmer to integrate song numbers within the narrative—but for the darkness they portrayed in a traditionally cliche-ridden escapist industry.
As a teen, Gutt studied with famed dancer Uday Shankar, then entered films in 1944 as a choreographer, but was soon acting, and went on to play leading roles in all of his later pictures. In Dutt’s most intriguing early feature Baaz (1953), set in the 16th century, he stars as a Malabar prince. But the film is dominated by voluptuous Geeta Bali as a pirate queen who leads a revolt against Portuguese colonialists. It may be surprising to come across an actress in such a strong role in an Indian action movie of the 1950s, but one of Dutt’s trademarks is the prominence and complexity of his extraordinary female figures.
Dutt followed Baaz with a duo of hit movies, the cheeky crime story Aar-Paar (1954) and Mr. and Mrs. ’55 (1955), a satirical comedy dealing with social problems. With the latter, Dutt created a space of his own, on the fence between art house and popular cinema.
His last two directed pictures, which are darker—Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)—both deal with artists and problems of creativity. The wondrous Pyaasa, his masterpiece, is an exploration of the tragic idiom, unprecedented in Hindi cinema. A bleak view of materialistic post-Partition India, it concerns a homeless poet, suffering from his lover’s betrayal and living on the streets of Calcutta—with his only friend being a young prostitute. The great S.D. Burman songs from the movie are still popular today.
The semi-autobiographical Kaagaz Ke Phool, India’s first movie in CinemaScope, traces the dissolution of a film director—Dutt plays the doomed hero—whose public deserts him as commercialism replaces creativity, and ends with him drinking himself to death. Dutt’s loving depiction of filmmaking takes us behind the scenes with visually stunning chiaroscuro imagery of the huge, dusty sound stages where the director lives and dies. In retrospect, it now seems as if in this movie, Dutt was rehearsing his own demise. It proved too morose for audiences, and became the first commercial failure of his career. The cold response left deep scars at a time when Dutt’s own personal life was a shambles—he continued to act in films, but never took another director credit and killed himself in 1964 at the age of 39.