Born Vasanth Kumar Shivshankar Padukone to Vasanthi Padukone on July 9th 1925, Guru Dutt was born to be a hero and in his case a tragic hero. Fame is something that everyone in the entertainment industry works toward. Dutt received criticism all through his short life in spite of having some career highs that happened in his life time. But the cult stature and the fame he got was posthumous.
Curtains billowing in the breeze, papers flying in the air like the last flutter of autumn leaves, and a friendless figure moving cautiously light and shade are common to Dutt’s films. These frames continue to stir a multitudinous number of people for whom Dutt’s art remains a vital calling force more than six decades after his death.
The darkness, disenchantment, disillusionment and pessimism of the great depression and the world war leading up to it was very much a part of the American psyche and this eventually got reflected in the films of the time. The style of film making characterized by cynical heroes, high contrast low key lighting, strong shadows, frequent use of flashbacks, intricate plots and an existentialist philosophy is what we today call as Film Noir.
Hitherto unknown to the Indian audience, Guru Dutt introduced them to Film Noir. Hamartia has been explored in different forms of art but seldom in Hindi movies of the time. Dutt started experimenting with the concept of tragic flaw leading to downfall of the tragic hero. In “Kagaz Ke Phool” Suresh Sinha’s downfall is accelerated by his addiction of alcohol. Choti Bahu of “Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam” too suffers from the same fate. Accepting a flawed character as the central figure of the movie was not the norm back then but Dutt skillfully juxtaposed the flaw with sensitivity that was of high standards in an innately immoral and hypocritical society. Thus, in “Pyasa”, “Vijay” and “Gulabo” both outsiders to the so-called society can find happiness only with each other. In “Baazi” Madan needs a bit of coaxing and crisis to go down the roads of immorality which was gambling in this case but chance retrieves him from this misfortune and his end is not as tragic as “Choti Bahu” or “Suresh Sinha”. Though the endings have different treatment, Guru Dutt was anything but unconventional in his direction of the movies.
“Pyasa” recalles the story of a young sensitive poet who denounces the romantic conventionality in this poems and writes of social problems like unemployment and poverty. Thus, he is not taken seriously by the publishers. The film starts with Vijay seeking respite in Nature. Close shots of happy nature is captured one does understand an air or looming gravity hanging in the atmosphere when a faceless man stamps a butterfly. The shot is metaphoric in the sense that in the end Vijay too suffers from the same fate as the butterfly. Vijay finds himself in the midst of a stampede by many faceless people. Another shot which deserves its mention here is Dutt’s iconic Christ like pose just before the stampede. Just like Christ’s resurrection we find Vijay is resurrected from his metaphorical death only to turn his back on society forever. The hard point source lighting in the shot is a classic symbol of Film Noir. Many individual shots in the film cut across their narrative purpose and become an expression of Dutt’s lyricism. One such scene is when Vijay tells Meena how he will never find peace in this world and is going far away.
“Sahib, Bibi, Aur Gulam” starts with a middle aged architect finding his way through a dilapidated old Zamindar Haveli. He hears an uncanny voice which has a strange enchantment about it and it brings back in flashback all the memories he had of this haveli in its pristine form- the grandeur and the luxury of the aristocracy. Through Boothnath’s eyes we see what transpired between that time and the present time. The flashback of the story revolves around “Choti Bahu” who is seen to denounce the norms of aristocratic society with the singular goal of getting the love and affection of her husband— after all the life goal of a married woman lies in serving her husband. For Bhoothnath, “Choti Bahu” is an ethereal beauty and is always beyond his reach in whom he sees both beauty and death. The eerie atmosphere of the opening scene is reinforced when “Choti Bahu” is first introduced within the narrative. She is seen as a shadowy figure haunting the rooms and balconies of the haveli singing her sad, melancholic song of longing. Her silhouetted figure emerges in the distance as Bhoothnath is wakened up from his sleep by her songs of lament and longing. The entire sequence of Choti Bahu’s introduction is seen from Bhoothnath’s frame of reference. Bhoothnath is still afraid of looking at her and hence his eyes are lowered- the camera follows his eye angle and we see the vermilion ordained and nicely decored feet of Choti Bahu walking across the room. Choti Bahu is still off-screen and we can only here her commanding Bhoothnath to be seated. Finally, when he does look up, the camera tracks in dramatically and holds on a close up of Choti Bahu. Her powerful and cataclysmic aura startles Boothnath.
Another classic lighting effect in the movie is in the song “Saakiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahi Aayegi”. While the background dancers are always seen in shadow as they dance and sing in chorus. The editing of this song matches the fast energetic rhythm of the song. Brightly lit shots of twinkling and twirling clothes are juxtaposed with the silhouetted figures moving among the pillars of the grand music room of the haveli.
The film faced criticism during its run but the cinematography itself functions as another narrative thread: the molding of light and shadow, the flow between static and tracking shots and the dramatic use of medium and long shots in many of the films scenes evoke as much emotion as dialogue or music.
The scene where there is an untold acceptance of love between Suresh Sinha and Shanti, we see the lighting changes from lighted face and dark background to dark silhouetted face and lighted background.
The strong sharp shadows add to the depressive mood of the narrative. In a sequence when Suresh has lost the custody battle of his daughter and even his love interest Shanti has left him and the world of movies at the request of his daughter- he is devastated. He returns home from a court battle lost and wounded. He is slowly sliding down in depression and this imagery has been aptly portrayed in the scene with strong shadows and high contrast lighting. The light and shadow effect in his room is symbolic of his then mentality and from there it’s a straight downhill.
The recently released movie “Chup”(2022) directed by R. Balakrishnan’s is an ode to Guru Dutt. Even the final frame of the movie is a fine tribute to the celebrated actor-filmmaker.
Article by Amrita Ghosh