There is a conflicting quality about biographies of film personalities. On the one hand they are artists, and you want to see how their art came from their life and flowed right back into it. There are biographies like Satyarth Nayak's Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess which seem to only fixate on this. On the other hand you want to press up against the keyhole of their Pali Hill bungalow or be a fly on the wall to play witness to some of the most mythological, dramatic, and tragic personal altercations and moments. Biographies like Vinod Mehta's Meena Kumari take this a bit too far, for this curiosity can often veer into voyeurism, and we have seen this human tendency front-and-center, with the race to publish images of Sushant Singh Rajput's dead body. It is grotesque, disrespectful of the dead, but it is also deeply human.
Also Read: Posterphilia: Guru Dutt In Posters
Yasser Usman's Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story, published by Simon & Schuster, belongs somewhere in the middle. The towering filmmaker and actor, born Gurudutt Padukone in 1925, is often known as a tragedian. This is because of the films which have endured time: Pyaasa (1957), a colossal success in its time, featured in TIME Magazine's All-Time 100 in 2005, and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), a colossal failure in its time — which, like most tragic films, have greater currency in the future.
On the other hand, his earlier spy-noir or romantic-comedies like Aar Paar (1954) and Mr & Mrs 55 (1955) haven't made that jump quite as effectively. But there is, I think, another reason for this. Dutt died by suicide. Suicide is one of those things we unfortunately imagine as a destination, and so we immediately start looking for the bread crumb trail that his films left. (So you get chapter titles like, "Beginning of the End".) Surely, his fun films cannot do that quite as sensationally. Dutt's inclusion of the teetotaling Johnny Walker aka Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi, once a bus conductor, and the comic-interlude song genre becomes a mere footnote in our image of the tragic icon. ('Sar Jo Tera Chakraye' from Pyaasa, 'Aye Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahan' from C.I.D., and the lovely 'Jaane Kahan Mera Jigar Gaya Ji' from Mr. & Mrs. 55)
The biography begins with the moment of Dutt's sharp, last descent into death. In Berlin, during the 1963 screening of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), he is miffed by both his audience who don't seem to react to the melodrama and Waheeda Rehman, an alleged lover. In her conversation with Nasreen Muni Kabir, she notes that Berlin was perhaps the last time she saw him. Back in Bombay his frayed marriage with the iconic singer Geeta Dutt, suspicious and superstitious, was at its snapping point. The house they built together, with Italian blue marble, was destroyed because Geeta Dutt insisted it was unlucky for them, and they had to move out. On 10 October 1964 he died by suicide, crushed sleeping pills in water. He was 39 years old.
One might ask what the point of such a biography is, when there are already a dime a dozen — My Son Gurudutt (1979) by Vasanthi Padukone, Dutt's mother, Ten Years With Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi's Journey (2011) by Sathya Saran about the writer-director duo, Guru Dutt: A Life In Cinema (1996) and Yours Guru Dutt: Intimate Letters of a Great Indian Filmmaker (2006), both by Nasreen Munni Kabir, and the documentary In Search Of Guru Dutt (1989). What they lack, perhaps, is the quick-pace telling of a life that was lived in its own pace, and the post-2020 intrigue in suicide.
Yasser Usman's task is first to be a compiler and editor of such information. He interspersed this with an interview with Guru Dutt's sister, the artist Lalitha Lajmi, who is oddly, based on the endnotes, the only person Usman interviewed for this book, whom it is also dedicated to. Whether this is shoddy primary research or abundant secondary sources, is up for debate.
What Usman does, very cleverly, is have alternating chapters of the book titled "Destruction of a dream", "Construction of a dream", "Destruction of a dream"… This means he can shun the linear narrative, and start with the most "exciting" moments, like his shooting of Pyaasa, his deep despair, ("Destruction Of A Dream") and merely provide supporting paragraphs where his entire childhood is laid out ("Construction Of A Dream"). This is unlike Karishma Upadhyay's Parveen Babi: A Life (2020) that had Upadhyay's journalistic rigour uncover Babi's early life in Junagarh, and then Ahmedabad before joining the film industry, with over a hundred interviews.
Usman, known for bringing a pacy-thriller like edge to film biographies like his predictably named Rekha: The Untold Story, Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story Of Bollywood's Bad Boy, Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India's First Superstar, brings that same sensibility here. The chapters are short, and quick, and you can burn through the book easily over a night. The short chapters also means that the focus keeps shifting. It's very contained, brief, but in its briefness it betrays the spirit of a good biographer — to make the reader feel. Its antiseptic narration evokes the same kind of intrigue a spicy Wikipedia entry under "Personal Life" does.
But more than anything one notices Usman's lack of interest in the world of Guru Dutt. He is only interested in Dutt's work and Dutt's life, and any character in cinema vis-a-vis Dutt. He doesn't humanize the "tacky indoor sets" and "weak scripts", seeing them as the debris from which Guru Dutt rose, an exception and not a product of his times. I get this impulse in someone writing a commercial biography, and this is that. It's by no means a tome. But by choosing a commercial biography format — which is a lot of tell-don't-show, as opposed to the writer's famous adage show-don't-tell — something is left in the lurch.
Show-don't-tell is not just an aesthetic consideration, it gives the humans in the book the space to be slippery, and evasive, lending them the quality of living. Instead here, since we don't have Guru Dutt to speak for himself, and Geeta Dutt to speak for herself, we get flat, determined characters. Guru Dutt is "explained", and Geeta Dutt is shrill. His love for shadows in his movies is tied very neatly to his love for shadow puppetry as a child. His love for Baul as a child is again tied very neatly to the devotional interludes in his movies like Pyaasa. His love for Bengal, the city he grew up in, figures in his films, but the way Usman writes it, they feel like self-referential nods. I understand this makes Guru Dutt easier to grasp, and his story more contained in telling than it was in living. But at what cost?
It is Waheeda Rehman who comes across as this fully realized character, and only because she is spoken of with such uncertainty, lending the Guru Dutt shadow on her life. It's almost unbelievable how she retains her name, refusing to give in, at a time when most actors and actresses took up alternative Hindu-sounding names. How she asks Guru Dutt to cut out her own solo song from Pyaasa, annoying the composer SD Burman, and shocking her female co-star Mala Sinha. She was adamant that the song took away from the film. Dutt acquiesced. She is fiery, and stubborn, yielding, and wide-eyed. Her refusal to wear the dress made by Bhanu Athaiya for her seduction song in C.I.D., (she wears a dupatta over her costume in 'Kahin Pe Nigahen Kahin Pe Nishana') so early in her career, insisting in her contract that the final say on clothes belongs to her, is remarkable. She brings a sort of peace to Dutt's restless, mercurial personality, and her detached yet fully human response to Dutt's death cements this, "I know that he wished for it, longed for it… and he got it." (Dutt had attempted suicide before as well.)
It cannot be that one dismisses a book merely because it is too commercial. Dutt himself loved the applause, and craved it even. He fought with the Marxist writer and actor Balraj Sahni to make Baazi (1951) a commercial flick. He understands the grammar of it, and appreciates it. In so writing his life, Usman pays his ode. But I also think of the exhausted, expensive film reels, the 140 takes to get Pyaasa's climax correct, the unfinished films he lost money and time on, placing the romance of Mir and Momin with the angst of Faiz and Josh, and I wonder if this ode does the life justice.