There’s a shot in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) that is practically imprinted upon every Indian cinephile’s memory, irrespective of whether or not they’ve watched the last film that Guru Dutt directed. It’s part of the picturisation of the song “Waqt Ne Kiya” and shows a shaft of light cutting through the shadowy darkness of a film set. Two figures stand on either side of the light, phantom-like, while the paraphernalia of a vintage film studio is all around them. The moment is richly cinematic and uses the ambient moodiness of monochrome to make the viewer feel for the star-crossed lovers in the song. 63 years later, that moment in a film studio with that shaft of light would be recreated as a homage in Chup: The Revenge of the Artist (2022), which tries to weave in a tribute to the legendary film director into a murder mystery. Leaving aside how well Chup works as a film, it’s a testimony to the lasting charisma of Guru Dutt and his beloved Kaagaz Ke Phool.
Actor, director and producer, Dutt directed only eight films in his career, beginning with Baazi (1951), which was also when he met playback singer Geeta Dutt (whom he would later marry). Some of his films — Aar Paar (1954), Mr. & Mrs. '55 (1955), C.I.D. (1956), Sailaab (1956) and Pyaasa (1957) — were blockbuster hits. Dutt played the lead role in three of these films. He quickly established himself as a director who told complex narratives with a stylish touch, and (thanks to cinematographer V.K. Murthy) used light and shade ingeniously. Then came Kaagaz Ke Phool.
Dutt had maintained that Kaagaz Ke Phool was dedicated to his mentor, Gyan Mukherjee, who retired in obscurity after delivering hits like Jhoola (1941) and Kismet (1943) early in his career. The parallels between his own life and the successes enjoyed by Kaagaz Ke Phool’s protagonist, Suresh Sinha, who is a film director (Dutt cast himself in the role). The movie follows his fall from grace, beginning with the divorced director losing custody of his daughter, a turbulent break-up with his partner and the tragic relationship with his protege, an actor named Shanti (played by an incandescent Waheeda Rehman). Ultimately, Suresh tumbles into alcoholism and Kaagaz Ke Phool ended with the erstwhile director spending his final moments in the same film studio where he had once ruled the roost, and where now he’s dismissed as a homeless beggar. Dutt was far from being forgotten when he made the film, but his marriage with Geeta had collapsed (the two were separated) and he had an alcohol dependency problem. His closeness with Rehman — no one filmed her quite as poetically as Dutt did and Rehman was regularly cast in Dutt’s films — had led to scandalous rumours.
At a time when films were primarily exercises in escapism, the allusions to Dutt’s own life in Kaagaz Ke Phool can perhaps be seen as an act of courage and vulnerability. Perhaps it was cathartic for the director to attempt a retracing of his steps and make sense of the turbulence in his life. Ultimately, Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) ended up as a foreshadowing of sorts. It crashed at the box office, which left Dutt heartbroken; friends say he never recovered from that shock. In Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey, Alvi, who wrote the screenplay and dialogues of Kaagaz Ke Phool, attributed the failure to the disconnect that audiences felt because Suresh’s trauma was perceived as an experience of the privileged. One critic described it at the time as “a dismal, incoherent, funeral-paced picture”. Financially speaking, Dutt lost approximately Rs. 17 crore, a fortune at the time. “He was disappointed, but he also instinctively knew somewhere that yeh film itni badi bani hai, shaayad nahin chalegi (the film is too expensive to be successful) -- he was very philosophical about it all. He used to say, “Life mein, yaar, kya hai? Do hi toh cheezen hai - kamyaabi aur failure (There are two things in life - success and failure). There is nothing in between,” said Rehman.
In Kaagaz Ke Phool, Rehman plays an actress who becomes a married man’s love interest, which must have raised the eyebrows of rumourmongers. We may not know for certain what their relationship was like, but it’s evident that Rehman was the protagonist in Dutt’s real and reel life. The filmmaker cast Rehman in roles that were challenging and broke the mould of the conventional heroine, trusting her to win over audiences with her performance. Dutt filmed her with a warmth that left little space for slander, which is obvious in Kaagaz Ke Phool. No one would watch Shanti — it’s almost as though he named her “peace” to show what she brings to Suresh’s life — and think "home breaker" or “the other woman”. “Guru Dutt’s speculated relationship with Waheeda has become a sort of a myth today. She’s been unnecessarily blamed for his disturbed marriage. Maybe, Guru Dutt saw a muse in Waheeda. Love is a difficult emotion to define,” said Lajmi.
In a poignant twist, the song that sums up Suresh and Shanti’s relationship is sung by Geeta Dutt, who was separated from her filmmaker husband at the time. Dutt and Geeta had married for love, but their relationship was turbulent, with Dutt demanding Geeta make sacrifices in her career. Author and music critic Raju Bharatan, who had spoken to the singer, recalled, “She [Geeta] said she had made a few things clear to one and all even before her marriage. She had emphasised how her work would entail late hours almost daily. All the more so as she took on songs in not-so-high-grade movies. Such songs got recorded only in cheaper second shifts (3.00 to 9.00 pm with the rare evening possibility of one-hour overtime). At one stage it was even suggested that with growing kids to look after, Geeta should be singing only in Guru Dutt movies.” If Geeta resented being the voice for Rehman, you can’t tell from “Waqt Ne Kiya”, but you can certainly hear the heartbreak that fills every note of that melody.
In 1960, Dutt produced and starred in Chaudhvin Ka Chand, which more than compensated for the losses incurred from Kaagaz Ke Phool. The film’s title track, “Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho”, was reshot in Technicolour and is the only time Dutt can be seen in hues beyond the monochrome. “While reshooting the song in colour, they used hard, huge lights directly on my face, and my skin burnt; we had to shoot constantly with ice-packs being applied, and my eyes were red from all the heat. Later, we heard from the Censor Board that the song is very 'hot!' and lascivious, which shocked Guru Dutt. He argued it was the same shot, the same movements from last time, only shot in colour! They replied that Waheeda's eyes have turned red. He was bewildered, and said yes, but that happens while shooting, but what does it have to do with anything? They told him that it was very sensual and suggestive! He came back and had a big laugh about it, “yeh Censor waale!”” recalled Rehman. Chaudhvin Ka Chand was directed by Mohammed Sadiq. Dutt was criticised by his colleagues for letting him direct as Sadiq’s last few films had flopped. But according to Dutt, “Being from a Muslim background, Sadiq might better know the delicate nuances I might be unaware of. The film has to be made without compromise, that is the main thing. And what of flops? Meri Kaagaz ke Phool bhi to flop hui thi. (Kaagaz Ke Phool had flopped too!).”
If all the world’s really a stage, then Dutt’s life was richly cinematic in itself, which is perhaps why he mined it for Kaagaz Ke Phool. However, he also seems to use the film to articulate imagined anxieties. At one point, we witness an older and dejected Suresh as he is being pursued by Shanti, who is now more successful than the director. A swarm of fans arrive and widen the gap between them. It harks back to one of the first scenes of the film, when Suresh was surrounded by a crowd of eager fans. In the present, no one notices him and the public’s gaze is entirely upon Shanti. Until the moment when the crowd arrives as an intervention, Suresh runs from Shanti as if he’s seeing in her love for him a reflection of the expectations that he and the world once had of him. When she can’t follow him, it’s almost as though he’s seeing himself differently. He doesn’t see himself the way she does — it’s evident that she still loves him despite the reversals of fortune — but as a man who is characterised by defeat.
There are conflicting reports of Dutt’s last days. Some friends say that he was starting to refocus on work. Others think he may have been secretly spiralling. What we do know for certain, however, is that Dutt will not be forgotten like Suresh, and neither will he be remembered for his failures. Rather, it’s the triumph of artistry and its ability to add meaning to misfortune that remains Dutt’s most compelling legacy.