In Guru Dutt's films, celebration of despondency underlines the need for a kinder world in times of crisis
In a world wrestling with the tyranny of a fatal virus, feelings of empathy, vulnerability, and despondency seem to be the need of the hour. Guru Dutt's films highlight the significance of these very emotions that are often discarded as detrimental to progress.
‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai’ — these haunting words written by Sahir Ludhianvi are embodied by Guru Dutt's character, Vijay, in the film Pyaasa (1957). The lines contest every inadequacy and glaring disparity in our world. Relentlessly despondent, reflective and angry, the camera lingers on Dutt’s exhausted face, and then the world he is surrounded by, underlining the critical reflection on what we’ve turned our world into, and what we even aspire to become powerful masters of. Sharply nuanced in the context of gender, the film is a pointed, yet poignant critique of a world that focuses on what we can gain from each other, than what we can do with or for each other.
As one watches, with horror, the plight of thousands of migrant workers reeling under a humanitarian crisis unleashed and being dealt with by an apathetic government, these words come to mind, as though written for this very moment in history. A crisis treats different sets of people differently, with privilege of class and security of funds insulating one section of society, while the largest sections are left to fend for themselves, struggling to survive. The latter are given a ‘choice’ of walking back to their homes, or dying in the process with nothing. For the poor, the understanding of a future lying in the shadows of a deeply unsettling present is bleak, as they crave for home, not knowing where their next meal will come from. Sapped of dignity, they are forced to stand in lines awaiting meals served by people who also realise that their acts of kindness might not really be enough. In this world, despondency is real, and shying away from its existence is to ignore reality in its frightful, looming form. And this is precisely what Guru Dutt’s cinema legitimised — the idea of despondency, and the profound nature of the emotion.
It is an emotion that is critical to be felt, accepted, and sometimes worked with, and at other times worked inspite of. The world has relentlessly fed and manufactured ‘happiness’ rampantly in society, social media, and popular culture. We've been constantly sold the idea and the need to be happy. Yet, while that could be a desire or a goal, the emotion isn’t constant, and somewhere through this journey we didn’t legitimise or even validate despondency as an emotion. To be sad, reflective, introspective; to often wonder if it is time to give up, are all real emotions worthy of acknowledgement. These are emotions that propel different kinds of actions that have long term impacts.
Guru Dutt’s films accepted this emotion with elan through myriad characters dealing with it differently. In Pyaasa, while Vijay is broken, exhausted, and chooses the life of anonymity over a life of fame in a world that he feels cheated by, Gulab (Waheeda Rehman), despite being oppressed and despondent herself, seeks and finds hope that makes her wish to continue with her journey. Both characters are justifiably despondent, and yet, both act very differently upon it.
Similarly, with Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) and Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt) in Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), — a masterpiece set in the world of crumbling studios — Suresh seems to be reflective, denouncing his talent in the face of unhappiness, and refusing to forsake his pride. However, Shanti battles on resolutely, despite nursing a broken heart with unrequited love for the man who changed her life. But her spirit is never broken.
Meena Kumari's Chhoti Bahu in the sublime Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) is devoured by pathos and longing for the man who married her (actor Rehman), as she watches him slip away, bit by bit, while Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) and Jaba (Waheeda Rehman) cling on as observers, finding ways to deal with their own losses in an altering, withering world, within and beyond.
One finds Guru Dutt’s defining works marked by stories that have inherent conflicts, with each such conflict underscoring the fact that human beings are not invincible. The stories foreground the dispensable nature of humans as flawed beings who are seeking ways to react to change beyond themselves. It is a critical argument buttressing acceptance in a world where an invisible virus has brought the greatest economic superpowers to their knees, revealing to us the vulnerabilities of capitalist systems. Kaagaz ke Phool is set at the cusp of large studios making way for newer methods of filmmaking, with the economics of the craft becoming more important than the art itself, in the days to come. In Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, the crumbling feudal structures are poignantly portrayed, while in Pyaasa, the world is shown to survive on the ‘balance’ struck between the oppressor and the oppressed. Each of these films has, at its centre, circumstances beyond the control of the characters, as they look for means to make peace with their world, and seek methods to survive or even exist in it. Many are reduced to abject penury, leaving them to scour for basics like food and water to tide them over through these periods of change. Characters also go through steep pits and troughs, which in turn makes them realise that time, circumstances, choices and actions change everything they believed was once permanent. The seeming invincibility of the human race stands challenged currently, and in each of Dutt’s films, we see these glaring examples that force us to accept the fragile nature of human existence.
Each character in these films is beautifully flawed and unapologetically inadequate, which is possibly what also makes them so deeply relatable, and somewhat empathetic. Each of the lead male characters, like Suresh, Vijay, Aslam — Dutt's character in Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960) — and Bhootnath are all empathetic men who feel intensely and are sensitive, showing themselves as vulnerable. They do not hide their own inadequacies. Suresh in Kaagaz ke Phool admits that his pride is more important to him than his success, thereby choosing a life of penury, while also refusing the unmatched love and devotion of a woman he loves. And yet, rather paradoxically, he acknowledges her love and values it, thereby showing that he is capable of deep empathy and grace. At the same time, he also accepts his own shortcomings, pointing to his failure of being unable to step out of the circumstances he finds himself in.
Similarly, Pyaasa's Vijay is visibly fatigued. His words provide catharsis for the constant pain inflicted on him by power born of money through brothers who earn; through a lover who chooses comfort over love; through a man who steals his poems and establishes him as dead, even though he is alive. Unable to even fend a meal for themselves sometimes, Guru Dutt’s protagonists accepted their imperfections and made themselves compassionate.
On the other hand, the women in his films — like Chhoti Bahu and Jaba in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Shanti in Kaagaz ke Phool, and Gulab in Pyaasa — are the ones fighting relentlessly. They are strong, and always looking for ways to survive in a world bent on rendering them inadequate in every way. Take the scene in Kaagaz ke Phool, where Gulab, despite being thrown out of the car unceremoniously by a seth, stands up to him and demands the money that he owes her. The scene reveals her vulnerability and resilience at the same time, as she insists on being paid her due.
Desire and the idea of it belongs to both genders, as is captured by Meena Kumari's Chhoti Bahu — the ultimate seductress with her alcohol-laced voice — and Gulab's reaction to the song ‘Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo’. Guru Dutt’s films saw every protagonist function beyond the gendered roles one would expect them to perform, with characters blossoming in their inadequacies, vulnerabilities, and eccentricities.
In today's world, where it is more important than ever to embrace one’s vulnerabilities, shortcomings, and despondency, Guru Dutt's films hold a mirror to real emotions. And through each of these realisations and emotions, one reaches the conclusion that none of these make us weak. In fact, they render us more humane — the sole quality that can, perhaps, save the world at this moment.
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