Born in Bangalore, brought up in Calcutta, achieving the peaks of success in Bombay, the tragically charismatic actor-director Guru Dutt spent a considerable part of his last two years in Madras, as Chennai was known then. It’s a fact that most biographers do not care to look at, though hapless Guru Dutt could not do so as the dream factories of the South worked considerably more efficiently than Bombay and paid up in time. That was something that Guru Dutt could not ignore at that point of his career.
In his life-time best film, Pyaasa, Guru Dutt had asked with sublimely lyrical certitude, ‘Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye tho kya hai’ (even if one were to triumph over the world, what’s it worth?). But when the resounding failure of his artistically ambitious Kaagaz ke Phool raised the existential question, ‘Ye duniya agar chal bhi jaaye tho kya hai’ (what if success were to leave one), the man known for expressing ‘the dark poetry of the death wish’ experienced the stark prose of rejection in real life!
Subsequent to the Kaagaz debacle, even after the success of ‘Chaudavin ka Chaand’, a Muslim social which he produced and acted in the lead role but didn’t direct, and the classic Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, which he also directed but did not claim the credit for, Guru Dutt looked southward though the productions there were only remakes of proven Tamil/Telugu films rewritten and packaged with the Hindi audience in mind.
In this phase, Guru Dutt was first booked for ‘Bharosa’ (released in September 1963) by by N.Vasudeva Menon, a top manager of AVM studios who turned an ambitious producer and studio owner himself. Made with expert technicians (cinematographer Thambu, famed for Gemini classics like Avvaiyar) and K. Shanker (reliable film editor turned director), all Guru Dutt had to do in the film was play a good-hearted country bumpkin romping around with Asha Parekh. While Guru Dutt fulfilled the demands made on him, the methodical Madras filmmakers did not waste his time or energy with retakes or rehashes. ‘Bharosa’ was followed by ‘Bahurani’ (released in January 1964), based on successful films in Telugu (Ardhangi) and Tamil (Pennin Perumai) which derived their storyline from Manilal Banerjee’s novel ‘Swayamsiddha’. With the Anglo Indian veteran Marcus Bartley behind the camera and the masterly T. Prakash Rao calling the shots, Guru Dutt stood out as the retarded son transformed by the redemptive influence of his good wife (Mala Sinha).
It was then that the influential film producer A.L.Srinivasan booked Guru Dutt for Suhaagan, the Hindi version of his Tamil hit, Sarada. K.S. Gopalakrishnan, whom ALS had introduced as a director in Sarada, was billed to direct the Hindi version too. But he was more than anxious that he would have to direct Guru Dutt. The latter’s reputation as a technically brilliant director had preceded him to Madras, and KSG feared that Dutt might give him a torrid time questioning the set up of every shot! Guru Dutt arrived, and was accommodated at Ashoka Hotel in Egmore. KSG didn’t go to meet him. He was not there even to welcome him on the sets on the first day’s shooting. After Guru Dutt’s make up was done, A.L.Srinivasan introduced him to K.S.Gopalakrishnan.
Guru Dutt called KSG aside and told him: ‘‘Gopalakrishnan, you might have heard about me. People might have told you that I am a big director and all that. But I have left all that behind. I have come to act in your film. You are my director. It’s my duty to follow what you say. It’s your responsibility to get from me what you need’’. The unassuming manner in which Guru Dutt spoke put the lid on KSG’s fears and he hugged Guru Dutt with tears in his eyes.
Komal Swaminathan, reputed playwright and writer who assisted KSG in the film and considered the friendship he formed with Guru Dutt during the shooting of Suhagan as one of the blessings of his life, has recorded these impressions. In the event, Guru Dutt and Gopalakrishnan became thick friends during the shooting of Suhaagan! Gopalakrishnan’s description of the tank in his native village , ‘teeming with Murrel fish’, whetted Guru Dutt’s appetite. All his life he was passionate about fishing. He spent a week in Gopalakrishnan’s village Malliam, sometimes angling for fish unmindful of the hot summer sun, sometimes partaking of the coconut toddy that was brought specially for him! KSG marvelled that his hero was as ardent about country stuff as for Chivas Regal! Amidst all this, Guru Dutt developed a liking for the Silappadhikaaram story and took along a translated script titled ‘Madhavi’ for a future project.
A.L.Srinivasan, who was famous for the frequent parties he threw, looked after Guru Dutt very well, even as the latter was solicitous of the needs of his producer. ‘‘Unlike some Hindi stars, he would be on time on the sets. On the last day of his shooting, he had the director take every manner of shot of him, in case the need arose for such shots later’’, recalls Ms. Jayanthi Kannappan, Srinivasan’s daughter-in-law. The KSG unit was later shocked when on the last day of editing they got the news of Guru Dutt’s untimely death. Suhaagan, which was released months later, was advertised as Guru Dutt’s ‘last and best’. Though it was no hit film, it did not rock the boat of the producer either.
ppasami, 81, who worked for A.L.S. productions, and was Guru Dutt’s attendant in Madras for three schedules, remembers Guru Dutt fondly. ‘’He was generally accommodated in the now defunct Oceanic Hotel. I have seen many heroes from Hindi cinema. But Guru Dutt was a different breed. He was a thorough gentleman. Unlike many stars, he had no airs. I will always remember him with respect’’
(A version of the above article appeared in the columns of Times of India, Chennai)
(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and an author of many books on Tamil cinema)