There are many reasons why the spectators might not have liked Guru Dutt’s opus, Kaagaz ke phool back in 1959. First its badly-humoured despondency (why go to the cinema and see sad things, life is sad enough as it is), then its flaunting of proper morals and conventionality (the film contains a rather crude picturisation of family dirty linen); the absence of a satisfying happy end (the director dying an absurd death because of his abuse of alcohol)…Many people still think today that the movie drags on, that it’s self-indulgent…
I’m not going to say that all this criticism is wrong. Certainly the film has flaws, but I wonder whether these defects aren’t the signs of Guru Dutt’s genius at work. Perhaps he’s indeed a self-absorbed monomaniac, or a gloomy dreamer. Dutt has often prepared us for such roles and moods (Pyaasa being the one that comes most easily to mind) and well, it’s true that our level of preparedness has to be raised! Much has been said (for example here - sorry, the link is now dead) about how much the director’s life had been poured into the film. This is always a risky recipe, because then you tend to look at the story with a double gaze (how much can/should the director say…) and the added complexity isn’t always added depth, as Carla (in her short and perceptive review) suggests very well. A certain amount of what I had said about Pakeezah could be repeated here: too much personal involvement in the story, and you come up with a bloated imperfect movie which the spectators can’t appreciate if they don’t know what the director has put into it.
But I like this imperfection; I think its weirdness and self-consciousness are signs of a suffering reality. Honestly, I do prefer less depressing movies, comedies that make you roar with laughter or smile with appreciation. Still, Kaagaz ke phool possesses a soulful charm, a sombre artistry that touches me, and evokes romantic poetry at its destructive best. There is a truth in these dark evocations of self-centred dreams and thwarted hopes. Not only that, but the whole film, perhaps because of its autobiographical quality, is filled with questions, and unmatchable sequences, and this provides an interest which a faultless work of art might not have in the same way. At any rate, with such movies, you escape formatted plots and predictable issues.
For example, after that country escapade where the heroine and her director are teased by the bunch of youngsters in the hay-filled truck, the scene cuts to the aftermath of a car accident: he has been wounded, while she’s all right, and he has to wear a bandage over his eyes. There is no real need for this accident in the structure of the story: it will not bring the two lovers any closer, thanks to the age-old trick of pitying feelings, or to some cheap physical contact. On the contrary: Sinha is going to chase Shanti away from his presence. The interest of the scene is (I believe) in the introduction of the theme of blindness. Sinha wears his bandage over his eyes to make us understand that he is resisting the attraction which he is feeling for Shanti, and that his cinematographic art isn’t sold out to appearances and superficiality, as his in-laws declare, and as a gossip-mongering press (which his daughter’s friends read at their school) would like to connect him with. For Sinha (or Guru Dutt?), within cinema, and in spite of its close contact with surface truth, there is a quest for innocence and inner beauty that you can only truly understand if you blind yourself against the charms of surface reality. Sinha has seen all that emerge on Shanti’s face, and that’s why he’s so upset when he spots her all made-up at that party.
The scene at the end of the movie, where Sinha runs away from Shanti, can be interpreted in the same way. Hardened to the point of schizophrenia in the belief that his dream of purity has been desecrated even by the woman he loved (she’s accepted to work for the movie industry -forced by contract, but he doesn’t take this into consideration - whereas he had kept his “pride” to himself), he has come to see her one last time, but is unable to quit a life of self-delusion fed by alcohol, and as he runs away from her, he runs away towards a death which is the only target he’s really pursuing.
The song heard during his flight uses the words of the title of the film: “Fly, thirsty bee, there is no nectar here, where paper flowers blossom; not in this garden where innocence is lost…” These are Guru Dutt’s final key of meaning. Sinha (or Dutt himself), cinema’s thirsty bee, who has tried to find the nectar of truth and beauty within his art, and transform it into the honey of entertainment, is now urged to run away: the flowers of cinema are nothing more than paper flowers, artificial and dead: they only have the appearance of purity and beauty; only this sort of flower can survive in the corrupted and greedy garden which the 7th art has become. It’s difficult to decide whether Guru Dutt is actually saying that “Tinseltown” is hopelessly sinking away from its original artistic mission, as prophesied by the moral aristocracy – which he obviously loathes – or whether this interpretation is a tragic appropriation of what Sinha had rejected, what he had fought against, and which he is now inflicting to his sick mind. There is a third possibility: the stance according to which Dutt is exploring an alternative form of art: creation as salvation from despair and illusion. Sinha’s escape could then be the choice of artists who prefer to keep their dream pure, even to the cost of their own lives, in a frenzy of self-sacrifice.
Such an interpretation - cinema is possible as a fallen art, but it still directs you to the Light – needs all of the artist’s powers, to prove the moralists wrong, in spite of their paradoxical reasoning. For Dutt probably agrees that cinema corrupts, and is corrupted by money, appearances, and power, even if the main protagonist of this position, Sinha’s father in law, is the absurdly pro-British buffoon we discover in the film. There are many subtle signs of Dutt’s criticism of cinema, and to underline it I’ve chosen this amazing scene, when the Ajanta Films’ boss, shocked by Sinha’s decision to keep Shanti in spite of what he has just said, exclaims “who’s the boss here, he or me?!”, and all his associates crowd around him like mad dogs around their master:
(Notice how the creative beam of light is also present at that moment!)
Now, many people like to say that Rocky, Sinha’s brother in law, played by an incredible Johnny Walker, is a very good side-kick in the movie. Very true, but also very false: he’s not a side-kick at all. At least not here. He represents something which directly connects to the movie’s main theme: is pure art possible within a corrupted industry? Normally Rocky (since he benefits from the same luxuries) should side with his father’s denunciation of cinema as a corrupter of souls. But he leads the life of an idle gamester, who doesn’t care about the sacrifice which goes with Sinha’s stance of purity and radical commitment to his art. If he’s Sinha’s friend, it’s perhaps mainly because he despises his father’s ridiculous extremism, and that he prefers his own freedom to the burden of any ties (viz his song “Hum tum jise kahata“). But compared to Sinha, he’s a sort of minor fraud, a compromiser; he represents what Sinha precisely refuses to be: a free agent within the corrupted system. Rocky uses the system (money, freedom) without questioning its flaws. One could say he’s escaping reality, but then, so is Sinha.
But for Sinha the desperate romantic, such a life of compromise isn’t possible, and he can only open memory’s closet to see what is left him: a doll from his lost daughter’s childhood and Shanti’s knitted scarf, which she gave him as a parting gift. The whole film is in fact a plunge into memory: there was a time when he thought, success permitting, that compromise was possible, that he could both indulge in his beloved daughter (who is under the guardianship of his ex-wife) and recreate love and life with Shanti. But this was proved impossible – such freedom can only exist if one is ready to sacrifice one’s pride, as much as to say, one’s absolute independence of belief, one’s dream of beauty and purity. I believe that the black and white cinematography in the movie serves this purpose: the beam of intense white light, that burns through the darkness of the studio, is the artist’s creative dream; his vision, his will and his desire.
This laser-like ray of light corresponds to the artistic process of transmutation of the object which the artist perceives as creational material. It isn’t a surprise that Sinha only recognizes Shinta’s creative value during the projection of some rushes where she had appeared by mistake: it’s on the screen (where the beam of light stops and opens itself, so to speak) that her beauty and her purity become visible to him Before, he simply hadn’t noticed them. See for example this moment of her first appearance under the dark tree:
She hadn’t yet been touched by the Light! Yet her burning beauty was there, ready to be enlightened. And here’s another picture just before she enters the beam: we can already see her eyes, but shaded, as if they needed the poet’s inspiration to reveal them fully (pic on the right). Sinha himself needs to enter this surreal beam as well, by the way. Perhaps that’s why he is present early in the morning in the studio, alone with the beam which he enters too, symbolically appropriating the power of divine transmutation. And of course when Shanti, that same morning, steps in the empty studio, unsure about her capability, because the company director has “seen” nothing in her, and then passes through the beam, this transforms her into Sinha’s dream: she becomes Paro in Devdas!
During the timelessly soulful song that we all know, “Waqt ne kiya”, there happens the last step of this metamorphosis: both lovers leave their old beings, their corporal envelope and stride into the Beam of eternal Art: the process is well-known; all artists create in order to survive within in the beauteous forms of their art, and whoever they take with them is also assured of immortality. Time (waqt) enables certain mortals to meet, to exchange (and recognize in the other) their need for an Absolute which they cannot find on this Earth, and then, thanks to the creative process, can hope to live on through these transfixed eternal forms of beauty. Guru Dutt has purposefully chosen the story of Devdas to dramatize the creative process which emerges from love, loss and death. At the end of Devdas, Paro runs to meet the one she should never have abandoned, yet had to - it was her duty - and she can now reveal this forbidden desire because she knows, somehow, that it is death which makes it possible. Had she not known that Devdas was dying, she would never have gone out and run towards him. Of course in Kaagaz ke phool, Sinha isn’t behind the door, begging to see his Paro one last time, but his mind has nevertheless shut the door of hope, and metaphorically, he is indeed dying from his loss of her. Both of them are lost in the beam of creation, which devours its chosen ones, and they meet, but only beyond the pale, in our memories, in our desire of their eternity.
I’ll just finish by a few words on the actors. I have already said how much I liked Johnny Walker in the film: he’s just hit the right mix of artificially calculated clowniness, to make us understand that, even if he is taking advantage of his social situation, he’s aware of it, and can side with the moral condemnation of a society based on the established hierarchy of money and appearances.
Guru Dutt strikes as the sombre and dejected idealist he likes to pose as, yet behind the pose we feel his sadness and his pain: more than in other films, perhaps (Pyaasa, or Sahib bibi aur ghulam are the ones I have in mind), the theme of desolation and recreation through art and love beyond the decadent society of men, is present, and here he’s chosen an art which places him in the centre of what he has to say about himself, as an actor and director.
Waheeda Rehman, finally, fascinates thanks to her multifaceted talent and grace. I’d say she’s less emotionally sophisticated than Nutan, less deeply aware or herself than Meena Kumari, less majestic than Nargis; in short she’s perhaps less gifted as an actress than these luminaries, but she has a persona whom we can cover with affection, and is closer to us, because it is both passionate and naïve, both clever and anxious, both hilarious and ardent. Her femininity is closer to our humanity, perhaps, because she expresses her desires and emotions on a reachable level, where one recognizes a sister and a comrade.
(PS: This is my 150th article!)