Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone (9 July 1925 – 10 October 1964), better known as Guru Dutt, was an Indian film director, producer
and actor. He made 1950s and 1960s classics such as Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Chaudhvin Ka Chand. In
particular, Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool are now included among the greatest films of all time, both by Time magazine’s “All-TIME” 100 best
movies and by the Sight & Sound critics’ and directors’ poll, where Dutt himself is included among the greatest film directors of all time.
In 2010, he was included among CNN’s “top 25 Asian actors of all time”.
He is most famous for making lyrical and artistic films within the context of popular Hindi cinema of the 1950s, and expanding its commercial
conventions, starting with his 1957 film Pyaasa. Several of his later works have a cult following. His movies go full house when re-released;
especially in Germany, France and Japan.
Early life and background
Guru Dutt was born on 9 July 1925, in Bangalore. He was originally named Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone but this was changed to
Guru Dutt following a childhood accident, the belief being that it was an auspicious choice. His parents were originally settled in Karwar but
relocated. Dutt spent his early childhood in Bhowanipore. He spoke fluent Bengali.
Dutt wired home to say he had got the job of a telephone operator at a Lever Brothers factory in Calcutta. But soon he got disenchanted by
the job and left it. He later joined his parents in Bombay in 1944.
However, his uncle found him a job under a three-year contract with the Prabhat Film Company in Pune (then called Poona) in 1944. This
once premier film producing centre had already seen the departure of its best talent, V. Shantaram, who had by then launched his own
production company called Kala Mandir. It was at Prabhat Film Company that Dutt met two people who would remain his good friends for life
– actors Rehman and Dev Anand.
Dutt acted in a small role as Sri Krishna in Chand in 1944. In 1945, he acted as well as assisted director Vishram Bedekar in Lakhrani, and in
1946 he worked as an assistant director and choreographed dances for P. L. Santoshi’s film, Hum Ek Hain.
This contract ended in 1947, but Dutt’s mother got him a job as a freelance assistant with Baburao Pai, the CEO of the Prabhat Film
Company and Studio. However, after that, for almost ten months, he was unemployed and stayed with his family at Matunga in Bombay.
During this time, Dutt developed a flair for writing in English, and wrote short stories for The Illustrated Weekly of India, a local weekly
Choreographer, actor and assistant director
While Dutt was hired by Prabhat Film Company as a choreographer, he was pressed into service as an actor, and even as an assistant
director. After Prabhat failed in 1947, Dutt moved to Bombay, where he worked with two leading directors of the time, with Amiya Chakravarty
in Girls’ School, and with Gyan Mukherjee in the Bombay Talkies film Sangram. Then, Dev Anand offered him a job as a director in his new
company, Navketan, after the first movie had flopped.
Dutt’s first film, Navketan’s Baazi, was released in 1951. It was a tribute to the 1940s film noir genre of Hollywood with the morally ambiguous
hero, the transgressing siren, and shadow lighting.
Dev Anand and Dutt had reached an agreement that if Dutt were to turn filmmaker, he would hire Anand as his hero, and if Anand were to
produce a film then he would use Dutt as its director. Anand subsequently used Dutt in his movie Baazi, while Dutt employed Anand in C.I.D..
After Dutt’s death, Anand said that “He was a young man, he should not have made depressing pictures.”
Dutt and Anand would make two super-hit films together, Baazi, and Jaal. Creative differences between Dutt, and Chetan Anand (Anand’s
elder brother), who was also a director, made future collaborations difficult.
Baazi was an immediate success. Dutt followed it with Jaal and Baaz. Neither film did well at the box office, but they brought together the
Guru Dutt team that performed so brilliantly in subsequent films. He discovered, and mentored, Johnny Walker (comedian), V.K. Murthy
(cinematographer), and Abrar Alvi (writer-director), among others. He is also credited for introducing Waheeda Rehman to the Hindi cinema.
Baaz was notable in that Dutt both directed and starred, not having found a suitable actor for the principal character.
Fortune smiled on Dutt’s next film, the 1954 blockbuster Aar Paar. This was followed by the 1955 hit, Mr. & Mrs. ’55, then C.I.D., Sailaab and
in 1957, Pyaasa – the story of a poet, rejected by an uncaring world, who achieves success only after his apparent death. Dutt played the
lead role in three of these five films.
His 1959 Kaagaz Ke Phool was an intense disappointment. He had invested a great deal of love, money, and energy in this film, which was
a self-absorbed tale of a famous director (played by Guru Dutt) who falls in love with an actress (played by Waheeda Rehman, Dutt’s real-life
love interest). Kaagaz Ke Phool failed at the box office and Dutt was devastated. All subsequent films from his studio were, thereafter,
officially headed by other directors since Dutt felt that his name was anathema to the box office.
Dutt also influenced his box office smash hit Chaudhvin Ka Chand. A Muslim love-triangle, the film starred Guru Dutt alongside Waheeda
Rehman and Rehman. The film was directed by M. Sadiq and had its title track “Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho” in a special colour sequence. This
is the only time one can see Guru Dutt in colour.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, a critically and commercially successful film, was directed by his protégé, writer Abrar Alvi, which won him the
Filmfare Best Director’s award. The film starred Tragedy Queen Meena Kumari and Guru Dutt along with Rehman and Waheeda Rehman in
supporting roles. The film’s star, Waheeda Rehman, denied rumours that the film was ghost-directed by Dutt himself.
In 1964 Dutt acted in his last film Sanjh Aur Savera, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, opposite Meena Kumari. Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi
was the last film he was working on at the time of his death. He was replaced as the lead by Dharmendra and the film released in 1966 as
his team’s last production.
On 10 October 1964, Dutt was found dead in his bed in his rented apartment at Pedder Road in Bombay. He is said to have been mixing
alcohol and sleeping pills. His death may have been suicide, or just an accidental overdose. It would have been his third suicide attempt.
Dutt’s son, Arun Dutt, considered the death to be an accident. Dutt had scheduled appointments for the next day with actress Mala Sinha
and actor Raj Kapoor for his movie Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, to discuss the making of colour films. According to him, “My father had
sleeping disorders and popped sleeping pills like any other person. That day he was drunk and had taken an overdose of pills, which
culminated in his death. It was a lethal combination of excessive liquor and sleeping pills.”
At the time of his death, Dutt was involved in two other projects – Picnic starring actress Sadhana, and director K. Asif’s epic, Love and God.
Picnic remained incomplete and Love and God was released two decades later with Sanjeev Kumar replacing Dutt in the leading role.
The extra-feature on the DVD of Kaagaz Ke Phool has a three-part Channel 4-produced documentary on the life and works of Dutt titled In
Search of Guru Dutt.
A Doordarshan documentary on Dutt aired on 10 October 2011.
In 1953, Dutt married Geeta Roy Chaudhary, later Geeta Dutt, a well-known playback singer. They had been engaged for three years and
had to overcome a great deal of family opposition to marry. They had three children, Tarun, Arun, and Nina, who grew in the homes of Dutt’s
brother Atma Ram and Geeta Dutt’s brother Mukul Roy after their parents died.
Dutt had an unhappy marital life. According to his brother Atmaram, he was “a strict disciplinarian as far as work was concerned, but totally
undisciplined in his personal life” (Kabir, 1997, p. 124). He smoked heavily, drank heavily, and kept odd hours. Dutt’s relationship with
actress Waheeda Rehman also worked against their marriage. At the time of his death, he had separated from Geeta and was living alone.
Geeta Dutt died in 1972 at age 41, after excessive drinking, which resulted in liver damage. According to an interview with Abrar Alvi, one of
Dutt’s close friends and his assistant director in films, Dutt did not “open up” to discuss his thoughts and problems, even though they were
spending many hours together.
Contrary to a general belief about the viability of his film projects, Dutt more or less produced commercially successful films. Over the years
the commercial nature of his projects saw a trade-off with his creative aspirations. Movies such as C.I.D., Baazi, Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool,
Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam were the first of their kind in Hindi cinema. The only movie produced by Dutt that was
considered a box office disaster was Kaagaz Ke Phool, which is now a cult classic. He lost over Rs.1.7 million producing that film, a large
amount by the standards of that time, which was more than recovered by his next project, Chaudhvin Ka Chand. He never lost faith in his
team or in the distributors of his films. Once a project was over, he would begin anew – with little concern about the commercial success of
the previous project. He was part of an exclusive school of Indian film directors, including the likes of Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan and Bimal
Roy, who were able to achieve a healthy blend of artistic and commercial success between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s.
Pyaasa was rated as one of the best 100 films of all time by Time magazine. In the 2002 Sight & Sound critics’ and directors’ poll, two of his
films, Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, were among the top 160 greatest films of all time. The same 2002 Sight & Sound poll ranked Dutt at
#73 in its list of all-time greatest directors, thus making him the eighth highest-ranking Asian filmmaker in the poll.