“Guru Dutt’s films are decidedly not ‘they lived happily ever after’ films”
Veteran film journalists Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari talk about their love for Guru Dutt’s films which is what edged them to write three books on Dutt’s timeless films like Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Chaudhvin Ka Chaand and Kaagaz Ke Phool. The latter released recently.
Give us a brief background about your work and the books you have written before the triology on Guru Dutts films.
DR: I have been writing about films for the past 32 years. I was raised on a staple diet of two films a week; the Mumbai cinema house, Lotus, was a weekend haunt. I began my career as a film journalist with Cine Blitz in 1982 and went on to become the Editor of Movie magazine (1988-1999). I was the Channel Editor of India Today’s online film section for a while and I have been a regular columnist for Sunday Mid-day. I have written scripts for television (Just Mohabbat, Kasamh Se). I have also authored five books on cinema: The Hundred Luminaries of Hindi Cinema (1996), Indian Cinema, The Bollywood Saga (2004) and a trilogy on Guru Dutt’s films. There are many more books inside me waiting to find expression.
JK: I am passionate about every facet of film history and have sought to meld this with my love for writing. I am presently the Deputy Editor of Bollywood News Service, and my career trajectory encompasses tenure as Deputy Editor of Movie magazine, and the scripting of the BBC TV show, ‘Film India’. With DR, I have co-authored five books on Hindi cinema: The Hundred Luminaries of Hindi Cinema, Indian Cinema, The Bollywood Saga and three books on the screenplays of the last three Guru Dutt Productions — Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Chaudhvin Ka Chaand and Kaagaz Ke Phool.
What was your brief for these books? Please talk about your own fascination with Guru Dutt films.
DR: The brief for the books was simple – present the original screenplay in a reader-friendly manner, and accompany it with interviews and analytical essays on crucial themes emerging from these films. I just jumped at the offer because I am intrigued by Guru Dutt and his films. He is a genius with a strong individualistic streak. His latter films like Kaagaz Ke Phool and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam are slice of life itself, they do not provide all the answers; they are decidedly not “they lived happily ever after’ films. My personal favourite has to be a tie between Pyaasa and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. I love the ambiguity in the relationship between Chhoti Bahu and Bhootnath in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Was it platonic or was it a case of suppressed love?
Kaagaz Ke Phool and Pyaasa leave me riveted because they offer the two extreme attitudes to success – in Pyaasa the protagonist (Guru Dutt) is of the opinion: Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai and rejects success whereas in Kaagaz Ke Phool success slips out of the protagonist’ grasp, and he crumbles thereafter. Chaudhvin Ka Chand may be a commercially successful love triangle but I am enchanted by the seamless quality of its screenplay and the beauty of the dialogue, which is so rich in imagery.
JK: It was filmmaker Vinod Chopra’s idea to archive our cinematic legacy through published screenplays on films made by cinematic masters like Guru Dutt. We shared this enthusiasm as we staunchly believe that even after half a century, the appeal of these classic films has not only endured, but continues to grow. Personally speaking, I have always warmed to Guru Dutt’s acute sensitivity as is evident in the unusual thematic choices in his films and in his ability to give coherent expression to hard-to-define human interactions.
What was your approach to these books?
DR: The approach was to faithfully present the screenplay and dialogue and showcase the films’ strengths to the best of our abilities. The reader should come away with a better perception about what made these films great. The translation of the screenplay into English was time consuming and one of our biggest challenges was to translate the songs without losing the essence. Translating while trying to maintain a sense of rhyme and rhythm was a challenge we thoroughly enjoyed. For instance the lines of the song Yeh Lucknow ki sarzameen.
Yeh sheher alazaar hai
yahan dilon mein pyar hai
jidhar nazar uthaiye
bahar hi bahar hai
was translated as:
In riches this land abounds
Every heart with love abounds
As far as the eye can see
Of delicate buds there is a sea
Though the books on Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Chaudhvin Ka Chaand and Kaagaz Ke Phool are in a question and answer format; you have also included features on different topics within them… Elaborate.
JK: We particularly enjoyed writing the essays. In ‘Romancing the Past’ we explored Guru Dutt’s fascination with bygone eras, which we found, was a running preoccupation with the three films. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Chaudhvin Ka Chaand and Kaagaz Ke Phool were all period films set in earlier times than the chronological date of these films. In ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, An Ode To Platonic Relationships’ we analysed the enigmatic nature of the relationship between Chhoti Bahu (played by Meena Kumari) and Bhootnath (played by Guru Dutt).
The enormous success of Chaudhvin Ka Chand impelled an examination of the ‘Guru Dutt Effect’ and his impact on Hindi cinema. We also explored ‘Guru Dutt’s Troubled Relationship with Fame and Success,’ which we deemed integral to the book on Kaagaz Ke Phool.
Between the two of you how did you divide work? You both have co written two books earlier. Do you write together or divide parts and then write.
DR: We divide a book into segments and then each of us starts writing different portions … but this is only to give us a head start. Thereafter, I revisit what Jitendra has written and vice versa. We provide a sounding board for each other; there is much debate and at times the arguments do get heated – but what tides over is a healthy respect for the other’s views and our common passion for films – I would maintain a scrap book on films when I was in school while Jitendra has for decades been compiling statistics about films in several copybooks that are now in tatters due to overuse. We add and delete from each other’s first draft. By the time, we have the end result it is an amalgamation of our inputs and if you were to ask me to point out our individual contributions it would be like asking us to separate milk from water after having mixed the two.
Which actors did you meet for the 3 books and talk about conversations with 2 actors – Waheeda ji or any one you enjoyed talking to… from your latest book on Kaagaz Ke Phool?
DR: We met Waheeda Rehman, who was the pivot of most Guru Dutt films, on a windy monsoon day. To her credit and our delight, she had crystal clear memories of films that were released more than 50 years ago. Despite her being plagued by a bad cold that had her sniffing daintily into her kerchief, she shared precious and insightful anecdotes with us.
To enhance the scope of the book we flew to Bangalore to meet cinematographer V K Murthy whom Waheeda Rehman had described as the true hero of Kaagaz Ke Phool because of his brilliant cinematography. From the films’ technical crew, we also met Baburao Pawaskar, who helmed the makeup department (tracing him was very difficult but worth the effort); Shyam Kapoor (the affable production controller) and Bhanu Athaiya (the Oscar winning costume designer who crafted Meena Kumari’s costumes in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Waheeda Rehman’s period costumes in Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Kaagaz Ke Phool.)
JK: We also interviewed Guru Dutt’s early associate and best friend Dev Anand who shared that “Guru Dutt never invited me to his premieres”; his brother Devi besides character actors Farida Dadi (credited as Baby Farida in Guru Dutt’s films) and Minoo Mumtaz. And Guru Dutt’s younger son Arun Dutt penned a deeply-felt essay analysing how his father’s films had allowed him a glimpse into his father’s persona.
How is the screenplay part of it created for the book? Did you have existing material to use or did it have to be worked on?
DR: It was a Herculean task because the drafts of the original screenplays that Guru Dutt’s son Arun offered us were largely dialogue drafts. After gleaning through each line, we had to write out the action descriptions in a lucid manner. And some of the dialogue had undergone a change while being delivered by the actors or on the sets, so Jitendra and I had to see each film countless times to ensure that the lines in the film and screenplay were in sync. We had to put in extra effort into the screenplay of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam as the available draft was considerably different from the final film, and included scenes not incorporated into the film. We devoted two years of our working hours to these books, and I consumed gallons of cutting chai to make sense of the reams of handwritten and typewritten scripts. But it was a privilege to be privy to the creative process of great thinkers.
How did the concept of having these book develop?
JK: The books are a Vinod Chopra initiative in association with publishers Om Books International. A filmmaker archiving the work of previous masters – it’s a selfless venture worth emulating and deserving of a mention.
DR: Jitendra and I were very keen to do these books on three films because we are interested in the classics produced by the stalwarts of the film industry. The idea is to document the work of great filmmakers from the past for Gen Next, and help familiarise them with the classics produced by the gurus of cinema including Guru Dutt.
Given an opportunity, we would love to document the work of Bimal Roy (Do Bigha Zameen, Madhumati, Bandini), Raj Kapoor (Shri 420, Awaara and Sangam), K Asif (Mughal-e-Azam) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Anupama, Anand and Chupke Chupke).
Chaudhvin Ka Chand may be a commercially successful love triangle and bromance but while working on the script we marvelled at how seamlessly one scene flows into the other and at the well-delineated characterisations. And the crowning glory was the dialogue of the film. It was eloquent and so easy on the ears unlike the often prosaic and functional dialogue that we hear in films today.
For me, the defining characteristic of Guru Dutt’s cinema is his acute sensitivity as is evident in the unusual thematic choices in his films and in his ability to give coherent expression to hard-to-define human interactions.
– Priyanka Jain