The 1959 tragic masterpiece ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ tells the story of once-renowned film director Suresh Sinha (played by Guru Dutt) whose life goes for a toss after he loses his daughter Pammi (played by Kumari Naaz) in a custody battle and gets estranged from Shanti (played by Waheeda Rehman), his paramour. Director, writer and producer Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone, better known to the world as Guru Dutt, embraces the character of Suresh and delivers a convincing performance sensitively capturing a man crippled with loneliness.
The narration unfolds through a flashback. The viewer is taken back to the glorious heyday of Suresh when he was the darling of the film business with his movies raking in lakhs at the box office, followed by a string of events that prompted his fall from grace.
At a time when cancel culture is roaring through the entertainment world, knocking down careers and lives, ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’, made several decades before cancel culture became a trending term, has depicted just that. It doesn’t matter which era you belong to. Once acceptance is lost, ostracisation is bound to follow. It happens to Suresh after a series of his films bombed at the box office. The audience and his financial backers have turned their backs on him. And his lacklustre attempts at direction fail as he gets embroiled in turmoil in his personal life.
Separated from his wife Veena, Suresh is kept away from Pammi. His westernised, upper-class in-laws look down upon his profession as a filmmaker. When we look back on it today, their behaviour comes off as absurd — hailing western-isms as the pinnacle of sophistication when a western entity barbarically went about colonising India. The film allows us to glimpse what was vogue amongst the upper class in a newly post-independent India. Set a decade and some after independence, the stamp left by the colonialists persists.
Veena’s brother Rakesh ‘Rocky’ Verma (played by Johnny Walker) serves as comic relief with a fake accent and an obsession with horse racing — a character whose shenanigans seem to exist to provide a break from the otherwise morose tone of the film. Unlike the great comic relief characters out there adding to films like Donkey from Shrek or Dory from Finding Nemo, Rocky’s antics are more like sporadic ill-timed EDM drops made in an attempt to distract viewers from the sombre storyline.
The film explores one of the most cruel fates that can befall a man: loneliness. Rejected by his wife and his in-laws and kept away from his daughter Pammi, Suresh struggles with loneliness. Despite achieving monetary and box office success, a bereft Suresh gets a glimpse of happiness when Shanti walks into his life.
An orphan, Shanti is able to empathise with Suresh and what it is like to be alone in the world.
They meet while he is taking shelter from the rain, and he gives her his coat before dashing off to catch a train to Bombay. Later, they meet once again when Shanti unwittingly walks into the set of Suresh’s film to return the coat. Charmed by her innocence, Suresh casts her as Paro, the leading lady in his film.
The scene where Suresh first meets Shanti in costume as Paro is an incredibly powerful one. It sets the tone of the characters’ relationship through the use of shadow and light. Their meeting evokes a sense of intimacy, with Shanti opening up to Suresh. When Suresh is grievously injured in an accident, and his wife refuses to come to his side, Shanti is there with him when he wakes up. He sends her home fully aware of the futility of their relationship. Their longing for one another is portrayed brilliantly in a scene, with the characters standing in the shadows, separated from one another as faint apparitions of them walk towards each meeting under the light. What is standout in the film is the masterful use of shadow and light, which intimately capture pivotal scenes. A love story that wasn’t meant to be.
The film’s plot gives a realistic picture of what the Indian film scene looked like back in the 1950s. It was released during a period that many film historians call the ‘golden age of Indian cinema.’ An era when some of the biggest names like Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Subrata Mitra, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor were marking their genius. Films were an easily accessible form of entertainment for the emerging middle class in a newly post-independent India. The influence wielded by those in the film business was immense even half a century ago. This considerable spotlight on those involved in the film business worked as a double-edged sword. Once rejected, they are made redundant, and the next new person comes along to take their place. Cancel culture is not a recent phenomenon. While the scale has changed, people’s rejection of public figures and their subsequent thrusting out from social and professional circles has not. Guru Dutt succeeds in identifying and pointing out this quality of audience acceptance and rejection and brilliantly depicts it through his film.
Praised as one of the best self-reflective films in Indian cinema, ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool makes several allusions to Dutt’s own life. Following the commercial failure at the box office, it was the last film to be officially directed by Dutt. This speaks volumes of the power the rejection by the masses has. The film later experienced a rebirth in the 1980s, propelling it to cult classic status. Dutt’s film continues to be relevant even today. Addressing and acknowledging themes like loneliness, man’s fallibility, the cancel culture and the transient nature of fame which are all pertinent topics of conversation even today.
(Rivi Joseph is an intern with IndianExpress.com and is based in Thiruvananthapuram)