Is Guide Bollywood’s favourite film? From actors like Aamir Khan and Sonam Kapoor to directors like Shekhar Kapur and Sanjay Leela Bhansali and even the hard to please Naseeruddin Shah who routinely lashes out at commercial Bollywood, they all count the 1965 Dev Anand-Waheeda Rehman classic as a personal touchstone. Once during a film promotion, Shah described Dev Anand — the ‘evergreen star’ known for his youthful optimism and never-say-die spirit — as a consummate entertainer whose movies espoused “joyousness which is fast vanishing from our lives.” And yet, Guide is not exactly what anyone would call ‘joyous.’ It gives you a Dev Anand you had never seen before. The film (with Waheeda Rehman headlining one of her career’s most stellar performance, not to forget the absolutely knockout dances that elevate Hindi screen to a classical stage) is a spiritual bridge between Anand’s frothy romcoms (Taxi Driver, Tere Ghar Ke Saamne, Nau Do Gyarah etc) and noirs/thrillers (Baazi, Kala Pani, CID etc).
The conventional wisdom on Anand is that he’s an undisputed goof, better at romancing leading ladies with an exuberant twinkle in his eye, roguish smile, ever-shifting gait and a sing-song lilt than anything else. But Vijay Anand’s Guide broke that mould. Who would have believed the fun-loving bon vivant would end up as a suffering, brooding saint in a remote hamlet praying for the impossible? The well-waxed puff is long gone and a faint hint of stubble has started to show on that most recognisable of movie-idol faces. Guide is not a film with a direct social message though it does deal with adultery committed by a woman and a hero with grey shades. But like the pot that its danseuse protagonist (a much-married Rosie, played by Waheeda Rehman) smashes in the popular song “Aaj phir jeene ki” which many critics say signifies her newfound freedom on the way to “finding her own identity”, Guide breaks many conventions as it goes on to chart the rise and fall of our charming hero Raju Guide (Anand) and a doomed romanticism that awaits him and Rosie’s ambitious relationship. Guide is not just Dev Anand’s career-best but also one of Hindi cinema’s greatest films that examines the social context through its on-the-make titular character who goes from idealist to opportunist in no time. Redemption, for him, is only one rainfall away. On any other day, Guide would be a must-watch, but today, on Anand’s 97th birth anniversary (he left us on 3 December 2011), a viewing assumes the mantle of an ode. Spend some time in the company of Guide and you won’t regret it.
A Saint Is Born
Based on RK Narayan’s novel The Guide, the film begins with Raju, a tourist guide, walking out of jail and into a new life. Charged with forgery and cheating, he wants to put his old life behind him. It’s fitting that the credits roll with SD Burman’s soulful “Wahan kaun hai tera,” signalling that this is going to be an SD magic show through and through. The credits contain an impressive montage, as Raju embarks on a new journey. In one poignant shot, lovers canoodle on a park bench as the tramp Raju rests underneath. Shailendra’s piercing lyrics remind the pilgrim of his plight. Cruelly ironic, because in another film, the lover on the bench would undoubtedly be Dev Anand serenading his heroine. The opening song also serves as a testament to director Vijay Anand’s penchant for turning a song into a visual playground, complete with hidden symbolisms and literary flair. We first meet Rosie in the photograph before we see her in flesh. Raju stumbles and a bunch of snaps fall from his cloth bag. And there she is — the woman who will make Raju rich and powerful but also quickly become responsible for his fall from grace. Rosie’s archeologist husband Marco treats Rosie no less like a photograph. Or a “statue”, as Rosie says in one scene, in a howl of anguish. After a heated argument, she leaves him and finds shelter with Raju, a Kabir-Iqbal-Zauq-quoting street-smart who makes his living as a tour guide. “My troubles would not have started but for Rosie,” writes author RK Narayan in The Guide. Railway Raju, as the hustler is called in the novel, describes Rosie as “lovely and elegant”, admitting that he started taking the “trouble of making myself presentable” after her arrival in the village. In Guide, however, Dev Anand is more than presentable at all times (except towards the climax) as was the star’s wont. While Marco is obsessed with his discoveries, she beseeches Raju to accompany her to a famous local snake dancer. Here, Raju watches Rosie’s serpent dance. Hypnotised, he becomes her first audience and there’s no looking back thereafter. Raju helps reinvent Rosie as Nalini. But the film’s real crux is the growing gulf and shifting moral compass between Raju and Rosie/Nalini (even a simple flower brings her joy while Raju descends into moral corruption). He gives Rosie wings to fly, with a sincere desire to craft a life that’s nothing short of spectacle for her. How tragic, then, that his own life becomes a spectacle in the end. The fast-talking guide’s transformation into a spiritual guide praying to bring relief to a rain-parched village is one of the movie’s unexpected twists. Reborn as a saint, is this the last of Raju’s frauds?
Is Rosie A Feminist Heroine?
Raju isn’t a man of substance. Rosie is. Born to dance, she worships her craft, but for Raju her talent means nothing more than a source of fame and money. Rosie is the most exciting character of Guide and the most exciting thing about her is that she’s the real creative force and prime motivation behind much of the film. For one, her dance pieces are some of the most remarkable you are likely to see on Hindi screen. All equally consequential to the plot. Rehman’s training in Bharatanatyam made her rather well-suited to play a dancer (two years later, in Jewel Thief, the Anand brothers would similarly make good use of Vyjayanthimala’s oversized dancing talent). Her dance moves are every Bollywood dancing star’s wet dream. The alluring Rehman, now 83 and living a more or less retired life, brought her trademark quiet dignity to the role. She gives it her all, finding pain and poetry in Rosie.
Is Rosie a feminist heroine? Yes and no. Deep inside, she’s a typical small-town Indian woman of her time desiring marriage, motherhood and a good home. But then, spurned by men, she is forced to fall back on dance. Unwittingly, going out into the world and seeking her place in it. Author Jerry Pinto calls Rosie “considerably before her time,” remarking further in an essay, “She does not stand by her husband. She does not stand by her second chance at love. She is, in other words, a woman who puts her own interests first. Marco buys her respectability. Raju gives her freedom. She takes both and moves on.” But she has done no wrong, so it is left to Raju to deliver the climactic payoff. Of all her characters, starting from Pyaasa to Kabhi Kabhie, Rehman has listed Guide as her personal favourite. “Rosie has shades of grey, but she’s true to life. She has a variety of emotions and colours, and that’s why I love her,” she once explained in an interview.
Musically, too, Guide which was screened at Cannes in 2008 is no ordinary film. The Shailendra and SD Burman combo had given a blockbuster for Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in Kala Bazar (1960) before. But Guide remains their magnum opus. Navketan (the Anands’ banner) had a great working relationship with SD Burman. The composer’s score for Guide is highly versatile, one filled with undeniable philosophical ambition and folksy charm. Its continued popularity, whether it is “Aaj phir jeene ki,” “Gaata rahe mera dil,” “Din dhal jaaye” or “Piya tose naina laage re,” is a proof of Burman’s rooted aesthetics and classic touch. Guide, as many of you might know, was also made in English by American filmmaker Tad Danielewski without Burman’s soundtrack. While an anglophone Dev Anand is a natural with his English drawl, the film had a disappointing initial reception. For a long time, in fact, it was unavailable for viewing and only recently came up on YouTube. The Hindi version, on the other hand, garnered an ecstatic response.
However, one person was said to be miffed with the results. And that was its author RK Narayan. The legendary writer, whom VS Naipaul billed as “the Gandhi of Indian modern literature,” wrote an amusing account of the film’s making in an essay titled ‘Misguided Guide.’ Dev Anand, who has served as a real-life ‘guide’ to many talents right from Zeenat Aman to Jackie Shroff, had driven over to Narayan’s Mysore home to buy the book’s rights. The whole adaptation process was new to Narayan, who found himself being overridden by director Tad Danielewski. According to Narayan’s ‘Misguided Guide’, an entirely different film was spinning in Danielewski’s mind which Narayan did not approve of. Typical of Narayan’s literature, The Guide was set in Malgudi, a fictional South Indian village. Any Narayan reader can tell you that his fiction is interested in the human scale. The God of Small Fiction reached for what can only be called the stark opposite of epic. In The Guide’s migration from page to screen, Narayan feared about losing what Jhumpa Lahiri had called his “purity of voice.” Indeed, Danielewski had an action-packed romp in mind while its creator naturally hoped for a more faithful adaptation. The final insult came when Danielewski said, ‘We will avoid the name ‘Malgudi.’ Imagine taking out Malgudi from Narayan’s writing? In ‘Misguided Guide’, Narayan narrates another incident. Satyajit Ray had long admired The Guide but came up with a sound reason as to why he could never toy with adapting it. “Its roots are so deep,” explained Ray, “in the soil of your part of our country that I doubt if I could do justice to your book, being unfamiliar with its milieu.” One can only wonder what kind of a film the Bengali maestro would have made out of The Guide. For now, we may have to remain content with the Guide we have. And what we have is not too bad, isn’t it?
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