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Unmaking of Guru Dutt, Letter by Letter

By 1962, Guru Dutt’s letters to Geeta Dutt had become infrequent and soon all the correspondence had stopped. They had grown further an...


January 15, 2006

TWO years ago, Guru Dutt’s second son, Arun, told me that he had in his possession thirty-seven letters that his father had written: thirty-three letters to his mother Geeta Dutt and four to him and elder brother Tarun. Following Guru Dutt’s tragic suicide in 1964, Geeta Dutt had preserved each of her husband’s letters, locking them away among her prized possessions. Arun does not remember seeing his mother re-reading them but he knew they meant the world to her. When Geeta Dutt died in 1972, Tarun took responsibility for the family’s personal possessions. Besides the many things collected in the course of two lifetimes were Guru Dutt’s passport, a pair of reading glasses, an old worn leather wallet and his letters to his wife.

Guru Dutt’s brief and tragic life is captured in these beautiful and now over fifty-year-old letters. The very sight of these letters is evocative of a past when letter-writing itself had a kind of romanticism, giving meaning and pleasure to both the person writing and the person for whom the letter was intended. There is an almost voyeuristic and tactile pleasure in sending Guru Dutt’s handwriting on his personal letterhead, which he himself had designed with its tasteful simplicity — a bold ‘G’ printed on fine cream-coloured paper. Sometimes he wrote on blue airmail paper and at other times on plain lined foolscap pages; some letters seem hastily written and others have a more contemplative mood. Written in English, Hindi and Bengali, these letters are candid and truthful, detailing the joys and sorrows of his life.

It is interesting to note that Guru Dutt’s letters are not filled with great detail about his work — to which he refers only in passing. In one letter he mentions completing the filming of a Shamshad Begum song, or writes of how well Dev Anand and Geeta Bali are performing (in Jaal). In another letter, he talks of Raj Kapoor’s huge popularity in Tehran and what seemed to dismay Guru Dutt about this fact was that his own films were not widely distributed. Thus he had planned to have them dubbed in Persian so that they would be seen in Iran. He also writes of being happy about the progress of Pyaasa’s shooting in Calcutta — but these are incidental comments. Instead, the letters are melancholic and tell of the extreme mood swings he suffered — his words are often filled with self-doubt and anguish. The letters clearly reveal that there was little difference between the Guru Dutt on-screen and the Guru Dutt off-screen. His intimate outpourings uncannily echo the sentiments expressed in dialogue by the poet-hero, Vijay, in his most personal film Pyaasa. In a letter dated 22 February 1952, he writes: “Sometimes when I get too tired after work I become silent & moody. Though my work is very dear to me yet I feel as if I have nothing else in life to hold on to… The more I see life the more bitter I am becoming — and I have less faith in people and human nature.”

The most important revelation — and what is at the heart of Guru Dutt’s letters — is the enduring love he had for his wife. Theirs may have been a stormy relationship but it was also intimate and deep. The first of the 37 letters was written soon after Guru Dutt met Geeta Roy, a young and greatly talented playback singer. It was S.D. Burman who had introduced them to each other during the recording of the song Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le, apne pe bharosa hai to ye dao laga le (Transform your spoiled destiny, trust in yourself and throw the dice). The song composed by Burman and written by Sahir Ludhianvi was to feature in Guru Dutt’s first film, Baazi, produced by Dev Anand whom Guru Dutt had befriended some years earlier. The film was a Navketan production, so it was only natural that the creative team, including Burman and Sahir, who were regularly associated with this young film company would also work on Baazi. Guru Dutt himself was a great admirer of Burman, and having lived most of his childhood and teens in Bengal, he was familiar with Burman’s music. Unwittingly, Burman played an important role in the lives of both Guru Dutt and Geeta Roy. Not only did he bring them together, but was also responsible for making Geeta a star singer of Indian cinema, starting with hs famous 1947 composition, Mera sundar sapna beet gaya (My beautiful dream is now over) that featured in the film Do Bhai.

By 1962, Guru Dutt’s letters to Geeta Dutt had become infrequent and soon all the correspondence had stopped. They had grown further and further apart. For many years, most people, especially those who did not know Guru Dutt personally, had decided that the love of his life was in fact the lovely talented actress, Waheeda Rahman. And this was perceived as the main cause of tension in Geeta and Guru Dutt’s marriage, leading to a growing rift between them. Geeta Dutt took to drink and gradually distanced herself from Guru Dutt. The Dutt-Rahman relationship was the subject of much gossip and speculation as the idea of loving two women was inconceivable and seen as immoral in the India of the 1950s. The Dutt-Rahman relationship was no doubt close and complex and inextricably connected to his films and creativity. Despite Guru Dutt’s attachment to Waheeda Rahman, this relationship too fell apart and they stopped seeing each other after Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam was completed in 1962.

Soon after the Dutts celebrated the first birthday of their only daughter, Nina, it was clear that their marriage was in grave trouble. Conciliation and compromise were no longer immediate options. Some time in 1963, the Dutts moved from the family home to Ashish, a bungalow opposite Dilip Kumar’s house on Pali Hill in Bombay. Within a few months, Guru Dutt once again moved, this time to live alone in a flat on Peddar Road, Geeta Dutt and her three children also moved to an apartment near Mehboob Studios, in Bandra.

A year later on 10 October 1964, Geeta Dutt had an uneasy premonition about her husband. The couple had been arguing furiously the previous day about whether the children would go or not to see their father. On the morning of the 10th, Geeta Dutt telephoned her husband’s cook, Rattan. When Rattan said that his master hadn’t got up, she insisted that he break open the locked door to Guru Dutt’s bedroom. It was soon discovered that Guru Dutt, who was only thirty-nine, had died of an overdose of sleeping pills.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Yours Guru Dutt: Intimate Letters of a Great Indian Filmmaker’, presented by Nasreen Munni Kabir, Roli Books, Rs 395

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