AUG 10, 2008 – THE FUSTY CLICH_ ABOUT LIFE IMITATING ART and art imitating life sprang to gruesome life on the evening of October 9, 1964, when Abrar Alvi went to Ark Royal, Guru Dutt’s flat on Peddar Road, to flesh out the final scene of Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, in which the heroine dies a “sad, lonely, disappointed death.” Each one of those qualifiers would, in a matter of hours, apply to the demise of Dutt himself _ who had, that day, committed himself to a series of agitated phone calls to his estranged wife, Geeta Dutt.
Alvi remembers, “She had refused to send across their baby daughter so that he could spend time with her, and with each call his anger mounted. At last, he had delivered an ultimatum… or so he seemed to suggest. ¡®Send the child or you will see my dead body…’ You know, the kind of things one says when one is angry and one’s tongue gets a bit out of control.” Alvi finished his scene close to midnight and sat down for a late dinner. Dutt was monosyllabic throughout the meal, and finally said he’d like to retire. Alvi concludes, “I never saw Guru Dutt alive again.”
It is bit of a masterstroke that Sathya Saran opens Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey with this death scene, for the author instantly establishes what the rest of her book emphasises in no uncertain terms _ that Alvi and Dutt were inseparable during their decade-long relationship, which began when they met on the sets of Baaz in 1953 and ended that fateful night of 1964. The highlights of the intervening years are recounted with great gusto by Alvi, and Saran does well to stand back and simply listen.
The thing about someone else’s story is that there’s no real way of arriving at the veracity of the chapters, at the truth of the characters, and the best recourse, sometimes, is to let this teller himself tell the story. Accordingly, large portions of Ten Years with Guru Dutt are chunks of Alvi’s reminiscences, with Saran alternating each stretch with some editorialising of her own. The effect is that of thumbing through the very entertaining transcript of a those-were-the-days interview, laden with nostalgic nuggets as much about a bygone age of living as a bygone era of filmmaking.
Given his moment, finally, under the sun _ after decades of malicious speculation whether it was really he that directed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam _ Alvi seizes the opportunity like a Saharan wanderer prostrating before the first well that’s not a mirage. He emphasises that Guru Dutt was involved only with the song sequences. “We were shooting a difficult scene,” he says, “Rehman is in bed, paralysed, and I had shot it in a way that neither Y.G. Chavan, the editor, nor Guru Dutt could make sense of. There were shots of flying leaves interspersed.”
Chavan, perhaps, went and complained to Dutt, for Alvi soon received a summons. No sooner had Alvi entered Dutt’s office than Dutt started shouting, “Who do you think you are? Is it your film? It is my film.” Alvi waited till his producer calmed down and replied, “If Chavan had told me that you wanted an explanation of the way I have visualised and shot the scene, I would have stopped my work and come.” Alvi left the room, went back to his house and dashed off a petulant note to Dutt. “Do what you want with the movie. I want no credit _ I have nothing to do with the film.” And Dutt wrote back, “You have directed the movie, the credit is yours, and the discredit, if any, is yours.”
Having peddled his most significant ware _ “I still have that precious letter with me” _ Alvi relaxes to regale us with how, for instance, Waheeda Rehman’s rise to the big leagues may not have been possible in the absence of a driver suffering from night blindness and a buffalo that was startled by the horn of a car. We learn, along the way, that not even Guru Dutt was free from being “influenced” by Hollywood (The Man with My Face is mentioned in the same breath as CID, which Dutt’s assistant Raj Khosla directed), though Alvi’s account makes it clear that it’s one thing to sniff out what’s interesting about a film and distill that essence into a brand new bottle and quite another to assemble a frame-to-frame copy.
Later, Alvi tells us how Guru Dutt’s visit to a kotha _ in preparation for Pyaasa _ led to one of the most unforgettable moments in the film; he was sickened by the sight of a heavily pregnant girl being forced to dance, and that repulsion forced its way into the song, Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai. It was SD Burman who tuned that immortal piece of verse, but not all his experiences with composing the film’s music were as elevated. Upon being commanded by Dutt to compose Sar jo tera chakraaye along the lines of a number from the film Harry Black and the Tiger, Dada Burman, Alvi recalls, came to him and wondered, “What is this that Guru is asking of me, public mujhe maarega.” A creator in nervous apprehension of being caught red-handed before a wrathful public _ how endearingly quaint this notion appears today.
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