The melancholic majesty of Guru Dutt

By Nimisha Misra

We were in the car, the dusty April heat rising and ebbing in waves on our way to Varanasi.  The ride was set to Kishore Kumar’s lilting and jovial yodels – making the barren summer scorched landscape fecund with feeling.  My father and I had given up on our conversation; it lay suspended between us like a curtain to be parted and we were focused on staying awake and making it to my grandmother’s house by tea-time. Suddenly, the pit of my stomach dropped, the music slowed down, and I heard my father sighing so lightly I can still not be sure, all these years later, if I imagined it.

Jaane woh kaise…somebody asked rhetorically, log the jin ke…he braved on; I stared at the stereo with my breath paused, anticipating, waiting. Jaane woh kaise log the jin ke, pyaar ko pyaar mila? I wonder what kind of people those were, whose love was reciprocated with love. The idea that not all love is requited, that it is not even granted, and if I was to believe the story of the man singing to me, it is not even commonplace, hit me with a gentle thud.

Until that point in my life, I had neither seen death, nor misery, nor paucity. Some anger yes, but always doused with reconciliation, always some kindness to cut the bitter aftertaste. In that car, on that road, I felt melancholy for the first time in my life. Like the secondary sorrows of some other lifetime rushing at me through the conduit of someone else’s voice. I felt that whoever this man was, and wherever he was singing from, I needed to go there and hold him or the universe would collapse and cascade around us. I was nine years old.

The man was Guru Dutt, the champion saint of the kind of all-pervading sadness that makes bleak all the things it touches. I did not know what he looked like for many years, because YouTube took some time getting to Allahabad and also because I never wanted to put a face to the misery in the interest of self-preservation.

But when I finally saw Kaagaz Ke Phool on a 50-rupee CD – the savings from five months of pocket money – I felt like I was meeting an old lover I’d worked hard to forget. Maybe it was an incidental by-product of my age, when the heart has the consistency of a dandelion that gives itself away to the lightest gust of wind. But since then, the aesthetics of my idea of love are a consequence of Dutt’s universe. Black and white, hidden in shadows that mask faces, the nonchalant acceptance of the inevitable end. In the history of Indian cinema, men have played many roles: There have been many definitions of masculinity, but few are as seductive as the brooding melancholic. And no one perfected that trope the way Guru Dutt did, born on this day in 1925.

His sadness was borne out of a jaded acceptance of the way things were.

Pyaasa released in 1957, a movie about a poet who flirts with posthumous glory and prostitutes, sings songs about unrequited love to a room where the love of his life stands, married to another man. He tells the truth of the hypocrisies of the world as he lies about being himself. Both the major relationships of his life are unfulfilled ones. And upon closer inspection we see that they remain unfulfilled by design, because the perpetual longing of the melancholy man is as central to his character as the love-shaped hole in his heart which he is always trying to fill with alcohol.

There is a savage, heart-stopping beauty to his brooding and pining. He was the kind of man you warn your lovelorn friends about, as they spiral down the rabbit hole head-first and emerge forever changed. Guru Dutt engendered the melancholy male, embodied most successfully in recent times by Ranbir Kapoor. Yet, Imitiaz Ali can travel miles upon miles to place his stories in far-flung corners of the world, but even with his cinematic brilliance, he has not been able to capture the sincere strain of sorrow that Guru Dutt was just naturally able to fill a room with.

Yet, he was never too lachrymose, never too weepy, never whining or crying for help. His sadness was borne out of a jaded acceptance of the way things were. His eyes were hollowed out by a world that systematically gouged the dreams out of them. As he leans against book cases when he speaks, he will love you long after you leave him, and he will destroy the women in his life and then blame them for the catastrophe.

There is a savage, heart-stopping beauty to his brooding and pining. Pyaasa

A few days ago, I bid a man I love goodbye at the airport, watching him leave for another country, knowing that he was leaving for good, aware that he may never come back for me, aware that I may never go back to him. The last six months together had been spent falling in love with each other’s problems. The last step was acceptance, so we accepted. Then he was gone.

On the cab ride home I turned back to Kaagaz Ke Phool. Waheeda and Guru, engulfed in darkness – she at the right of the frame, he to the left, the chasm between them wider than the distance I felt from the partner from days gone by. The camera pans away from his face, twisted with grief, to hers, stoic and immovable. Tum rahe na tum, hum rahe na hum. You are not you anymore, and I am not me.

Sixteen years after that hot April afternoon, it finally hit me that the point is not sorrow. The point is staying alive in the aftermath. He couldn’t survive heartbreak, as melancholic men usually don’t, but the women who love them are obligated differently to life. That is what makes him and what he represents so permanent, that even in his death and self-destruction, he hopes for the one he loved to survive. If that is not true love, melancholy notwithstanding, nothing is.

This article was originally published on Arré.

Nimisha Misra is a writer at Arré.