26 September 2017

Life in the Shadows

With two book reviews prior, I decided to toe the line with fellow blogger Dustedoff’s gentle exhortations and make it a hat-trick. This book is not a really a biography; it’s the memoirs of a man which focuses on a particular decade of his life – a decade in which he, an extremely erudite writer, collaborated with a man of infinite artistic talent. It is the story of man who started his professional career as a man of many trades and became the sounding board for one of the most eminent directors of the time. It is as much about his mentor as it is about himself, an honest account of a tumultuous relationship that both fostered and festered, as well as about some of the pathbreaking cinema of the time. It is also a bitter reminder of how he was forever fated to remain in his friend’s shadow, robbed of the credit for his greatest accomplishment.

Sathya Saran’s account of Abrar Alvi’s years with Guru Dutt was released in 2008. Ten Years with Guru Dutt came about as the result of an earlier interview that Alvi had given to the Indian Express. Intrigued by his statement that he had a lot to speak about his life and work with Guru Dutt if only someone would listen, Saran took up the challenge. Over the course of several afternoons, she painstakingly recorded his reminiscences about working with the mercurial director.
Viking (Penguin India)
Pages: 198
Rs: 499
Divided into chapters named after the lines of some of the hit songs from Guru Dutt films, Saran dexterously manoeuvres through a decade of memories to throw a light on the world that Guru Dutt inhabited, the friends and associates with whom he most closely collaborated, and the films that he created. She intersperses Alvi’s voice with her own, using it only to provide a background to the information she’s gathered. Abrar Alvi died the very next year after the book was published, almost as if he had only been waiting to tell his story to the world before he left it.

The book begins interestingly enough with Guru Dutt’s suicide (in a chapter aptly titled ‘Bichde Sabhi Bari Bari’) The date was 10th October 1964, and it was his third attempt at killing himself. From there, the book flashes back to Abrar Alvi’s first meeting with the man who would become his friend, philosopher and guide over the next ten creative, emotionally exhaustive years.

Then it goes on to delve into Alvi’s memories of each of the films he was associated with in some capacity or the other. How Pyaasa came about because of Alvi’s relationship with the real Gulabo, and because Guru Dutt desperately wanted to film Sahir Ludhianvi’s 'chakla'. How Mr & Mrs 55 was a combination of Alvi’s play, A Modern Marriage, and Dutt’s insistence on incorporating elements from the James-Stewart-Hedy Lamarr film, Come Live With Me. How Guru Dutt changed the climax of Aar Paar, much to Alvi’s dismay. Of searching for the perfect camera with which to shoot Kaagaz ke Phool – and Dutt’s interesting meeting with a Parisian lady of leisure.

There are personal reminiscences – of how he wrote hundreds of love letters to his first crush, each one different from the other, and how they eventually became a file that friends copied from; of how driving his cousin to the studios led to a friendship with Raj Khosla; of how an argument with the latter led to an encounter with Guru Dutt; of being held hostage at Dutt’s residence each day for a week while he was being (unknown to him) ‘tested’; how Dutt loved to set Alvi and Raj Khosla (or Johnny Walker) at loggerheads; of meeting 'Gulabo' and regretting his neglect of her.

There are anecdotes galore – of how Mehmood was introduced to Guru Dutt films (courtesy Johnny Walker); of how Meena Kumari once broke down on the sets of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam because she was late and was afraid she would be admonished when she returned home; of how casting Waheeda Rehman in C.I.D was the result of an unexpected meeting with a buffalo; how Madhubala would break into peals of laughter when a serious scene would be
 shot; how Mehmood’s nose became a source of much merriment in the unit; how ordering Chicken a la Kiev led to an interesting contretemps; how Guru Dutt’s death made Alvi, an agnostic, a firm believer in astrology.

There are stories about film personalities – of SD Burman and his way of enacting his songs; of how Burmandada was a simple, innocent man; of why Burmandada refused to work with Sahir; of how Johnny Walker never had a single enemy; of how Raj Khosla (then Guru Dutt’s assistant director) and Alvi were both friends and rivals for Dutt’s affections; of the real reason why Dilip Kumar refused Pyaasa; of the relationship between Dutt and his protégé, Waheeda; of Geeta Dutt’s suspicious nature and Guru Dutt’s double standards.

Alvi is (justifiably) bitter about the Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam controversy. Having written, visualized and directed the classic, it must have been a shock to realise that in popular imagination, the film’s director was seen to be Guru Dutt. It is true, as Alvi avers, that Dutt picturized the songs. It is also true that as a close associate of many years, Alvi was definitely influenced by his mentor’s way of directing. However, as YB Chawan said, Abrar worked so hard on that film but he never got any credit. People say it was produced by Guru Dutt so it had to be Guru Dutt’s film.” (Upper Stall) In Conversations with Waheeda Rehman (Nasreen Munni Kabir), Waheeda, too, lays the controversy to rest, stating that it was Abrar Alvi who directed the film, while Guru Dutt shot the songs. Alvi has proof – witnesses who were there during the shooting, anecdotes only a director would have known, photographs, even a letter from Guru Dutt stating that the credit (or discredit) for the film was Alvi’s alone. Yet, the feeling persists, especially among Guru Dutt fans that the whimsical director helmed the most successful film from his production house. Perhaps this book will go some distance in setting that controversy to rest.

Dutt was a man of many moods, and Alvi captures those changes with the panache that made him a successful writer. In Alvi’s telling, Guru Dutt is a flawed, complex human being, and their relationship (as that of Dutt’s with VK Murthy) seesawed between great camaraderie and petty fights and sulks (on both their parts). He has only one complaint about his friend – that Dutt never formally acknowledged his (Alvi’s) contribution to the various films, either in scripting them or even in directing them.

Replete with photographs from the National Film Archives in Pune, and released in both English and Hindi (Guru Dutt ke Saath Ek Dashak), Ten Years with Guru Dutt is a chronicle of the lives of a group of creative people, the times they lived in, and the films they worked on. Mostly, it is an honest, affectionate picture of a great director, obsessed with cinema but as mischievous as a child, capricious but intensely loyal, brilliant but flawed – and the mutual friendship and respect they shared.  

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