Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi's Journey
By Sathya Saran
Published by: Penguin Books India
Price: Rs 499
Guru Dutt made a dramatic entry into my life.
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, sometime in the eighties, and I had flipped on Doordarshan, the only TV channel on air then. And there he was this somebody - a shawl draped across his shoulders, arms spread and resting on either ends of a doorway, standing there in a manner that put me in mind of Christ on the crucifix - singing the most stirring of laments.
I sat bewitched.
The song I discovered soon afterwards was the immortal Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai and the film Pyaasa, a perennial classic.
My fascination for the filmmaker, who everyone knows died at the age of 39, and his magnum opus - a poem on celluloid if ever there was one - has only grown since.
Imagine my delight then when I finally got my copy of Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s journey by Sathya Saran, currently the editor of the Daily News and Analysis’ Me supplement.
As the book’s title suggests, it is based on the recollections of Alvi, the dialogue writer of Pyaasa, whose friendship with a streetwalker, we learn, inspired the movie Time magazine ranked among the Top 100 of all time.
Alvi also wielded the pen for other famous Dutt movies, including Aar Paar, Mr and Mrs 55, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, and at Dutt’s insistence wrote and directed the feted Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
His trek down memory lane begins on a sombre note, the opening chapter dealing with Guru Dutt’s death. Alvi is categorical that it was suicide and lays out his reasons to back up the theory.
From death we wind back in time and find ourselves privy to the first meeting between the two men.
The journey through the wonderland that was Guru Dutt Films is thus underway just a little while after the tale surrounding its end has been told.
For good measure, there is even a nonsense rhyme, penned by Alvi during the making of Kagaaz Ke Phool, thrown in towards the latter half.
Guru Dutt remains the lodestar – an obsessive perfectionist and a dreamer, who despite taking on the role of producer, director and star, finds time to indulge in childish delights, like the flying of a kite, and stage manages the pranks that find their way into the book.
There is Alvi himself, a one-time love guru and the logician’s logician, who plunges himself into his directorial debut with such passion that on one occasion he even ends up rubbing Raj Kapoor the wrong way.
Then there is Johnny Walker, the comedian who became a permanent fixture in Guru Dutt films and India’s biggest bus-conductor turned film star before Rajnikanth came along.
They are but three of the engrossing real-life characters, who lend the book its charm. Not to forget a fleeting cameo by AB Bardhan, now a top CPI leader.
It is not all kites and pranks and comedy, however.
Work is what made Guru Dutt and his men famous, and most of the anecdotes that pepper the narrative revolve around the making of the films.
Pyaasa, as mentioned earlier, remains the most celebrated film of ‘em all and appropriately, over 40 pages of the 216-page book have been devoted to its making.
There are some real nuggets, like how a visit to a kotha (brothel) and the disturbing sight of a heavily pregnant woman being forced into a dance there proved the clincher as far as the making of the masterpiece was concerned.
Also delightful is the story of how Waheeda Rahman, who played the female lead in Pyaasa, “has a buffalo to thank for the fact that we (Guru Dutt Films) signed her on”.
With such a rich cast of characters and so many colourful anecdotes to draw upon, Saran could have avoided pushing herself too hard.
But this is a labour of love and it shows. From the cover of the book, tastefully designed, to the titles of each chapter, which have been handpicked from the lyrics of the songs that Guru Dutt filmed with such tenderness, a lot of thought has gone into its making.
While Saran does not mention how long it took her to complete the book, there is one clear indicator of its rather long gestation period.
Chapter 13 sees the author talking of Johnny Walker’s death and how it affected Alvi. Now that was five years ago on July 29, 2003.
A vintage book for movie buffs, it certainly is.
The only minor lament, if only Alvi could have given us a little more of Guru Dutt…
This review was published originally on 15 July 2008