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Indian "Orson Welles" honored at New York Fest

Time was when Indian film was synonymous with a single name --Satyajit Ray. The famous Bengali director, generally recognized as a major world class cinema auteur, made 28 films between 1955 (Pather Panchali) and 1991, most of which were religiously shown in the west, primarily for the benefit of a tiny coterie of esoterically inclined foreign language film buffs, while the works of numerous other Indian directors, some far more interesting than Ray, were studiously ignored. This lamentable disbalance is now slowly being corrected as the world at large becomes more and more aware of India in general and Indian film history in particular.

The recently completed New York Film Festival (October 7-11) spotlighted the works of an until now little known Indian film genius-maldit, Guru Dutt, a many sided cineaste who was a matinee idol as an actor, wrote scripts, directed eight remarkable films in nine years between 1951 and 1959, produced seven where his artistic hand was evident even when he was not the director (for example in the noirish "CID", 1956), and even did the choreography for a film early in his career. Small wonder that his devotees have dubbed him "The Orson Welles of India". Dutt had a turbulent private life complicated by an unhappy extramarital affair with the ethereally beautiful actress Waheeda Rehman, his muse and the star of a number of his pictures. (One is reminded of Welles' ill-fated marriage to his own screen star, the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Rita Hayworth). Eventually alcoholism (mixed with pills) took his life at the painfully early age of 39 in 1964 -- whether suicide or accident debatable, as was the demise of Marilyn Monroe two years earlier.

In this special festival sidebar poignantly entitled "A heart as big as the world", most of Dutt's features were shown, as well as some in which he either acted or directed, or both, (as Orson Welles was doing at roughlythe same time), plus a biographical documentary called "In Search of Guru Dutt". While Ray was really a niche art director of austere psychological studies made for the intelligentsia, and worked far from the Indian mainstream in the provincial Bengali language of Calcutta, casting mostly unknown local actors, Dutt was part of the Bombay Hindi mainstream at a time (the fifties) which is now recognized as the Golden Age of Hindi cinema, employing popular mainstrem stars, but in a very special individualistic way all of his own.

Dutt, himself a romantic leading man at times in his own and other films, used leading actors and actresses of the period and pursued contemporary popular themes. Three of his films were crime thrillers with perhaps some influences from the Hollywood film noir school, and he also ventured into melodrama and comedy (Mr. and Mrs. '55), but always with a very personal lyrical touch and innovative photography characterized by heavy use of closeups to probe the psychology of his characters. He was known for discovering new talents, among them Waheeda Rehman who debuted in C.I.A, and went on to become one of India's most famous screen beauties, and the popular Indian comedian Johnny Walker, whose stage name was taken --yes, from the scotch whiskey of the same designation. Whereas director Raj Kapoor gained international fame as the showman par excellence of the Indian cinema, Dutt was seen as the broodin g poet to Kapoor's flashy showman, but his screen poetry went largely over the heads of the critics although most of his films did well at the box office.

In his late masterpieces, "Pyaasa" (Thirst, 1957) and "Kaaghaz ke Phool" (Paper flowers, 1959) the tragic artist of his private life merged with his on screen persona. In the former he was a misunderstood poet taken in by a prostitute, while in the latter he played a film director spurned by a woman he loved (Waheeda in real life, and the wife who left him), headed on a downward spiral to his doom --on screen as well as in real life. When the semi-autobiographical "Paper flowers" flopped at the box office (too dark for the general public) he gave up directing in despair, but continued acting. In his own time me was largely overlooked by the critics, and it was only after his tragic early death that a cult began to grow up around his name. Now his works are finally being given the recognition they deserve as important landmarks of the Indian cinema.

An special moment at the N ew York fest was the appearance of Dutt's surviving son, Arun (born 1956), whose mother was the well known Bengali playback singer Geeta Ghosh Roy. During Geeta's recording of songs for the movie Baazi, she met the movie's young and upcoming director and their romance culminated in marriage in 1953. Geeta went on to sing some of her best songs in his movies while continuing to work at various other assignments as well. Geeta and Guru Dutt had three children, Tarun (b. 1954), Arun (b. 1956), and Ninā (b. 1962). However, the marriage went on the rocks when Dutt became romantically involved with his actress Waheeda Rehman, and Geeta started hitting the bottle to drown her sorrows.
On top of the broken marriage Dutt was eventually spurned by Rehman which was the final straw. On October 10, 1964 Dutt was found dead in a hotel room from a combination of alcohol and an overdose of sleeping pills, which was widely se en as a suicide following two earlier attempts, although son Arun has a different opinion. Geeta thereupon suffered a nervous breakdown and finally died of cirrhosis of ther liver in 1972.

Son Arun was only a eight at the time of the directors death, but treasures his memory and has gone on to become the archivist of his father's stormy life and career. The "River to River" festival of Indian films in Florence Italy will also showcase the films of Guru Dutt in December. About time that this nearly unknown "guru" of the Indian Golden Age, a master film artist of the first rank, is at long last beginning to receive his historical due after four and a half decades of relative oblivion.

by Alex Deleon for


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