Baazi (Guru Dutt, 1951)
English Title: The Wager
Guru Dutt's Bollywood career can be said to have been a direct result of his friendship with actor Dev Anand. It is said that the two artists who were then struggling to make it big in Bollywood, made a pact to help each other when one gets a break. Anand promised that if he ever produces a film, Dutt would direct it; and Dutt promised that if he ever directed a film, he would have Anand to star in it. Anand hit it big first, and subsequently produced a film. As promised, he asked Dutt to direct it. The result is Baazi (The Wager). Baazi is the start of Gutt's illustrious career. After Baazi's success, Dutt would produce and direct a least two undeniable masterpieces, Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959). Anand would continue to star in big Bollywood productions, among which are several greats from different directors.
Baazi is about Madan (Dev Anand), an unemployed young man who is taking care of his ailing sister. Madan is a likable guy and he seems to attract many friends despite his very playful attitude. Madan also has the gift of luck. He is often seen in gambling places in the underbellies of the city trying his luck in the different games to earn a few bucks to buy medicine for his sister. A representative of a huge gambling circuit which masquerading as a legitimate night club, invites him to work for them, luring rich businessmen and royalty to their den and cheating them off their cash. Rajani (Kalpana Kartik), a public doctor and the daughter of a millionaire, meets Madan while tending to his sister. The two slowly fall in love, but because the difference in class, neither of the two can make a move. Because of dire circumstances involving his sick sister, Madan accepts the shady job offered him, and would have to wager his life, his love, and his honor to gain the little things his poverty has prevented him from getting, including much-need treatment for his sister.
Baazi, being the directorial debut of Dutt doesn't show much of what the director would be capable of in his later films. However, it is distinct from the film that Dutt is gifted in setting up an atmosphere that is appropriate to the film's mood. Much of the film is shot in sound stages, and one can instantly observe poorly painted sets. However, Dutt takes control of the budgetary constraints and still manages to come up with tight visuals: mainly focusing on close-ups of his actors and actresses' faces, or clever blocking that takes the eye away from the lack of scenery.
Baazi is an urban crime tale and its structure is very similar to the film noirs that are very popular in America. Naturally, Dutt doesn't sway by giving second-rate visuals to his Bollywood noir. The opening sequence in itself shows a director who knows what he wants: the camera following a mysterious character down the dark alleyways of the city leading to damp, and dangerous gambling nests. He sets his audience up for a tale of mystery, of danger, where each and every character is capable of treachery. He creates an urban world that looks and feels much like a gambling den, where every move requires a wager, and oftentimes there is a need to bluff and a need to just fold and give up, and rely on the impression that lady luck is with you.
However, Baazi is not entirely noir. While the film has noir elements, most of that downward spiraling noir heroes experience only happens during the last thirty minutes of the film. There are no clear femme fatales, female characters whose role in the narrative is to accompany the hero to his eventual descent. It can be argued that Leena (Geeta Bali), the nightclub dancer is this noir's femme fatale. However, Dutt has always had a soft spot for women, and paints Leena with much respect despite her lowly profession. The mood is much more cheerful than its American counterparts, mostly due to the fact that scenes are separated by song and dance number, composed by the great S. D. Burman. The film does not center on the noir elements, but the theme of Madan's metaphorical wager of everything that matters to him he has in exchange for monetary comforts and his sister's welfare. The film's heart does not belong in the film's attraction and utilization of crime, but to the well-told romance-against-all-odds between Madan and Rajani.