Friday, June 01, 2007

Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)

Kaagaz Ke Phool (Guru Dutt, 1959)
English Title: Paper Flowers

I initially thought Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957) is the greatest musicale ever made, until I decided to watch Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) again. These two films by the great Indian filmmaker Guru Dutt have affected me tremendously. While Pyaasa is the more perfect film between the two, Kaagaz Ke Phool is more poignant, more memorable, and more beautiful to look at and listen to.

The opening is probably the most tragic entrance ever put in celluloid. An old man (Guru Dutt) passes through the gates of a film studio, stops by the imposing structure of the film studio. The framing of the old man's entrance to the studio shows the man made minuscule by a statue that marks the building. The man finally enters the studio. Beams of dust-littered light give the studio an eerie, forgotten atmosphere. The old man climbs up a flight of stairs, then starts singing of his fate. We become aware that it is not the studio that has been forgotten, it is the man who has been forgotten by the studio, the industry, the crowds that once adored him and his work. The old man, Suresh Sinha, used to be a very successful film director. Superimposed on his defeated teary face were moments of his former glory, with the elegance of the cinema where his film is met with applause by a crowd of cheering moviegoers.

Despite the successes in his field, there is something that is lacking in his life. Estranged from his wife (Veena) and daughter (Kumari Naaz), he focuses on his craft, with a project of adapting the tragic tale of Devdas. One rainy night, he chances upon Shanti (Waheeda Rehman). He offers the girl his coat, which she then returns to him one shooting day. Sinha notices virtues of innocence and simplicity in Shanti, requisites to the Devdas heroine and thus recruits her to star in the film, unknowing that he is starting to fall for her.

The film is beautiful. V. K. Murthy's cinematography adequately captures the film's melancholy and sadness through evocative framing and purposeful lighting. Giant shafts of light are utilized during the film's resonant moments such as during the film's love theme Waqt ne kiya (sung by Geeta Dutt), wherein Sinha catches Shanti knitting alone one early morning in the film's studio. The two at once recognize themselves as two lonely people who uniquely understand each other and such recognition, and given their difficult circumstances, becomes for them "sweet calamity," in a way that social norms and their respective fates prevent themselves from being with each other. Murthy's shafts of light give a quietly hopeful quality to the film's doomed lovers. It visually makes the aches more poignant as a tinge of unnatural beauty is revealed for an equally beautiful relationship prevented by the cruelty of human life.

Accompanying Murthy's grandiose visuals are the music composed by S. D. Burman, with lyrics written by Kaifi Azmi. One of the more notable songs is performed by Shanti, who relates to a group of kids a story about how the numbers kept on fighting to the detriment of the youngest number (1), forcing it to meet up with a same-fated number (0) to create a ten, which is again forcedly separated by other numbers. The melody, which is utterly simple and gratifyingly jovial, actually sounds like a nursery rhyme. However, it is burdened with the task of summarizing the entire film to little children. The result is a fascinating summary that is successful, embarrassingly too simple that the children relate to the message, singing and dancing along the happy rhythm of the song. Yet, it feels like that simplicity cannot exist in a world that is more interested in fame, success, class structures, and norms, something still alien to Shanti's wards' innocent minds.

If there is such a thing as imperfection in a film that perfectly captures the treacherous movements of life, more specifically life that is involved in movie-making, it is the side plot of Rocky (played by wonderful Bollywood comedian, Johnny Walker), Sinha's brother-in-law who constantly travels to Mumbai to race horses and hang out with movie people. He is disdained by his family for his unusual ways. Walker gives a welcome comedic air to the tragic affair but his inclusion in the film itself is more of a distraction rather than a pertinent entry. Seeing the film again, my initial reactions to Rocky's side plot remains. However, this narrative hiccup (by director Dutt and writer Abrar Alvi) makes the film mysteriously interesting. For sure, Rocky is that single character that connects the two impenetrable classes. He's the only important character who's free to choose his fate, certainly unlike Sinha or Shanti who are trapped with their tragic fates, and persistently evades anything that will take that freedom away.

Kaagaz Ke Phool is Dutt's most personal film. It is prophetic as it is autobiographic. Pyaasa may be the better and more coherent film, but if I were asked point blank without given any time to think, I would probably say that this film is my favorite of Dutt's films. It is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, film about filmmaking ever made.

This is my contribution to the Movies About Movies Blog-a-Thon at goatdogblog.


goatdog said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I've never seen a Bollywood film, but I'm going to remedy that soon--I put this one at the top of my Netflix queue.

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Michael,

View this with Dutt's Pyaasa. That would be a great double-bill.

Surbhi Goel said...

Infact i suggest that watching the third film of Guru Dutt, 'Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam", would complete the trilogy. Dutt attributed the directorial credit to Abrar Alvi, because of his belief that his name was jinxed. The three films complete a lose trilogy where Dutt has explored the decadence of Society as a backdrop, against which the characters are pitted.

Surbhi Goel