Kaagaz ke Phool

Black and white, and visually precious.   This 1959 film is often cited as an example of the golden age of Hindi cinema.

Directed by and starring Guru Dutt, who committed suicide  in 1964 at the age of 39, the film is considered by many to be at least partially autobiographical.

The movie opens with an old man in tattered clothes making his way through the gates of Ajanta Pictures.   He enters a set and slowly climbs two levels up.   He sits in semi-darkness and watches as the crew get ready for a shot.   Flashback, and we see the same man, the filmmaker Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt), in a three-piece suit, smoking a pipe in the same studio, surrounded by women asking for his autograph.   We learn that in the past he was married and separated from his wife and daughter, and while filming Devdas, he discovers an unknown,  Shanti (played by Waheeda Rehman) who he enlists to be Paro in the film, and who he soon falls in love with, much to the distress of his adolescent daughter, Pammi.   It is Suresh’s daughter, not his wife, Bina, who confronts Shanti and persuades her to break off any sentimental entanglement with her father.   Shanti gives in, quits her acting career and moves away to be a teacher in a small village, and from there, Suresh’s life falls apart.   His movie is a failure, he loses a custody battle for his daughter, and he descends into a circle of drinking and neglecting his work that soon has him broke and living in a shack.

Though not containing a Rosebud mystery that is revealed only toward the end, I still was reminded of Citizen Kane as I watched Kaagaz ke Phool.   Both tell the story of a man who had, seemingly, everything and lost it.   Both men were captains in their own industry, both characters fell for younger, unpolished women while they were already married, and became undone by their loves.   Interestingly, both possess  totemic items that have great significance to the protagonists; Charles Foster Kane has Rosebud, Suresh has his daughter’s doll and Shanti’s knitting that he keeps in a cupboard in the sitting room.   The movie’s title appears  in the haunting line of the song that plays as Shanti tries to chase after Suresh on the studio lot, only to be intercepted by autographs seekers, and she loses him: no nectar in paper blossoms.

S.D. Burman’s music and Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics are haunting, especially the most famous song from the film, the mournful Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseem Sitam.

There are some lighter moments – in the scenes with Bina’s rich and stuffy Anglophile  parents and Johnny Walker as the rakish brother-in-law – but they are few, and sometimes feel forced.   The one genuinely funny scene is where the soon-to-be-replaced actress portraying Paro as she argues with Suresh that she thinks her character should be “fancier” and wear a side part in her.   Her ideas are vetoed, as is she.

One terrific extra on  the DVD is a three-part Channel 4 documentary on Guru Dutt  by Nasreen Munni Kabir, who more recently produced a hit biography of Shahrukh Khan.   It’s an extensive examination of his movies and his life away from the camera.   In addition to family members sharing their thoughts, Kabir has also gotten his peers and collaborators – such as V.K. Murthy and Kaifi Azmi – to talk about their work together.   Murthy explains how he came up with a way to shoot two beams of light in a particular shot in Kaagaz ke Phool, and Kaifi Azmi (famous poet and lyricist, as well as father to Shabana) recites a poem about Guru Dutt (translated on screen as):

No one comes to this world to live forever

But no one leaves the world in quite your manner

For once, death, too, must have been disconcerted

For no one has embraced death in quite your manner

I fear lest the ocean may be blotted  up

For no one sprinkles their ashes in quite your manner

You bore a grudge against the tavern-keeper

For no one slakes their thirst with poison, in quite your manner

I accept that you were saved by the light

But no one extinguishes the lamp in quite your manner

No one comes to this world to live forever

But no one leaves the world in quite your manner

See it or skip it?

See it.   Though the pace is slower than in most movies today, the use of light and shadows is something to see, and the tale of unrequited love is classic.

4 thoughts on “Kaagaz ke Phool

  1. Lovely film, but it didn’t hit me as much as did Pyaasa, even given the atrocious DVD projection I saw it on. Guru Dutt’s son is supposedly involved in a long term project to clean up and reissue his father’s work, and it could not come soon enough! I have such a hard time even reading the subtitles!

    By the way, Shabana Azmi’s mother played the madam in the Rekha/Naseeruddin Shah version of Umrao Jaan. I remember because the article that I was reading said that Shabana is going to play the same role in the upcoming remake. I was really looking forward to that one until Arshad Warsi had to back out of the Naseer role of Umrao Jaan’s brothel buddy, Gohar Mirza…sigh, I know the commercial lure of Munnabhai 2 was too great, but he would have been perfect for the funny, streetwise, charming role.

  2. Thanks!

    I’m trying to get an accurate transcription of it in the original, which I’ll post once I do.

    What a talented family, the Azmis, eh? I just realized the other day when watching it that Shabana’s mother played the role of the madam in Salaam Bombay.

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