Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool Through the Eyes of a Millennial: Cancel the Culture, Predicts
The 1959 tragic masterpiece ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ tells the story of famous director Suresh Sinha (played by Guru Dutt) whose life goes badly after losing his daughter Pammi (played by Kumari Naaz) in a battle for custody and gets away from Shanti (played by Waheeda Rehman), her lover. Director, screenwriter and producer Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone, better known to the world as Guru Dutt, embraces the character of Suresh and delivers a compelling performance sensitively capturing a man crippled by loneliness.
The narration unfolds through a flashback. The viewer is brought back to Suresh’s glorious heyday when he was the darling of the film industry with his films grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars at the box office, followed by a series of events that sparked his disgrace.
At a time when cancellation culture roared in the entertainment world, overturning careers and lives, “Kaagaz Ke Phool”, produced decades before cancellation culture became a trending term, has illustrated. It doesn’t matter what era you are from. Once acceptance is lost, ostracism is inevitable. It happens to Suresh after a series of his films bombarded the box office. The public and its funders have turned their backs on it. And his lackluster attempts at leadership fail as he is drawn into the turmoil of his personal life.
Separated from his wife Veena, Suresh is kept away from Pammi. His westernized and bourgeois in-laws despise his job as a filmmaker. When we come back to it today, their behavior comes across as absurd – hailing Westernisms as the pinnacle of sophistication when a Western entity barbarically colonized India. The film gives us a glimpse of what was fashionable among the upper class in a newly post-independent India. Ten years after independence, the imprint left by the colonialists persists.
Veena’s brother, Rakesh ‘Rocky’ Verma (played by Johnny Walker) serves as comedic relief with a false accent and an obsession with horse racing – a character whose shenanigans seem to exist to break away from the film’s otherwise moody tone. Unlike the great comic book characters that are added to movies like Shrek’s Donkey or Finding Nemo’s Dory, Rocky’s antics are more like untimely sporadic EDM drops made in an attempt to distract viewers from the grim storyline.
The film explores one of the most cruel fates that can happen to a man: loneliness. Rejected by his wife and in-laws and kept away from his daughter Pammi, Suresh struggles with loneliness. Despite financial and box office success, a distressed Suresh gets a glimpse of happiness when Shanti enters his life.
An orphan, Shanti is able to empathize with Suresh and what it’s like to be alone in the world.
They meet as he takes shelter from the rain, and he hands her his coat before rushing off to catch a train to Bombay. They later meet again when Shanti unwittingly walks into the set of Suresh’s movie to return the mantle. Charmed by her innocence, Suresh presents her as Paro, the main lady in his film.
The scene where Suresh meets Shanti in costume as Paro is incredibly powerful. He sets the tone for the characters’ relationship through the use of light and shade. Their meeting evokes a sense of intimacy, with Shanti opening up to Suresh. When Suresh is seriously injured in an accident and his wife refuses to come to his side, Shanti is there with him when he wakes up. He sends her home fully aware of the futility of their relationship. Their longing for each other is brilliantly portrayed in one scene, with the figures standing in the shadows, separated from each other as faint appearances of them walk towards each encounter under the light. What emerges from the film is the masterful use of shadow and light, which intimately capture pivotal scenes. A love story that shouldn’t be.
The plot of the film gives a realistic picture of what the Indian film scene looked like in the 1950s. It came out at a time that many film historians call “the golden age of Indian cinema”. A time when some of the biggest names like Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Subrata Mitra, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor marked their genius. Movies were an easily accessible form of entertainment for the emerging middle class in a newly post-independent India. The influence of film professionals was immense half a century ago. This massive spotlight on those involved in the film industry has worked like a double-edged sword. Once rejected, they are fired and the next new person comes in to take their place. Canceling culture is not a recent phenomenon. While the scale has changed, the rejection of public figures and their subsequent ousting from social and professional circles has not changed. Guru Dutt succeeds in identifying and emphasizing this quality of public acceptance and rejection and portrays it brilliantly through his film.
Hailed as one of the best self-reflective films in Indian cinema, ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool makes several allusions to Dutt’s own life. After the commercial failure at the box office, it was the last film to be officially directed by Dutt. That says a lot about the power of rejection by the masses. The film then enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s, propelling it to the rank of a cult classic. Dutt’s film continues to be relevant even today. Address and recognize themes like loneliness, human fallibility, the culture of cancellation, and the fleeting nature of fame, all of which are relevant topics of conversation even today.
(Rivi Joseph is an intern at IndianExpress.com and is based in Thiruvananthapuram)
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