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The Tragic Life of Guru Dutt

Ravi is an avid movie and theatre buff and loves films that surprise him. He specializes in dissecting movies and recommending the best ones

An outstanding director, iconic actor, visionary producer, and troubled soul, Guru Dutt's real life was just as tragic as the reel-life characters he created and enacted.

An outstanding director, iconic actor, visionary producer, and troubled soul, Guru Dutt's real life was just as tragic as the reel-life characters he created and enacted.

Guru Dutt, the Troubled Genius

Guru Dutt, often called “India’s Orson Welles," and the man behind the iconic classics Pyaasa (1957) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1960), was a genius unparalleled even now in Indian cinema.

An outstanding director, iconic actor, visionary producer, and troubled soul, Guru Dutt's real life was just as tragic as the reel-life characters he created and enacted. He was a visionary far ahead of his time.

In his short and successful career, he not only created and acted in blockbuster movies but also introduced several new actors like Johnny Walker and Waheeda Rehman, who became legendary actors in their own right.

India’s Orson Welles

More than 60 years after their release, his iconic movies are mandatory study material in movie institutes worldwide. Students, critics, and actors not only revere them for their cinematic brilliance but also for the rich tapestry of themes that formed the backdrop of each of his movies.

But despite his successful career, Guru Dutt’s personal life was topsy-turvy with a troubled marriage, a failed love story, and heartbreak.

More than 60 years after their release, his iconic movies are mandatory study material in movie institutes worldwide.

More than 60 years after their release, his iconic movies are mandatory study material in movie institutes worldwide.

The Making of Guru Dutt

Guru Dutt was born Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone on July 9, 1925, in Bangalore, India. While he was still in his teens, he started working as a telephone operator in Kolkata. The work did not excite him, and he soon moved to Mumbai to try his luck in the movies. In Mumbai, people started calling him by his nickname "Guru Dutt," a name that stuck.

In Mumbai, he got multiple opportunities to hone his creative talent in acting and cinematography. He began his career by acting in bit roles in several movies. He later started working full-time at the premier production house, Prabhat Film Company.

Baazi Breakthrough

Around this time, the leading actor Dev Anand recognized his talent and offered him a director’s role in the upcoming movie Baazi (1951). The film became a blockbuster, and Guru Dutt overnight catapulted into the big league.

Baazi was followed by a string of superhits that established Guru Dutt not only as a director par excellence but also as an intense actor. Dutt and his team went on to deliver several successful movies: Aar Paar (1954), Mr. & Mrs. ’55 (1955), Sailaab (1956), and Pyaasa (1957). Time magazine also rated his iconic movie Pyaasa as one of the ten best movies of all time.

Intense Social Consciousness

He soon became the darling of the masses as his movies created a mesmerizing tapestry of themes that appealed to the heartstrings of the commoner. His films dwelled on the subjects of poverty, unemployment, and class racism, He brutally depicted the societal apathy of those times and drilled poignant messages of change and equality in emerging India.

He was also the pioneer in using music to express human emotions. This is evident in his legendary movie Pyaasa, where he pairs with actress Waheeda Rehman to create a musical plethora of soulful songs penned by the famed lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi.

Pyaasa Poetic Masterpiece

In this movie, Guru Dutt plays the role of a melancholy poet struggling to get his poems published. Ultimately in a life filled with deceit and struggle, he finds love in the arms of a prostitute named Gulabo, played by Waheeda Rehman. As Vidyashankar, an artistic director talks about Pyaasa:

“Every frame is artistically arranged and there seems to a magical beauty in the manner in which the frames move and capture the mood and emotions of the characters on screen. Guru Dutt excelled in the craft. He has a conscious understanding of the form and that became his strength. He was adept at expressing ideas and emotions metaphorically. The latter can be seen in the famous crucifixion shot in Pyaasa.”

Guru Dutt directed several successful movies: "Aar Paar" (1954), "Mr. & Mrs. ’55" (1955), "Sailaab" (1956), and "Pyaasa" (1957).

Guru Dutt directed several successful movies: "Aar Paar" (1954), "Mr. & Mrs. ’55" (1955), "Sailaab" (1956), and "Pyaasa" (1957).

Tragic Personal Life and Death

Dutt was married in 1953 to singer Geeta Roy. The marriage was supposedly happy until Waheeda Rehman came into the picture.

Guru Dutt was looking for a new face for the 1956 film C.I.D., and as soon he saw the beautiful Waheeda, he fell in love. In due course, the closeness between the two increased. Geeta was not willing to let Guru go and Waheeda made it clear that she was not willing to play the "other woman" in this relationship.

Alcoholic Death Spiral

Guru Dutt’s turbulent personal life played havoc on his mind, leaving him disillusioned and suicidal. As author Nasreen Munni Kabir writes in Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema, “Dutt’s personal life was in turmoil, and he smoked and drank heavily.”

In 1963, Guru's relationship with Waheeda Rahman was finished, but he was also separated from Geeta. Tragically, the filmmaker committed suicide on October 10, 1964, at the mere age of 39. It was his third suicide attempt. He is said to have been mixing alcohol and sleeping pills, and post-mortem reports suggest that he might have died accidentally.

Sadly, Geeta Dutt suffered a severe nervous breakdown and passed away in 1972 at the age of 41.

Guru Dutt in "Chaudhvin-ka-Chand" (1960)

Guru Dutt in "Chaudhvin-ka-Chand" (1960)

Guru Dutt's Top 10 Films

  1. Pyaasa (1957)
  2. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)
  3. Mr. & Mrs. '55 (1955)
  4. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)
  5. Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960)
  6. Sanjh Aur Savera (1964)
  7. Bahurani (1963)
  8. Aar Paar (1954)
  9. Baazi (1951)
  10. Sailaab (1956)

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan