Meaning and purpose: The Guru Dutt answer.
An effort to understand the genius and his psyche.
Guru Dutt’s life and death pushed some of us to confront these two questions and their relevance not only to his life but, as an extension, to our own.
Why was Guru Dutt here?
Do only successful people deserve to live?
Why is each one of us on this planet?
Do we all have to be special or great or do we have to belong to a certain hallowed group to deserve existence?
Recently in Bangladesh terrorists asked their hostages to recite lines from the Koran. Those that failed were killed in a barbaric manner. In the eyes of the killers, these people who failed did not deserve life if they could not mouth lines from their favourite book. Through their homicidal acts, they showed us how they viewed the meaning and purpose of life.
Similarly, Guru Dutt’s meaning and purpose appeared to be work and family as I already underlined in my earlier essay on him with his quote. But his success as an artist led to the collapse of his family. Yet, he wanted it all; he stopped seeing that we are all responsible for our deeds and there are unpleasant consequences to straying from the fold. He perhaps forgot or overlooked the fact that however high one rises, none of us is truly free from the consequences of our actions.
Let’s look at ourselves: do we believe that we have to be successful to be alive? That we should be rich, or famous or powerful to deserve to exist? That if we are not the best at something, we are unworthy of another breath? If this were true, no flower deserves life, nor does any tree, or a blade of grass or an animal or a bird on a tree. If this were true, then 99.999 per cent of humanity should commit suicide. Such a high percentage of suicide should make us question our belief; if it doesn’t work for most of humanity, is this really a valid belief?
As human “beings” we often believe we are not human beings but human “doings’. As beings, we often forget that we are no more than a part of all existence, that fish swim, that birds fly, that human beings walk. Our footsteps, like those of the crow on the beach, will be erased by the next wave. Yet, we are so self-absorbed that we often forget all this. In our pursuit of external victories, we come to believe that we can conquer everything if we can only exercise our minds.
We get entangled emotionally and we come face to face, first with pleasure and then the never-ending pain. Now we spend our energy to alleviate the pain but we are frustrated to find that the emotional pain cannot simply vanish. Being blinded by narcissism, we blame the external world for our pain when most of the high edifice of pain was constructed by us in our moments of high self-delusion. We then take recourse to play games with our thoughts, some of them linger and some vanish. We choose to hold the thought that we have been wronged by the world when, in fact, we have ourselves been hacking at the roots of our tree of Joy. The tree of Pleasure demands a high price, the tree of Joy merely asks for one to come to terms with the ennui and the inevitable human condition. We err when we mistake one for the other, when the two trees are the very antithesis of each other.
Evidently, Guru Dutt made a Himalayan blunder by choosing his negative thoughts to define the meaning and purpose of his existence. He allowed the positive and hopeful thoughts to drift away, and, instead, he focussed on “Why me?”
The question he really should have asked, in all honesty, was “Why not me? Am I any higher than the next man? Am I more than a human being? Have I not seen others like me, suffer much more than they appear to deserve? Can I ask myself if I did, in some way, make a few judgement errors and am now reaping the results of bad karmic acts? If I am truly great as I believe I am, I will surmount this too. Let me go back to the drawing board and see where I was remiss. Yes, the journey will be painful and long, and yet, I know the wisest words ever written are “this too shall pass.”
Easier said than done? Not really, those that examine the roots of pain are the ones healed by that knowledge, we know this from example after example in history.
Perhaps he lacked the spiritual depth required for the task, perhaps he was too narcissistic to look beyond himself and see what his creativity had made of him; perhaps a genius like him was doomed by the limitations set on him by his own creativity, by his own desire to see himself not as a human being but as a human doing. Perhaps he thought Guru Dutt was nothing if he was not a successful artist or a successful social being.
He simply narrowed down the yardstick to four things. He was defined by his work, by his family, by his love life and by the approbation of the audience. Without these four in place, he dismissed his existence as futile. He simply could not accept that he had screwed up big time and he needed to do the work required to put things back in order.
Perhaps, like him, we too do not appreciate that our individual existence is purposeful beyond competitiveness. It is beyond finance, beyond art, beyond society, it is beyond even the emotional pain that comes with human existence.
Some fans of Guru Dutt may object to my calling the genius narcissistic. But let us see what he did when he was working on the ultimate biopic of his life: Kaagaz Ke Phool. The most ironic songs were sung by his wife Geeta Dutt for a woman who was now his lady love, Waheeda Rehman, two songs, one as the background number, and the other as actually mouthed by her. A sensitive human being like him, did he step back to think how destructive that was on his part? Was he perhaps, so blinded by his art and self-love that he did not see the pathos and tragic irony of using Geeta’s voice to condone the onscreen romance of her own husband with the actress, both involved with each other off-screen as well? That he could see nothing beyond his creative needs becomes clear.
He was being driven by Art to do everything that was required for the unforgettable work. He was being driven by history to make his place. Yet, while he was creating history, he was writing his own death warrant. That, too, was the demand of history.
The scene begins with the lady love knitting a sweater for a married man. He understands it is for him, and he walks away from her into the darkness and informs her that he is a married man. She answers that she knows this. Then she joins him in the darkness by walking up to him and lights a cigarette for him, symbolically, lighting the flame between them, and simultaneously, partnering him in his act of self-destruction. A cigarette is harmful to health and as the other woman, by lighting his cigarette, she wordlessly indicates that even if its destructive for him, she will facilitate it for him. She was saying through that very act that many taboos were about to be set aflame and that many dangers would soon be around them. The cigarette smoking metaphor is symbolic. She was willing to spur him on his downward descent. The romance of the song is heightened by Geeta Dutt’s sensuous yet pathos-ridden singing, and also by the play of light and darkness in the scene. Guru Dutt moves from light to darkness, its clear that the physicality of the extra-marital affair would exact its price. Yet, boldly, he projected the “other self” of the two lovers move into the light to unite for a few moments.
How did a sensitive artist do this to his wife, also an artist of high standing? Would he expect there to be no consequences from her once she discovered? After subjecting Geeta to this kind of blase exploitation of her voice, subjecting her to ridicule in public, the narcissistic creative artist in him still craved her love, despite everything. He had made a laughing stock of his family, blinded as he had been by his passion for art and for his paramour.
And thus artists sometimes find themselves confronted with the consequences of their nonchalant self-betrayal. To honour the artist in them, to honour the muse, they forget that they are part of the human chain, the human condition. When the house begins to collapse, the questions are full of hate, “If this world is so undeserving of my art and life, why exist? Where is the purpose?”
Meaning and purpose.
Can someone tell us this one secret?
Let us not take ourselves too seriously.
There is more to an artist than his art.
There is forgiveness.
And of oneself.
And there are new beginnings.
And that each one of us is nothing more than a blade of grass.
And nothing less either.
Originally written on Guru Dutt’s birthday, 9 July 2016
Lata Jagtiani is an author of several books including the biography, ‘O.P.Nayyar King of Melody’. She has been a lecturer both in India and abroad teaching English and Creative Writing to college students. She lives in Mumbai.