Aar Paar (1954)

Guru Dutt | 2hr 14min

With India’s newfound independence in 1947 came a boom in the nation’s creative industries, and Guru Dutt was right there at the forefront leading the Golden age of Hindi cinema. Though he made films before, it was Aar Paar in 1954 which effectively became his first blockbuster, capturing the attention of Indian moviegoers for its energetic Bollywood soundtrack and sumptuous stylings. There are no shimmering colours or extravagant budget to play with here, and yet Dutt is nevertheless resourceful in his spectacle, spinning off a simple love triangle into a thrilling crime plot, a rags-to-riches melodrama, and a spirited comedy.

Kalu is the charismatic rascal who Dutt casts himself as, coming out of prison with aspirations to make money and gain respect. He was previously convicted of causing a collision while speeding in his taxi, which now makes it difficult for him to get work again in his old profession. A brief stint at the local mechanic ends abruptly when he is caught flirting with the boss’ daughter, Nikki, leaving him to apply for work with the mysterious Captain – a gangster who will grant him work again as a taxi driver, though with a few shady caveats. The nightclub he operates out of also employs a young dancer who similarly catches Kalu’s eye, and who seems to keep running into him whether by chance or fate. Between each of these relationships, Dutt throws out comedic one-liners with ease, constantly charming his way into new circles and romances on his way up the social ladder.

Dutt is a great director, but he also proves himself a talented actor in the pure charm that he exudes onscreen.

Behind the camera, he is even more lively. Through staircases, prison bars, tree branches, and virtually anything that crosses his camera’s path, he purposefully obstructs his shots, keeping us at a slight distance to generate both suspense and tantalising romance. His pairing of the camera’s deep focus with a production design as sumptuously cluttered as a Josef von Sternberg film shows the hand of a genuine artist at work, understanding the potential of a magnificent set piece when used at the right time.

Dutt obstructs the frame like Josef von Sternberg, finding these inventive angles through which he frames his characters.

The Captain’s nightclub of grand circular arches and ornate wooden bannisters stands out as the finest of them all, surrounding the Dancer with extraordinary decadence as she takes the spotlight for her first solo number ‘Babuji Dheere Chalna’. Patrons sit at tables adorned with fringed lampshades, while cigarettes wafts of smoke from their cigarettes fill the air with a light haze. Through such a glorious display of mise-en-scène, the bewitching atmosphere is set for the Dancer’s indirect seduction of Kalu, offering a warning of the danger that awaits him should he choose her over Nikki.

“Mister, watch your step on the path of love, this path is full of treachery.”

The nightclub where the Dancer works is Dutt’s most beautifully designed set piece with its circular archways, splendid decor, and patterned wallpaper.

Among the most dominant aesthetic choices of the film though are the frames Dutt elegantly forms out of cars, angling his camera through windows as Kalu playfully pursues Nikki in the mechanic shop during the number ‘Sun Sun, Sun Sun Zalima, Pyar Humko Tumse Ho Gaya’, and later as he takes back up taxi driving again. His eye for visual composition is impeccable, using these shots to bind the two lovers together in their respective professions, and often panning his camera between them in breezy movements.

Dutt uses the frames of car windows all through the film, leading to some marvellously creative compositions.

Of course then, it is only natural that Dutt should lead his film towards a climactic car chase, where Kalu is in his element. Though the Captain initially intends to kill him for refusing to be the mob’s getaway driver, the Dancer offers an alternative – kidnap Nikki, and blackmail him into the job. Dutt’s editing through this bank robbery sequence is as tight and suspenseful as any American gangster movie, and Kalu’s decision to speed off halfway through and rescue his girlfriend is exactly the behaviour of a roguish action hero dedicated to setting things right.

The crime subplot of Aar Paar is well-integrated in Kalu’s rise up the social ladder, serving him for a time and eventually turning against him. Even here, he keeps using these frame obstructions to build suspense.

More than anything else, it is these choices which define the characters of Aar Paar. The title itself roughly translates to ‘This or That’, tearing Kalu between a pair of women, Nikki between her family and her lover, and the Dancer between her loyalties. At the same time, it is also this power of will which guides Kalu’s personal ambitions, allowing him to escape the shame of his past and become an honourable man. It is to this end that Dutt skilfully blends genres with high spirits and exquisite artistry, crafting a sublime musical spectacle that set a standard of Bollywood filmmaking for decades to come.

Aar Paar is not currently streaming in Australia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s