Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)

Guru Dutt | 2hr 28min

Famous actors and directors may come and go, but the giant soundstage that Guru Dutt so frequently returns to throughout Kaagaz Ke Phool is seemingly immortal, becoming a glorious, unageing monument to India’s entertainment industry. It is the site that former director Suresh Sinha returns to as an elderly man at the end of his life, walking its rafters and lyrically lamenting those who have parted from his life. It is the studio where he once operated at the height of his powers, shooting an adaptation of the novel Devdas and cementing himself as one of India’s most acclaimed filmmakers. And in the film’s most inspired musical number ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’, it also hosts a blossoming romance between Suresh and his hand-picked rising star, Shanti.

The piercing beam of light which bursts through its open doors and dramatically cuts out silhouettes of its characters dims at the start of this sequence, and in its place Dutt shines a heavenly spotlight down from above. What unfolds is a beautifully understated sequence of affectionate longing so inexpressible that these two lovers cannot even verbalise their deep sentiment, leaving Geeta Dutt’s singing voiceover to express their most heartfelt desires. Guru Dutt meanwhile dollies in on the lovers’ yearning gazes and circles them with crane shots, imbuing the scene with a magical realist quality which sees their souls step out of their bodies and move into the spotlight. After this neat bit of film trickery, their physical selves are quick to follow. With his frame obstructions and depth of field, Dutt keeps on hitting one brilliant composition after another throughout this silent dance, before finally separating Suresh and Shanti on either side the studio, her in the light and him in darkness.

‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’ is the musical and visual highlight of Kaagaz Ke Phool – a song that unfolds with minimal choreography and not a word sung by either lead, but rather composed of longing gazes and a love story communicated through blocking.

In essence, this is the story of their relationship compressed into a few minutes and rendered purely through Dutt’s majestic visual artistry. One successful star discovers a hidden talent in an unknown woman, brings her into the spotlight, and eventually fades from public view while she continues to flourish – it is a fable that Hollywood has told through the generations in remakes of A Star is Born, and which is recontextualised here in Kaagaz Ke Phool with the Hindi film industry. Given the actual circumstances that surrounded Dutt’s professional relationship with his co-star Waheeda Rehman, there is an added poignancy here. This sweeping musical epic was a box office failure at the time, ending Dutt’s remarkable run of films five years before his suicide in 1964, while Rehman would keep working for another sixty years, right into the present day.

There is brilliant circular form built into this narrative structure, and Dutt does well to emphasise it even further in Suresh and Shanti’s individual arcs, marking the heights of both their successes with masses of zealous fans. They invasively look down the lens through crowded point-of-view shots, feeding Suresh’s aloof ego the first time around, and later halting Shanti in her tracks as she chases down her now-obscure lover fleeing from this life. The music that plays out here is also where Kaagaz Ke Phool gets its title, as he sorrowfully sings of a thirsty bee searching for nectar yet finding only “paper flowers” – artificial imitations of true beauty.

If A Star is Born is the template for this film’s narrative, then Dutt mirrors the inverse rise and fall with fans swarming Suresh, and then later Shanti.

Indeed, the false glamour of this industry takes its toll on Suresh and Shanti. Gossip columns linking them together while Suresh is in the process of separating from his wife make his daughter Pammi a target for bullies at school, and this subplot evolves into a melodrama which pushes Shanti away from the industry. With contracts locking her in place though, she cannot leave for good, and Suresh too grows depressed when he loses custody of Pammi in court and turns to alcohol. As magnificently sentimental as this romantic tragedy is, the comic relief that Johnny Walker offers in his role as Suresh’s brother-in-law does not land with the same impact as it did in Aar Paar or Pyaasa, and unfortunately marks a small flaw in an otherwise intoxicating film.

Much like his contemporary Douglas Sirk, Dutt works well with melodrama, offering great pathos to Pammi’s struggles – divorcing parents, gossip over her father’s new romance, and savage school bullies to top it off.

Beyond the performances and narrative, the key to the swelling emotions of Dutt’s characters lies in his imposing cinematic spectacle, connecting them to a dynamic style of rousing camera movements and striking visual frames. New to his repertoire as well are deep focus, low-angle shots which turn ceilings into exquisite backdrops much like Orson Welles before him.

Wellesian low angles and blocking, turning ceilings into mise-en-scène.
Dutt knows how to light and block his actors with great visual impact, composing some rich imagery on studio sets.

There is no doubting his ability as a craftsman of grand aesthetics, but it is equally his ability to tie them so affectingly to his story which lands Kaagaz Ke Phool so smoothly in its final minutes, taking us back to the soundstage in the present day where the elderly Suresh has been nostalgically reminiscing his youth, success, and lost love. Descending from the rafters, he takes his place in the director chair among the scattered props, lights, and cameras. As he passes away and the giant doors rolls open to begin another day of work, the sun hits him one last time, drawing all eyes to his slouched figure. Almost like an ascension to an afterlife, the camera lifts into the rafters, punctuating the end of his life with the blinding white flash of the spotlight. There is certainly something poignantly poetic in the way Dutt’s premature passing mirrors the ending of his final film, and yet Kaagaz Ke Phool also captures the essence of an artistic imagination profuse with creative joy, reminiscing the love which inspired him to craft some of India’s finest cinema.

Aar Paar was the film where Dutt pushed the envelope with visual obstructions, but it is still very much on show here in Kaagaz Ke Phool, crowding out foregrounds with clutter.
A final crane shot lifting us up into the light – a melancholy end to Suresh’s fall from grace.

Kaagaz Ke Phool is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.


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