Suicide or overdose? The loss of Guru Dutt still haunts many

·Columnist
·8-min read

Guru Dutt’s strength was his intense sensitivity, which poured generously into his work. The disillusion of a poet with the illusion of love in Pyaasa. Lurking shadows behind the shimmer of showbiz in Kaagaz Ke Phool. A woman silenced by feudal hypocrisy in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam… frame after frame each film is a cinematic heirloom.

Sadly, the existential angst was in tandem with his personal life as well, where the outcome was far more distressing. Perhaps, carrying unpleasant memories of a chaotic childhood, Guru Dutt was known to be emotional and edgy. His idyllic romance with wife Geeta Dutt soon succumbed to ego and mistrust. Though deeply in love with each other, insecurities ripped them apart.

Guru Dutt
Guru Dutt

Unconversant with the business of art, his indulgence pushed him into debt. A peeling marriage, rumours of alleged involvements, fuddled finances, chronic depression and an increasing dependence on alcohol and sleeping pills… underwrote a tragedy.

No refrain has been able to capture the ephemeral equations of filmland as Kaifi Azmi’s Waqt ne kiya kya haseen situm with its interplay of light and shadow, love and separation… Filmed on Guru Dutt and muse Waheeda Rehman, the elegy of estrangement has been ironically rendered by Geeta Dutt. The three, inadvertent players in a real-life drama, synergized for a surreal moment on celluloid.

Decades after he passed away at 39, the speculation whether it was by suicide or an overdose of sleeping pills/alcohol has found no answers. Like the hero of a Greek tragedy, Guru Dutt’s persona, now a cult, looms large...

“Rehne ko sada dehar (world) me aata nahi koi,

Tum jaise gaye aise bhi jata nahi koi.”

Thus wrote Kaifi Azmi at the young filmmaker’s untimely demise and gave words to a collective lament...

Born on 9 July, 1925, Guru Dutt’s real name was Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone. Apart from economic want, young Guru witnessed perpetual conflict between his father Shivashanker Rao Padukone (headmaster/banker) and mother Vasanthi (teacher/writer). “My parents fought a lot. My mother never loved my father. Every evening it was hell in that small house,” once recalled sister/artist Lalitha Lajmi.

Being the oldest, Dutt became a ‘father figure’ to his siblings - brothers Atmaram (filmmaker), Vijay (advertising professional), Devi Dutt (filmmaker) and Lalitha.

He began his career as a choreographer in 1944. 

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He later assisted Gyan Mukherjee during Sangram (1946) and Amiya Chakrabarty during Girls’ School (1949). Dutt made his directorial debut with Navketan’s Baazi (1951). Guru Dutt’s directorial ventures including Jaal (1952), Aar-Paar (1954) and Mr & Mrs 55 (1955) and C.I.D (1956) won him credibility. He introduced Waheeda Rehman in the latter.

Dutt could convincingly play the disenchanted poet in Pyaasa (1957), given his guileless face and lucid eyes. Aided by talents like writer Abrar Alvi, lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and composer SD Burman, the subliminal Pyaasa also celebrated his chemistry with muse Waheeda Rehman.

His subsequent productions, the semi-autobiographical Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), the love triangle Chaudvin ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), about debauched zamindars, all featuring Waheeda, won him acclaim.

GEETA & GURU

Guru Dutt met the 18-year-old Geeta Roy during the making of Baazi (1951). The songstress was already a sensation. Guru Dutt and Geeta got married on 26 May in 1953. The couple had three children, Tarun, Arun, and Nina. Gradually, Geeta sang only for Guru Dutt’s films.

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The initial years were blissful. Both Geeta and Guru doted on their children. Dutt’s birthday fell on the same date as his older son Tarun’s – 9 July. Arun’s fell on 10 July. The combined birthdays were celebrated with great ardour. In 1956, the couple moved to a bungalow at 48 Pali Hill.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE

But soon there was ‘a clash of egos.’ Brilliant as artistes, as a couple they had constant friction.

“Guru Dutt and Bhabhi (Geeta) were both kaan ka kachcha (gullible). They believed rumours about each other. Guru Dutt was fond of women. Women were attracted to him too… through him they could become actresses. They were ready to do anything for him,” shared brother Devi Dutt, who was an integral part of Guru Dutt Movies Pvt. Ltd (Filmfare).

“Geeta was suspicious of every actress he worked with… She kept tabs on him all the time. That was her only undoing,” rued Lalitha about their ‘tempestuous’ marriage of 11 years. (Filmfare).

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As Geeta was keen to act, Dutt launched Gauri (1957) for his wife. But unhappy with it, he later scrapped the film. That added to the rancour. It’s said, Geeta would often take the children away to her mother’s home while Dutt would plead her to return.

Soon, Dutt began suffering frequent bouts of depression. Having suicidal tendencies, he reportedly attempted suicide twice. The second time he was admitted to Nanavati Hospital and slipped into a coma for three days. When he came through, the first word he uttered was ‘Geeta!’ Dutt’s love for his wife was undeniable.

Guru Dutt had signed Waheeda for a four-film contract CID, Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool and Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam. Rumours of Guru’s fondness for Waheeda apparently left Geeta further disturbed. On the other hand, stories about Geeta’s alleged dependence on sleeping pills and alcohol grew stronger.

The couple began living separately in 1957. Guru moved to Peddar Road while Geeta lived with her children in Santa Cruz.

“Waheeda’s been unnecessarily blamed for his disturbed marriage. Maybe, Guru Dutt saw a muse in Waheeda,” said Lalitha in Waheeda’s defence.

“The relationship between Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt was that of a teacher and a student…There must have been something emotional between them. When people work together a bond, a friendship develops. But it was a temporary phase… Guru Dutt would have never left the kids,” seconded brother Devi Dutt (Filmfare).

Eventually, in 1962, Waheeda left Guru Dutt Movies Pvt. Ltd.

FINANCIAL WOES

Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), India’s first film shot in cinemascope, with a supposed budget of 50 lakhs, was Dutt’s ambitious venture.

Kaagaz Ke Phool
Kaagaz Ke Phool

Said to be semi-autobiographical, it was about director Suresh Sinha’s (Guru Dutt) professional and private turmoil. The film’s commercial failure left Dutt shattered mentally and financially. He believed his career as a director was over.

While scouting for locations in Baroda for Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) with cinematographer V.K.Murthy, Dutt remarked, “I wanted to become a director, I became one; I wanted to become an actor, I became one… I have everything, yet I have nothing (rediff.com),” thereby shedding light on his gloomy mindscape.

On another occasion when Murthy was shifting to Bangalore, a depressed Dutt told him, “My family is gone, you are going to Bangalore, Abrar Alvi is going to Madras to write a film. I have become an orphan. Kya karu main?” (rediff.com)

Dutt was not savvy with finances. Projects like Motu Ki Maasi, Raaz (it later became Woh Kaun Thi?), Professor, Lal Patthar were apparently his subjects. But Dutt gave them away. Guru Dutt Movies Pvt. Ltd had 50 stories. 

Yet he chose to make remakes. “He was not business-minded. That’s why he became insolvent… Also, he believed his ‘friends’, who advised him wrongly for free drinks. This brought about his downfall,” analysed brother Devi Dutt.

SUICIDE OR OVERDOSE?

After the success of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Guru Dutt and Geeta patched up. It was decided that the entire family would stay together at 48 Pali Hill once the redevelopment of the bungalow into a high-rise was complete.

On October 9, 1964, the shooting of his production Baharen Phir Bhi Aayegi (1966) got cancelled. On the way back to his Peddar Road flat, Guru, accompanied by brother Devi, picked up kites and manjha to have fun with sons Arun and Tarun over the weekend. 

He also bought clothes for the boys. After reaching home, he excitedly prepared omelettes. He remarked he’d cook more often once the family lived together.

Just then walked in Mr Gole, his chartered accountant. He informed Dutt of the ‘final notices’ from the IT department for the taxes pending for two years. He warned that the IT department could raid the studio, office and home anytime. A visibly disturbed Guru asked Devi to go home.

Reportedly, that evening Guru Dutt had spoken to Geeta on the phone, asking her to send the children across. Geeta, for some reason, had refused. As Devi Dutt left, Abrar Alvi entered. After a few drinks Alvi too left without having dinner.

Next day, when Guru Dutt didn’t respond, the door of his room had to be broken. Whether it was suicide or an accident is still debated upon. Sister Lalitha mentioned that the ‘suicidal tendency’ was perhaps ‘a biological disorder’ that runs in the family. 

A close cousin had also committed suicide. So did Dutt’s son Tarun Dutt years later in 1985. She emphasised, “He did not commit suicide over either of the two women (Geeta and Waheeda).”

Guru Dutt’s half-open eyes and his hand positioned in a particular manner suggested that he was about to say something. It was what you call in cinematic parlance ‘freeze’! The light was on and a book he was reading lay open,” recalled Lalitha (Filmfare).

Devi Dutt debunked the suicide theory saying, “He did not commit suicide. It must have been due to the sleeping pills after heavy drinking with Abrar.”

Professionally, Waheeda and Dutt had moved away much before he passed away. In fact, for the last scene of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), he had to request her to come on the set and complete it.

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Waheeda was shooting with Dilip Kumar in Madras, when she heard about Guru Dutt’s demise. Immediately, she took a flight back, not pausing even to wipe off the make-up. She arrived just when they were taking his body to the crematorium.

Geeta was devastated by her husband’s death. Their daughter, Nina, who was just two, kept saying, ‘Papa wake up!’ When they were taking away his body, Geeta’s cry, ‘Mat le kar jaao!’ tore through the silence.

Thereon consumed by grief and financial woes, Geeta eventually passed away on 20 July, 1972 due to cirrhosis of the liver. She was 41.

More from Yahoo Tragic Tales series:

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