Guru and disciple: A tale of Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi

* Alvi spent an entire Saturday telling me of the practical jokes Guru Dutt played on him and his team

* His memories of his years with Guru Dutt were strong, almost cinematic in their clarity of detail

* The sparks that flew between them ignited great cinema


I got to know Guru Dutt through writer-director Abrar Alvi. And, not surprisingly, Alvi’s personality revealed itself through Guru Dutt. Well, I had watched many of Guru Dutt’s films — Pyaasa, Kagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvin ka Chand and CID — during morning show runs, bunking college to catch these films. I watched Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam much later, and the period flavour with its story of suppressed longings was just the right mix for me to add it to my list of best loved films. Of course, through those years, I had not the faintest dream that fate would take me to sit face to face with the director of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and the writer of the other films of Guru Dutt (1925-64), to hear stories about their creation.

But there I was, in Abrar Sahab’s house on the 10th floor of a building as far away from my own home as the roads of Mumbai city could manage. I knew nothing about the person who sat opposite me in a corporate honcho’s chair; meant to support his aching lumbar. I had not googled him, as the web was still an unknown factor to me at that time. But knowing he had been a part of Guru Dutt’s life and work, as I had gathered from an interview I had read, made me curious, and eager to know more about Alvi (1927-2009). The outcome was Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey. The book was recently relaunched with a new cover — 12 years after it was published.

In his 80s, and encumbered by illnesses, lonely and bitter, Alvi then was a complex person. But his memories of his years with Guru Dutt were strong, almost cinematic in their clarity of detail. As, over our weekly meetings, the stories unravelled, I could almost see Guru Dutt, his quizzical gaze, his piercing eyes, and sense his magpie mind moving around collecting ideas and images to add to his work.

I had had till then a hazy image of Guru Dutt. Dazzled by Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, I had been untouched by Guru Dutt’s screen presence, despite the power of his films. And, of course, stories of the affair with Waheeda, his suicide because his Muse had moved away to work with other directors, had floated through my consciousness. I expected to hear more about all of this, as well as about the miasma of melancholy that the director was widely known to have immersed in.

Alvi’s association of 10 years with his guru and mentor unravelled over two years of meetings. Every week it was like stepping into a time bubble that encapsulated the world of Guru Dutt films in the ’60s. Each film came with its own set of memories, of dialogues narrated verbatim, though Alvi did not ever depend on chronology, adopting a stream of consciousness conduit for his memories. Through every session, the persona of Guru Dutt grew stronger; it was as if, unseen by us, the film-maker lived in some part of the house Alvi inhabited, and the two had long conversations reminiscing about the years spent together.

The Guru Dutt I glimpsed through the narratives was quite another person from what public legend had made him out to be. I was surprised to see that rather than a morose, brooding mind, here was someone with a curious thought process that picked up on what most would ignore. I was impressed by his knowledge of choreography, of course, though I knew the director had been with Uday Shankar’s dance group in Almora, but that the creative, visual interest led him to learn everything he could about cameras came as a stunner. When Alvi faced a crisis in capturing Meena Kumari in the first shots for Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, it was Guru Dutt who solved the problem, handing over a bunch of books on lenses to Alvi and explaining to him what was wrong. More amazing was the information that Guru Dutt could take apart and put together a camera!

Alvi spent an entire Saturday telling me of the practical jokes Guru Dutt played on him and his team. Once he got Waheeda to wear a burqa and approach Alvi, pretending to be a fan who wished to be cast in a film. When the joke had Alvi reaching the height of frustrated helplessness, the film-maker and his friends had burst into the room, howling with laughter.

Of course there were many more stories, some about his mentor’s whimsical nature, others about his delight in languages as when in France he discovered similar sounding words in Hindi and French for soap and other objects, as well as his ability to give his team freedom and yet be the man in control. He handed over the reins of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam to Alvi, but at the 11th hour, chose to picturise the songs himself. In that effective blending of minds that were in sync despite being different lay the secret of the magnetic pull of Guru Dutt’s films.

Towards the end of our meetings I felt I had known Guru Dutt personally. And despite the fact that through most of our interchanges, Alvi lived mostly in the past, I could not help feel a sneaking affection for him. It made me believe I understood him closely, and could appreciate his feeling of being abandoned.

With Guru Dutt gone, there was no one who could be bothered to vindicate his stand that it was he and not his mentor who had directed the bulk of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. But I realised why Guru Dutt depended on him for his opinion and inputs: Alvi’s was a logical mind, one that had little space for fantasy or whimsy, that believed in flesh and blood storytelling. It was a perfect foil to the creative film-maker who stepped where few had gone before with his themes, cinematic language and expression. The sparks that flew between them ignited great cinema.

How I wish I could step back in time and be a part of that world!

Sathya Saran is a journalist and editor based in Mumbai

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