While working on what would become his final film, Paper Flowers (1959), the Indian director Guru Dutt repeatedly heard pleas from friends warning him against making it at all. “It’s just your personal life,” the music director S. D. Burman, who composed the film’s songs, reportedly told Dutt. He was too close to the material at hand, his allies reasoned; the film seemed like a portrait of Dutt’s own grievances as an artist navigating commercialism. But Dutt didn’t listen, his commitment to his vision too unwavering. He proceeded with production anyway.
Paper Flowers concerns the creative life of the filmmaker Suresh Sinha, played by Dutt himself, and his entanglement with Shanti (Waheeda Rehman), who becomes a studio star with Suresh’s assistance. But as Shanti’s profile rises, personal circumstances pull them apart, and their partnership—both artistic and romantic—wilts. With time, Suresh becomes a public punchline known for making flops. He lapses into an alcohol addiction, turning him into a vagrant.
Dutt, thirty-four upon the film’s release, had established himself as a multi-hyphenate of great repute by that point—a sensitive actor, a skilled director, a producer whose work attracted healthy box-office sums—but Paper Flowers signaled a turn in his good fortunes. The first Indian film ever shot in CinemaScope, it was a formally inventive project, but those meticulous production values couldn’t buoy it against hostile reception from both audiences and the press. Dutt had put an obliquely similar story to celluloid before with his opus, Pyaasa (1957), about a poet who toils for recognition in a greedy world; it was both a critical and commercial success. But he heard boos after Paper Flowers’ initial screening in Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir theater. At other showings, audience members reportedly heckled Dutt when he appeared on-screen.
Dutt took these matters so personally that he settled for producing and acting for the remainder of his short life. He was able to recoup losses by producing and starring in Chaudvin ka chand (1960), a romantic drama set in Lahore
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Deeply influenced by his French education but primarily interested in the representation of African realities on-screen, this long-overlooked visionary approached a variety of subjects with a style both investigative and declarative.
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