Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Kaagaz Ke Phool - Paper Flowers

Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959) is a flop film that details the harsh realities a flop film can thrust upon a director, harsh realities that were thrust upon Guru Dutt, the director of Kaagaz Ke Phool, when the film flopped. A bitter musing on love and fame, Kaagaz Ke Phool was inexorably tied to Guru Dutt’s legend when he overdosed on sleeping pills in 1964 after having separated from his wife - eerily echoing the ending of the film.

Unlike the other films I’ve talked about so far,
Kaagaz Ke Phool has been around long enough to be redeemed in popular imagination as a classic - and deservedly so - but that same label of “classic” has also stripped the thorns from the paper flowers. The distance of time has given the sad life of Guru Dutt a tinge of vintage glamour and Kaagaz Ke Phool is mostly remembered today for its ties to his real life, which is unfortunate because I think the bitter sting of what he was trying to say in the film is still potent all these years later.

The beginnings of
Kaagaz Ke Phool can be found in Guru Dutt’s previous film, Pyaasa (1957), an ambitious and deeply personal musing on the nature of art and life. Before Pyaasa, Guru Dutt had been making more typical mainstream films like the slick thriller C.I.D., which starred the evergreen matinee idol Dev Anand as a dapper police inspector. Guru Dutt took the money he earned from those mainstream films and poured it into his heartfelt Pyaasa to great commercial success. Instead of taking his money to the bank, Guru Dutt pushed on to make a film that would be even more stark and even more stripped of mainstream fripperies - Kaagaz Ke Phool.

Kaagaz Ke Phool opens with an old man entering a film studio. As he walks to a sound stage and climbs up among the lights, he reminisces about a man who used to work there - a famous director, Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt.) We flash back to those golden days and meet Suresh as he is beginning a new production of Devdas and hunting for the right actress to play the role of innocent Paro. Following the hoariest of narrative tropes, while Suresh’s professional life is fulfilling and busy, his personal life is empty. A few years back Suresh’s wife Veena (Veena) had taken their daughter Pammi (Baby Naaz) and left, leaving him nothing to come home to except an old doll of Pammi’s that he keeps in a special cupboard. Veena’s family is one of those old money Delhi families, wealthy and obsessed with a certain type of English-tinged propriety - a propriety that doesn’t quite extend to Veena’s drunken brother Rocky (Johnny Walker.) The old money parents think Suresh’s filmi career is too vulgar an environment for their daughter and granddaughter and are unwilling to give him any contact with Pammi.

One rainy night in Delhi after an unsuccessful attempt to visit Pammi, Suresh takes shelter under a tree. He hears a sneeze and peers around and comes face to face with a young woman (Waheeda Rehman.) He asks if she has a cold and she replies with a sharp wit saying no, she won’t tell him her name. After some mild banter, Suresh offers the woman his overcoat and she accepts. He disappears into the night.

Back in Bombay, the filming for
Devdas has begun. Suresh is consumed by his work and is indifferent to the Delhi woman when she comes to return his coat. It’s not until he sees her image accidentally captured in the daily rushes that he finally takes notice - her inner beauty revealed on film is exactly what Suresh had been looking for in Paro. The woman, as it turns out, is named Shanti and she is an orphan who put herself through school by doing needlework. She is very reluctant to take a job as an actress, demuring that the salary being offered is too high. (What would a girl on her own do with 1000 rupees? She only needs 150 to really live it up!)

Shanti does take the job but soon rumors are flying in the gossip magazines about her relationship with Suresh, rumors grounded in truth. Shanti and Suresh are developing a fondness for each other. Those rumors reach Pammi in her boarding school and she runs off to Bombay to confront the hussy who has stolen her papa... only to be confronted with the nicest woman on the face of the planet. In that selfish way of all teenagers, Pammi begs Shanti to leave Suresh alone saying that since she can’t know what it’s like to have a complete family and then lose it, she has no business messing with somebody else’s. Pammi is going to stay with her papa, so Shanti needs to go.

Devdas is complete, Shanti keeps her promise to Pammi and runs off to the jungle to teach small children. Suresh is devastated. Although he and Shanti had never consummated their relationship physically, not even in a dream song, he hadn’t realized how much he had depended on her quiet presence and love until she was gone. And when Pammi is ripped from him forever in a cruel court case, Suresh loses his final tether to life. He knows so cruelly now what he had been missing.

Suresh drinks and drinks and drinks. The film he had been half-heartedly working on flops completely and the studio refuses to give him another chance. So, Suresh drinks some more. He loses his house and moves into a shack and keeps on drinking. Rocky brings Shanti back from the jungle, thinking that if Suresh was to make another film with her, he might clean up his act. But when Shanti goes to see Suresh he begs her to consider his pride. He doesn’t want anybody seeing him like this. Suresh is now old and broken, doing small work for men who used to be his servants to get by. He has lost all contact with his family.

The film ends where it began, in the film studio. They need an old man to dress up as a guru and speak to the heroine and Suresh is given the role. Guess who the heroine is. Suresh takes off running before Shanti can speak to him; she follows but is stopped by a crowd of adoring fans. Suresh, the old man, enters an empty sound stage, never to leave.

Much has been written on the technical aspects of Guru Dutt’s direction by people infinitely more qualified than me to discuss it, so I’ll stick to discussing the themes and audience reactions. (Besides, the light and sound quality on my DVD did not do his direction justice. When is the
Criterion Collection going to stop sticking their thumbs up Louis Malle’s butt and start releasing some of these treasures of Hindi cinema in a high quality format?!)

Before viewing the film, all I knew about it were two tidbits - 1) the main character kills himself like Guru Dutt would and 2) the adulterous romance track in the film echoes Guru Dutt’s real life romance with Waheeda Rehman. After watching Suresh drive his life into the gutter, I knew neither of those tidbits was true and I was with an odd feeling of wistfulness and regret.
Kaagaz Ke Phool isn’t the great tragic romance I had built up in my head; it’s a bitter tale about how fragile our human bonds really are and how easily they can be crushed by social propriety and our own stupid pride. Kaagaz Ke Phool is an open wound, dripping bitterness and loneliness. No wonder audiences threw stones at the screen when it first opened in 1959. Who wants to be reminded of the emptiness of life at the cinema hall?

If Waheeda Rehman’s relationship with Guru Dutt was anything like Shanti’s with Suresh, I feel really sorry for her. Suresh is, quite frankly, kind of a dick. He wants Shanti to stay pure and wholesome but girls have to grow up. Suresh chastises her for wearing a fancy dress and make-up to an industry party (was she supposed to go dressed like a village belle?) and basks in her simple hero-worship of him without really reciprocating. There is a scene as Shanti is packing her stuff up to run away and Suresh comes over in a panic to see her. Shanti says something like, Oh, so now you are coming to my apartment after all these months. Because of course the Great Man would have no time for the concerns of a simple woman. Not that Suresh doesn’t care for Shanti in his own way but his
status is still more important to him than this woman. He just likes being loved unconditionally and Shanti, for her part, understands this.

Later in the film, their statuses are reversed but Suresh still holds on to that pride. Shanti is starring in films again and Suresh is living in the gutter. We know she would have taken him in or helped him out - all he had to do was ask. He won’t. He can’t. Great Men never ask. So, Suresh wallows in self-pity and alcohol. He was uncompromising in his art and now he’s going to be uncompromising in his demise.

Shanti, on the other hand, is a wonderful character and a good example of the kinds of strong women who populated films of this era. Waheeda Rehman is glorious in the role. Shanti’s first doe-like appearance under that tree to the stirrings of womanly desire to the pain of loneliness, Waheeda conveys it all with such empathy. There is one fantastic scene that takes place as Suresh and Shanti are driving to the studio for filming. A car of young people singing a song titled “San San San Jo Chali Hawa” pulls up behind them. And as they listen to the tune, their cares and worries fly away in the breeze. We see Shanti smile and in that smile we see her connection to the man sitting beside her.

Johnny Walker’s comic track is worth mentioning, too. He plays a rich dandy whose hobby is owning race horses. He picks up a veterinarian’s daughter (Minoo Mumtaz) - practical! - and their romance serves as a nice counterpoint to Suresh’s story. After a lighthearted courtship, the veterinarian’s daughter
begs Rocky to marry her and, in response, he sings a song about how marriage is for suckers. The veterinarian’s daughter is out of luck - Rocky remains free and keeps the babe. Johnny Walker is much more subdued as Rocky then in any other role I’ve seen him in. His comedy is less physical and more verbal, with an exaggerated English accent and a twinkle in his eye.

And, speaking of comedy, I have to give a small mention to Tun Tun, who makes an appearance as a receptionist. Is any film not improved by the addition of Tun Tun?

Other things I really enjoyed were the behind-the-scenes look at the filming of
Devdas - not to mention the choice of Devdas as the story to be filmed, because Suresh has more than a drop of the drunken Bengali anti-hero in him. The early scenes at the studio are so full of life and full of people and as Suresh grows more and more self-pitying the screen just empties until it’s just him alone in a gutter.

So, why did the film flop? Well, Guru Dutt himself said to
Filmfare, “It was good in patches; it was too slow and it went over the head of audiences.” One of the types of flops that has emerged from my little study has been that of the auteur who makes a film too personal and too specific for the mass audience. (Veer is a film of this type, as is Tashan, which I’ll be discussing soon.) I hate to disagree with Guru Dutt but I don’t think the film was good just in patches, I think it’s good as a whole. However, Kaagaz Ke Phool is a film that doesn’t take the needs of the mainstream audience into consideration. Did it go over the heads of the audience or did they just not appreciate the themes? The idea that marriages as an institution is a failure (Suresh and Veena) and a joke (Johnny Walker and his veterinarian’s daughter) is an idea that would find some pushback even today. And while I read Shanti’s relationship with Suresh as fairly innocent, it does have a tinge of the adulterous to it.

Mainstream audiences won’t necessarily reject films that have sad endings but
Kaagaz Ke Phool refuses to give any catharsis. There are no lessons learns, nobody cries and wails, and Suresh’s death was not a noble sacrifice. Life just goes on. And there are no real song picturizations to provide relief from the bitterness of Suresh’s life, the music is beautiful but mostly melancholy - even the happiest songs are tinged with melancholy. Pyaasa had difficult themes, too, but Guru Dutt made some concessions to the aam aadmi - the fairy tale picturization of “Hum Aapki Aankhon Mein” and Vijay and Gulabo’s happy ending. Kaagaz Ke Phool brooks no such relief.

In the end,
Kaagaz Ke Phool deserved its flop status then as much as it deserves its “classic” status now - a filmmaker ignores the audience at his own peril but that doesn’t mean he can’t make great art in the process.

Now for some images - I'm 99% sure the DVD I had was taken from somebody's ancient VHS tape, which is a real shame, so forgive the quality. I did what I could but I'm not an image expert.

The film studio reminded me of Om Shanti Om...

An old man dreams of days gone by...

... he was just as unhappy then, but employed.

So many people surround the Great Man!

Look at that face... what a handsome fellow.

Tun Tun is a welcome addition to any film I watch.

I loved this girl. I don't know the actress but she plays the original choice for Paro. I've caught her mid-phrase here. "Oh no!" she's saying in that lovely high-pitched voice all the best ditzes had back in the 1950s.

Look, how can you expect her to act without at least some penciled eyebrows!

"Just a beauty mark, Suresh-ji. That's all I want. Why can't Paro have a little zazz?"

You forget, my dear, that Great Men don't compromise.

Suresh's empty home.

And Pammi's doll.

Who would take a child away from her daddy?!

The Old Money parents were pretty funny - they treat their dogs better than they do Suresh.

A fateful meeting under a tree...

"Who was that weirdo?"

The rain stops for no woman... even one as pretty as Waheeda Rehman.

Dutifully returning the coat...

She wanders onto the set.

The menacing camera...

Suresh doesn't even remember who she is.

He sees his Paro.

Shanti has no clue about the film business. He tells her he's looking for his Paro... she solemnly informs him that her name is Shanti.

The one and only Johnny Walker with the lovely Minoo on the left.

Frankly, guys, Suresh is kind of a dick. What kind of dude tells a sweet and naive girl she looks like a monkey?

San san san woh chali hawa~aaaaaa....

Shanti is just so content!

Poor Shanti and Suresh don't even get a cloud song!

Veena, the wife.

Pammi runs away but Shanti, as it turns out, is the nicest person in the universe.

The premiere of Devdas is supposed to be a night of triumph...

... Suresh is enjoying the accolades.

"We always understood each other..."

Shanti's look disagrees with him.

An empty courtroom and Suresh's empty heart.

Johnny Walker's comedy song!

Better to sing your troubles away than drink them!

The prophetic premiere of Suresh's follow up to Devdas... much the same would happen at the premiere of Kaagaz Ke Phool.

This school yard song was SO CUTE! And, of course Shanti goes off to be a teacher. I love that she's self-sufficient like that. Sure, she's sad but what? Is she going to mope all day? No. Shanti is going to help educate the youth of India!

Shanti visits Suresh's shack. How the mighty have fallen.


And we come full circle.

You can see the terrible quality of this print. I got this disc from Netflix and apparently there is a nice version out there that even has some (subtitled) extras. I'm not sure where to even find it, so if you know, do pass it on!

(And completely unrelated to anything, apparently Johnny Walker used to take
Waheeda Rehman fishing. I just thought that was cute.)

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Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

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xoxo Filmi Girl
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