The dissatisfied critical intellectual of Pyaasa (1957), The bewildered vagrant of Awara (1952) and the ethically mixed up hoodlum of Shri 420 (1955) who stalked the bustling city in search of lebenstraum or even the self-destructive lover of Devdas who dreams of transcending class and caste barriers: these were the icons of an age that resonated with the distant rumble of discontent. Here were the heroes who questioned without being strident, who dissented without resorting to aggressive rebellion.
Guru Dutt as Vijay, the angst-ridden poet in Pyaasa, remains one of the most powerful rebels of popular post-Independence cinema. Vijay, the dispossesed bard who haunted the backstreets, watching the fringe people squirm in poverty, disease and death, cried out in scornful anguish: 'Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain'. This was a direct invocation to the policy-makers - Nehru in particular -to stand by and see what Nehruvian socialism had brought to the country. Juxtaposed against these impoverished, neglected, unfed, unwell, dying human forms - the sore thumbs of a developing nation - is the high society. People who have no need for poetry, love, brotherhood and humanity. People who are motivated by the pursuit of money alone.
It is the very same class that is indicted in Kagaz Ke Phool (1959) too. Here, instead of the poet, it is the film-maker, Suresh Sinha, who falls prey to the unbridled commercialisation of a society which once had place to creativity and art; which was driven by something more refined than the principle of accumulation. Like the poet of Pyaasa, the film-maker of Kagaz ke Phool, too, drifted into the shadows, unwanted, uncared, a social reject.
Nevertheless, his rebellion is limited to himself alone and is a purely individualised one. In Guru Dutt's screen personae, indictment soon gives way to self-negation. The poet in Pyaasa who merely threatened to spurn the world ('Tang aa chuke hain kash-ma-kashe-zindagi se hum', thukra na den jahan ko kahin be-dili se hum') now literally turns his back on it despite the fact that fame awaits him round the comer. After years of ignominy, when his verse was treated as waste, the world finally recognises his worth and is willing to give him his due. But the poet doesn't want it any more. "No, I do not want the world even if I can get this one full of palaces, platforms and crowns; this social set that is inimical to man; this crumbling nation where every soul is wounded; every heart depressed, ('har ek jism ghayal, bar ek rooh pyaasi, nigahon mein uljhan, dilon mein udasi, yeh duniya hai ya alam-e-badhawasi, yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai...'), he intones and simply turns his back on such a world. He walks away announcing, "Burn it, annihilate it, take it away from my sight...."
Rebellion yes, but self-defeating. For in the face of this nihilism, there is only one person who is the actual loser. The poet himself. Guru Dutt then was essentially the prototypal character of a Greek tragedy. One who moved headlong towards doom due to his heightened sensitivity. He was the outsider who, unable to identify himself and keep pace with rapidly changing times, opted for self-abnegation and suicide.
In Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, he was the outsider again, albeit one who watched a similar fate befall the female protagonist (Meena Kumari), victimised as she was by hard-core feudal orthodoxy. Even when it came to love. Guru Dutt chose sacrifice rather than satiation. In Chaudhvin Ka Chand, he was even willing to forsake his lawfully wedded wife (Waheeda Rehman), when he learnt that his best friend (Rehman) was besotted by her. The fact that his wife was an unwilling partner in this masochistic deal did not deter him at all, for pain was always more eagerly sought than pleasure in the credo of the fifties' hero.