Guru Dutt's 1959 film, Kaagaz ke Phool is a document of a particular kind of Indian masculinity in crisis. The question we consider in this paper is: Where does this crisis spring from?
Almost every film directed by Guru Dutt announces itself as a film. None more so than Kaagaz ke Phool which is set in the world of Bombay cinema of the 1930's.1 A film as reflexive as this one reads its own narrative in a particular way. In attempting to provide a reading which is at times at variance with this reading and at times at odds with it we try and decode some of the most fundamental insecurities of Indian masculinity. It is our contention that in Kaagaz ke Phool the modern male subject comes into being by realizing that certain anxieties and feelings of loss exist within himself. The process of apportioning blame for the failure to recuperate these losses becomes the point from which we can attempt to ascertain the real reasons for these anxieties.
Suresh Sinha, the successful film director, is presented to us as an iconic figure when the flashback within the film starts. He is shown from a low angle, presumably from the point of view of his adoring public, framed against the facade of the theatre where his film is being applauded. He steps away from the balcony to come to the main hall of the theatre where a crowd of nubile young women press forward demanding his autograph. Each shot from the balcony to the hall shows Suresh Sinha, pipe clutched in the right hand sticking in his mouth, centrally positioned within a framing geometry, mainly arches. This iconic presentation serves as a substitute for a past. He is a male figure of his own, a fait accompli.
In contrast to Suresh Sinha is Rocky, the effeminate, anglicized brother of Suresh Sinha's estranged wife. He is first presented to us in his mother's presence and his connection to the world of women is as tangible and explicit as Suresh Sinha's disconnection is. At one point he says ``I am thirty five and a quarter years old. I have spent thirty six years of my life with women.'' This direct reference to natality, cast as a joke, is telling. In Guru Dutt's scheme of things Suresh Sinha and Rocky could be opposites. A subtler reading would be that Suresh Sinha represents a break from ``Rocky-ness,'' almost a thought experiment, a wholly unsubstantiated possibility being allowed to play itself out through this film.
Rocky is distinct from Suresh Sinha in that he pursues women relentlessly, falls in love with them recklessly, but refuses to commit himself to any one of them. Rocky harps on the notion of ``azaadi,'' his freedom to come and go as he pleases, at the same time allowing himself to be dominated by the various strong women in his life. Suresh Sinha on the other hand is unencumbered. He has no family that we know of and his wife has left him. His daughter, whom he loves dearly, lives away in a boarding school. He is looking for the right woman to play the part of Paro, the heroine of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya's Bengali novel Devdas, both in the film he is directing and in his life. When finally, through a chance encounter on a stormy night, he meets Shanti, played by Waheeda Rehman, he does not recognize her immediately as the woman he has been looking for. It is only when she wanders onto the set of his film that he realizes that she may be what he has been seeking.
Shanti wanders into the set without realizing it is one. As she picks her way through what looks like a Calcutta street passing the supine figure of Devdas on her way she suddenly comes face to face with the camera. Terror is what the audience, and later in the viewing room Suresh Sinha, sees on her face. This vulnerability is what confirms her in Suresh Sinha's mind as a subject who can be educated, who can be transformed into Paro, the simple, chaste, steadfast Paro, the ideal Indian woman. When Sinha discovers that she is without family, that she put herself through school through the eminently womanly activity of knitting, he tells her: ``The more I come to know you, the more certain I am that you will be an excellent Paro.'' He does not say that she will play the role of Paro in his film well, he says she will be an excellent Paro. He hands her the script and the frontal lighting falls dark providing us with a backlit silhouette of Guru Dutt sitting on the director's chair and Waheeda Rehman on her knees in front of him with the script open. In there were any doubt of the Pygmalion-like nature of Suresh Sinha's character, this scene erases it. Several different relationships coincide in that one moment; director-actress, teacher-pupil, sculptor-statue, father-daughter. The logical question to ask at this point is: does Guru Dutt believe that Paro-like women exist or does he believe that they have to be created? It appears that he wants to believe they exist but he cannot quite convince himself. Consequently his feeble attempts to convince us fail. He tries to show that this woman, Shanti, has a Paro-like life outside Sinha's ambit, independent of his attempts to educate us. But by exposing the fictional nature of the film to us he establishes himself as a controlling presence within it. In view of this, his claim that Shanti is a prefabricated Paro, just requiring assembly, falls flat.
Perhaps it is the audacity of this task, a male attempt to educate the woman, which leads to the eventual tragic end. As it turns out it is Sinha's daughter who gets Shanti to leave, to sacrifice her love for the sake of the family. Shanti's departure into an unexplained rural idyll leads to the fall of Sinha, his taking to drink. Even when she returns to acting in the hope that the studio will hire him back, he refuses this act of largesse. 2 Guru Dutt's thesis is clear now. Society cannot accept Sinha's relationship with this woman outside of his defunct marriage, it exerts pressure on him through his daughter. The imperatives of masculinity will not allow him to be rescued by the woman. The tragic end is now inevitable.
Before this end comes there is the last meeting between Sinha and Shanti. He is a destitute extra in a film where she plays the part of a female saint. When he looks up and sees her dressed in white, holding an ektara and castanets, he cannot say his lines. She recognizes him. He runs from her in what can only be described as a low speed chase comes to naught when a strategically placed horde of her fans ambush her. The image of Waheeda Rehman as a saintly woman is the last in a sequence of chaste images of her. She appears as the daughter-pupil when she takes on the role of Paro. And she appears as the nursing mother when he has an accident. Desiring any of these three is taboo for Sinha. Desiring the saintly figure is perhaps the least transgressive. The other two amount to incest.
In the famous song sequence ``Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam ...'' there is a shot where the screen is split in two by a diagonal beam of light. As Suresh Sinha and Shanti, dressed like a Bengali housewife, look at each other across this divide with rural paraphernalia scattered about the set, there is a moment where two ghostly figures separate themselves out of their bodies and meet in the glare of the spotlight. Powerful in itself, this shot recalls the entry of Waheeda Rehman into the studio dressed as Paro for the first time framed by a similar light pattern. This diagonal beam is signaled as the space for transgressive desire. In the last sequence when Sinha sits in the director's chair for the last time, there is a similar beam of light right next to him. But even at this staged moment of death he sits outside this space.
That Sinha's desire for Shanti is incestuous is revealed to us mainly through the daughter. Near the beginning of the film when he is thinking of his daughter he opens a particular cupboard and takes out a doll and strokes it. When, near the end of the film, he takes out of the same cupboard both the doll and the sweater Shanti knitted him, the equivalence between the two is established. It is interesting to see that the narrative attempts to blame society for his failure with Shanti through his daughter. There is a sequence where the daughter confronts Shanti. She says that she has come to fight with Shanti because Shanti is her mother's enemy. But it is she who has come to fight with Shanti. The encounter begins with Shanti trying to play the role of the mature placating adult but ends with both of them crying on each other's shoulder as a pot boils on the stove. They are rivals for the same man's affections, and this sequence is that man's playing out of a fantasy of two women fighting over him.
The impossibility of Sinha's masculinity is precisely because when he tries to reenter the world of women he finds the only paths he knows are incestuous ones. It is his Freudian desires and the anxieties which accompany their suppression which are the core of his dissatisfaction, the reason for his tragic failure. If we recall the first shots of Guru Dutt, pipe tucked in his mouth, we realize that an oral fetish plays itself out. The pipe acts like a pacifier, a substitute for the mother's breast. This role is played by a cigarette in some other scenes. The iconic masculinity is sabotaged from the very first instance, its hollowness becomes evident.
In this context we see Rocky as a figure who accepts that he is umbilically linked to women. His masculinity is the creation of women. It is this realization which prevents him from playing the part of husband. 3 Rocky is, in that sense, better adjusted, but also, by that coin, doomed to spend an empty wasteful life running from one woman to another. His passive acceptance of the situation, while not as dramatic as Sinha's attempt to create a masculinity for himself and a woman to go with that masculinity, is as tragic. They are both Devdas, instantiated differently, both on the road to their own personal ruin, one brutalized, the other infantalized.
When Rocky first meets Juliet Singh, the daughter of the vet who looks after his horses, she crushes his hand in her firm grip. At this he shows pain and says: ``This is not gore ka haath.'' There is a pun on the word ``gore.'' The italicized part which could mean ``horse's hand'' in Rocky's anglicized accent, or it could mean ``white man's hand.'' It is a very oblique reference to the colonial role in creating these unsettled and conflicted masculinities. We will not go into that here, but it is only fitting to note that though this film was made in 1959, it is set in 1935. This one statement provides a hint as to where the notion of Sinha's masculinity comes from, why it recoils at its own rootedness in the world of women and why it cannot accept that it still desires those women after having banished them.