More than fifty years after its initial release Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959) remains one of Bombay cinema’s most enigmatic films. The film’s historical graph moving from initial box-office failure to subsequent cult status, its tragic narrative overlays with the director’s own life, its haunting visual imagery and its songs have become an unforgettable part of cinematic lore and continue to define the popular memory of the film in India.The film’s narrative focuses on the life of film director Suresh Sinha (played by Guru Dutt himself) and his tryst with fame, a journey that posits the figure of the uncompromising artist against commercial/popular demands of the film industry and societal conventions that ultimately result in a tragic, unfulfilled end.The book Kaagaz ke Phool: The Original Screenplay attempts to recreate the magic and cinematic enigma of the film by adopting,primarily, a literary lens that focuses on the film’s screenplay.
In bringing this black-and-white classic to contemporary audiences the authors undertake several translations, primarily of speech from the Hindustani of the original screenplay into English, but for the purposes of this review I also consider the shift from the audio-visual-spatial form of celluloid to print as a form of translation that relies on similar practices as literary translation, a pointI shall discuss in more detail later.
In recent years there has been a spurt of publishing activity around screenplays of Bombay films focusing largely, although not exclusively, on classics of the fifties. Prior to Kaagaz ke Phool, the journalists-cinephile team of Raheja and Kothari, have translated the screenplays of Chaudhvin ka Chand (Full Moon, M. Sadiq, 1961) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (The Master, the Wife and the Slave, Abrar Alvi, 1962), both made under the Guru Dutt banner. Other authors and publishers have undertaken similar work, heralding a new genre1 in film journalism in India that brings to the forefront, perhaps for the first time, a combination of archival research, academic rigour, and the cinephile’s intuitive love for the material.The genre of screenplay publications seems to be a smart marketing move that complements the nostalgic desire to return to older films—particularly those that represent the ‘classical’ period of Bombay cinema, the black-and-white 1950s—along with contemporary aspirations like a rising interest in filmmaking, screenwriting, cinematography, and editing, with the published screenplay representing both a blueprint of success and an index of popular memory.
The persona of Guru Dutt is at the centre of Raheja and Kothari’s book in a way that almost overshadows the film itself; the interviews, essays, and even the photographic material used in the book focuses on his intriguing personality, as a director and as the film’s protagonist. This is perhaps inevitable given the many parallels that are drawn between the protagonist Sinha and Guru Dutt’s personal life,many of which are well known among film aficionados but nevertheless form the focus of the translators’ introductory essay. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s short prologue at the beginning of the book reverentially remembers watching Guru Dutt’s classic films while a student of cinema in Pune. Both essays converge on Guru Dutt’s mystique and aura that has become an indelible part of his cinematic legacy and further serves to highlight his status as an auteur. The concept of the auteur, which romanticizes the notion of a singular creative force behind a film is often criticized for obscuring cultural, industrial, material and other contexts of filmmaking and the many people involved in what is essentially a collaborative venture. Raheja and Kothari’s book manages to overcome this imbalance largely through the multiple points of view that it introduces in the form of interviews with Guru Dutt’s contemporaries and collaborators: cinematographer V.K. Murthy, actress Waheeda Rehman, friend and actor Dev Anand, assistant director Shyam Kapoor, as well as brother Devi Dutt. The layered voices of friends, colleagues and family members re-assemble the many processes behind the making of the film Kaagaz ke Phool and through their re-telling also present a historiographic account of the fifties in the Bombay film industry.
The book also presents a very personal account of the filmmaker in a heartfelt essay by Guru Dutt’s son, Arun Dutt, that turns the lens inwards to the director’s familial life. Arun Dutt writes with candour and sensitivity, mixing objectivity with poignancy as he writes about a man he claims he only came to know through the latter’s films: ‘Unfortunately, we never enjoyed a one-to-one father-son interface. He was never a very demonstrative person and was always very quiet and reserved… Through my father’s letters I learnt that depression was part of his reality… His intrinsic personality is reflected in the despondency that is a part of Kaagaz ke Phool’
(p. 179-180). In providing a personal tone this essay forms a valuable addition to the vast amount of material already available on Guru Dutt.2
The core material of the book, undoubtedly, is the screenplay of Kaagaz ke Phool and the present translation makes the film accessible to a far wider readership than before. However, translation is never a straightforward process often necessitating inescapable omissions, alterations to syntax and idiomatic substitutions in order to retain fluency as well as transpose ideological considerations and subtexts from the original to the translated work.3The process is further complicated when the original text is a film and Raheja and Kothari’s translation provides innovative additions to the screenplay in order to overcome the losses from celluloid to print. They provide extensive descriptions of each scene, additional notations to indicate when, for example, the dialogue is being used ironically, or describe a visual gesture that gives a clue to the tone of a scene especially when the gesture supplants an unsaid dialogue, all of which assist in interpreting the written word as it was spoken. The translation of dialogues is competently done if somewhat stilted in parts probably due to its allegiance to the original language rather than to the translation. In the translation of songs Raheja and Kothari have managed to maintain the rhythmic flow and poetic feel of the lyrics as well as their formal structure so that overall the translation provides an easy flow of the filmic narrative.
The book will undoubtedly prove to be a useful resource to fans of the film all over the world but despite its many achievements the book has certain shortcomings that I will address in four brief points. The first is in the form of an oversight. Nowhere in the book has a translation of the title of the film itself been provided although foreign discs and several international websites reference the film as Paper Flowers. The book has neglected to provide this or any other translation of the title. My second criticism relates to language and the question of historical legitimacy. The fifties is widely acknowledged to be the period when the predominant language of the Bombay film industry was Hindustani, a mix of Hindi and Urdu, and it is around language that the nostalgia for this period is primarily centred. The omission of the Urdu script from the screenplay, therefore, is both perplexing and glaring. The argument that Hindi and Urdu are aurally interchangeable to a large degree is a weak one since the discourse around the marginalization / preservation of Urdu in political and cultural spheres of representation is now more intensely contested than ever before, the nuanced arguments of which cannot be adequately reproduced here. In the fifties, most writers writing for the film industry wrote in Urdu and most, if not all, films carried the film’s name in all three languages—English, Urdu, and Hindi. Further, as Mukul Kesavan points out, regardless of the actual language in which the films were written, ‘the rhetorical and emotional registers of Hindi cinema…[were] Urdu’s domain,’4 a point that draws attention to the primacy of Urdu as an almost ubiquitous cultural mode of representing cinematic moods and emotions especially in the fifties. The value of recording this trace of plurality and cultural heterogeneity is evident in other screenplay publications under the same publisher who has provided the script in both Hindi and Urdu, a fact that further delegitimizes any arguments in favour of Urdu’s omission from this publication.
My third point refers to the broad definition of film translation that I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Given that visuality is such an integral part of the cinematic experience it is inevitable that a printed, largely literary, text would never be able to fully compensate for its disengagement with the moving image. However, the choice of visual material that the book assembles largely takes the form of an assemblage of cropped close-ups of faces from the film, and the almost complete absence of mise en scene, mixed with stills from the shooting. The complete absence of visuals that capture the cinematic frame as a whole(except for one small image on the back cover) is truly unfortunate and an opportunity missed to display the magnificent lyricism of the black-and-white aesthetics and cinematic framing of which Guru Dutt and his cinematographer V.K. Murthy were acclaimed masters. In particular, the film Kaagaz ke Phool provides several frames that exhibit a haunting photographic quality and would have lent themselves well to still captures. The montages are rendered amateurish through a bleeding of the images with no seeming connection to each other which further undervalues the power of the image. Lastly, a publication such as this would have lent itself well to greater archival research; song booklets, press cards, and other printed material would have translated well visually as well to provide a richer material structure around the film and again, this absence is accentuated because of other recent publications in the same genre that have brought this research to fans of their films.
In the end, the book Kaagaz ke Phool, through essays, interviews, stills, and translations, creates a new archive for the memory of the film and its director. As Vidhu Vinod Chopra articulates in the prologue, using the words of Milan Kundera, the book is meant ‘to be a part of that struggle of memory against forgetting’ (p. 7). As one of the pivotal films of director Guru Dutt’s oeuvre and perhaps Bombay cinema’s most celebrated failures, Kaagaz ke Phool is given a new resurgence of life through the book by Raheja and Kothari. The translated text redefines the contours of the film’s reception while its mobility is reworked through expanded circuits of distribution and communication. The book then is not so much a reproduction of the ‘original’ screenplay of the film as the title claims but a return and a looking back, a chronological reversal of the process of filmmaking that moves from final film to revisioned screenplay to present the blueprint of a classic film and a directorial profile for contemporary audiences and film lovers around the world.
1 ‘Screenplays are a new genre of publication’, claims the website of the publishers of Kaagaz ke Phool: The Original Screenplay, Om Books International. http://www.ombooksinternational.com/books/kaagaz-ke-phool-original-screenplay-dinesh-raheja/p-0133752-45067739859-cat.html
2 Nasreen Munni Kabir’s biography Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema, Oxford University Press, Delhi (1996) and Sathya Saran’s Abrar Alvi: Ten Years With Guru Dutt, Viking, Delhi (2008) are the two most often cited biographies on the director.
3These concepts form the basis of The Translator’s Invisibility by Lawrence Venuti, Routledge (London and New York), 1995.
4 ‘Urdu, Awadh and the Tawaif: The Islamicate Roots of Hindi Cinema’ in Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State, ed. Zoya Hasan, Kali for Women, Delhi, 1994, p. 245.
Radha Dayal is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Westminster, London. Her doctoral research is on comedy in Bombay cinema of the 1950s with a special focus on Johnny Walker.