I devour anything that I can lay my hands on, especially if it is about Hindi cinema covering the 50s or the 60s. When I came across a mention of this book in an article two years back, I was intrigued. A fictionalised retelling about Guru Dutt, Geeta Dutt and his rumoured relationship with Waheeda Rehman, and that too by Ismat Chughtai – there was no doubt in my mind that I had to read it.
I tried hard to get a copy – in any condition of format – of this book. Went to a numerous book stores in the city and even dragged myself to Nai Sarak; but all to no avail. Not even a single copy was available. The book was out-of-print and was soon forgotten…. until a reminder from Amazon showed up informing me that the book was back in print and had been brought out by Speaking Tiger in association with Women Unlimited.
Set in the heady days of the Hindi film industry (late 1940s and early 1950s), A Very Strange Man (Ajeeb Aadmi) is at once both an analysis, an understanding of the life of a sensitive, creative genius and a candid, critical account of the film industry itself. An industry Ismat Chughtai was familiar with – her husband Shahid Latif was an established director with whom she had worked – in fact, she had written scripts for more than 10 films, notable among which are Ziddi (1948), Sone ki Chidiya (1958) and Garam Hawa (1973).
A Very Strange Man is about Dharam Dev and his success first as a film-maker and later as an actor, his relationship with his singer-wife, Mangala and his subsequent love for Zarina, a starlet whom he discovered and groomed into a star. A royal mess this story was to be. It is clear that the story is Guru Dutt’s life – with the names of the three main protagonists and the names of Dutt’s movies changed.
Chughtai is true to form – her tone is frank and critical as she exposes the frailties and flaws of the key “actors” in the plot. Along with this, she delves deep into the foibles and follies of the movie stars and the Hindi film industry itself. Using the insights she drew from her personal equations, Chughtai outlines the pressures, ups and downs in the topsy-turvy world of movies. The late 40s and early 50s was a tumultuous time for the nascent Indian film industry. It was a time when the production house system was collapsing and the independent star system was gaining prominence. Independent stars, not tied to any production house – actors, music directors, directors, singers were becoming more important. They were soon calling the shots and shooting their way to success and fame. How this transition, the ephemeral and fairly fickle nature of the success that seemed to change on a weekly basis (depending on how the movie fared at the box office), and how this highly volatile and insecure business, ridden with exploitation, affected the industry people – the stars, producers, directors, writers and their families is what Chughtai explores. The author’s astute observations and analyses about the stresses, insecurities, creative angst of legendary film personalities are all strung together to create this masterpiece of a book.
Chughtai, in an interview, mentioned that she had changed the names of the main protagonists on purpose as she did not want to be sued. However, they are easily recognisable. However, certain well-known personalities, who help move the story along in a manner, are referred to by their real names – Meena Kumari, Mohd Rafi (supposedly a good friend and confidante of Geeta Dutt) and Lata Mangeshkar make their entry in this book as themselves.
While the book is at once a riveting and a gripping read, Chughtai is merciless in her narration, when it comes to the portrayal of the characters. What she does retain is a humaneness in the tone. While candid in her tone, the writer is sympathetic to their failings.
As a major Hindi film buff, I did find the brutal portrayal rather disconcerting. It is hard indeed to digest, even though the older cynical mind knows it to be true, that one’s childhood favourites had feet of clay. For instance Zarine – the ambitious starlet who cleverly used the opportunity she got to further her career, backstabbing her friend and supporter Mangala in the process without any qualms. No she doesn’t cut a fine figure. One lands up feeling more sympathetic towards the creative genius director and his wronged wife. A couple of other characters, names changed, also left me disturbed. Not too sure who were being referred to but I do think Geeta Bali and Shammi Kapoor were the characters.
Even though the Guru Dutt-Geeta Dutt-Waheeda Rehman story is familiar and known to film buffs, the book makes for an interesting and gripping read, albeit unsettling. The writer has definitely achieved what she set out to achieve – an analysis and examination of the topsy-turvy Hindi film industry, while narrating the life of a creative genius whose short life was marred with angst and guilt!
Do read – if you are interested in the topic of Hindi films and stars.