I watched Guide for the first time when I was about twelve or so. Till then, all the Hindi cinema I had watched was predictable, comfortable, simple enough for a pre-teen to know what to expect. Or so I thought.
Because Guide defied every norm I thought I understood. Heroes, not even when they were the anti-hero Dev Anand had played in earlier films like Baazi, Kaala Bazaar or House No. 44, did not go anywhere near another man’s wife. Heroines, even when they were married off against their wishes to men other than those they loved (as in Dil Ek Mandir, Gumraah, or Sangam) stayed true to their marriage vows and sooner or later left their past behind (I was to watch Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke only much later). They absolutely did not leave their husbands and start living with another man.
And heroes did not die. As when I watched Anand, when I watched Guide too, I kept thinking, “This isn’t it. He isn’t dead, he can’t be dead.”
Several years later, I had to study RK Narayan’s The Guide at school, and I pretty much knew what to expect—but once again, I found myself surprised, because the book was in many ways different from the film. The book had won its author the Sahitya Kala Akademi Award (the first book in English to win the award), and the film won accolades by the handful—and continues to do so, fifty-five years after it was released. It has been analyzed, discussed, derided, lauded. Personally, other than for its music and Waheeda Rehman’s dancing, I have never really liked Guide much—but even I, when offered the opportunity to read this collection of essays about Guide, couldn’t resist it. Partly, perhaps, because I hoped to be able to discover what fans of the film saw in it that I didn’t.
Guide, The Film: Perspectives is a collection of 13 essays (and one quiz) about Guide, by various writers. Some confine themselves to just one aspect of the film, even perhaps to just one detail. Antara Nanda Mondal’s Wahaan Kaun Hai Tera… Life in a Nutshell, for instance, confines itself to only discussing that song, and Ajay Kanagat’s Kaanton Se Kheench Ke Ye Aanchal: Women’s Emancipation similarly focuses on just one song. In a similar vein, Kalpana Swamy’s The Confluence of Conflicting Perspectives discusses two deeply connected songs, both mirroring each other in interesting ways: Mose chhal kiye jaaye and Kya se kya ho gaya.
Others look at the film from broader angles: discussing its dialogues, for instance, or comparing the film to RK Narayan’s novel. Sundeep Pahwa’s essay focuses on Vijay Anand’s multiple roles in the making of the film, as not just director but also script writer, dialogue writer, and more.
Appropriately, the first two essays—Manek Premchand’s The Story of a Tourist Guide Turned Dance Impresario Turned Swami, and Lata Jagtiani’s Guide: A Perspective—are the ones which are the widest in scope, introducing the film, providing context (how and why Navketan decided to adapt Narayan’s novel, how the English version directed by Tad Danielewski bombed, and so on), a synopsis, and an analysis of certain elements of the film. Lata Jagtiani’s essay, in particular, is a detailed and well-thought-out analysis that impressed me a lot. It highlights the characters and their motivations, the symbolism of elements and scenes, in a way that was—for me—an eye-opener. This, I must add, was my favourite essay from the book: it was comprehensive, cohesive, and very readable.
Perhaps that impression also has something to do with the fact that Lata Jagtiani’s essay is only the second one in the book. As the book progresses, there are overlaps, the same lyrics and dialogues being quoted repeatedly by different writers, the same symbols and motifs finding mention again and again. This is, naturally, to be expected, and it didn’t irritate me, mostly because just about every writer manages to present his or her own interpretation, or discusses an element from a perspective unique to them.
For instance, Deepa Buty’s fascinating (and creative) The Sojourn of a Soul examines the songs of Guide as representing the navrasas, each song in some way reflecting one of the nine rasas that govern art (in its myriad forms) according to Indian tradition. She discusses these songs not just when it comes to their lyrics or music or rendition, but also their picturization and placement in the film, and their impact on the overall narrative.
Dharmakirthi’s Shailendra’s Lyrical Narrative, on the other hand, looks at those same songs in terms of the nuanced lyrics the brilliant Shailendra wrote.
There are articles, too, that examine other, less frequently discussed aspects of the film. Monica Kar’s The Power of the Spoken Word, about the dialogues of Guide, made very interesting reading for me, especially since she begins by explaining the rules and recommendations for good film dialogue (as postulated by a Senior Writer and Script Analyst for Warner Bros.) and then goes on to show how Vijay Anand, in creating the dialogues—and the silences—of Guide, exemplifies those standards.
Easily the most unusual essay in this book was Dr Pisharoty Chandran’s Les Acteurs Principaux: The Key Players & Their Personas with Psyche and Myth as Spicy Fillings. Dr Chandran is a psychiatrist, and he uses his expertise in his field to analyze the characters of Rosie and Raju in particular. The essay tends to veer away into the realm of spirituality towards the end, but the bulk of it looked at Guide in a way I’d never even thought of before.
By the time I’d finished reading this book, despite my general lack of enthusiasm for Guide (barring its music), I was beginning to think I should watch the film again. That was the effect of these essays: they were, on the whole, able to arouse an interest in the film in even someone who didn’t care too much for it. I wondered how I’d never managed to catch this nuance, or why I’d never noticed the symbolism of that element—of the snake motif, for instance. Or of the colours Bhanu Athaiya uses to dress Waheeda Rehman in, in different scenes and songs.
Despite the fact that it’s been written by such an array of writers, the writing is of a mostly high standard. I did think, however, that in a couple of instances the editing could have been a bit better. For example, Vijay Kumar’s A Spiritual Odyssey repeats too much of what has already been mentioned in earlier essays to leave much of an impact (not, I hasten to add, Vijay Kumar’s fault; his essay appears near the end of the book, by which time pretty much everybody else has already had their say. A good—and perhaps ruthless?—editor would have realized that this essay was, even if inadvertently, saying what had already been said by several others already). And yes, I did wonder at Sundeep Pahwa’s mention, in Navketan and Vijay Anand, about Guide being nominated for an Oscar. From what I know, it wasn’t nominated, it was merely India’s entry for the Academy Awards.
And, I was left wondering why the following stanza was omitted from the film’s first song, the brilliant Wahaan kaun hai tera:
Tune toh sabko raah bataayi, tu apni manzil kyon bhoola?
Suljhaake, raja, auron ki uljhan, kyon kachche dhaagon mein jhoola?
Kyon naache sapera, Musafir, jaayega kahaan?
Dharmakirthi, in his essay on Shailendra’s lyrics, even refers to the last line of this stanza as a ‘masterstroke’—which I agree with. But neither he nor the (at least three) other writers who mention this stanza offer any explanation for why it was dropped from the film, or even question its omission, given that it’s such a fine stanza and so appropriate to the story of Raju.
But what I’ve mentioned in the paragraphs above are just examples of me nit-picking. On the whole, this was an interesting and insightful book. While it did not succeed in making me change my overall opinion of Guide (I still like it mostly for SD Burman’s music and Waheeda Rehman’s dancing), at least it showed me sides and nuances of the film that I hadn’t noticed before. If you like Guide, this is a must-read.