Book Review: Guide, The Film: Perspectives

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.

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Guide, The Film: Perspectives

  1. Thank you for this honest review. For most of us this is our first published work and even though we’re all music and movie buffs, it has been the hardest thing to express our passion for these characters, having all the words of the English language at our command. It’s been an exciting discovery for a lot of us, if not all, as we kept peeling the layers and finding more and more depth in the movie.
    If I’m not wrong, this book is a one-of-its-kind in that it’s about a film that was released over half a century ago with the layman input of so many.
    The essays appear in the book, listed alphabetically as per the writer’s name and that is why Vijay Kumar ji’s essay appears last. Your nit-picking as well as the authenticity of your review is much appreciated! Thank you so much!

    • Thank you, Monica, for the comment. I’m glad you liked the review – and I’m glad all of you got together and wrote this book; it was very interesting, even for someone who’s not especially fond of the film itself! Your essay was one of those which I found particularly enlightening, since I learnt from it. :-)

  2. You have such an amazing job of articulating a lot of how I feel about some films, often bringing clarity to what are musings in my head. And that is exactly what you did in the article above. I feel as you do that “Guide” is really all about the music and Waheeda’s dancing. But there are all those aspects that you brought up in the first part of your post – about extramarital relationships, about imperfect lead characters.
    My biggest issue with the film was honestly Dev Anand’s inability to capture the essence of his character, about why he does what he does. He plays it as a Hindi film hero, and so we, as the audience expect to him to be a certain type of person. And for me, when he was not, it felt in-congruent. Perhaps some of that should be ascribed to the director? Not sure.
    But the film as a whole makes a transition from the a-typical to a completely different direction – the spiritual in a completely unexpected way – I have not read the original book by R K Narayan yet and this post by you is prompting me to pick it up from my bookshelf and dust off the cobwebs and read it. I wish Dev Anand had been able to show that character transformation better.
    Thanks for telling me about this book – shall probably pick it up. And read the original book. And watch the movie again.

    • My biggest issue with the film was honestly Dev Anand’s inability to capture the essence of his character, about why he does what he does.

      So very, very true. While I was reading this book and remembering the film, I kept thinking that Dev Anand played himself, the big star, and not Raju. And I kept wondering, too, how a more accomplished actor, one better at getting under the skin of the character (Dilip Kumar? Sunil Dutt, perhaps?) might have played the role. The scene near the end where Raju’s two alter-egos have a conversation especially made me cringe, because there was something very sanctimonious about the way that was done.

  3. Seems an interesting book and your review makes it a ‘ must read ‘ one !
    Incidentally, I have seen both English and Hindi versions of the film during last few days only. That is because I have been writing a series in Gujarati on pre-70’s film songs based on Raag Pahadi and one wonderful songs from GUIDE, ‘ wahaan kaun hai tera’ , sung by Burman Dada happens to be based on Raag Pahadi. While writing about any such song, it is my habit to see the whole movie; irrespective of whether I have seen it earlier or not. This time, I decided to see the English version of the movie too, despite the fact that it has no songs- just to make the experience a complete one.
    Yes, the line, ‘ kyun naache sapera ‘ is excellent poetic piece as it puts a pointed question to the protagonist who has always ‘ guided ‘ people or made them dance to his tune. A Sapera- A snake-charmer- has to make his subordinates ( snakes ) dance and here he is made to dance before destiny !
    As regards the overall impression about an acclaimed movie and why it sometimes varies from critic to critic, I have to humbly say that it depends partly on the stage of your life when you watch it. As I said earlier, when I watch some movies in connection with my column after several years- sometimes decades – I notice certain points which I had completely overlooked or ignored at the time of first viewing ! This is true both ways in the sense that some movies that looked perfect years back, now throw up some flows ! It may be maturity or the experience of having seen many more films since than !
    I shall certainly arrange for the book for reading.
    Thanks a lot !

    • I agree about one’s impression of a film (or actually pretty much any other work) being connected to one’s age/stage of life. Personally, I think I was more amenable to being forgiving when I was younger. There are dozens of films I watched as a child or a teenager and enjoyed considerably, but which, when I now revisit them, I find irritatingly melodramatic and/or riddled with plot holes. I suppose I have become less patient, and perhaps more jaded.

      Glad you liked the review. Thank you so much for the appreciation!

      • What are some films that you changed your mind about as you got older – either that you now like but had not in the past, or that you dislike now. Maybe you can do a separate post just on that.

  4. Welcome back. :) I religiously checked to see if you’d posted anything since the Roop ki Rani review, and was very disappointed to see you’d not. Glad to know it was a holiday that kept you away.

    You give me a very good idea of what to expect from this book, but I’m still not too sure about whether I want to read it. Simply because I don’t have the patience now to wade through so much dissection, especially if there’s repetition. Perhaps I’ll buy it anyway, and dip into one essay at a time?

    • Thank you, Anu! Yes, we were away on our usual holiday around this time of the year – with the LO on winter break, and both her and I celebrating our birthdays so close together, as a family we’ve decided this is one of the best times to go on a longish vacation. The fact that it helps us get away from Delhi when it’s at its coldest and most polluted doesn’t hurt, either. ;-)

      Dipping into this book one essay at a time is the best way to handle it, I think. Otherwise it does tend to get a bit repetitive.

  5. I have of course seen the movie, but
    not read R.K.Narayan’s book. However
    I have heard that there is an important
    change in the movie w.r.t. Rosie and
    her husband. In the movie, Marcos is
    shown as a philanderer. He is shown
    to spend his time with prostitutes
    while Rosie pines away. However, I
    read that in the book, Marcos is shown
    as impotent, leaving Rosie sexually
    dissatisfied . That is the major reason
    she turns to Raju. Is this true?
    Your review rekindled many old
    memories. I watched the movie when
    I was 9. If I remember right, rains had
    played truant in that year!
    Guide when I was 9 years old
    Nadkarni

    • To be honest, it’s been such a long time (nearly 30 years) since I read The Guide, I’ve forgotten the details of the book – and, also to be honest, I have serious doubts if I’d then have been able to recognize impotency in Marco and a resultant lack of sexual satisfaction on the part of Rosie – I’m pretty sure if that was the case, RK Narayan would have indicated it through dialogue, and a teenaged me wouldn’t have grasped the nuances of it. :-(

      I should read the book again, I think. Sometime.

  6. This was a pleasant surprise. I mean, reviewing a book about a movie. Guide was a movie I watched when I was in high school. A couple of years later, it came calling in the form of the novel which was prescribed to us in Pre-university. Being a young boy, the movie did not greatly appeal to me. The main attraction being the beautiful music and songs as well as a debonair Dev and the beautiful Waheeda. It is clear that when Dev Anand is in a movie, his role doesn’t dictate his personality. It is his ego which is the over riding factor. I have never encountered a guide with the swagger that Raju displays in Guide. In “Des Pardes” too, while he plays a village boy, his clothes are those of an urbanite. I agree with the view that Dev Anand was a misfit as the guide.

    Whatever it’s weak points, the two brothers deserve praise for choosing this bold story which broke all conventions. Waheeda Rehman too needs to be applauded for accepting this “negative” role. You have done enough to create interest in the book. Guess I will take it up.

    • Dev Anand was always Dev Anand,
      irrespective of which movie he acted in.
      The only movie he tried to be a little
      different was in the role of the
      Moustachioed Major in Hum Dono!
      Nadkarni

      • I think he’s a little different in his earlier films – for instance, CID (which is my favourite film of his), or even Nau Do Gyaraah. By the early 60s, the mannerisms had set in so strongly that they overrode any acting he did.

    • “reviewing a book about a movie

      I’ve reviewed a few other books about movies. :-) Harper Collins, I think it was, who took out a series of short books on Pakeezah and a couple of other iconic films, and I’ve reviewed a couple of them too. But those were all by a single author per film, so this book is different in that way, given that there are so many writers writing about just one film.

      “It is clear that when Dev Anand is in a movie, his role doesn’t dictate his personality. It is his ego which is the over riding factor.

      So well said!

      And I agree with you totally about the Anands deserving praise for having taken up such a bold theme. Of course, Vijay Anand, in scripting it, did try to tone it down by making Marco into a total villain and giving Raju a chance at redemption (plus killing him in the process – always redemptive!), but even then. It’s still a film that took courage to make.

  7. “Personally, other than for its music and Waheeda Rehman’s dancing, I have never really liked Guide much.”

    Word. I would throw in Vijay Anand’s direction (Guide *is* a well-made movie, IMO) as another aspect of the film that I appreciated. As for the book, Guide – The Film Perspectives, sounds quite interesting but unfortunately my indifference to the film itself is too great to inspire me to actually read the book. So, I shall satisfy myself with your very thorough review. Thanks, Madhu.

    • Yes, I agree about Guide being a well-made movie: there’s a coherence to it, a lack of unnecessary side plots (comic included!) that is certainly a point in its favour. But… :-)

      You’re welcome, Shalini.

  8. I was more interested in the love story. Dev and Waheeda have such incredible chemistry. The whole Dev-as-a-sage arc was a misfit and shifted the gears. Especially since Waheeda’s character lost her prominence and drive and was reduced to a powerless side character worshiping at the feet of the almighty Dev along with everyone else.

    • “The whole Dev-as-a-sage arc was a misfit and shifted the gears.

      So well said. I agree completely. Their chemistry is fabulous (always has been, in all their films together), but that entire sadhufication sent the story off the rails. I think that’s why the novel was not a good fit (as I see it) for a Hindi film: the romance wasn’t the janam-janam ka saath type, and both Rosie and Raju were too flawed to translate into the type of character to appeal to a Hindi film audience. Vijay Anand tried, but the ‘midway flawed’ character doesn’t work for me, at least.

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