For his most ambitious film yet, Pyaasa, Guru Dutt wanted the best actor around. He wanted the ‘tragedy king’, the top star of the 1950s – Dilip Kumar. Dilip was known to take his craft extremely seriously and was a perfectionist to the core. He normally worked in one film at a time to give it his 100 per cent. This was exactly the kind of dedication Guru Dutt wanted from his Pyaasa hero.

Guru went to meet Dilip Kumar and narrated the script of Pyaasa to him. Dilip Kumar agreed to do the film in principle. He quoted his price of one-and-a-half-lakh rupees. Guru Dutt requested him to consider reducing the price as he had already scrapped the shoot he had done for the film, wasting a considerable amount. In reply, he was asked not to worry about the money. Now that Dilip Kumar was to take on the lead role, his loyal film distributors would take care of the finances. This perhaps was the point where Guru Dutt disagreed with him. Guru Dutt clearly told Dilip Kumar that he had a fixed team of distributors too and he had committed Pyaasa to them. In Sathya Saran’s book Ten Years with Guru Dutt, Abrar Alvi says that Guru Dutt told Dilip Kumar, ‘I haven’t come to you to sell my film. I can sell it on my own. I have come to you as a director, because I believe that if I cast you in my film, I will make a better film. You will add stature to it.’

Whether Dilip Kumar, the biggest star-actor of those times, took offense is not known. Dilip Kumar never talked about this meeting ever. But at that time he promised Guru Dutt that he would come for the shooting from the next day.

The following day, all preparations were done for the muhurat shot. The entire unit of Pyaasa was waiting to welcome their star, Dilip Kumar. Hours passed but Kumar didn’t arrive.

Guru Dutt’s production controller and confidante Guruswamy said, ‘I myself had gone to fetch Dilip Saab. But he was not to be found at home.’

Guru’s brother, Devi Dutt recalls, ‘He [Dilip Kumar] was to attend the mahurat at A.P. Kardar Studio. Also, [producer-director] B.R. Chopra’s office was in the same compound. Dilip Saab went there to meet him. There was a quiet rivalry between B.R. Chopra Saab and Guru Dutt. Dilip Saab sat there discussing the script of Chopra Saab’s Naya Daur as the mahurat time (of Pyaasa) slipped by. Guru Dutt sent for him. Dilip Saab said he’d be there in ten minutes.’ But even then Dilip Kumar did not turn up. Around lunch time, Guru Dutt sent for two bees. By 3 pm he had decided to play the protagonist himself and took the first shot – a close-up shot of a bee thirsty for nectar but a man passing by crushes the innocent life under his foot.

Guru Dutt had always underestimated himself as an actor. In all his films where he had played the lead role, he was always the reluctant second or third choice. Cinematographer and another of Guru Dutt’s A-team members, VK Murthy remembered, ‘He was hesitant to face the camera as actor… He could not critique his acting adequately, and so this job was up to Abrar or I.’

There were always talks of signing other actors for the role. In Pyaasa too, after scrapping the initial shoot with himself in the lead role, he had started thinking that he doesn’t possess the histrionics required for the very complex role of the tragic poet. He felt that a craftier actor was needed.

Later, Dilip Kumar said in an interview that he didn’t sign Pyaasa as his role was similar to the one he had played in his memorable film Devdas. He never mentioned anything else on record. It’s true that had Dilip Kumar turned up on that fateful day, Pyaasa would have been a very different film. But the way in which Guru Dutt played the role of Vijay, it is difficult to imagine anyone except him in that role now. He gave it his everything. Guru Dutt became Vijay, the heartbroken poet.

The audacious move by Guru Dutt to take on the role that Dilip Kumar refused paid off and it became ‘one of Bollywood’s all-time greatest performances’. Bunny Reuben, the biographer of the thespian Dilip Kumar writes, ‘What, in fact, Guru Dutt had actually done, was to…inform the entire cinema-going world that he had given a “Dilip Kumar role” to a totally new actor and he’d made a super-hit out of his film.’

Excerpted with permission from Guru Dutt – An Unfinished Story, Yasser Usman, Simon & Schuster India.

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‘Pyaasa’ is the Guru Dutt gift that keeps giving