[Warning: vague spoilers ahead.]
I have to get something out of the way before diving into Vinjay Anand's 1965 classic Guide: sometimes it's hard to take star Dev Anand seriously because of his hair. It's distracting. Towards the climax of the movie, when his character, Raju, grapples with huge philosophical questions, all I could think was "To you, the meaning of life is obviously Aqua Net!"
Guide is so full of meaningful, pointed, significant dialogue that my brain almost short-circuited while I watched it. I kept pausing and furiously scribbling notes, unable to keep up with everything that seemed to be going on. The story of unhappy wife and former dancer Rosie, the focus of the movie's first 90 minutes and performed sublimely by Waheeda Rehman, gripped me completely. "Whoa!" I thought. "This story is feminist." It is thoughtful. It doesn't let anyone off easy (even the protagonist). The visuals are fab and beautiful and, best of all, totally in support of what's going on. Every word spoke to me. I cheered for Rosie and her choices. She's a truly fierce heroine, flawed but strong and willing to learn. This character and her arc are perhaps best epitomized by the famous snake dance, where she leaps to action with all her heart, stares down the camera, dances her very soul, sweats buckets, nearly collapses, puts her shoes back on, and then continues on with her day. It's a stunning, sudden affirmation of power, and to be honest it was even more thrilling because it's a woman doing it. She doesn't take anyone down when she seizes control of her life. It's all about her being herself, getting in touch with something that has been taken away from her, choosing.
Another visual of Rosie being herself: tired of her whiny, neglectful husband forbidding her to dance, she buys ghungroos (and pays too much for them), then all but skips down the street, not caring who looks or who minds.
That heel might as well be on her husband's back, and he'd deserve every stab.
But. Oh, but the "but." Somewhere after an hour and a half, the movie switches focus to a completely different story and a completely different person. While Dev's Raju has been very much a part of Rosie's growth from downtrodden to alive, I didn't think the story was really about him. But then another story comes barreling at us, one about Raju and his without-Rosie life, and, I gotta tell you, I found his story far less interesting and a lot more trite, even though some might argue that his story takes on "bigger issues" of sacrifice, divinity, enlightenment, etc. while hers is about personal freedoms and choices. (I don't buy that myself; her struggle reflects everyday and "meaning of life"-type questions of the oppressed and/or under-resourced people everywhere [women, the young, the poor, those who do jobs the rest of us don't want to think about].) The visuals start to slip too, getting a little too funky for the tone established earlier in the movie. Check out the question marks in the background of the top image - overkill! Or here, where we learn that enlightenment is light-up.
I like a little dard-e-Lite Brite as much as the next person, but maybe not when the soul in question is in anguish over trying to save an entire village. It looks trippy in a way that I don't think suits the surroundings the character is in.
I could understand if someone found both parts of this movie heavy-handed, but in the momentum-filled first part the message is so beautifully and interestingly done that I didn't notice. Towards the end, the wheels come off a little bit, getting a bit clunky and dabbling with super-filmi coincidences (which I assume are in the book, so it's probably not fair to call them filmi). Here the pre-spiritual-experience Raju and the emerging-enlightenment Raju have a conversation
and while I get that we're seeing how Raju holds various separate thoughts and answers within himself, the literal split seems unnecessary.
Overall, Guide is a fascinating film, and there is much to take in, verbally, visually, and philosophically. I've only seen Dev Anand in one other movie, Jewel Thief, where he is movie star personified, going style for style with all the components of the film and oomphing his way through the whole groovy production. Here I found his a-touch-of-smirk persona a little bit in the way of Rosie's and Raju's personal voyages. But on the other hand, his buoyancy is an asset to all the interactions with Waheeda that center on Rosie soaking up Raju's steady, sturdy encouragement. Waheeda dazzles, glorious in every scene, and I think she communicates more through dancing than anyone I've seen yet. Everyone involved in creating her songs deserves every award and rave review they received. Here's a taste.
I loves this last one especially - Rosie seems to be walking along the river bank, the dancers forming the ghats and water's edge, with Raju in the middle of the current. Later, Raju finds himself caught in a net of mistakes and anger, and the dancers swirl their arms and hands around, complicating the wall around him.
S. D. Burman's music is beautiful and the picturizations suit it. For example, in the longing opening song "Musafir," a solitary Raju wanders for months, a small figure against striking scenery, emphasizing how lonely the character is.
Vijay Anand and his cinematographer, Fali Mistry, have an especially wonderful eye for using architecture in striking ways.
Look at the saffron flash, framed by the temple.
Rosie steps into the darkness to take on her husband.
These next two shots are my favorites. It's hard to tell whether Waheeda or the buildings are the stars.
I would be remiss not to note how touching the relationship between Rosie and Raju is. They give each other a lot, and their affection and mutual support and encouragement are really lovely when they work. The exploration of the concept of the title is interesting too. I've been wondering if it's significant that the title does not include an article, maybe shifting emphasis from "the guide" (that is, Raju) to the act or concept of guiding, implying that we all need guidance and appreciate good advice at some point in our lives, that figuring out what or whom to follow or learn from is one of our greatest challenges. The movie's greatest strength by far is Rosie's struggle with choices, priorities, and relationships - totally compelling. My final impression, after a week of mulling things over: I wish the major threads were better integrated, and the movie rambles towards the end and leaves viewers with a broader, less coherent work than we started with, but when Guide is focused and strong, it is amazing and rewarding.
At the time of writing this post, you can watch Guide free at Jaman.com.
A professional aside: FYI, this is no longer the preferred method for engaging visitors with cultural heritage.