Vocalist Geeta Dutt (1930–1972) was one of the leading “playback singers” in the world of Indian musical cinema—known as “Bollywood”—between the late 1940s and her death in 1972. As a soundtrack vocalist, a playback singer's voice is dubbed into a film where an actor mouths the vocals. In India, with its profusion of film musicals, Dutt and other playback singers became major pop stars, including fellow teenage star Lata Mangeshkar.
Although Geeta Dutt had many rivals for pop-star status over her durable career, few equaled or surpassed Dutt in terms of sheer vocal technique. Only fellow teenaged star Lata Mangeshkar could match her ability to draw listeners into a song or the cinematic world of which it was a part. “In her ability to be true to the mood of the song, her capacity to evoke the same mood in the listener, Geeta was supreme,” wrote Antara Nanda Mondal in Learning and Creativity. Dutt would work closely with two of the greatest composers in Bollywood history, Sachin Dev (S.D.) Burman and Omkar Prasad (O.P.) Nayyar, realizing their creative ideas in emotionally convincing ways. In the 1950s, when Nayyar started incorporating influences from Western jazz and pop into his film scores, Dutt perfectly embodied this new sassy spirit. Although Dutt's private life was challenging and she died young, her songs are known to generations of Indians who were not yet born during her lifetime.
Dutt was born Geeta Ghosh Roy Chowdhuri on November 23, 1930 (some sources give her birthday as July 7), in Faridpur, then part of British-controlled India and now Bangladesh. Known as Geeta Roy until her marriage, Dutt was one of ten children born into a landholding (zamindar) family. As a child, she impressed local villagers with her singing, and after the family encountered financial problems and moved to the Bengali capital of Calcutta, she was given music lessons by a relative. Otherwise Dutt was self-taught as a vocalist, learning to imitate songs she heard in films.
In 1942 the Chowdhuri family moved again, this time to a small apartment in Bombay. Although Dutt attended the Bengali School of Bombay, she was dissatisfied and restless and often cut classes. Her first language was Bengali, and she eventually recorded some songs in that language. Living in Bombay, however, she was exposed to other cultures and languages within India's vast melting pot and she learned to speak Hindi, Punjabi, Nepali, Sindhi, Urdu, and Gujarati to varying degrees.
In 1947 Dutt managed to pass her final exams at school, but her overriding interest was music, where she had mastered the small harmonium keyboard and continued to develop as a singer. She had received her first career break the year before when film music director K. Hanuman Prasad walked by Dutt's house and heard her singing. Entranced, he asked her father for permission to have her try out for playback singer jobs. In her first film, Bhakta Prahlad, Dutt had only two sung lines, but even from those, listeners—including Burman—could sense a star in the making. She was cast in minor vocal parts in several other films following her debut.
When Prasad introduced Dutt to Burman, he was already one of the leading composers and music directors in Indian cinema. After hearing her sing, Burman announced plans to cast her in the lead vocal part of his upcoming film, Do Bhai (“The Two Brothers”), even though colleagues questioned his plan to feature a then-unknown teenager. Burman was vindicated when the 1947 film became India's second-highest-grossing film of the year, and Geeta Roy's “Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya” took root among fans, becoming one of the evergreen songs of Indian cinema. Do Bhai spawned several other hits, and by 1948 the young singer had eclipsed Shamshad Begum and Raj Kumari, the two leading playback singers of the day, in popularity.
Baazi was a milestone in Dutt's life for another reason: on the set, she met the charismatic young actor-writerdirector Guru Dutt, and the two fell in love. Sometimes referred to as the Orson Welles of India, Guru Dutt was from a different caste than Geeta, and his culture and his native southern Indian language of Konkani were different from hers. Despite both families' opposition to their growing love affair, the couple were married on March 26, 1953, and went on to have three children: sons Tarun and Arun and daughter Nina. For the rest of her career, Geeta Roy would be known as Geeta Dutt.
Often supplying the vocals for the female parts in films starring her husband, Dutt continued to work with Burman and other composers. Her most important collaborations of the 1950s, however, were with Nayyar, who favored a Western-influenced style incorporating the elaborate dance routines that were the forerunners of today's Bollywood dance spectaculars. The flirtatious tone of many of Dutt's 1950s hits contrasted with the sad moods of the songs of the first part of her career.
In Nayyar's production of “Meera Naam Chin Chin Chu,” featured in the 1958 film Howrah Bridge, Dutt sings Chinese-inflected Hindi in a musical murder mystery set in Calcutta. To her vocals, the single-named Anglo-Burmese actress Helen performed one of Bollywood's greatest dance routines of the 1950s. The humorous tone of that song was balanced by Dutt in recorded hits of an entirely different sort; she “could switch from exotica to melancholy in a matter of minutes,” as Shikha Biswas Vohra recalled in The Hindu. Other hit films of the 1950s that featured Dutt's vocals included Aar Paar (1954) and Mr. and Mrs. 55 (1955), the latter starring Guru Dutt.
Despite Dutt's high-flying career, her private life was increasingly beset with problems. After Guru Dutt introduced a new female co-star, Waheeda Rehman, in his 1956 film C.I.D., rumors circulated that the two were having an affair. Geeta reacted badly, neglecting music practice, threatening never to work with her husband again, and turning to strong drink for solace. Guru Dutt for his part began to abuse alcohol as well as sleeping pills. By the early 1960s reports were circulating within the Indian film industry of Geeta showing up drunk for recording sessions, and film offers decreased. Her voice was undiminished, however, and she recorded some highly regarded Bengali-language songs during this period. On July 9, 1964, Guru Dutt was found dead, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills, perhaps intentionally.
Guru's death plunged Geeta into a prolonged period of crisis, both financially and personally. Forced to ask for work from film music directors, she found most of them leery because of her reputation for no-shows. Dutt at one point suffered a complete breakdown and was unable to work at all. After recovering somewhat, she appeared in stage shows, sometimes helped out by sympathetic entertainment industry figures who would agree to perform duets with her and cover for her when she was unable to finish a song.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dutt managed to record songs for several films, including the Bengalilanguage Badhubaran (1967) and the critically acclaimed Hindi film Anubhav (1971), in which Dutt's voice sounded much as listeners remembered it. A record label, the Gramophone Company of India, asked Dutt to record two songs for seasonal release, and these achieved some popular success. Although she was invited to the studio for a second recording session in early 1972, she called to cancel shortly before the scheduled date. On July 20, 1972, Dutt died in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, of cirrhosis of the liver.
Although Dutt is remembered mostly for her appearances in major Hindi-language films, her recorded output was extensive and consisted of songs for films in Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Bhojpuri (after she encountered hard times in the 1960s), Sindhi, and Nepali. She also recorded Hindi and Bengali songs unconnected with films and made several small appearances as an actress. An India Post stamp bearing Dutt's image was issued in 2013.
Anantharam, Ganesh, Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song, Penguin, 2008.
New York Times, October 7, 2009, Rachel Saltz, “Recalling Indian Cinema's Orson Welles,” p. C6.
Times of India, July 19, 2013, Zinia Sen and Ruman Ganguly, “Biopic War: It's Guru Dutt vs. Geeta Dutt.”
Daily Star (Dhaka, Bangladesh), http://archive.thedailystar.net/2005/06/30/d506301404103.htm (June 30, 2005), “All Time Greats: Geeta Dutt.”
Economic Times (India), http://economictimes.indiatimes.com//articleshow/9292484.cms?intenttarget=no (July 20, 2011), Sakina Babwani, “Singer Geeta Dutt: Her Life, Her Love, and Her Unforgettable Songs.”
The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/remembering-geeta-dutt-on-her-death-anniversary/article7456125.ece (July 23, 2015), Raj Kanwar, “Singer Called ‘Geeta.’”
Learning and Creativity, https://learningandcreativity.com/geeta-dutt/ (July 20, 2014), Antara Nanda Mondal, “Geeta Dutt—The Skylark Who Sang from the Heart.”
The Legendary Nightingale: Geeta Dutt, http://www.geetadutt.com/impact.html (September 3, 2017).□