Kaagaz ke Phool has been considered Guru Dutt's finest film by many. It is generally felt that the film was a cinematic masterpiece that went over the audience's heads and sank like the Titanic so to say in its time. But an objective look at the film shows that it is actually quite an inconsistent film with its share of lows. However, there's no denying that in its better moments it is nothing short of brilliant. Lyrical and poetic, it represents some of the finest work that Guru Dutt has ever done.
The film's biggest flaw is its script. The screenplay however is weak and the film at its worst moments appears to be totally narcissistic. Perhaps with the success of Pyaasa (1957), Guru Dutt felt he could make yet another serious film but Kaagaz ke Phool with its defeatist attitude (at least Pyaasa had a happy ending of sorts) appears almost morbid. Guru Dutt was known to be an extremely indecisive person and the script of the film kept changing during the making. Also, unlike his earlier films where the characters were so beautifully drawn out, the family of the film director's wife who want nothing to do with him are treated as cardboard caricatures. And Johnny Walker's angle to provide relief appears to be forced in the film rather than integrated into it. As Guru Dutt himself admitted in an interview to Filmfare in 1963,
"It was good in patches. It was too slow and it went over the head of audiences."
But for all its flaws, like any Guru Dutt film, the highs far outweigh the lows. The relationship between the director and his protégé is delicately handled on a very human plane. The film making scenes are shot with meticulous attention to detail. The ambiance of the film studios inspired by New Theatres is most effectively created. (Although audiences could not digest this breaking down of the myth surrounding the film world, its aura and glamour) And song picturisations, as mentioned already a strong point of Guru Dutt, are taken to new heights particularly Dekhi Zamaane ki Yaari and Waqt ne Kiya Kya Haseen Situm the latter perhaps the best ever song sung by Geeta Dutt. However, barring these two songs SD Burman's music is merely adequate.
Technically the film is perhaps his best film. The camerawork with its use of light and shadows is magical. Rarely has the Indian screen seen better Black and White cinematography. The frames have been beautifully composed keeping in mind the cinemascope format. It is India's first ever film in cinemascope and deservedly got cinematographer VK Murthy the Filmfare award.
After the film flopped, a dejected Guru Dutt never officially directed a film again. Though Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) bears his unmistakable stamp, the direction is credited to Abrar Alvi.
Ironically, today Kaagaz ke Phool enjoys a cult following and goes house full whenever re-released.