It took me a little over three hours to watch Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, simply because I often had to pause the film and just sit there, taking in what just happened on screen.
This 1957 classic – that has been listed by TIME as one of the top 100 movies of all time – sucks you in, and holds you through its hard-hitting dialogues, perfect songs, Dutt’s underplayed acting and gorgeous noir lighting which makes you rewind and watch again. The story is one I’d heard before: a struggling artist at odds with a fast-paced, profit-hungry world which rejects his poetry. Still, Dutt manages to take a poignant personal narrative and turn it into an outward-looking commentary about the state of the educated but unemployed youth in postcolonial, poverty-stricken India that is political, philosophical and still very personal.
It was intense.
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The Plot: 1957’s Rockstar?
Vijay (Guru Dutt) is a poor, unemployed poet who gets no help or appreciation for his art from his family, friends or society. In the past, we are told that his college love Meena (Mala Sinha) left him for a more secure future and married the rich publisher, Mr Ghosh. The only person in whom he finds some comfort is the prostitute Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), who is touched by his poems when she buys them from a scrap-dealer.
At a college reunion, Vijay meets Meena again and something of a spark is rekindled. Ghosh gets suspicious of their feelings for each other and hires Vijay to work in his office, only to enviously fire him when he walks in on the two of them having an emotional conversation. Vijay, seemingly always down on his luck, loses his beloved mother too.
This proves too much for him, and one night, he gets drunk, writes a parting note and puts it in his jacket, with a plan to kill himself later that night. He meets a beggar shivering in the cold and gives him his jacket. The beggar dies in an accident, and based on the note, everyone believes Vijay is dead! How can anyone have such bad luck?!
Gulabo takes whatever savings she had and convinces Ghosh to publish Vijay’s poems posthumously, which become a big hit. During a ceremony to honour him, Vijay walks in, back from the dead, rejecting everything this world was willing to offer him only on the condition of his death. He picks Gulabo over Meena, oblivion over fame.
Like I said, it’s intense.
The Wow Factor
The songs make this movie for me. As the story progresses, the songs take on the shape of another character, filling in the gaps of the narrative and telling us what the characters are feeling emotionally. My favourite song undoubtedly was the gut-wrenching ‘Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye Toh Kya Hai’.
Dutt appears at the doorway of a grand hall, like Christ (very clever Resurrection reference there), beautifully back-lit, and starts singing in his trademark put-your-ear-to-the-speaker volume, until frustrations with the world increase and so does his momentum and tenor. At the end of the song, as Dutt is being thrown out of his own remembrance as he yells out – no less – “Jala Do! Jala Do! Jala Do Yeh Duniya! Mere saamne se hataa do yeh duniya! Tumhari hai tum hi sambhaalo yeh duniya!” (At this time I was ready to burn the world down.)
Between that and Tang Aa Chuke Hain Kashmakash-e-Zindagi Se Hum, the tone of the movie is set nicely (grimly) with a near-divine Hum Aapki Aankhon Mein adding that little touch of sweetness in an otherwise dark film about a dark world.
Side notes: I grew up with the peppy Sar Jo Tera Chakraye song, and it was only last night that I realised it’s a Pyaasa song, and not a famous champi jingle! Also, I discovered the perfect song for the jingoists in 2017 who refuse to hear any criticism of our Mother India: Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hai?
The Lighting and Cinematography
Overall, the movie is very arthouse-y. The lighting is completely contextual in the movie and is used to convey the theme.
Pyaasa would not be what it is if every scene was hard-lit with wide shots, as was the norm for commercial successes during the time. The 1957 movie is a novelty for its soft lighting, play with shadow, mind-blowing frames and well thought-out close-ups.
In fact, Vijay is almost always in between shadow and light, which to me was a nice way of visualising the conflict within him: his constant struggle to make a connection with a world he did not understand, did not appreciate. Even the shots which pan over are slow and dreary – not a hair is out of place in Pyaasa.
The scenes are laid out very cleverly, juxtaposed at just the right time. When Vijay meets Meena after a long time, they are both in a lift coming down. The scene cuts to a dream-sequence in the clouds with Geeta Dutt’s sweet romantic song. When the song ends, Guru Dutt cuts back to the lift; Meena wakes up from her reverie and says, “Mujhe upar jaana hai.”
The theme of the movie was light years ahead of its time and remains relevant 60 years on: Disillusionment with the world’s crass commercialization, the futility of money, power and fame, abject poverty of materialist things and thought, prostitution and unemployment.
At times, the movie is excruciatingly slow. It’s dark, dreary, filled with shadows and despondent dialogues and visuals. Accustomed to a fast-paced intake of information, thanks to technology and my general nature, I found myself at times skipping forward ever so slightly. The tight construction of the script helped me, as no scene was unnecessary in the film, and I was constantly drawn in by the progression of the narrative.
After the movie was over, I sat down, my mind brimming with thoughts. Pyaasa is so much, that to explain why it is a classic is a little overwhelming. It’s not the story, or the theme, the songs or the lighting.
No one had made a movie like Pyaasa before it; no one has been able to make one 60 years later, either.
(This piece is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 11 April, 2017. It is now being republished to mark Guru Dutt’s death anniversary.)