A Poetic Tale of Redemption, But Will Today's Audiences Like It?

The classic Pyaasa opened the ongoing International Film Festival of India in Goa. What makes the film so unique even six decades later?

Pyaasa is usually regarded among the best Hindi films ever made, made within the conventions of Hindi cinema but which extends beyond them, the result being a film that appeals to both Indian and international audiences.

I doubt though it would have any great appeal to mainstream audiences, though cineplex audiences do enjoy films that look back nostalgically to this period, such as Lootera or parts of Love Aaj Kal.

Pyaasa is one of the key films of what could be called a middle class, or a middlebrow Hindi cinema which can be traced back to the pre-independence social films that flourished in the 1950s, with makers such as Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt himself, and exemplified in the 1970s by Hrishikesh Mukherjee before re-emerging as multiplex cinema of today.

It is possible, though, that many in the younger generation today have an aversion to black and white and would probably find love depicted through looks and signs boring; they may also miss the dance music.

Nonetheless, Pyaasa is celebrated – thanks to its wonderful songs, performances, and camerawork – as being one of the greatest of all Hindi films; but it also has a number of strange features which are often overlooked.

The film opens with a bee, which often represents a lover, thirsty (pyaasa) for nectar, crushed under foot, unnoticed. So the hero of the film is a poet, Vijay (Guru Dutt), whose brothers sell his poetry as wastepaper. Thrown out of the family home, he meets a prostitute, Gulab (Waheeda Rehman), a lover of poetry who falls for him. His first love, Meena (Mala Sinha), left him to marry a wealthy publisher, Ghosh (Rehman). Vijay gives his coat to a beggar who is later killed, hence Vijay is assumed to be dead. Gulab’s poetry is then published by Ghosh. The book becomes a bestseller and a memorial meeting to commemorate the ‘dead’ Vijay is planned. He arrives at his own memorial only to denounce the world. Ghosh and his friends pretend he is an imposter, claiming to be Vijay, who is thus committed to an asylum. When finally he leaves it, he invites Gulab to share her life with him.

Much has been said about the film already so I develop three main points of interest about it. Each song could be written about at length, and I would encourage readers who want to read more to the work of Nasreen Munni Kabir and Corey Creekmur for further enlightenment.

Vijay-Sahir: An Urdu poet in Calcutta

The film is set in Calcutta, although there are a few outdoor locations used, marked by the names of establishment figures, such as the successful publisher, Mr Ghosh, but the reasons for this location are not entirely clear. Perhaps it is the story’s loose connection to Saratchandra’s Srikant, or it could be to evoke the fading grandeur of the city where art is being replaced by materialism as magnificently depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar/The music room (1958). Vijay’s lack of success is not surprising as Calcutta seems an unlikely location for an Urdu poet , although its extreme romanticism and poetry of defeat and sorrow is well suited to the task. Yet when Ghosh publishes Vijay’s book, Parchhaiyan/Shadows, it turns out to be a huge success. This is the name of the collection of Sahir Ludhianvi, the film’s lyricist, and the movie is said to be based around the story of his love for Amrita Pritam, the famous Hindi and Punjabi poet.

Sahir’s lyrics for Pyaasa are among the most famous and loved of all Hindi films, set to SD Burman’s music and mostly sung by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. Sahir famously de-Persianised the language of his poem ‘Chakle/Brothels’, for the song ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par’.

A drunk Vijay staggers through a red-light area that resounds with the tablas of kothas, before the music changes to a close-up showing him swaying, cloaking his face with a glass of iced liquid as he dreamily begins the song, breaking his reverie to ask where are the people who are proud of India. His reaction to the corruption and degradation around him is moral disgust rather than political; he shows his romantic, ineffectual response to the world that surrounds him by producing beautiful lyrics.

Those who live on the margins of society are humanised and shown to be better people than the wealthy, who trick the poor with counterfeit coins. Vijay befriends the masseur: Abdul Sattar (Johnny Walker) and the streetwalker, Gulab, who show him more kindness than his own family, who value money over kinship.

Superb camerawork

VK Murthy’s exceptional cinematography creates striking images of darkness and light in a Gothic manner found only in a handful of films, notably Mahal, (dir. Kamal Amrohi, 1949). There it is part of the styling of the uncanny (unheimlich) in the film, but here it is the darkness of the new India where the (mottled) dawn has given way to darkness, the poet who seeks love and value has his hopes dashed, and can only run away with his lover. This is very different from the hero of Raj Kapoor films.

The faces of the characters are lit in bright contrast to this darkness, with the film leaving lasting images, notably the way in which Waheeda Rehman’s exquisite face is shot in ‘Jaane kya tune kahi’ (sung by Geeta Dutt).

The mobile camera in the scene ‘Jaane voh kaise log the jinke’ is extraordinary, where the emotions of the guests at the party become clear as Vijay sings of his suffering caused by his false love, while Ghosh starts to suspect Meena.

At times the camerawork is reminiscent of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and the breakfast scene between Meena and Ghosh recalls the famous breakfast montage which shows the breakdown of the marriage between Kane and the first Mrs Kane.

Religion and redemption

The film has an extraordinary amount of Christian imagery and references. In Hemant Kumar’s ‘Jaane voh kaise log the jinke’, the poet is given a crown of thorns (kaaton ka haar) (Matthew 27:29 – And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!). In the great set-piece, ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye’, the chorus is a translation of Matthew 16.26: ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’

Meena reads the tellingly named LIFE magazine which has an image of Christ on the cover, and when Vijay has vanished for three days he seems to be resurrected. He finds his brothers disown him as Peter denies Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75), and he appears at his ‘memorial’ where he stands backlit in the door like Christ by the empty tomb. The extraordinary performance of the song and the desire to burn the world is also Biblical:

Jala do isey, phoonk daalo yeh duniya
Mere saamne se hata lo yeh duniya
Tumhari hai tum hi sambhalo yeh duniya
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai

Matthew 3.12 ‘he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire…’

The analogies could be taken further in that his kindness to Gulab is like that of Jesus to Mary Magdalene but this is more speculative. While the charming Hollywood song with Vijay in a tuxedo and Meena in a sari tied tightly to look like an evening dress, ‘Hum aapki aankhon mein’, shows them to be waltzing in heaven as dry ice swirls around their feet and Christmas tree ornaments bob around their heads.

There is also a very deeply Hindu song, one of the few references to Bengal in the film as Baul singers perform the bhajan ‘Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo/Embrace me today, beloved’, which purports to be by Meera, in which Gulaab’s love for Vijay is likened to Meera’s love for Krishna. The camera lingers on her face as she listens to the song but she hesitates to approach Vijay. An instrumental version of the song is reprised at the end when Vijay comes to take her away, a final expression of the love they share and a hope of redemption.

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London