Thoughts on Pyaasa (1957)

Been reading Sadhana by Rabindranath Tagore this week. As is typical of Tagore's works, Sadhana forces readers to think. The ability to think (versus consume facts and not process them) defines humans, and Tagore used this definition as a foundation for his observations on everything from what distinguished India from the West, to the essence of spirituality and the realization of the purpose of life. It's a purposeful and thought-provoking read.

Every once in a while, one comes across a movie that is extraordinarily thought-provoking. My favorite actor, Aamir Khan, has differentiated himself as a thinking star. With his approach to film-making alone (let alone top acting talent), I would argue he has done more for Bollywood (or Hindi cinema, as some prefer to call it) than any other actor of his generation (at least). Per him in this interview, the primary inspiration behind his decision to skip college and choose acting as a profession was the film Pyaasa (1957) by Guru Dutt. This was why I chose to see the film. I went in with high expectations, and they were exceeded, for I haven't thought as much as I did during and after a movie in a long, long time.

Pyaasa starred Guru Dutt, Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman, Johnny Walker, and others. Produced and directed by Guru Dutt, it had music by S. D. Burman and lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi. I was working from home the weekend I saw it, and figured playing the film for a few minutes after lunch on a Sunday afternoon would be a good way to take a quick break. The 'quick' break lasted for the duration of the movie, it was that captivating! Here are some highlights:

1. The first scene in the film was a definite strength, and a striking precursor to the rest. Vijay (Guru Dutt) was a poet.

He sang this poem, fascinated with bees in the garden, when, all of a sudden, he noticed a passerby stepping on and killing a bee:

2. A struggling poet, he was mistreated by everyone save his mother and a few close friends. Resourceful poets dismissed his work as waste...

...and his brothers sold his pages of poetry as scrap for a few annas (an annaa is a sixteenth of a rupee, the unit was last used officially in 1957, the year of the film's release!). They made it obvious that he was unwelcome in the family home because he was unemployed and did not contribute financially.

3. Devastated, Vijay left home and spent some time at a friend's place. Coincidentally, he overheard Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute, singing one of his poems. This also began the film's musical journey with Jaane kya tu ne kahi.

3. Gulabo wouldn't realize the person following her was the poet whose writings she carried and admired, until after she too mocked him for having nothing to offer.

4. We're taken to a college classroom next (a good use of the flashback), where this beautiful bit of poetry...

...was centered around our introduction to the beautiful Meena (Mala Sinha):

5. Every scene in the film was used to illustrate something valuable. Here's a traveler taking advantage of the ever-helpful Vijay (leaving the rest of this to your viewing experience):

6. In the mean time, Gulabo and Vijay learned more of and from each other.

Gulabo (whose name reminded me of Gulabbo -- Sue (Alice Patten) -- in Rang De Basanti (2006)) really was quite beautiful.

You might recall she also acted in Rang De Basanti (and did superb) as mother of Ajay Rathod.

7. Abdul Sattar (Johnny Walker) was Vijay's loyal friend. An expert at providing tel maalish (hair oil massage), Mr. Walker's portrayal of the character only confirmed that he was one of the best ever at comedy (given my limited knowledge of classic cinema, I think the only one in the same league was Mukri). Really liked him as Mastana in Taxi Driver (1954 -- here's my review), and thought he did an excellent job here as well.

As a light-hearted song, this Mohammad Rafi song -- Sar jo tera chakraaye ('Whether you are dizzy') -- doubled as Abdul Sattar's sales pitch and some welcome comic relief.

8. At an alumni reunion, Vijay met his college sweetheart Meena again. The poem Tang aa chuke hain was brilliantly placed (video, lyrics and translation in this post), and was perfectly timed to be followed by an introduction to publisher Mr. Ghosh (Rehman), who invited Vijay to his workplace the following day.

9. Vijay was disappointed with the offer, but must have thought it worth accepting upon realizing Mr. Ghosh was Meena's husband. One of the most popular songs from the soundtrack -- Jaane Woh Kaise -- was placed at Mr. Ghosh's house, as noted in this post with its lyrics and translation.

10. Vijay and Meena had a couple of fantastic sequences (following another popular song -- Hum Aap ki Aankhon mein (video, lyrics and translation in this post)), where the dialogue was top notch:

11. Much like the scenes with Vijay and Meena, this accidental meeting between the former and Gulabo set the tone for the remainder of the film as far as lessons on relationships were concerned.

12. A disturbing scene with a child involved sparked off a remarkable song in Jinhein naaz hai Hind par, the last paragraph to which was as follows (hope to translate this some day):

Here is the song:

The song also led to an outpouring of the antagonists' views on the worth of Vijay's poems. Again, Vijay trusted Gulabo with the conversation.

13. This scene by the railway tracks was the turning point in the film.

What prompted a Meena-Gulabo confrontation?

What was Abdul Sattar doing singing his delightful signature song again?

And planning?

Why a climax at an auditorium? (Lyrics and translation to a song in this post might offer a clue, perhaps?)

Nothing prepared me for the final 45 minutes of the film, not even reading reviews describing the film beforehand. In those final minutes, we were reminded of the tremendous ease with which some lie and change loyalties for material wealth. We were also reminded of the various thought processes that guide value systems and definitions of success that are individualistic and geared to the short-term. This was why Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye (video, lyrics and translation in this post) was a tremendous complement to the film and its fitting end.

The very obvious elements that enabled Pyaasa to hold the viewers' attention from the first frame to the last were the dialogue and the music. They were critical to the effectiveness of the film, and were executed flawlessly. The songs were not only fantastic as vocal, musical and lyrical products of the highest quality, but were integral to the unfolding of the plot. They served as very natural extensions to the dialogue, which is the biggest compliment a lyricist (Sahir Ludhianvi here) must hope for.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without spectacular performances by Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, and Mala Sinha. In addition, the supporting cast was more than up to the task of participating in a demanding film with a message that commands respect over five decades after its release. The cinematography was very well done too.

And finally, as a follow-up to the very first paragraph in this viewing experience led me to believe that the following (#s 1 - 3) were some significant messages of the film (there were plenty more). They served as reinforcement of the universal good, an idea not too different from the one presented by Tagore in Sadhana. The film tackled each head-first, and did very well:

  1. We are to leave everything behind. Focus on investing in community rather than in the self.

  2. The purpose of education is to make us better learners, thus better people.

  3. The way one looks at woman and her role in society, and one's treatment of women, are fair indicators of one's character. I have not encountered a film that was as effective in dealing with this issue as Pyaasa.

  4. Don't even *think* of risking your life and saving someone trapped on railway tracks unless you're Guru Dutt in Pyaasa...

    ...or Aamir Khan in Ghulam (1998). Watch the scene about a minute into this video (Aamir did the stunts for the scene himself, which was quite remarkable).

If you're read this far, you know what I thought of Pyaasa. I shall definitely revisit and hope to continue to understand it better. Close to five stars for an excellent, excellent film that earns the viewers' focus throughout! It really is a must-see, no second thoughts about it!

Movie rating: 4.75/5 (Excellent!)

My classification: PG (for plot)

Music rating: 4.75/5 (Excellent!)

PS: Comparisons to Devdas are inevitable given the plot (love triangle with a prostitute and a woman who married for riches), but Devdas was not nearly as mature and emotionally capable of doing what Vijay accomplished. Pyaasa was about something much greater and substantial than a character like Devdas, his love, his selfishness and his uncontrolled state which led to his destruction.


Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Oh I definitely agree- Pyasa is amazingly beautiful, and is truly a film for the ages. Its been more that 50 yrs and we still love it! Devdas aint a patch on it, or so I think :D As I've said, I wept wailed and shook fists at the screen (at Mala) through the movie, but love it just the same :)

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Shweta: It really has stood the test of time, and my only regret is I didn't see it until recently. That's going to be a recurring sentiment as I discover more of the older classics, but better late (as always)...

Mala deserved what she got, whichever way we look at it. And agree completely about Devdas not being a patch on Pyaasa.

Thank you for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

theBollywoodFan, Adab!
Thanks for all your posts on Pyaasa this week, and all the translations. I've been enjoying them. They are much appreciated. I have to go back for a second viewing of the film now as you've piqued my interest. As far as the ability to save someone from a train track incident that you spoke of in point 4, you have a good point. I immediately thought of Juhi's character in Daraar and the very end of the film and her actions at the train track. Do you remember that?

All the best yaar,

Anonymous said...

All of Guru Dutt's films are beautiful, like master paintings...and I loved Pyaasa. But though I'm happy to have watched his films, I don't have any wish to rewatch most of them.

Probably because they aren't sparkly :-)

theBollywoodFan said...

Adab Sita-ji: Thank you for your comment -- it's the film and its related components that we need to thank. I doubt that if I had seen this with a bunch of friends, for instance, that we would have maintained the quiet and focus that I think is warranted by the film. That Daraar comparison is so interesting! I haven't seen the film, so I wouldn't know, but anything with Juhi... (haye Allah :)

Hi Memsaab: This is the only Guru Dutt film I have seen, and I'll definitely hope to check out more, beginning with Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Kaagaz Ke Phool. Any others you would recommend?

That's interesting that his works weren't sparkly. Based on some of what is out there about him, it seems his acting in some films probably came naturally since his situation in real life was not the most desirable. Not sure what to trust, but his films seem to have done their job well, as you say.

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Some classics are best watched late in life and I think Pyaasa is definitely one of those. I remember watching this one as a kid and remember it as a very gloomy movie. In fact if it hadnt been for Mr and Mrs 55 I would have grown up avoiding Guru Dutt! lol. As a grown up I can appreciate all the excellent points you've made about it and this one is now due for a re-watch.

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Bollyviewer: It's so true, about appreciating some of these later in life. Couldn't have said it any better!

I'll be adding Mr and Mrs 55 to the list too, thanks!

dunkdaft said...

Gurudatt's strength was his voice and kind of speech. Such a pain in his voice. And always in all movies - king is light and shadow.
All movies hold such a good camerawork with use of light and shadow that's fabulous. Colour films are no match with that.

Yeh mahalo yeh takhto yeh taajo ki duniya....yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai.....

Best example of lights and shadow are his Kaagaz ke phool.
Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam....

A must learn for all directors and cinematographers.

I hope that you will review Kaagaz ke phool....ASAP.

And for your info. Aamir's scene on Railway track in Ghulam,
Was crap [so heart breaking it is, for me too, but its true]
India Today has given even picture of Aamir, jumping against False screen [green screen which regularly be used for special effects].

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Darshit: I agree with you completely on Guru Dutt. I have yet to see Kaagaz Ke Phool, believe it or not, so I'll hope to check it out soon. Have heard nothing but the very best things about it.

Aamir's scene on railway tracks in Ghulam probably used some special effects, but the stunt was darn real, and far from 'crap', LOL. You know, even if it weren't real, it wouldn't break my heart; none of us wants Aamir to risk his life for a movie! Nahin!!!

I found this, also from India today:

1.3 seconds make these lines fiction. 1.3 seconds was all that remained when Aamir, attempting a dangerous stunt for the upcoming Ghulam, running toward a speeding train, calculating the time when it would hit him, decided it was close enough and jumped off the rails. "It was very foolish of me," he says. "But sometimes you get swayed by your feelings to achieve a great shot."


sargam said...

pyaasa is an all time favourite. the use of black and white is so apt in the film and i simply love Gulabo's character. The prostitute with a golden heart was a character that became regular in the hindi cinema of the 1970s and 80s. Gulabo's dilemma has been captured beautifully in the song aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo...and the poetry of pyaasa's songs is unmatched..till date

Unknown said...

Mr & Mrs 55 is a VILE, EVIL, REPELLENT film, at least in the post-intermission part. I started off loving it - especially the Johnny walker bits, jaane kahaan mera above all - so sweet and lovely and fun. Then the second half of the movie started, and it got so ugly - Neanderthals look enlightened compared to the "he beat you and you must worship him adoringly for loving you enough to do it" philosophy of the film. I got so mad and so deeply ashamed of being a man. There cannot be ANY justification for the attitude that Dutt promotes in the film, especially the 2nd half, and that second half totally ruined what started off as a promising light romcom.

Unknown said...

The way one looks at woman and her role in society, and one's treatment of women, are fair indicators of one's character. That's a great summary of an important message from Pyaasa, especially songs like jinhe naaz. That makes the violent, regressive misogyny of Mr & Mrs 55 even harder to understand.