Guest Post: Pyaasa (1957)

I'm privileged to have my friend Max (who goes by 'maxqnz' here and on Twitter), write this post. Max is a field manager for a couple market research firms. He lives in New Zealand, where he was born and raised. He first got into Hindi films seriously about eight years ago, when he decided to teach himself Hindi. The first three films that he remembers choosing himself were Lagaan (2001), 1947: Earth (1998), and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). Suffice it to say that ever since then, he's been hooked! You can read more about his journey at his blog at this link.

If there's one thing we know about Guru Dutt's Pyaasa, it's that the film can be read in countless ways without compromising its many complex layers. That quality is reflected in this post, a tribute to both the film and to the writer willing to question his fondness of it by making it personal. And that is where any piece of art is at its strongest. Please join me in thanking Max for sharing his journey with and excellent viewpoints on this remarkable and awe-inspiring, indeed strong film. Thank you, Max!

First, a BIG thank you to thebollywoodfan for his generous invitation. When I was offered the chance to write this, I had a sudden insight into the meaning of the phrase "mixed emotions". I love this film with a passion, and that's part of the reason why I was so scared of writing about it. It is an acknowledged masterpiece, and has been analysed, dissected, lauded, and critiqued so many times by so many people much more qualified than I. It is an honour to be asked to write about it, but how can I do it justice? Happily, the genius of the film shows me the way.

What is it that makes Pyaasa a masterpiece? For me, it's simple -- it's the complete package. If the best art is simultaneously universal and uniquely personal then Pyaasa easily meets that qualification. The only way I can add anything to the reams already written about this film is to illustrate how this is true for me.

I am not a fan of arthouse cinema. When I think of names like Bergman and Ray, I acknowledge their mastery of the art form, but their work does not move me. I just don't do grim as entertainment, which is why I got bored before finishing even one of the Apu trilogy, and was mad as hell at the end of Mother India that she hadn't done that at the beginning of the movie, thus sparing me several suicidally depressing hours. It's precisely this anti-arthouse bent of mine which is the first proof of Pyaasa's truly special nature. It is NOT a fun film, no wet saris, no dancing around trees, and certainly no happy reunions of long lost brothers. It IS an art film, in the sense that it's a film all about art, its place in the world, and how that world treats artists. I shouldn't even like it, so why do I love it?

I am going to focus on four reasons:

Songs & Serendipity
As anyone who comes to Hindi movies without a knowledge of the language will testify, one of the biggest problems is the lack of subtitles on many songs, especially in older films. Pyaasa was one of the first films I watched when I started getting into Hindi films, and I was very lucky that the copy I got not only had all the songs subtitled, but had good subtitles, that captured the essence of the songs as well as any translation could. Thanks to those subtitles, I got a hint of an important truth - that its songs are sublime. This is not a revelation; Sahir's lyrics are justly famous. But since this is a personal appreciation, here's why I think the lyrics are a product of genius. They were written by a bitter alcoholic misanthrope, a Marxist atheist, abandoned by his father, and raised by his mother. I am devoutly religious and passionately apolitical, physically unable to tolerate even the smell of alcohol, and raised from the age of three by my father after my mother left. In other words, in every important respect Sahir and I are polar opposites, yet his words just clicked. This is part of the magic of Pyaasa and part of what makes writing about it so difficult. For the film's storyline, the genius of Sahir's lyrics is not merely an added bonus, it's absolutely critical. The entire point of the film is that Vijay is supposed to be a prodigiously gifted poet, so the film would have fallen completely flat if the songs he wrote were Hallmark cards, or full of the banal clichés of most filmi songs.

There is nothing banal or clichéd about the songs of Pyaasa, no eyelashes, fragranced breaths, or chiming anklets to be found. Every time I listen to them, and I listen to them often, it motivates me to keep trying to improve my Hindi, to get a better feel for the best work of the best lyricist in Hindi film history. In total seriousness, my advice to any non-Hindi/Urdu speakers who want to really get the most out of Pyaasa is this: Learn Hindi, or Urdu. Learning even just a little will transform the experience, giving a better sense of how good the poetry, the heart of the movie, really is. You also then get the joy of getting more and more out of the film each time you watch it as your grasp of the language improves. To protect myself from naysayers, I should add that I know the language of Sahir is really more Urdu than Hindi, but again, this is my post, and I'm biased because I can read Devanagari, but I can't read Nastaliq, as much as I would love to make sense of the most gorgeous script I've ever seen. Although I'm convinced that learning to write it as a child left my Dad's English handwriting almost illegible! Powerful poetry was point one, point two is poetry in motion:

Waheeda Rehman
This film was my introduction to this amazing actress, and she cast a spell immediately. I'm not even going to try to pretend to be objective, Waheeda is gorgeous. Her beauty is truly luminescent. Is she as beautiful as the full moon, or as the Sun in all its glory? Whichever it is, she's divinely beautiful. It may sound superficial to rave on about her beauty, but the special nature of her physical attractiveness is also important to this film. Of course it's important that she is a very good actress, and delivers a great performance here. Her character is a prostitute. Not a courtesan or a tawaif, just a prostitute. There's no Pretty Woman glamour, no glossy euphemising here, and that's exactly why for me, the ethereal nature of Waheeda's beauty is so important to the story. Would Vijay have followed her so eagerly as she teased him with "jaane kyaa tune kahi, jaane kyaa maine suni" if she hadn't looked the way she did? It's as if she shines from within, so that her beauty rises above the ugliness of her world in reflection of her true character. The way the story develops in the film suggests that this is what we are supposed to think, and I don't think there was another actress at the time, or since, who could have conveyed that so perfectly. Vijay may be the hero, but the anchor of the film is a woman, a character sympathetically written as a real person, one given enough depth to let Waheeda bring her to life. What makes this all the more remarkable is that at least two of Dutt's films are chauvinistic (Chaudhvin ka Chand) and even disturbingly misogynistic (Mr & Mrs 55). Not Pyaasa, though!

Guru Dutt's direction
Every time I watch Pyaasa, I get the impression that right up until the very end, the dominant emotion is anger. Anger at the faithlessness and hypocrisy of almost everyone in the film. From Meena, Vijay's first love, who literally sold out, to his own brothers, whose ferocious contempt for him did not prevent them from trying to cash in on him. Almost all of the songs are angry, but especially jinhe naaz ke and yeh duniya agar mil. I have to take a moment to focus on one of those two songs - jinhe naaz ke. When I first watched Pyaasa, this song sailed right past me. I had no idea what I was missing. This is still the most astonishingly raw and angry song I've experienced in my limited exposure to Hindi films. It's no surprise at all that it was banned for years. It is something of a surprise that it was ever allowed to remain in the film, given its subject matter. I put that down to the triumph of art. As savage as the song is in attacking its powerful targets, it is simply so beautiful as to place itself out of reach of censorious scissors. It's hard to imagine Pyaasa without this song, especially if the stories are true that Dutt's first ever visit to a brothel was the inspiration for what became the screenplay . The song also demonstrates Sahir's mastery of his craft by the way he adapted a nazm he'd written earlier. He simplified the language for the new medium, but kept the theme and poetry intact.

With so much anger and bitterness, the film could have been quite toxic. Instead, it manages to be uplifting, and Dutt's direction deserves much of the credit. The best "message films" put their message across without sounding like a sermon. For me, the two best message movies of the 1950s were Naya Daur and Pyaasa. Very different films, but both made listening to their message an enjoyable experience. In Pyaasa, Dutt avoids the trap of coming across as self-righteously preachy. The film has a good balance of sentiment and a good mix of characters, ensuring that even though the audience walks away having got the point, they can still have enjoyed the experience as well. Which brings me to point four:

Johnny Walker
This was also my first Johnny Walker film, and like Waheeda, he made an indelible impression. I think this film may demonstrate his comic genius better than many others, by virtue of the dark nature of the film. His role was to lighten the mood, to provide comic "relief" in the most literal sense of that word, but garish slapstick would have been totally out of place. Instead, we got a warm, lighthearted person, a character who clearly enjoyed life and wanted to see people smile, but who showed himself in the end to be willing to stand up and be counted, when it mattered. When I first watched this film I had almost no Hindi, but sar jo tera chakraye still proved an instant earworm, infectiously happy with a pitch perfect picturisation. Johnnie Walker's subtle grasp of comedy played a huge part in helping this film be something more than unrelentingly bleak.

This was never going to be a plot summary sort of blog post, this was always going to be a personal pitch for Pyaasa. Watching this movie and listening to its simply sublime songs should make you thirsty for more. In the movie Vijay ends up an insane asylum, and more than a few of the desis I know or have met think I'm slightly paagal to have a t-shirt with the first verse of Yeh Duniya Agar Mil on it. They think it is even weirder when I tell them that my favourite lines from that song are also going on a T-shirt "jalaa do, jalaa do ise phuu.Nk Daalo ye duniyaa, jalaa do" That final song ofPyaasa is my anthem for life. I agree wholeheartedly with every single word of it, and couldn't begin to count the number of times I've listened to it. It's also really the climax of the film, though not quite the end. So what better way to end this post, than with that song:

For further Pyaasa-related reading, I strongly recommend Nasreen Munni Kabir's excellent The Dialogue of Pyaasa and Chakley, for the nazm that became jinhe naaz ke. Once again to my gracious host - aapki meherbani ke liye, BAHUT BAHUT SHUKRIYA!


Anindita said...


Lime(tte) said...

Pyaasa is one of those classics I'm yet too watch, but I'm going to hurry up after reading this :)

jjake61 (via Twitter) said...

Great review. Pyaasa was my first Johnny Walker film too!

dustdevil liz said...

Lovely review, Max.*
I have Pyaasa rented from netflix, but I've been hesitating to watch it, worried that I'll end up feeling about it the way you do about Mother India. But this post will give me the courage to pop it in the dvd player and wallow in the anger.

(*I actually would love to hear this review as a podcast.)

Rashmi said...

I haven't watched Pyaasa... but this is such a lovely post, I'm going to soon! :) Plus, Max is awesome! ;)

maxqnz said...

THanks for the kind words, everyone! Trust me, dustdevil liz, you *don't* want to hear this thick Kiwi accent (or this thick Kiwi's accent)!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Stuart! And because I just rewatched Pyaasa all over again a couple of weeks back, I found myself nodding in agreement at a lot of things you wrote.

P.S. And now I'm off to read your blog! Didn't know you had one.

Anonymous said...

I now wish I had seen Pyaasa so I could better appreciate this post. I will have to make sure I see it - you have put forward such a lovely personal take on it. A plot summary kind of a post wouldn't have done justice to the love you have for this movie as wonderfully as this post did.

You praise the poetry in Sahir's words, Waheeda's radiant presence, Guru Dutt's raging emotions, and Johnny Walker's joie de vivre but equally exquisite is the way you elucidate your affection for them.

I hope we get to read more from you Stuart!

Suja said...

Well written!! For me, Pyaasa is about cinematography above all else..I am so mesmerized by the beauty of each frame that I miss 'seeing' the film! And you are right; the songs are true gems to be cherished forever.

yves said...

Great post Max, I loved the biassed description of Waheeda Rehman: have you seen Teesri Kasam? And CID? If you're a lover of her beauty and style, you certainly have! Or, and I forgot the absolute marvel: Solva Saal! (check the photos here:
Thanks for this beautiful tribute to Guruji's bygone splendor!