Pyaasa, a 1957 drama movie directed and produced by the great Guru Dutt, presents the poignant tale of a struggling poet, named Vijay, ostracised by a hypocritical society that faces no qualms in immortalising the dead, but finds it difficult to exalt the living. Vijay, educated yet unemployed, epitomises the hapless state of the Indian youth in the post-colonial India. Dutt, who pioneered the integration of songs in the movie's narrative in Indian cinema, is ubiquitously regarded as one of the most influential film-makers of his time. His avant-garde works and his unique style of film-making have been a subject of discussion in various acting and film institutes all across the globe for well over five decades.
Guru Dutt and his team were keen on casting the king of tragedy, Dilip Kumar, in the lead role for Pyaasa, but Dutt himself had to fill-in the shoes when an agreement couldn't be reached. Dutt, a consummate artist, was equally brilliant behind the camera as he was in front of it: his attention to detail as a director matched his ability to emote as an actor. Pyaasa, widely regarded as Dutt's magnum opus, represented a departure from the traditional style of film-making in the Hindi cinema, for it succeeded in blurring the line that hitherto separated art cinema from commercial cinema.
"Pyaasa's intense and thought-provoking plot emphasises upon the fact that every human being, howsoever wretched or deplorable, is capable of love and worthy of being loved."
With Pyaasa, Guru Dutt demonstrated probably for the first time how a balance could be struck between creative aspirations and commercial requirements--a success formula that was completely unknown at that time. Pyaasa, along with Guru Dutt's autobiographical Kaagaz Ke Phool, is currently included in the list of all time greatest motion pictures, both by Time magazine's "All-TIME" 100 best movies and by the Sight & Sound critics' and directors' poll.
Pyaasa's intense and thought-provoking plot emphasises upon the fact that every human being, howsoever wretched or deplorable, is capable of love and worthy of being loved. The movie also underlines the root cause of human plight: poverty, not of material but of thought. Here, Guru Dutt demonstrates the might of words, an embodiment of human thought, as a great stimuli for change. The stark theme of Pyaasa is highly reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. The vituperative and somber tone of Vijay's poetry seems to betray the same sense of angst and guilt as that of Dostoevsky's Narrator. Vijay's apparent anger for society's hypocritical rigidity is indicative of his inner sense of chagrin for having failed in his efforts to be loud enough to be heard and for quietly accepting his fate.
Pyaasa also highlights the complexities associated with the human psyche: Vijay, rejected by his lover (Mala Sinha) and family, is embraced by a prostitute, Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), who is moved by the power of his poetry. While the world finds her despicable and treats her with contempt, she seems to be the only soul capable of reciprocating someone's love and respect. It's deeply touching to witness two pariahs of the society finally find refuge in each other's solitude. Pyaasa's plot is inspired by Sahir Ludhianvi's failed romance with poetess and writer Amrita Pritam. Ludhianvi's evocative poetry adds real charm to S. D. Burman's soothing music, and indeed it's this synergy that livens up the movie's tempo in spite of its particularly somber theme.
"The movie fulfils in its absolute sense the real purpose of cinema: to entertain and educate, simultaneously."
V. K. Murthy's detailed cinematography harks back to Gregg Toland's ingenious camera-maneuvering techniques in the Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Pyaasa's relatively inexperienced cast, hand-picked by Guru Dutt himself, makes most of the opportunity at disposal with almost everyone delivering memorable performances. The Hindi word 'Pyaasa' translates to 'thirsty' in English; the movie's plot is highly symbolic of the thirst that troubles the protagonist in form of his yearnings, which gradually take the form of angst and malaise owing to society's indifference and his own continuous failures.
More than 50 years later, Pyaasa continues to remain a formidable work of cinema that presents the art of filmmaking at its finest. The movie fulfils in its absolute sense the real purpose of cinema: to entertain and educate, simultaneously. Pyaasa is a must watch for all those who understand and appreciate thought-provoking cinema and is a great means to get acquainted with Guru Dutt's body of work as well as with the classic Hindi cinema.
(A version of this review was first published at A Potpourri of Vestiges)