Society vs genius (Pyaasa 1957)

Publié le 8 Octobre 2007

   PDVD 002      PDVD_016.jpg

Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (thirsty) is so consistently lauded that it’s rather daunting to start talking about it. All the reviews I’ve read about it were superlative. Everybody says what a landmark it has been, what wonderful music it displays, what poetry it exudes… One person (Vishakh) does mention nevertheless that the film « does show its age »: and I would say, indeed it does (1) I don’t intend to debunk the opus, but for me it wasn’t a marvel from beginning to end. Certain passages were too conspicuous, too obviously effect-searching, and the mood was too often the same, apart from the comic-relief scenes with Jhony Walkar which are nicely done. I also have to underline the poor quality of the copy on DVD I bought, too jerky and dark at times, and since the film is very dark thematically, well, it didn’t help!

PDVD_012.jpgBriefly the story: Vijay is this unsuccessful poet who cannot get published, because his production doesn’t fit with the current taste for sugar-coated love poems; he lives in pain from having been jilted by a Meena, a college girlfriend who has preferred marrying a rich businessman, and has broken Vijay’s heart. Jobless and forlorn, having deserted his family, he meets her again, and realizes the depth of the chasm that life has dug between them. Logically his despair leads him to meet a lovely street girl (Waheeda Rehman) (in fact he’s lost his poems, and she’s found some of them which she sings!); she is touched by his delicate approach, and falls for him. Logically also, one day, at night, he decides he’s through with life, but he’s saved in a very touching way that I won’t disclose. This leads to the most interesting part of the film: the poet is thought dead, and in a strangely evocative and highly symbolic scene (of course reminiscent of a kind of Resurrection), he is the witness of his larger than life triumph. Dead, his poignant destiny has given a meaning to his poetry which it didn’t have when the poet was alive. Crowds sympathize with his figure, publishers print and reprint his work, and of course the vultures, smelling fresh blood, land on the site: friends of all kinds, converts, money-lenders, etc. Vijay’s name is acclaimed, (his name means Victory) but it’s a dead Vijay, and he’s watching all this macabre celebration!
PDVD_018.jpgSo the first thing I appreciated in this film is its philosophical stance about creation and originality. It tells us that society simply cannot adapt to genius, its leveling power is so great that instead genius must adapt to it, and that means, for the genius, to become crazy, die, or exile himself (but where?). Three things which actually happen to Vijay. And the strength of the story is that it explores these solutions one by one, with the artistic coup de force of course being the symbolic death described above. Society is like a living body, it will reject any invasion of its territory by alien thought and desire. It will create the antibodies to devour them. And it will rejoice at its own health when these are rendered innocuous, time for it to absorb the virtue it has combated.

What happens when the supposedly transformed alien has not, in fact, been destroyed, and comes back to confront his own transformation? Such a monstrous situation is that of Pyaasa. For there is something otherwordly about this reappearance. Vijay is not really a resurrected Jesus. Even though he does (but only symbolically) come back from the dead and befriends the poor and the prostitutes, he isn’t a Christ-like figure. He is too moody and dejected. He too is waiting for salvation. To me he represents the “undying spirit of Man” (as a good comment says - a rare feat – on the back of my DVD), he is a living denunciation of hypocrisy and callousness. He walks on this earth as the ghostly and undying voice of Pain, the voice of Misery, and this is a voice that, when tuned at the right intensity, society cannot bear to listen to (and that perhaps included this Bartman from IMDB). 

      PDVD-005.jpg   Pyaasa 03

The second thing that is interesting about this film is its tragic dimension. Tragedy occurs when all that is good, true and beautiful is doomed without repair, and we know it, and yet the forces that could allay this destruction are powerless to stop it. Vijay is recognized as a poetic genius, a messenger from the realms of beauty and truth, that stand for all that is spiritually excellent in humanity. When humanity is not the prey of desire and folly, it knows deep down that such goods are its most precious nourishment. But somehow it cannot help degrading them, spoiling them, like a wanton child. It has lost its innocence and believes only in itself. It alone must decide what is good for it. Voices and eyes from the outside which hear its animal breath, and see its corrupted mind are alien to it and provoke it into a rage of destructive calculation. Great reformers in history have often suffered that fate. In the film, the tragedy is materialized especially by the spectacular scene when Vijay’s return shatters his executioners’ cannibalistic plans, and this exposure earns him nothing but negation and exclusion. It is also present in his forseeable downfall in spite of all the love and beauty that he celebrates.PDVD_009.jpgThe film is a love-story, a thirst-story. Good title, because what Vijay stands for is a desire that needs to be quenched, and at the same time a source from which nobody cares to drink. He pours out his need for love, and remains thirsty. But aren't we all thirsty and quenched at the same time? Do we not all need to be refreshed with the sources that we can't find because we are too busy drinking from spirits that don't satisfy us? 

PDVD_017.jpgI say it after many other people, but it’s true that the actors are very good, especially the women. And the baddie, Meena’s husband (played by Rehman), too. Vijay himself didn’t completely convince me, somehow (he's too uniformly dejected – would’ve needed a little Shakespearian self-irony). But both Meena (Mala Sinha), with her artful grace, her practicality, and in spite of her worldly choices her real love for Vijay, and then of course the striking Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman). She’s hardly characterized as a real prostitute (compare her with Kareena’s character in Chameli) and that gives her the charm of the poet’s woman-friend that we see in some romantic works. She’s warm, sensitive, protective and ordinarily full of life, except when Guru Dutt wants her to be forlornly in love with Vijay.

I think the film would have received added strength from a more balanced comic relief, even if Johnny Walker does his best with his hair oil and side glances! But the story is too heavily preachy, and on the whole humanity isn’t that one-minded. The film’s metaphor is weighty, but at times a little lightness of spirit would have been refreshing. Hey, not all artists, not all lovers, have suffered Vijay’s fate! And society is more complex and less predictable than the way it is portrayed here. I think that some Indian movies have succeeded to merge an urgent sense of drama, telling us that our world is old, AND a joyful hope in the spring-like liveliness of youth.

PDVD 006

You might like to read an interesting review by Nasreen Munni Kabir about some intimate letters by Guru Dutt, which mention Pyaasa (Yours Guru Dutt: Intimate Letters of a Great Indian Filmmaker’, Roli Books). Here's the link:

1] There is also this review (by bartman_9), which is excessive and misinformed, but in its frankness touches some of the facts about the film :

Often hailed as one of the great masterpieces of Bollywood cinema, Pyaasa strikes me as a great bore. Director Guru Dutt's life ambition was to elevate Bollywood movies into something artistic, but he seemed to want to do that by throwing out all the joyful exuberance that make them worth watching in the first place. Vijay's poetry and personality is so filled with gloom and doom that he makes Phillip Larkin look like Spongebob Squarepants. The entire movie is drenched in the same kind of dreariness, which makes it by far the most depressing musical I've ever seen.
The solemnness turns to full out pretentiousness in the last act, where Vijay, mistaken for dead, becomes an overnight sensation and his ‘resurrection' is presented with an overladen Christ-symbolism. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I couldn't help feeling there's something narcissistic about an actor/director presenting himself as a Jesus-figure, carrying the suffering of mankind on his over-earnest shoulders, which, given the fact that Dutt would commit suicide a few years later, might indicate a genuine personality-flaw.”

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

Pour être informé des derniers articles, inscrivez vous :
Commenter cet article

Hi Yves,

Good to get connected to your site :) From a little bit of reading, I like how you engage with the philosophical and thematic ramifications of films, not just the technical excellence or god
forbid, endless plot rehashing. 

As far as Guru Dutt goes, I love that he doesn't conform, as you put it in your comment. I think that's why I relate to him. (Either that or the *ahem* "know-it-all" complex). I don't find him
depressing, actually. I feel like he champions people who feel the ethical and social burdens of the world, but also feel it is all too much for them to fight against. Thus, when I watch his
stories, I don't feel depression, I feel catharsis. The world is too big to handle sometimes, and he recognizes that. 

His heroes are the anti-masala heroes. They don't act as much as they refuse to act--which is a kind of revolution in itself. And that's his way of performing, as well, on a more technical level.
He is a very natural presence, in my opinion, among a lot of very stylistic and theatrical contemporaries. The more he sits back and just reacts to the abstract topics in the scene,
rather than making sure the audience hears exactly what his character's opinion is... the more he substitutes silence for dialogue ... and the more he broods instead of lashes out, the more I
like him.

There's no point in comparing talented stars. I think Raj Kapoor and Dev and Dilip, etc., all have their strong points and ALL OF THEM have very different onscreen images. After more thought, I
guess don't mind if most other people don't love Guru, these days. I think he would have expected just that...

Thanks for your message Miranda, I don't know your age, but I have a feeling you have a mature outlook which is very pleasant to feel. Your appreciation of Guru Dutt seems to me very much to the
point: his movies certainly contain a form of "melancholia" about the world in which he has been thrust, and his main characters all suffer, it seems, from the malady. I'm sure, as you say, he
would have expected people not liking him for his negativism, but yes, he's also very easy and natural, that's true. To me he's like XIXth century romantic figures: desperate and proud, yet
totally at ease with the artistic means to express these feelings.


hi yves,

i found a rare review criticizing the movie (like bartman9) amidst the sugar-coated ones. i think u would be interested in it.

In need of antidepressants

By: Raj.J j.J - member. Read more 9 reviews.

Guru Dutt’s much acclaimed Pyaasa is widely accredited of being a honorable departure from the formulaic fare
of that period. While at the helms Pyaasa indeed harbors a deep spiritual revelation that denounces materialistic pleasure, at the same time that view is very lopsided, anachronistic, and partial
and thus the entire experience is nothing more than 2 hours of repetitive sorrow, largely reflective of the despondent and dejected psyche of the director.
The story is marvelous: A rejected poet, Vijay(Guru Dutt)lost in this materialistic world of
ignorant and selfish people who only value material pleasures and only support people who have money. In this world, Vijay has no place; his blessing is his beautiful expression of poetry for
which he thirsts for recognition and fame. Yet this blessing becomes his grief, none are interested in his talents, non care about him. To them, he is a nobody, a loser with no future. His
brothers disown him. His college girlfriend, Meena(Mala Sinah) disposes him for monetary security from a rich publisher. His brothers kick him out from his own home. In this world of selfish
people, a prostitute, Gullabo(Waheeda Rahman) is his only well-wisher and one that falls in love with him. When Vijay learns of his mother’s death and reaches his threshold of tolerance, he
decides to commit suicide on the train tracks. When he goes to commit suicide he encounters a beggar shivering in the cold at the station. He gives him his coat and proceeds. The beggar follows
him (I still don’t know why) but his foot gets caught in the tracks, while incoming is the train. Vijay attempts to save him, but is unable too. The beggar is killed, but badly disfigured, with
only a coat and a note inside to identify him. Thus everyone thinks Vijay has killed himself. Gullabo wanting to tribute Vijay, gives all her savings to a publishing house to publish his works.
The publishers wanting to exploit the tragic life of this poet, publish his works. His works are published and become a ravishing success all over. Later, the publishers learn that Vijay is still
alive, but locked up in a mental asylum for claiming him the author of the book, but the publishers refuse to recognize him to maintain that he is still dead. Further more, they bribe his
brothers not to recognize him either. To Vijay’s aid comes his friend (Johnny walker) who helps him escape from the asylum. Then Vijay turns up at an assembly where a huge congregation is
gathered to tribute his works, and here, he denounces this selfish and materialistic world with his final recitation and proceeds to continue the rest of his life with Gullabo in a spiritual
Whereas the story sounds remarkable, it all falls apart, mostly because of the earlier portions of
the film.The treatment is a long, overdrawn and subjective plot of repetitive sorrow of the protagonist and his tendency to express his discontent with poetry. This repetitive hammering drives the
film to the point of becoming unwatchable at times. Thus I would not recommend Pyaasa to a majority of cine goers, as it’s basically a chronicling of the misfortunes of a rejected poet. The
message of the film to denounce all materialistic pleasures is a rather naive and a delusional falsified reality. Materials are a human necessity. Without money, we cannot have shelter, or food
or basic entertainment that makes life interesting. While in Pyaasa, the main protagonist is homeless, starving and dejected, due to the very fact that he has no financial support. Further more,
we also have to express sympathy for Vijay and resent for Meena, where in fact her reasons for leaving him were justified. Why should she throw away her future, to run astray with a homeless,
that is adamant on poetic expression, when clearly the world does not want poetic expression. If you were her; what would you do?
Another scene that enraged me was where Vijay is refused services by a restaurant. It is engineered
in such a manner, that we are suppose to sympathize with Vijay and feel resent for the owner. However the owner is doing his job. If he starts feeding the poor, then how is going to support
himself and his family? Did Guru Dutt bother to explain this? Nope. He wanted us to resent the owner, and he emphasizes these intentions by making the owner’s character
Contradictory to the type of praise Pyaasa has garner of being largely none commercial, the
commercial elements are in fact, present, and both irritating. Some of the songs are itemized, take for instance a dream sequence song in the clouds, and a typical song played by the jogan in the
background in another number. Also present is a detachable comedy angle provided with the presence of Johnny Walker, which also accounts for one song that could have been deleted - although
definitely hummable.
There are some noticeable loopholes in the script worthy of mention. 
The climax in the auditorium: As soon as the lights are
turned off, the people run hectic as if war sirens have been signaled. Come on folks, it’s only the lights, like you’ve never had a power shortage before?
Vijay discovers his mother has passed awayWhen Vijay discovers his
mother has passed away, without no explanation, his next appearance is at a brothel with friends, feeling as dejected as usual. Yet the initial emotions the instant he learns of her death are
hastily looked over and quite abruptly cuts into the next scene.
Performances are outstanding from most characters, in particular Guru Dutt who excels as the
dejected Vijay, it appears that this character was his own portrayal. Waheeda Rehman peforms like a classic starlet and Mala sinah is also competent.
Production quality is poor, marred mostly with bad sound and editing. Picture is black and white
and largely dark and speckled.
Pyaasa covers all those darker shades of life, from prostitution, a lamenting loved one, greed,
treachery, disownment, while not wasting one moment to provide the argument for material living

Thanks Vineet Kumar for this interesting article! Do you know where it comes from? This way I could answer the person directly. It has some good points, especially about the rhythm of the movie
and some inconsistencies (end of the review). But on the whole I find it very prejudiced by a "realistic" POV which doesn't render justice to GD's poetic perspective. It's normal there are quirky
aspects in the film, because the film isn't a realistic account of everyday life, but a sort of parable, or allegory about the inadequacy of a romantic individual in a materialistic society. The
title indicates this viewer hasn't understood the film's main point. "In need of antidepressants": as if mal de vivre could be cured. Hasn't he ever heard of melancholy? Perhaps medecines can
stops the symptoms of depression and existential woes, but can they cancel their causes?

Pascal says the world can be seen through 3 orders: the material one, in which people consider matters of the flesh and cannot know of any other reality and so judge only from this order; the
intermediate or intellectual order, where values belong to the sphere of the mind and of the affairs of the world (I'd say that's where this viewer places himself), and any other lower or higher
pursuits are judged either despicable or foolish; and the spiritual realm, which looks upon the two other realms as incomplete and empty in its light. The sad thing is that communication is
almost always doomed between each of these orders; each level believes it sees the truth of the world and cannot put itself at the level of others!


ok, no problem


u havn't answered my question yet


No sorry VK, too busy these days!!



yves, what happened, why don't u answer


Sorry Vineet Kumar, I meant to answer your request, but the trouble is too much work has stopped me from watching the movie again, something I wanted to do before answering you! I'll definitely
let you know when I have done it. Thanks for your patience and perseverance.



thanks for clarifying my doubts.


can you suggest some changes which guru dutt could have made in the script of PYAASA which could have made the movie more better.


hi yves, excellent understanding. i feel my doubts are cleared. 



Ok, well I'm pleased this attempt at interpretation has seemed convincing for you. Thanks.


hi yves, read your reply. but  i feel half convinced. vijay's poetry along with complexity is also depressing and gloomy. okay,i agree with your point on romantic presupposition, but the
level of fame and stardom vijay's work receives, i.e.,people hysterically asking for the latest editions, etc leaves me confused. how could peple change so drastically.


Hi again. You're right, there is something more, I believe also, about this transformation of popularity. Perhaps René Girard's theory of mimetic desire can help. According to this philosopher
and literary critic (you can look him up, he's a French teacher at Stanford University), in the course of social intercourse and relationships, where everybody desires to be somebody whom they
consider as most enviable, people create (ie, designate, recognize, etc.) what he calls "mediators" who act as mirrors in which a certain social group will project their desired selves. These
mediators are like idols, or stars, the further away from normal humanity they are, the better. They concentrate the need for mimetic behaviors which we all adopt, more or less. For example, our
need to free ourselves from the bond created by some established current mediators, this in itself can be understood as a need to become mediators ourselves, to impose our tastes and desires to
others, and thus mimic the mediators and mimetic system.

Perhaps one could see the change in the public apprecation of Vijay's prose in this way: alive, he's not considered as an interesting model to mimic or be inspired from. But when his death
occurs, and the romanticization of his persona has happened, a crystallisation occurs in which he becomes a desirable icon of the group, a mediator which the group can desire to be like without
being disturbed by the mediator himself. Because the mediator is always at risk of falling off his pedestal if he doesn't conform to his worshippers' desires. A dead mediator on the other hand
has all the desired qualities: one can decree that he's like this or like that without being much contradicted (only the alive person could really contradict them), and this situation is in fact
an ideal one for all the aspiring mediators within the group who can thus use the dead idol for their own mimetic purposes. Declaring a dead poet's works sublime creates a power which belongs not
so much to the dead poet himself, as to the critic or publisher who has decided he was to be declared sublime...

Tell me is this theory (which I have often used in my blog, because I think it contains a lot of potential) interests you.


all ur posts on vintage hindi films are fab.

         however, i found some problems with the story of pyaasa.  early in the movie, it is shown that vijay's work is criticized by an urdu
poetry(shayari) publisher as waste. he tells that he(vijay) writes on strange and offbeat topics like unemployment and is depressing, and not on the popular appeal of the audience(like
that of the beauties of nature). so the pulisher, considering vijay's work as crap sold it off.      later, at athe college get-together, when vijay sings one of his
depressing[here i don't mean that i don't appreciate his poems(great poety by sahir)]poems, where a person from the audience interrupts and mockingly requested him to recite something more
happier. also, the paper editor mr.ghosh(played brilliantly ny rehman) refuses to vijay's  poetry.

                             at this point one
thing is clear that vijay's poetry, be it beautiful in its complexity and intellectual content-wise, is not approved by people(barring the massage man sattar(walker) &
gulabo(prostitute), who more than use his poetry for their respective profession than intrigue). 

                 but later in the film when vijay's work did get published, it becomes an instant hit. people fock
to purchase his work and become vijay' crazy fans. his works receive such stardom. both i(perhaps the urdu publiser and mr.ghosh too) were shocked at this magical reception of vijay's work. 
now the question arises, that why did it take lots of jewellery of gulabo and the account of vijay's death(he didn't die actually) to convice mr.ghosh to publish vijay's work in his newspaper.
why didnt he publish them in the very beginning when vijay came to him. didn't he know that it would be a great opportiunity of earning fast bucks by using vijay? the same question arises with
the publiser at the startin gof the movie. was he so stupid to reject vijay's work knowing the overwhelming response it was to get on its publish. could the world so aptly depicted by the
director (guru dutt) be so foolish. here, i want to make it clear that the the publisher and mr. ghost didn't reject vijay's poems because he is poor, but because his work doen't belong to the
popular appeal and publishing it won't fetch them a penny.

                       i don't understand, is guru dutt want's to say that people
both approve and disapprove complex works on poetry. if it is the case, i cant't accept it, as the film shows two absolutely different kinds of society.

              what do you think? KINDLY ANSWER


Hello Vineet Kumar,

Thanks for your visit and appreciation! Your comment on Pyaasa was read with great care, and you have indeed pinpointed a certain incoherence in the story: why is Vijay's poetry found
useless when he's alive and publishable when he's dead? If I remember Dutt's movie well (but it's a little far now), i think this reversal of fortunes correponds to what he wants to say on the
vanity of creation: the fact that his work gains a value only after he's dead underlines the fickleness of tastes which cannot recognize greatness when they see it and only grant it to a publicly
reconized figure. Vijay gains a glory when dead (because of a romantic presupposition that poets are greater when dead, their destiny being magnified by their meeting with death that they have
been courting all their life), so logically his publishers detect commercial value which accrues from this glory.

Let me know if this supposition corresponds to what you might have felt.



hi, liked ur post