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!
Briefly 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!
So 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).
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.The 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?
I 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.
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: http://www.indianexpress.com/oldStory/85854/
”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.”