Planet Bollywood
Pyaasa (Old)
Producer: Guru Dutt
Director: Guru Dutt
Starring: Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Mala Sinha, Rehman and Johnny Walker
Music: S.D. Burman
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Genre: Social
Recommended Audience: General
Reviewed by: Shahid Khan  - Rating: 10.0 / 10
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Public Rating Average: 5.16 / 10 (rated by 415 viewers)
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Lying on a bed of grass, Vijay (Guru Dutt) watches the world go by in a fix of admiration. “Yeh hanste hue phool, Yeh mehka hua gulshan (These smiling flowers, This scented garden)” He lovingly adores the flowers, the bees, the sky, the sun, the clouds. Alas, this harmonious reflection ends abruptly when a bee is trampled upon and killed by a passer-by. Vijay is saddened by what he has just witnessed- a bee that just did something beautiful in nature is ignored and killed by humanity. Little does he know that by definition, he will soon suffer a similar fate as that bee. He pens moving poetry but his works of art are largely ignored. In a world that believes in romantic wishy-washy love, his poems are considered too depressing and pessimistic by newspaper editors who refuse to publish them and use them as wastepaper instead. Vijay’s selfish older brothers consider him a lazy lout who cannot be bothered to earn money so they sell his poetry for whatever they can. Dismayed by this, Vijay tries to recover his book of poetry from a shop but finds out that it has been bought by a girl who was fascinated by the writing. That girl turns out to be Gulab (Waheeda Rehman) whom he overhears in a park reciting one of his songs. He follows her all the way to her apartment only to discover that she is in fact a prostitute who thought she was enticing a potential customer.

So what is the reason for the dark overtones of Vijay’s poetry? At college, he fell in love with Meena (Mala Sinha). She loved him too but she betrayed him in the worst possible way- by marrying someone else, Mr. Ghosh (played by Rehman, this character’s first name is never revealed), a man who earns money and is not a penniless poet. Vijay sees her at the college reunion and he is haunted by his sadness once again. So much so that when he is invited to recite a poem on the stage (to compensate for the absence of a famous singer), he renders a sher that has an air of morbidity about it, which kills whatever upbeat atmosphere there was at the reunion party. Ghosh, who is also present at the party, realizes that there is tension between his wife and Vijay and then deviously manipulates the scenario to find out what link they have with each other. He is a newspaper editor and offers Vijay a job in his office with the false hope that he may print one of his poems.

At the newspaper building, Vijay bumps into Meena in the elevator. This very scene sharply hammers the point home regarding the parallel that the story shares with Saratchandra Chatterjee’s novel, “Devdas”. Meena is now a frustrated housewife trapped in the very trap that she created for herself (bearing many similarities to Paro). The elevator is symbolic of that trap. Instantly, there is a flashback to their last meeting years ago showing that Meena reminisces of their happier times together. The flashback is initiated by Meena looking at a reflection of herself. Note the difference between her real self and her reflection. Her reflection is a dreamy image… This is the image that she wishes herself to be. She cannot accept the fact that she has been resigned to the fate of a dowdy and unloved housewife. One can almost hear her heart scream with denial as Vijay steps out of the elevator and she is taken back up to the right floor where her husband works. The elevator slams shut on the poor girl as if it is a prison door.

Meena wishes to run away with Vijay to escape her dull marriage but he refuses to forgive her for selling their love in return for happiness with money. If he is unattainable for her, then Meena is also equally unattainable for him. When he meets her again at Ghosh’s house party, he is urged by famous and rich poets present there to recite some of his work. “Jaane woh kaise log tay jinke pyar ko pyar mila…(Lucky were those gained love in return for their love…)” He sighs while stealing a glance at Meena perched in her rocking chair. Cut to the next shot, which shows the same chair still rocking but without Meena. The shot has an eerie and ghostly feel to it… Meena is like the ghost of Vijay’s past, a past that he wishes to forget.

In the meantime, Vijay is encouraged by his shady friends to take to drink (echoing even more similarities to “Devdas”). He is in the slums where prostitutes carry out their trade and punters and gamblers greedily hatch plans of making more money. In his drunken stupor, Vijay’s reaction is of disgust. “Jinhe naaz hai hind par, Woh kahan hai, Kahan hai… (Those who are proud of this land, Where are they now?)” In contrast to Mehboob Khan’s “Mother India” (the Oscar-nominated film that also released in the same year), “Pyaasa” offers a much bleaker and frightening vision of India. Here, there are no heroes willing to save innocent girls from exploitation, there is no Mother India fiercely trying to save a girl’s honor. In this world, nobody cares about such a thing as honor or love.

This semi-adaptation of “Devdas” is given an ingenious twist when Vijay is presumed dead and his works of poetry suddenly become hot property in his absence. His very own brothers and so-called friends deny that he is Vijay when they are called to identify him at a hospital (where he ends after a failed suicide attempt). They all, including the smug Ghosh, are too satisfied with making money from Vijay’s death to even bother entertaining the thought that it should be revealed he is alive. Defiant, angry and heartbroken, Vijay turns his tables upon the world leading to a riveting climax where he stuns everyone with, “Yeh mahalon, Yeh takhton, Yeh taajon ki duniya… Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai! (These palaces, These kingdoms, This land of power… Who cares if I gain this worthless world!)” Why does anybody want this world full of selfish people, he argues. A suicidal tendency is revealed in the line, “Mere saamne se hataado yeh duniya! (Get this world away from my eyes!)” Now that the world is willing to accept Vijay and his popular writings, he has no desire to attain the world anymore. Why revel in a shallow world that ignores human beings and idolizes the dead? Whereas Devdas actually dies in the end, Vijay shows signs of new hope as he simply moves away to escape from his newfound celebrity status. Not on his own though, he takes his chosen beloved with him (he has to choose Meena or Gulab).

Guru Dutt always believed that the eyes are the windows to the soul. And that very belief shows through in his performance. His piercing eyes emote the language of hurt and pain that his character has been through. His acting is particularly acute in the song, “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par”. His expressions of sadness, disgust and contempt are just compelling. Waheeda Rehman’s film debut is electrifying, the camera just adores her. She once told a journalist that the very first scene that she had to act in was the part where she is thrown out of a car by a customer who refuses to pay her. She had a vague understanding of how the scene should be played- having little idea of what a streetwalker is like. Admittedly, her acting in that scene is a little raw but she makes up for that with her slick performance in the rest of the film. Just watch her in the “Jaane Kya Tune Kahi” number and you will find her alluring. Mala Sinha also gives a top-notch performance as a torn young woman who feels extremely guilty about the path that she chose over true love. Rehman provides good support as the jealous and twisted husband. Johnny Walker is reliably humorous as the eccentric barber.

Aside from the enthralling screenplay and first-rate performances, “Pyaasa” has also become very famous for its songs. Most of them are rendered inimitably by Mohammad Rafi. His powerful voice reigns with “Yeh Mahalon, Yeh Thakton” and “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par”. He is given an opportunity to show his lighter side in the soft number, “Hum Aapki Aankhon Main” (with Geeta Dutt, who is on top form) and in the Johnny Walker vehicle, “Sar Jo Tera Chakraye Ya Dil Dooba Jaaye”. Geeta Dutt simply delights us with her sensuous voice in “Jaane Kya Tune Kahi” and “Aaja Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Le”. Hemant Kumar’s enigmatic voice brings a quiet resonance to the beguiling “Jaane Woh Kaise Log Tay”. Sahir Ludhianvi’s tranquil wisdom in the lyrics adds a haunting dimension to the film (though some of the poems were written beforehand separately and therefore were not originally meant to turn into songs). Besides songs, Ludhianvi’s forceful talent can be glimpsed in the non-musical poems recited by the protagonist, Vijay. The poems are very touching and contribute to the moody atmosphere created in the film. My personal favorite out of the poems is “Hum Tang Aa Chuke Hain”, which speaks about the relentless battering and trials that life often dishes out enough to make a person exasperated.

V.K. Murthy’s photography work in the film is breath-taking. The lighting is bleak throughout the film (apart from the romantic flashback sequences). The utter blackness of some of the scenes conveys the inner torment of Vijay’s character and the dark superficiality of the world that he is living in. In “Pyaasa”, there is a sense of doom, a sense that this world is coming to an end and it is the photography that helps establish this atmosphere. When Vijay and Meena meet in the elevator, everything around them is completely black. In the distance between the two of them, the screen is black. This highlights the gulf of distance that is between the both of them. They are so close together onscreen yet they seem so far apart. It is due to Murthy’s remarkable photography that this impression is established.

Dutt’s direction lends a smooth flow to the narrative proceedings. The master director that he was, there are a lot of interesting shots to treasure. A courtesan is desperate to end her session of dancing for the punters to attend to her ill baby crying in the next room. The pimp will not let her stop to care of her child. The dancer’s state of despair is then shown through a glass of wine. The yellow-tinted shot brilliantly essays the cruel immorality of this repulsive world (which links to Vijay’s point of view). It is wonderfully inter-cut with shots of Vijay’s reaction to the whole scene. His eyes well up with sorrow and grief. The liquid feel to the glass of wine shot is a metaphor for Vijay’s tears. Dutt’s influence can also be felt in the song picturizations. “Aaja Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Le” is particularly demonstrative in showing Gulab’s unfulfilled longing for Vijay. The song that comes at the climax, “Yeh Duniya…” is powerfully executed. The reaction shots of each character are captivating to watch. And then there is the unforgettable image of Vijay standing in the doorway with his chadar and a world-weary look on his face. Alone and dejected, he cuts a Jesus Christ figure as his return descends upon a morally bankrupt world…

A masterpiece, “Pyaasa”, quenches that thirst that one has when there is a desire to view great cinema.

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