Pyaasa (1957)

Guru Dutt | 2hr 33min

Often cited as the peak of Bollywood’s Golden Age, Pyaasa bursts with visual and musical splendour, adopting the passionate romanticism of the struggling Urdu poet at its centre. Vijay’s lyrical expressions range from melancholy laments over his nation’s social issues (“Where are those who are proud of India?”) to light-hearted jingles (“A single touch of this strong hand will dissipate all woes”), each imbued with the same sensitive eloquence which Guru Dutt carries in his performance and direction. On either side of him, two women vie for his love, though this is no simple repeat of Aar Paar from three years earlier. Pyaasa is far more sombre in tone, playing out the humanistic drama of Vijay’s personal tribulations, intimate desires, and efforts to have his work published. The wealthy Mr Ghosh could be the man to make those ambitions a reality, if only he wasn’t so jealous that Vijay was his wife’s first true love.

Clearly Vijay isn’t quite over his old flame either. Meena falls back into his life by chance as he mournfully sings of life’s sorrows up on a stage, before catching her face in the audience. Therein lies the romantic catalyst for what is Pyaasa’s defining cinematic moment – a surreal escape into the dreamscape of Vijay’s mind. A magnificent staircase winds its way up to a cloudy night sky, where Meena is gracefully silhouetted against a giant full moon. As she makes her way down among hanging baubles, Vijay walks through elaborate iron gates and across a mist-covered floor, where the two sing hypothetical questions of a revitalised love to acoustic guitar accompaniment in ‘Hum aapki aankhon mein’.

‘Hum aapki aankhon mein’ is the strongest Dutt has ever been in his impressive career, crafting an ethereal dreamscape of atmospheric lighting, giant sets, smoke machines, crane shots, and astonishing shot compositions.

Balloons and drapes billow in the light breeze around them, but most notably it is Dutt’s breathtaking camera movements through crane and dolly shots that lift the musical number into something truly transcendent. By the end of this song Meena has floated back up to the top of that stairway, just out of reach like some distant, celestial being, thereby set drastically apart from Vijay’s other love interest.

Billowing curtains, falling balloons, hanging baubles, ornate lanterns – this musical number is designed to look as if Vijay and Meena are dancing atop clouds in their own personal heaven.

Along a parallel narrative thread, we find local prostitute Gulabo, coming into the writer’s life one lonely night after his brothers have pawned off his manuscripts as wastepaper. While mourning his lost lyrics on a park bench though, he hears them being sung to him as a sly temptation. Entranced just as much by his desire to reclaim his papers as his romantic curiosity, he follows the seductress back to her home, while Dutt’s camera elegantly glides with them through magnificent colonnades and shifty alleyways. Though she spurns him after realising he is penniless, the discovery that he penned those words sees her undergo a change of heart. From here, Vijay’s relationship with Gulabo is defined by mutual compassion and gentle longing. As a sex worker, she has suffered a great deal of abuse at the hands of men, and so their romantic connection becomes a haven of sincere empathy.

Tracking shots through colonnades when Vijay first meets Gulabo and follows her home. Dutt’s moving camera is crucial to the artistic success of Pyaasa.

Dutt may have leant on his visual obstructions more heavily in previous films, but they very much play a key part in this romance too, frequently obscuring Vijay and Gulabo behind the stair bannisters of her apartment building. His oppressive use of set décor is also drawn throughout the rest of the film, imposing Calcutta’s urban infrastructure on crowded sets that emphasise the distance between lovers, such as the exquisitely poignant rooftop scene during the number ‘Aaj Sajan Mohe Aang Laga Lo’. On the occasion that Dutt does choose to shoot on location, this depth of field brings a raw grit to the drama, landing us on the riverbank of the Ganges when Vijay learns from his brothers of his mother’s passing and turning its industrial architecture into harsh backdrops.

Dutt returns to these shot obstructions multiple times on the stairway up to Gulabo’s apartment – a visual device that he would emphasise more heavily in Aar Paar, but which is still potent here.
Some of the film’s best scenes are shot on location. Certainly this is inspired by the Italian neorealists, but Dutt continues it here in India by the Ganges.

With poverty, sex work, corruption, and death underlying this narrative, Pyaasa proves to be a particularly morose, and at times even slightly neorealist film for Dutt. That his sullen brooding and understated reactions are so distinct from his comic performance in Aar Paar is a testament to his versatility as an actor too, though he and his fellow cast members are also lent immense gravity here with the camera so frequently dollying in on their faces illuminated by moody, low-key lighting setups.

Always the dolly shots in on actors’ faces, drawing us in and out of their aura.

Commanding a sombre tone with such grace is no easy feat, but Dutt pushes it even further in building his narrative to a Sullivan’s Travels-style third-act twist, seeing Vijay presumed dead in a train accident and temporarily rendered an amnesiac in a mental hospital. Even when his memories return, he is met with disbelief, all the while his poems he had been trying to get published have taken off thanks to Gulabo’s efforts of persuasion. Of course, to Mr Ghosh it is all just an opportunity to capitalise on recent tragedy, and even Vijay’s own brothers conspire with him to receive a cut of the profits by misidentifying the body of a homeless man.

Dutt’s sets may be simple, but there is always so much detail in the way he frames them, here using the balcony like the famous Romeo and Juliet scene.
Detail and blocking even in throwaway shots, always framing Vijay against his surroundings and other characters.

How quickly loyalties change though when he finally does manage to escape from the hospital on the anniversary of his ‘death’ and make a grand public appearance at his memorial service. Inside this magnificent hall, the scale of Dutt’s photography is colossal, symmetrically framing Vijay in the doorway between masses of grieving fans. Crane shots sweep over the crowd as they stand in unison, gazing in disbelief at this resurrected Christ figure who has returned to set things right. The editing too is especially involved in this sequence, subtly matching the rhythms of Vijay’s lyrical chastisement of Mr Ghosh’s greed in ‘Ye Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye’.

“This world of palaces, of thrones, of crowns,

This world full of enemies of humanity,

This world which is only hungry for money,

Even if one could have this world, so what?”

Another massive visual and musical highlight, as Vijay makes his Christ-like return to the world in a hall of adoring fans, and Dutt sweeps his camera in crane shots above them all.

And of course, much like Christ himself, Vijay rejects the fame, riches, and power offered to him, right at the moment when he could have seized it all. The frustration that has accumulated towards society’s hypocrisy and materialism all through Pyaasa finally explodes with disenchanted anger, seeing him deny his own name and eventually retreat into obscurity with one last monologue.

“I complain against a society that tears away a man’s compassion. That makes a brother, a stranger, a friend an enemy for self-interest. I complain against a culture, a world which worships the dead, and tramples the living underfoot. Where it is considered cowardice to cry for the suffering of others, where it is considered a weakness to respect others. In such an atmosphere, I shall never find peace.”

How fitting it is that he turns to prose in this moment, exiting the room with Gulabo just as a gust of wind picks up his poetry and scatters it in a dramatic flurry of papers. Dutt is a master of kinetic imagery, punctuating this decisive character turn with an equally powerful composition, and effectively wiping Vijay’s slate clean for a more hopeful future. The idealist we met at the start of the film is not the man we see here, now resolving to give up on a ruined world and leave with his cherished love before society gets a chance to corrupt that too. Though Pyaasa flows with both incredible joy and profound cynicism, Dutt’s lyrical camerawork continues to guide us through broad sweeps of emotion with stylish bravado, bleeding a uniquely Indian sentiment that marks it as his crowning achievement.

A perfectly cynical yet sweet ending, seeing Vijay turn away his chance at fame having grown jaded with its corruption, accepting a much simpler life with Gulabo. His manuscripts blow across the room in a beautiful flurry, carelessly throwing his years of work to the wind.

Pyaasa is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.


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