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Why Guru Dutt’s ‘Pyaasa’ Is Immortal, And What Filmmakers Today Can Learn From It

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By Devang Pathak:

We often come across a few things which are destined to be a part of our lives. They always present themselves in a way that you are forced to stand up and take notice of them. This is a manner in which I became acquainted with Pyaasa. I had heard many recommendations from critics, and my parents, about the movie, and was inexplicably intrigued. I bought the DVD and by the time the credits rolled, I had rediscovered a part of me. I was a very different person when I first saw this movie, and yet what only gets deeper is my admiration for this film.

Pyaasa (1957)

The Beauty In Tragedy

The 1950s-60s, often referred to as the Golden Age of Hindi Cinema, was a time when movies broke new ground in terms of their stories and cinematic achievements. It was clear from the start that ours was a different movie industry from those which existed in the other countries because of one glaring aspect which was staple in almost all our movies – music. And a movie from that era which understood the inherent power of music was Guru Dutt’s 1957 hit “Pyaasa”.

A homage of sorts to Orson Welles and the story of Christ’s resurrection, Pyaasa has been named one of the Times Top 100 movies of all times, one of the Times top 10 romantic movies in 2010, and Sight and Sound chose the soundtrack as one of ‘The Best Music in Films’, in 2004. Then how come it is not on television as much as god-awful movies like “Sooryavansham”? Reasons are twofold – the apathy of our film industry which has seen the original negatives of the movie lost, often screening the movie out of dupe negatives, and secondly because of its theme and treatment.

The present rut in Bollywood lies not only in its inability to innovate from formulaic moulds, but the insistence to harbor a myopic view of the human condition. The theme of traumatic pain is left largely untouched and a serious and uncompromising look scares many distributors and producers. This was the case even in 1950s and even after compromising on the ending, actor-director Guru Dutt managed to bring to us one of the most tragic mainstream movies of all time.

A Time When Stories Mattered

Pyaasa is a story of artistic pursuit in an unwelcoming society. It is about the sacrifices which are demanded by the world to follow one’s dreams – family, respect, and even love. It explores the dangers of a commercial, selfishly fickle world which patronises and abandons art as a trend. Do you see a parallel to the present?

The story is about Vijay – a struggling poet who squanders through the post-independence economy trying to gain a breakthrough for his works. He lives a life of immense melancholy where his family has ostracized him, his work faces continuous rejection, and the woman he loved abandons him due to his unemployment. He finds an admirer in the form of a fellow outcast – a sex worker named Gulabo who is the only flicker of kindness in the selfish world. A strange twist of fate leads his works to be published and become popular, but it is in this success that he understands his loneliness. The profiteers of his work – his family, his friends and his publisher, betray his trust leading him to deny his own existence and leave the success he fought so hard for.

Music- A Character in Itself

The messages which the story delivers are exemplified by the music of the movie. Each song played has a strategic role in the narrative, with a soulful composition from SD Burman. From the famous ‘Champi Song’ to Hum Aapki Aankhon Main, or to my personal favourites – “Jaane Wo Kaise Log”, “Jaane Kya Tune Kahi” and the insurmountable “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye” – each will play over and over in your mind, even 57 years after their release. The performances of the movie are seamless across a host of characters.

The term “Bollywood” has no one correct definition. It’s incorrectly identified as the largest motion picture industry in the world, or as the genre of bright song-dance musicals from India. Many Indians define Bollywood as star-studded movies with masala stories – combining action, romance, comedy with catchy music and dance in exotic foreign locations. But this YashRaj by-product, which is being recycled again and again for decades, is not the true definition of Hindi Movies.

Pyaasa truly represents the definition of Bollywood – where song and dance aid the movie rather than being disruptive distractions and tricks to mask mediocrity. The perennial nature of the movie’s themes, its words and acts are hard for anyone to shrug off. The world may claim to have changed drastically in 60 years and yet, it’s eerily still the same.

There is just one question that comes to my mind everytime I watch the movie or listen to its songs – Had Guru Dutt not left the world at such a young age, how different would Hindi cinema be? Radical, I believe.

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  1. Neil Chatterjee

    Beautiful, intelligent piece of writing! “Pyasa” is a rare case of victory of sensitivity over banality. Fence-sitter Indians may try to own the movie after its appreciation in the West but, honestly, they do not deserve it. Long live mediocrity and vulgarity in Bollywood wasteland …

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