Extolling the value of art and altruism in a capitalistic society, Pyaasa rails against the sanctimonious, exposing greed and hypocrisy through a scathing satire of celebrity and its accompanying insincerity. By virtue of its elegiac mouthpiece, Guru Dutt emphasizes humanistic attitudes, placing pride in dignity and equality over piety, subtextually endorsing apostasy from religion, social class and community. Its conceit is rather audacious and earnest for a musical, threatening to buckle under the weight of its themes, but its execution is unblemished, minimizing the frivolous fanfare as it wages an ideological war with ethical and financial poverty.
Finding little solace in the fever pitch of the publishing world, Vijay (played by director Guru Dutt), a political poet, relaxes in the tranquility of nature, allowing the visions before his eyes to mature into stanzas in his mind. His artistic habits deviate from the flaring tempers of the newspaper office and the sibling resentment in his mother’s parlor, a contrast defined by cinematographer V.K. Murthy through the limitless space of the outdoors and the claustrophobic clutter of interior shots. Lying in the vastness of his bucolic surroundings, Vijay overhears a woman reciting his poetry, enchanting him with a come-hither sway equaled in seductive power by the entrancing strum of sitar and clack of woodblock.
Vijay’s lyrics stir indefinable feelings in the compassionate prostitute undulating before him, reflecting the power of the written word to inspire empathy and catharsis. Unbeknownst to Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), our aforementioned escort, she’s soliciting the author of the poem with her coquettish vocalizations, a claim she rebuffs as she sends the penniless wordsmith stumbling into the mud-caked streets. As blind rage fades into thoughtful clarity, Gulabo realizes that she had denied the author of her dearest romantic ballad, vowing to seek love from the tender poet and, through it, inspire personal rebirth.
Seeking a renewal of his own through creative expression, Vijay bares his soul in rhymed verse at a college reunion, bringing a past love to tears, but drawing ire from an audience eager for hollow entertainment. Dutt uses this uncomfortable performance piece as a means to expose audience indifference to art and the prescribed role of the artist in society, examining the apathy towards introspection in the industrialized India. Though his confident oration secures him a job at a publishing house, the director of operations refuses to print “the trash of a novice” and sequesters Vijay to a role of servitude.
In a moment of ironic coincidence common to Bollywood’s earliest melodramas, Vijay finds his bygone sweetheart, Meena (Mala Sinha), has married his treacherous superior, trading their collegiate love for the comfort of wealth. Dutt weaves the sorrow of their collective memory into montage, expressing the first flashes of affection, however fleeting, in rapid succession, demonstrating the couple’s inability to account for the impermanence of bliss through their joyous union in song. Another faded memory is captured in the blurred, glistening reflection of an elevator door, entering the subconscious through tight camera zoom and unhurried fade. This recollection feels like a fantasy, indulging in narcotic dances, bathed in flowing white cloth and buoyant balloons. Parisian lampposts and impenetrable fog add ambience to this extended reverie, but even in the most pleasant daydreams, love fades away.
Dutt realizes the emotional heft of the story and wisely interjects genial interludes, the best of which features an amateur masseuse, a jaunty tune and crafty tracking shot that traverses a vine-clad palisade. All passages of comic relief are seamlessly blended into the primary narrative, benefiting from editorial work that mirrors the musical pulsations and visuals that highlight spatial distance and craft metaphor through illuminating beams of light.
A drunken celebration encapsulates this marriage of the aural and ocular, representing intoxication through dizzying twirl, keeping rhythm through the rattling of bracelets and pulsating patter of a dancer’s feet. The pace gradually changes as the sound of a crying baby is added to the mix, creating discord and reflecting the lack of fluidity in the dancer’s motions. Though she fears for her ailing child, she must continue the dance, shackled by a perpetual need for money. Dutt implies that currency spurned the shift between a charitable India and a desperate one, abandoning a history of dignity for a future that “auctions” pleasure to the highest bidder.
Conversely, a chosen few will shun the bondage of avarice and Guru Dutt finds a glimmer of hope in Gulabo, seeing her pro bono efforts to publish Vijay’s work as a divine act of selflessness. Art functions as a liberating force in an oppressed Indian and the words of Dutt’s martyred poet will live on, supplanting his temporary physical form. Whether the story is fictional or contains inklings of the autobiographical, Pyaasa is the greatest defense of fine art ever filmed, benefiting from Guru Dutt’s rich tapestry of aesthetic pleasures, skillfully employed to veil a caustic indictment of the material world.
Pyaasa (Guru Dutt Films Pvt. Ltd., 1957)
Directed by Guru Dutt
Written by Abrar Alvi
Photographed by V.K. Murthy