Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957)
English Title: Thirst
The first Guru Dutt film I saw is Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959), a film about a filmmaker trapped in the middle of a love triangle between a former wife and his muse, and choked by the public's overwhelming expectations of him. It has been said that the film (a box office failure in India) mirrors too much the life of Dutt, whose string of successes ended with his suicide. I was beholden by the film, which was an almost perfect marriage of beautiful black and white photography, understated musicality, lovely lyricism, as orchestrated by Dutt's perfectionist direction. I thought Kaagaz Ke Phool is Dutt's lone masterpiece, until now. Pyaasa (Thirst), made a few years before Kaagaz Ke Phool is even lovelier, more lyrical, and more fine tuned.
While Kaagaz Ke Phool's hero was a filmmaker, Pyaasa focuses on a different kind of artist --- the poet. Vijay (Guru Dutt), is a poet whose works are quickly dismissed by publishers. Driven out by his brothers, Vijay lives in the streets where he meets Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute who accidentally buys Vijay's poems from a junk shop. Vijay's thirst for recognition, both from the public and his former sweetheart Meena (Mala Sinha), leads him to work for rich publisher and Meena's husband Mr. Ghosh (Rehman), who jealously dismisses Vijay after knowing of his wife's former relations with the young poet.
From the start of the film, Dutt introduces us immediately to his character's poetry. He also subtly opens our knowledge to the film's theme. Vijay is lying beside a pond, poetry is sung in the background: about a bee being intoxicated by nectar, and how we it is inevitable that we cannot contribute to this world. The visuals move from Vijay to a bee gathering nectar from a flower, only to be crushed by a man walking past. We see Vijay startled by the mindless destruction. He then travels to his publisher's office, and we realize that like the bee, he is also mindlessly destroyed.
Dutt populates his film with this kind of rich mixture of imagery, poetry, and music. It's as if Dutt has so much to say that his intentions cannot merely be covered by plain cinematics. Another moving scene is where Vijay, intoxicated after learning that his mother has died, goes out with his friends to Calcutta's red light district. Dutt's camera wildly motions as a street dancer feverishly dances as her baby is suffering from sickness. Dutt segues to a song number about prostitution and how a so-called noble land can exist with such treatment of its women. The lyrics is powerful enough to move, but mixed with the gorgeous music, Dutt's wonderful acting and directing, the fluid camera movement and gorgeous lighting, you have one of the most telling, most emotional cinematic sequences about prostitution ever put on screen.
Pyaasa is the film wherein Dutt found collaborators who would fit his film style perfectly. Before that, it was only Dutt and screenwriter Abrar Alvi who crafter their magic together. Of course, V.K. Murthy's cinematography has given Dutt's previous films topnotch visuals. In Pyaasa, Dutt discovered S.D. Burnam, whose music does not require itself to be the centerpiece of each scene but is ravishing in its subtlety. Dutt also discovered his lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, whose poetic verses can be regarded as first class literature by themselves. Burnam and Ludhianvi's songs mix very well with Dutt's style of putting his musical numbers as backdrops to his cinematic style. An example here is when street performers sing a song about the thirst for love, whcih is perfectly counterpointed by Gulabo finally realizing that she is in love with Vijay. There are no loud instruments, or intricate choreography, just a melody that can distinctly mold into the film's scenery, and lyrics that pertain directly to Dutt's intentions. It is that marriage of all these elements that make Pyaasa a perfect film.
Finally, Mala Sinha, who beautifully balances a materialistic exterior and an interior longing to love the poor poet, is also a newcomer. Waheeda Rehman, that beautiful woman with perfectly sorrowful chestnut eyes, was handpicked personally by Dutt to portray the prostitute with the heart of gold. Years later, in Kaagaz Ke Phool, Rehman would portray the director's love interest, who is curiously, a newly discovered actress. In Pyaasa, Rehman provides the film with the focal point for Dutt's rich emotions and perfectly drawn melodrama. She gives Dutt's themes a visual form.
It is quite interesting to note that Pyaasa is not really original in its storyline. It resembles timeless tales of poets and sages falling for women of lower classes. The love triangle here is similar to that of Devdas, which was filmed two times by two different directors, before Pyaasa was released. In fact, Dutt's themes aren't all very new. They've been the topic of stories, novels, epics, poems written ages before Dutt's time. However, the magic here is that Dutt borrows plots, themes, and characters, and breathes into them his personal touch and perfectionist eye, and the result is simply, the most beautiful, probably the greatest unsung musicale ever made.