10 September 2017

Disenchanted Nights

1957’s second-highest Hindi grosser is much watched but little understood. Pyaasa may have been filled with poets and poetry, but it’s true, bitter subject was money.

Pyaasa started life as a story idea called ‘Kashmakash’ (‘Dilemma’), which Guru Dutt first put to paper in 1947 or ’48, when he was just 22. It was nine years later, once he had established a name with films like Baazi and Mr & Mrs 55, that Dutt returned to his tale of a struggling poet. By then he had his team in place: writer Abrar Alvi (clearly responsible for a great deal of Pyaasa’s script, although he is credited only for dialogue), lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, and cinematographer VK Murthy — all of whom reached deep into themselves to transform Dutt’s germ of an idea into one of Indian cinema’s abiding gems.

Casting our eyes back sixty years, it seems remarkable that this melancholy piece of filmmaking, with a hero afflicted not just by romantic or familial tragedy but by a near-total disenchantment with the world, could become the second-highest Hindi grosser at the box office. We clearly had a greater appetite for tragedy then – and greater empathy for a hero who dreamt of escaping the material condition.

The film opens with the young poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) lying serenely in a garden, composing beautiful verse as he looks at the flowers and bees around him. Suddenly he rises anxiously, and we see him dwarfed by the dark shadows of trees. In the next scene, he must rescue his folder of nazms from a smalltime magazine office: his responses to the poverty and exploitation around him have found their way into the dustbin. “Aapki bakwaas koi shaayari hai? Pad gaye bhookh aur berozgaari ke peechhe latth leke! (Is this rubbish of yours poetry? You’ve taken a stick and gone after hunger and unemployment!),” mocks the smarmy old sherwani-clad editor, before waxing lyrical on what ‘proper’ poetry should be: “Gul-o-bulbul pe sh’er kahiye, jaam-o-suraahi pe sh’er kahiye... (Write a couplet on the flower and the nightingale, write one on the goblet and the wine flask...)”

Vijay scorns this unctuous injunction and walks out with his poems. But preserving this independence of mind, the film suggests, is not easy – especially if the body needs to be preserved first. A penniless Vijay tries his hand at manual labour, placing a dhoti-clad gentleman’s purchases in his car and earning a coin for his services. But when he presents the coin as payment for a meal, it turns out to be fake. Later, hopeful of having his poems published, he accepts ajob as an assistant in a publishing house, which sometimes requires him to serve in the home of the boss, Mr Ghosh (Rehman). It is worth noting here that Dutt and Alvi display an unreconstructed middle class horror at the idea of the educated young man performing menial labour – a horror amplified in women’s eyes, whether the ex-lover watching Vijay serve drinks, or Vijay’s mother imagining him having to take care of himself.

Poetry may lie at the centre of the plot, but Pyaasa’s driving theme is money. Whether it’s a poet or a sex worker, the world seems intent upon making them sell themselves. While suggesting this analogy, the film thankfully also recognises how deeply one’s freedom is inflected by class. At one end of the scale are those whose survival depends on finding clients, for which they might have to resort to deception: the streetwalker Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) sings a seemingly romantic song only to lure Vijay, whom she assumes is a potential customer; the maalishwala Abdus Sattar (Johnny Walker) is often seen tricking people into a head massage. These are people on the margins, and the film does not judge them – in fact it offers what might be among the most acute depictions of a streetwalker’s life in the scene where Gulabo is thrown out of a moving car, and when she demands her money, thrown into the jaws of ‘the law’: a beat havaldar.

It is much harsher on the middle class woman – Meena (Mala Sinha), who has left Vijay for the security of marriage to a richer man (Rehman). Vijay pronounces her shallow and greedy; only VK Murthy’s remarkable camerawork that allows us to see her position with any degree of empathy. In the scene where she talks to Vijay in the lift, she ends by saying agitatedly, “Arrey, main toh bhool hi gayi, mujhe toh upar jaana hai” — and we watch the elevator doors close over her made-up, bejewelled visage: the rise to the top for a woman like her involves giving up her freedom. In another scene, Murthy takes an almost operatic pleasure in showing us Meena as the memsahib in the white limousine, emerging hurriedly from this lap of luxury when she sees Vijay in the distance. But in Murthy’s framing, the liveried Sikh chauffeur who opens the car door also bars the memsahib’s path to her old love.

The film adopts a properly romantic stance, with the hero picking obscurity and freedom over worldly fame and wealth. In a society where the only good poet is a dead poet, Vijay literally chooses social death.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 Sep 2017.

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