24 January 2006
100 films: Pyaasa
starring: Mala Sinha, Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, and Johnny Walker
written by: Abrar Alvi
directed by: Guru Dutt
NR, 146 min, 1957, India
Vijay (Guru Dutt), a struggling poet nursing a broken heart, is devastated to learn that his brothers have sold his poems to a local merchant for scrap paper. They are purchased by Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute who sees in the poems what no one else sees--the work of a true visionary. She loves him, but Vijay is still forlorn over Meena (Mala Sinha), his past love and muse. In a fit of despair, he attempts suicide, only to be thwarted by the homeless man he'd loaned his jacket. The homeless man is killed, mistaken for Vijay, and Gulabo convinces a publisher to publish his poems posthumously. They become a sensation and when Vijay comes out of his coma, he discovers that his friends have multiplied and that few can be trusted.
If there was ever a film that could benefit from the deluxe treatment of the Criterion Collection, it is Pyaasa. The only existing DVD version is currently out of print, and for good reason, as it is about as low quality a DVD as you'll ever find. The print is murky, muddled, scratched, and missing several frames. The subtitles are haphazard at best, rife with spelling errors, incorrect verb tenses, and other assorted errors. But the most egregious crime against the DVD is the failure to subtitle the musical numbers or poetry, which in a musical about a poet is a significant portion of the film. So unless you speak Hindi there are long stretches where you have little idea what's going on in a film where the musical numbers appear to be providing a great deal of narrative information. You can actually leave the room during the music and not be any less confused than had you stayed. Of course, then you might miss some nice sequences with some beautiful music.
Add to the confusion that director Guru Dutt has constructed the film in a somewhat non-linear manner, using fantasy sequences and flashbacks to further develop the story. At least that's what it looked like he was doing. So, yes, watching Pyaasa requires a great deal more effort than your standard film, but the end result is well worth it. Despite what appear to be some budgetary constraints, Dutt's direction is surprising accomplished. Along with his cinematographer V.K. Murthy, he shows an expert use of shadows and light on par with any of the legendary Hollywood craftsmen. This is a director who, if he had been an American, may have been held in the same esteem the upper echelon of filmmakers. Sadly, he is all but forgotten.
However, most people who have seen Pyaasa would have trouble forgetting the scene where Vijay reveals on the anniversary of his death that he is indeed alive. He quietly walks into the crowded auditorium where they are celebrating his work and begins to quietly sing some of his poetry. Using a backlight and the frame of a doorway, Dutt films himself as a classic Messianic figure come to enlighten his disciples, as his voice grows louder, the publisher of his poetry (who stands to make a lot more if Vijay is dead), sends security to silence him, but Vijay fights against them, singing all the while. The crowd is stunned and Gulabo is in tears as Vijay with one song both crushes and enforces the myth he has become. Virtually none of this is subtitled, but the effect is so powerful, that I cannot imagine the scene being any more riveting if we knew what he was saying. In fact, for those few moments, I was almost glad the subtitles weren't there.
Furthering his Messianic imagery, Vijay comes to realize who his real friends truly are and in a shocking turn, declares that he is not the Vijay they have come to celebrate, for that man is dead. Pandemonium ensues and Vijay manages to escape. He finds Gulabo and they walk away from wealth and fame and prestige, looking for a place where they won't have to go any farther. It is a poignant finish to what is a surprisingly good film, provided you can figure out what's going on.
 It could also be new poetry he's made up on the spot. I really have no way of knowing.
 Even though this is a Hindu film, there's no mistaking the intention of the shot. This begs the question: does a Hindi audience understand what that shot means?