“Yeh duniya jahaan aadmi kuch nahi hai, wafa kuch nahi, dosti kuch nahi hai. Yahaan pyaar ki qadr hi kuch nahi hai, yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai.”
These words by Sahir Ludhianvi hold the essence of Guru Dutt’s 1957 film Pyaasa. The journey of a poet who once believed that his art could make the world a better place finds himself successful, albeit ‘posthumously’, and realises how empty the applause is. He understands that it isn’t worth living in a materialistic world where relationships are hollow and heartache a constant.
Directed and produced by Dutt, Pyaasa has him playing the role of Vijay, a poet who is in a downward spiral as he tries to decipher the meaning of life. The tragedy of life is all around him but once it starts affecting him on a deeper level, he can’t help but get sucked into the whirlpool of those emotions. In a journey of trying to find the meaning of life, Vijay finds that most frills associated with living in a society don’t mean anything and that realisation makes his journey even more lonely.
A chance encounter with his lost love Meena, played by Mala Sinha, brings back the pain that he has since translated into his work. When Gulabo, played by Waheeda Rehman, accidentally discovers his poetry, she is disarmed by his deep understanding of life. Dutt’s arresting eyes hold your gaze in every frame that he occupies. His withering pain and dissatisfaction with the structured society force you to look within and question your actions in life.
Vijay is looking for spiritual salvation and as he searches for that one big epiphany, he has lost the will to enjoy materialistic pleasures. The short flashback from his college days does not just establish his love story with Meena, but also emphasises that the man who appears to be perpetually sad now, once had a zest for life, when he perhaps did not know any better.
While the film does not explicitly say so, it is hinted that Vijay’s downward spiral was triggered by Meena ending their relationship. Vijay hasn’t really moved on from that heartbreak, and everything that has happened since then – his brothers berating him, publishers disrespecting his art. He is a weak man a decade later who believes that fighting for one’s own self is probably a lost battle. He sings, “Isko hi jeena kehte hain toh yun hi jee lenge. Uff na karenge, labb see lenge, aansoo pee lenge,” announcing his surrender to the tragedy that is his life.
Pyaasa puts its two prominent female characters on opposing ends of social hierarchy. Meena, who was once a romantic, has now become a realist. She fell in love with Vijay when they both were naive but as she learnt about the challenges of the real world, she knew that love could not be the be-all and end-all of her world. Then there’s Gulabo, the woman who sells her body but has a heart of gold, whose understanding of love is more spiritual. She is enchanted by Vijay’s poetry and believes she has glanced into his soul through his poems. Her devotion towards Vijay surpasses all the materialistic pleasures that the world has to offer. In a scene where Vijay calls her his wife, her eyes light up. The points of view of these two women are dramatically opposite but can’t be labeled as wrong or right, and the film acknowledges that. But in the years since, the character of Meena has gotten the short end of the stick.
Right from the opening of the film, Vijay wants his poetry to get published so the world can hear his thoughts. Like any other artist, he strives for validation but the general audience comprises those who can only appreciate art if it’s already validated by someone else, or comes with a story that makes it exciting. This explains why Vijay’s art is celebrated after his supposed death. When Vijay rises from his supposed death, the Christ-like imagery is evident and as Vijay sings “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai,” he realises that the only thing he ever wanted – validation for his art – isn’t worth it.
In the years since its release, many have termed Pyaasa as the crown jewel of Hindi cinema. While Guru Dutt is often credited with the creation of the film, one cannot forget that the film comes alive because of the poetry and lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi. “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain” examines the debilitating condition of a newly built nation that’s mistreating its women and does not see the error in its ways. “Aaj sajan mohe ang lagalo” talks about the Meera-like devotion that Gulabo develops for Vijay. “Tang aa chuke hain kashm-e-kash zindagi se” talks about Vijay’s struggle with living in this world. And “Sar jo tera chakraye” adds a hint of lightness to this otherwise intense film. SD Burman’s music, along with lyrics by Ludhianvi that could be read like poetry, make Pyaasa an album that is still being cherished.
Not just with its songs, Pyaasa is also poetry on screen. The cinematography by V. K. Murthy leaves images in your mind that haunt the dark corners of your soul. The usage of shadow in scenes where Vijay has separated himself from his reality is brilliantly executed and demands the kind of appreciation that makes this a classic.
The themes discussed in Pyaasa are timeless in nature and the execution of those thoughts is so impeccable that the film hasn’t really aged much in 64 years. Of course, things like the portrayal of an asylum or a woman’s dependency on her husband for finances don’t translate well in 2021 but that isn’t really the core message of the film. The timeless nature of Pyaasa comes from the eternal question that humans have always had – ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and as long as we continue to ask this question, Pyaasa will continue to remain relevant.
Pyaasa is streaming on Prime Video and YouTube.