What Would Pyaasa Be Without Guru Dutt?

Neeti Singhal - 60 weeks ago

Remade in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu, Pyaasa is a textbook example of good filmmaking and remains a benchmark. The restored version of the film was screened at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival in 2015, alongside Orson Welles’ Othello (1951), Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) and other titles from across the globe.

(Drawing from the original 1957 publicity booklet of the film, Pyaasa)

It was rated one of the best 100 movies of all time by the Time Magazine and Aamir Khan vouches for it. In 2002, the critics’ and directors’ poll for Sight & Sound, ranked Pyaasa at No. 160 on all-time greatest hits. Not too far in the past, the dilapidated negatives of the film were restored and digitised with great effort by Mumbai-based, Ultra Media and Entertainment. Forty-Five restoration experts corrected and reinstated over 2 lakh frames and remastered the monaural soundtrack of the film. The restored version of the film was screened at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival in 2015, alongside Orson Welles’ Othello (1951), Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) other titles from across the globe, as part of Venice Classics. This is the legacy Guru Dutt leaves behind in the form of one of his finest works.

The story of Pyaasa dates back to 1947. According to Guru Dutt’s son, the story was first handwritten by his father way back in 1947, post which he constantly kept bettering it till its eventual release in 1957. It is said that the film is loosely based on the life of poet Sahir Ludhiyanvi and his failed love affair with poet Amrita Pritam. Sahir Ludhiyanvi is also the lyricist of the film; in fact, while looking through the poet-songwriter’s scribblings, Dutt found the poem ‘Jinhe naaz hai hind par who kahan hai’ and immediately knew it had to feature in the film.

(Guru Dutt with Dilip Kumar and Rajendra Kumar at an event)

Dilip Kumar was the first choice for Pyaasa. The king of melancholy, however, refused the part on account of it being similar to a few other films he had been approached for, at the time. It was, then, that Guru Dutt decided to step in Dilip Kumar’s shoes and the rest is history.

Remade in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu, Pyaasa is a textbook example of good filmmaking and remains a benchmark. More than 60 years after its release, despite its grainy picture quality and absence of commercial tactics to attract eyeballs, it remains on the top of every cinebuffs’ favourites list and is quintessential of honest storytelling. The purity of the characters and the narration bears the weight of what the industry lacked in technology back in the 50s.

(Guru Dutt in a still from Mr. and Mrs. 55)

Guru Dutt, the actor, director is known to create artful and lyrical films within the space of popular Hindi cinema. He had the ability to reach masses and deliver commercially successful films without a compromise on realism. Disillusioned by the decadence of traditional values in the wake of industrialization during the post-independent, Nehruvian era, Pyaasa remains tantamount to Dutt’s belief in art which was slowing seeing a downfall. Vijay is a representation of the archetypal artist woven beautifully within the political sentiment of the nation at the time. He symbolizes the Indian torn between duties of building the country vs. the expectations from the governance; ‘Zara iss mulk ke rehbaron ko bulao, yeh kuche, yeh galiyan, yeh manzar dikhao’.

A talented young man, Vijay was written as a character with unshaken confidence in his thought and expression which as the film progresses, turns into helpless arrogance. The introductory song depicts the dichotomy of the character’s existence. He starts out by appreciating all that is peaceful – ‘yeh haste hue phool, yeh mehka hua gulshan’. He, however, also exhibits feelings of insignificance and an inability to reciprocate – ‘mein du bhi toh kya du aye sokh najaro, lede ke mere pas kuch aasu hai kuch aahe hai’. There is a constant interplay between helplessness and selfishness that drives his internal dialogue. 'Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai’ literally defines his character in totality.

(Image of Guru Dutt's handwritten script of Pyaasa)

His interactions with subsidiary characters are allowed their due complexity. Him and Meena, played by Mala Sinha, being financially dependent on external sources for their survival, are laid-back and rely on others to make decisions in situations of conflict. While Vijay remains dejected, Meena finds a way to assuage her situation by marrying a man for money, which only makes Vijay’s disbelief in society stronger – ‘Yahan pyaar hota hai vyapaar bankar’. Abrar Alvi writes in the character of Gulab - a strong, independent woman who is satisfied with herself despite external circumstances - to balance the inaction in Vijay. Her fulfilment with life is the strength required for Vijay to move beyond his afflictions and garner the courage to abandon the system. As it so happens, Gulab’s character was based on a real person Abrar chanced upon on his visit to the red-light area in Mumbai. He even retained the exact lines she said to him, in the film – Aaj tak logon ke moonh se main sirf dutkaar hi sunti rahi hoon apne liye. Unki firkre-bazziyan aur taane sunti rahi hoon. Ganda mazaak sunti rahi hoon. Aur tum itni izzat se paish aate ho mujhse.

Guru Dutt and his films find a large following in France and Germany; Pyaasa was a massive commercial success during its 1984 French Premiere. Like the premise of the film, the artist didn’t live to see the appreciation of his art, however. The film was also screened, to mass appeal, at The 9th International Festival of Asian Cinema held in Vesoul, in 2003.

(Guru Dutt with writer Abrar Alvi)

Initially it was called Pyaas, which Dutt later insisted on changing to Pyaasa to provide a focal point of view to the story and make it synonymous to its central character. It is minor things like the ending that tell us how committed Guru Dutt was to the art of telling stories. Abrar Alvi wanted Vijay to give in to the materialistic way of the world. Dutt, however, was steadfast on not dissipating the essence of the character. After much conflict, and Dutt’s obstinacy, the dissatisfied poet got the ending that has stayed with us even today. Thanks to Guru Dutt, Vijay was able to transition from a need to be appreciated to the freedom of anonymity – the hero did live on, only, by his rules!


Guru Dutt/ Pyaasa/ Aamir Khan/ Akira Kurosawa/ Orson Welles/ Venice International Film Festival/ Dilip Kumar/ Mala Sinha/ Waheeda Rehman/ SD Burman/ Abrar Alvi

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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