Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt in their second scene together in Pyaasa


The one’s ideals for success.

The other’s idealistic love.

No wonder idealistic me

Finds Pyaasa to be

Ideal cinema.

A collage of scenes from Pyaasa

Personal. Victory.

Vijay. It’s such an apt name for Guru Dutt’s poet character in Pyaasa. The poet who is despondent with the way society treats artists and the way the world treats women. Who, frustrated with his lack of success, rushes off to fling himself before a train mid-way through the movie. Who leaves it all – fame and fans – behind to walk away into the sunset to a far-off place with a streetwalker. ‘Victory’ is an apt name for this character? Absolutely.

Vijay, or Bijoy (as the Bengali pronunciation goes), is victorious from beginning to end. He refuses to sell out as a poet, not interested in catering to easy, romantically inclined readers. He refuses to have anything to do with people who spurn him when he was struggling and are quick to establish a relation with him once he gains fame. He refuses the recognition that comes from vanquishing an artist’s soul.

As he walks away into the sunset, hand-in-hand with Gulaab, “to a place far from here, from where he doesn’t have to go far anymore”, you get the feeling of Vijay setting off on his own, small, personal victory march. You celebrate a little bit with him, and if similarly inclined, feel like following him on that march. Happy. Ending.

Some other time, await a post on the symbolism of the names of the characters GD has played in his movies, at least the well-known ones.


A B&W photo of Sahir Ludhianvi

Passion and Perception

I came to Sahir Ludhianvi in the way I’m coming to most artists and Hindi films of the 50s and 60s presently: through Guru Dutt. Sahir had penned the lyrics for four of GD’s films: three directed by him (Baazi, 1951; Jaal, 1952; Pyaasa, 1957) and one by T Prakash Rao (Bahurani, 1963), which had GD opposite Mala Sinha again after Pyaasa. The first three all had music by S D Burman and the last by C Ramachandra. Sahir and SD never worked together after Pyaasa, and that also forms a part of this piece.

I learnt a bit about Sahir (real name, Abdul Hayee) through all the amounts I’ve read on GD, and then started reading a bit about him through other sources. I don’t think I’ll end up wanting to discover anyone from those times (or before or after) the way I have done with GD. So, I thought the best way to find out more about Sahir at one go would be through his biography by Akshay Manwani.

While waiting for the book to arrive and while reading a few other pieces on him, the first and constant remark I would encounter about him would be: ‘He was arrogant.’ Couple that with, so to speak, his rough visage, with pock marks and all (although he was a strapping six-footer), and you begin nodding in assent.

The cover of the book on Sahir Ludhianvi by Akshay ManwaniBut Manwani’s book does a lovely and necessary flip of that statement. Manwani is empathetic to Sahir (the way perhaps Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar was to the Talwars), beginning with how he zeroed in on which lyricist of the golden age of Hindi cinema he wanted to write a book on. Apart from the body and quality of work, Manwani decided to write on a singleton, as he would possibly have no kin in the years to come to hold forth on him (unlike the way GD’s younger son, Arun Dutt, took his legacy forward while he was alive).

Manwani spends some time – just the right amount – decoding Sahir’s “arrogance”, discussing it only in the latter parts of the book. This perception about Sahir comes from various notions and actions of his. He would ask to be paid Re 1 more than the music director, with the firm belief that the lyricist was more important to a film’s music than the latter. For most of Sahir’s movies, the music director would weave a melody around Sahir’s words rather than the usual practice of writing to a tune. And finally, Sahir’s words weren’t lyrics, they were poetry. In both a descriptive way of speaking as well as, erm, a poetic way of doing so.

Pyaasa itself owes a lot to Sahir’s association with the movie. Apart from Vijay, Guru Dutt’s despairing poet in the film being modelled around Sahir (only the profile, the philosophy was all GD’s), the lyrics Sahir penned for the movie are considered among the best in world cinema of any time. A few weeks after it released, after it became a hit, new posters were put out carrying lyrics of some songs and with Sahir’s name either prominent or ahead of SDB in the credits. This may have led to the clash between Sahir and SDB, which eventually had them parting ways.

Sahir just wanted to bring focus to the art of poetry and its significance in the movies. If that is considered arrogant, never mind how oversimplified, reductionist or binary that reading is, so be it. In keeping with the soul of Pyaasa, when is the true artist ever rightly understood?

Guru Dutt serenading Waheeda Rehman in the title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand

Love by Other Names

My deep discovery of Guru Dutt has led me to find out more about his collaborators (such as Sahir Ludhianvi) and his peers and contemporaries (right from Meena Kumari to Dara Singh). One thing, one aspect of language I noticed in movies of those times (I just finished reading the biography on Sahir by Akshay Manwani) is that the Indic word for love (romantic love) in usage was mohabbat. In today’s movies, pyaar is used most often and to some extent ishq, including film and song titles. Prem is used in even fewer movies, unless they have a Hindi heartland setting or are a Salman Khan movie.

The words, to the best of my knowledge, all mean the same, just the language or dialect differs. So, prem is a pure Hindi word, I trust, with its roots in Sanskrit. Pyaar sounds like a touch of Urdu in Hindi, or Hindustani as it’s called. Ishq sounds Arabic, and mohabbat sounds pure Urdu. Which is perfect for those times (50s and 60s), when Urdu was used a lot in those movies.

So, why and where did mohabbat lose currency? Because Urdu is used less in Hindi movies these days, and there are definitely no Muslim socials happening now? Because pyaar sounds the softest of the lot? Or because mohabbat sounds so big and long? After all, where do people have time – or care – for big, long romantic love these days?

Guru Dutt drunk in a song sequence from the movie Pyaasa

The Thirsty and the…

Pyaasa. It literally means ‘thirsty’, but in the context of the movie, referring to Vijay, Guru Dutt’s poet character who despairs at the world and its disregard of the creative soul, it means ‘the thirsty one’. At least, that’s the way it’s been translated in the various books on GD and his movies that I’ve read. In a couple, it even has the slightly “enhanced” translation of “the seeker”. Which works very fine too, especially to peg the movie at a metaphysical level, which it actually is.

But, but what could its opposite be? In Hindi, ‘filled’ or ‘filled up’ sounds very crude: ‘bharaa’. If you push it to mean ‘fulfilled’ or ‘satisfied’, it means better, but sounds a bit hard: ‘santusht’. And Pyaasa, or at least Vijay, or at least the way GD plays him, is a very soft movie and person. And then, as it happens while writing, thinking, or exploring an idea, it shines. The alliterative and apt, and what sounds like completing the two ideas when you put them together: ‘poorna’. ‘Complete’.

Pyaasa aur Poorna. Unfulfilled and Complete. Or, Vijay during the entire movie vis-a-vis the end. Or Gulaab, the touching streetwalker character (played to perfection by Waheeda Rehman), who loves Vijay throughout but never tells him, but who finally gets to walk away into the sunset with him at the end. Or as satisfyingly, the cinema lover throughout the movie and by the time ‘The End’ comes on. Come to think of it, instead of that, GD should have signed off with ‘The Completion’.

The ending of Pyaasa, where Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman's characters walk away into the distance

The still, featuring Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, that formed the basis of Pyaasa's movie poster

Design Poetry Too

An illustrated version of the Pyaasa posterEver since Pyaasa became my number one Hindi film of all time (during my ongoing deep discovery of Guru Dutt), I have been fascinated by its poster, perhaps because I am fascinated by GD (the filmmaker and the person), the movie, and visual / poster design. What does Vijay’s (GD’s poet character in the movie) face leaning on Gulab’s (Waheeda Rehman’s streetwalker character) head say about the movie? How does it symbolize the movie, for isn’t that what movie posters are meant to do?

The movie isn’t about love, at least not from Vijay’s side. Vijay is too drowned in his own sorrows and despair of the world (he laments that the world doesn’t recognize true poetry and creativity, and rarely and cruelly during the artist’s time) to notice anything outside his coat of gloom. Gulab does love Vijay, but she is not the one leaning toward him in the poster. Gulab pines for Vijay throughout the movie, but never reveals her feelings for him, not even at the end, at least not directly. However, Vijay finally comes for her in the last scene, and they walk away into the sunset together, holding hands, but looking more like companions, who have been tortured enough by the world and are now seeking a place “yahaan se duur, jahaan se phir duur na jaane pade” (far from here, from where we never need to go far away again).

And there you have it. Vijay rests on her head like one would rest their head on someone’s shoulders, seeking solace and comfort; you know, a shoulder to lean on? But it isn’t a shoulder that Gulab offers; she offers more. She offers her intellect, her understanding, her sensitivity, her sensibility. For didn’t she fall in love with him only through his poetry? As she heart-warmingly tells him in their first real conversational scene together, “When I have understand your thoughts and emotions, what else do I need to understand about you?” And perhaps, that is all that Vijay is pyaasa for.

Well, what do you know, Pyaasa’s poster has also become my number one Hindi film poster of all time.


Guru Dutt in a still from a song from Pyaasa

Dutt’s a FAQ-T

I have been on a deep discovery of Guru Dutt for about three months now, and it keeps getting deeper and deeper. It’s because I like (admire) GD as much for the person(ality) he was as for the films he was responsible for. He lived a short life (relatively, passing away at 39), but he lived it rich, intense and… deep. Ah, there’s my reason.

Guru Dutt with Waheeda Rehman in a promo still from Kaagaz ke PhoolI am already considered the biggest GD fan (I prefer the word ‘admirer’, because as I said, I like him both for his movies and persona) in my online and offline circles. Due to which, I often receive comments, responses and queries about him, very often around his personal life, and within that, mostly about his failed marriage (with Geeta Dutt), his rumoured affair (with Waheeda Rehman) and finally, his alleged suicide (after one or two attempts over the previous few years).

I have been at pains and strains when responding to these, because the answers to these aren’t entirely clear to me themselves, or I haven’t got my head around all aspects of it. Also, the thing about GD’s life, love(s) and death is that because his life was so intense and his death so vexing, these aspects of his life are sensationalized, or worse, glamourized, even swagged up, in today’s speak. Even worse, because both he and most of his family (the one he created) too passed away early (Geeta died at 41, eight years after GD; his older son Tarun passed away at 35, due to an alleged suicide too; his younger son Arun died a few years ago, at 58), he (or they) isn’t / wasn’t around to present his point of view. So, most of the perspectives, opinions and theories you hear about the various dramatic incidents in his life are from his siblings or those who worked closely with him. The former, while of course being sensitive to their elder brother, have also shared that because he was rather introverted, he never really opened up to them, so they never quite knew what was going on within him. The latter, no matter how many hours they spent on a set with him, may only have had the outsider, work-centric perspective.

What do I think? I believe that if you are a sensitive soul and seek to get to the heart of something or someone, you can arrive at a sense of those intense episodes of GD’s life. You can do this first, by watching his movies, most of which were either autobiographical or carried his world view, and then, by reading his words, a few of which are in the public domain. (Yours Guru Dutt: Intimate Letters of a Great Indian Filmmaker is a collection of letters GD wrote to wife Geeta between 1951 and 1962, and there is also an essay he wrote called Classics and Cash, where his thoughts are rather Pyaasa-like, though a lot more upbeat.)

Until you get to those, I shall make an attempt through this series: frequently asked questions – and (my) theoretical responses about the various intense episodes of GD’s life. Although I have one question myself: aren’t GD’s movies intense enough for you? Or maybe, that’s why.