Guru Dutt as Vijay in the opening sequence of Pyaasa

Poet Courageous

Some cinema critics and academics sometimes levy this criticism against the denouement of Pyaasa: Vijay choosing to reject fake fame and recognition to turn to a place of solace. Just like Meena, his college sweetheart who chooses to marry rich rather than the struggling poet, who is horrified at his decision to spurn a two-faced society and urges him to stay, they opine that Vijay is not a fighter, he is not pragmatic.

Of course, Vijay is not world-practical. This is established in the opening sequence of the movie itself, when he is lying in a field, looking at the heart shape of the sky formed by the leaves of the surrounding trees, teasing out a poem from his spirit, looking somnolently blithe. His easy spirit is brought down to earth and crushed, when an equally happy and lazy bumblebee is squashed under a passerby’s feet no sooner than it lands on the ground.

Guru Dutt as Vijay toward the end of PyaasaVijay is a humanist, an idealist, a purist, and most crucially, a truist. This is brought out time and time again, whether in the song where he laments the state of the nation 10 years after independence, in the song where he indicts a vacuous society’s emptier people, in his end counter-argument to Meena, where he expresses disappointment that those who commiserate with the sorrow of others are considered weak and inept themselves.

At the height of fame, something he seemingly desired through the course of the movie, Vijay chooses to leave it all go. Doesn’t that take greater courage? The courage to remain true to your core.

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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.

 

Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in the pose from the Kaagaz ke Phool poster

Paper Flowers, Real Thorns

An illustrated version of the Pyaasa posterIf the Pyaasa poster took me a while to decode, the poster of another great Guru Dutt movie, Kaagaz ke Phool (the one he directed right after Pyaasa and after which he never directed again), was much simpler to get.

In KKP, GD’s Hindi film director character, Suresh Sinha, is married but separated with a school-going daughter, who is in his wife’s custody. Suresh meets Shanti, Waheeda Rehman’s character, in a different city (Delhi, if I remember correctly) one stormy night. When she comes to Bombay, she eventually ends up being cast in his under-production movie on Devdas. Over the days, feelings and a great understanding develop between the two, but they also know they can’t bring these to fruition. This was the 1930s after all. Plus, it was the grain of the characters: both are seekers enough to like each other, but are also tormented by their morals in not wanting to break up a marriage. So, they remain anguished in their almost-relationship, which eventually ends, and ends despondently.

The Kaagaz ke Phool posterGD and WR bring out the dual feelings of desire and anguish marvellously in the poster: just look at their faces and the expressions they bear. But, also look at the rest of the body language. WR faces away from GD and seems to convey a feeling of wanting to pull herself away from this situation (unlike in the Pyaasa poster, where although not fully facing him, she doesn’t appear like she wants to move away from him). However, her head leans toward his, to indicate a level of interest and yearning coming from the core. As for GD, he seems to be clutching her like he doesn’t want her to go. In all the tight embracing and thoughts of pulling away, they look painfully torn. This kind of love can only happen on paper (kaagaz). And on a brilliant poster.

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.