Is Pyaasa angry, or is it just you?

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Pyaasa, universally acknowledged as Guru Dutt’s masterpiece, is not just a great film. It is a cri de couer of a poet, an artist, a citizen. Coming a decade or so after Independence, it reflected the angst of the sensitive Indian who saw the hopes and dreams of an entire generation being frittered away. In the story of a man who is cast away by a cruel and cynical society after being used, there is an allegory of a nation which has been taken over by powerbrokers who care two hoots for the weak, the poor.

Commentators have seen Pyaasa in that light ever since it was “re-discovered” in the late 1980s by a range of film scholars who brought out Guru Dutt from the dusty, dark shelves he had been relegated to after his untimely death in 1964, at the age of 39. In his lifetime, Guru Dutt was considered a talented filmmaker with a tendency to make self-indulgent movies that did not always work at the box-office. Though, ironically, he had directed and produced very successful films like Baazi (his first), Mr and Mrs 55, Aar-Paar and, later, CID and Sahib Bibi Ghulam.
By the 1980s Guru Dutt’s name and legacy had faded away. Among the earliest ones to revisit him was Nasreen Munni Kabir who made a three-part documentary film on him. She was a pioneer in studying Hindi cinema in its sociological context and though she has written on and made films about many others, she is widely regarded as an expert on Guru Dutt and his cinema. Unlike other experts who are wide-eyed only about his latter “serious” films — Pyaasa, Kaagaz ke Phool, Sahib Bibi Ghulam, Chaudhvin ka Chand — Kabir takes a more holistic view and thus shows much more depth and understanding.
These are the sensibilities she brings to her latest work, The Dialogue of Pyaasa (Pyaasa’s dialogues were written by Abrar Alvi). This is fourth in a series of books she is writing, where she examines the dialogues — in a sense the post-shooting film script — of well known movies. So far she has done Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India and Awara, all films in which the spoken word was as important as the images, the music, the songs and the acting.
Her books not only contain the entire dialogue of the films — in English, Hindi (Roman), Hindi (Devanagri) and Urdu — but also an opening essay and notes at the end of the book. This is in fact the highlight of each tome; Kabir delves deep into the director’s mind, trying to understand why a particular line was used, using the director’s notes, if any, and the source material, i.e. the “script”. Given that Indian filmmakers rarely worked to a bound script, this is not an easy job, but Kabir shows the instinct of a scholar, hunter, fan and forensic scientist combined. The result is, naturally, enjoyable and illuminating for the film buff.
In The Dialogue of Pyaasa, Kabir shares a lot of interesting trivia — the names of two characters in Guru Dutt’s original scenario in Pyaasa were based on the names of a magazine editor of the time and his wife whose publication was tormenting him and criticising all his films. This is enjoyable in itself, but Kabir goes much beyond, trying to understand Dutt’s influences and motivations.
Take Pyaasa’s famous shot when Vijay the poet (played by Dutt himself) walks into a cinema hall where his poems are being read with the belief that the poet is dead. We see him silhouetted against the doorway, light behind him, almost looking crucified. Kabir draws from scholars who have remarked upon the use of Christ imagery through Pyaasa. In one scene, Vijay’s beloved Meena (Mala Sinha) hides her face with a copy of Life magazine bearing the picture of Jesus Christ on the cover. Could Dutt be reading that magazine at the time? A tantalising thought indeed and one that enhances our own experience of the film.
Probably the most interesting fact Kabir reminds us about is that Guru Dutt had wanted to make this film for years. His original story was called Kashmakash, which came out of his struggle as a beginner in the late 1940s when he knocked on studio doors looking for work. Keeping that in mind, one needs to re-examine the notion that Pyaasa was a frustrated cry at the breakdown of Nehruvian ideals in post-Independence India. Sahir Ludhianvi’s marvellous songs — especially the searing “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain...” which is till today held as an indictment of those who betrayed those ideals — further added to the film’s reputation, but we have to ask if the filmmaker was interested more in examining the poet’s disappointments rather than making social commentary. Thus, while cinematically there is no disputing the film’s quality, has it become enjoined with our own disillusionment? Are we projecting our own regrets on the film and, thereby, enhancing its nihilistic and self-defeatist tone?
These are some thoughts that will inevitably arise while going through this book. Reading each and every line of dialogue, and in one continuous sitting, may get a bit tiring. A film on the screen is different when looked at on a page. Yet the book is of immense value to not only film buffs but social scientists and historians of the future.
Kabir’s notes are a delight for anyone looking for nuggets of information and insight. For Pyaasa’s countless fans, Kabir’s book is a handy reference to deconstruct (in a manner of speaking) the film’s inner meanings. Even those not much enamoured of the film — and there are many — can get something out of it. At the very least, it should make us re-examine the film that has become shrouded in myth, legend and hagiography.

Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist and commentator on current affairs based in Mumbai

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