January 10, 2017
Guru Dutt is a tragic figure in Bollywood history, a tremendously talented actor and filmmaker who committed suicide at the age of 39. He was able to direct eight films before his passing, the most famous of which is Pyaasa (1957), an intensely moving melodrama about a struggling poet, Vijay (played by Dutt). It is a movie about failure, as Vijay’s poems are roundly rejected, while his vagabond lifestyle alienates him from his immediate family. Broke and depressed, Vijay wanders the lower depths of the city and finds the first honest people he’s ever met, they just happen to be prostitutes and hucksters. As proper society would rather he disappear, Vijay pursues his art anyway, to destructive and unpredictable consequences. Filmed with a delirious mobility, the camera is always dollying from long distances into huge closeups, the distance between two unrequited lovers closed by the lens. With sinuous, unforgettable music by S.D. Burman and evocatively nihilistic Urdu poetry by Sahir Ludhianvi, FilmStruck is streaming Pyaasa as part of its “Classic Bollywood” package, and if you are looking to start exploring Bollywood cinema, this is a wise place to begin.
Guru Dutt was trained as a dancer before switching to acting, joining the Prabhat studio in 1944 as an actor, choreographer and assistant director. He would eventually set up his own production company, making everything from adventure films to comedies. He began writing what would become Pyaasa soon after the Partition of India in 1947, which was originally titled “Conflict,” and in which Vijay is a painter, not a poet. The script was finished nearly a decade later by Abrar Alvi, when Dutt had the clout to produce it on his own. It opens with Vijay lounging in a meadow, declaiming verse to the natural world around him, at least until a fellow park goer stalks by and kills a bug. His solitary life of solitude and meditation is constantly getting interrupted by these godforsaken humans. This is the bitter Vijay we meet at the beginning, already a failure, with publishers only accepting his book of poems if they can use it as scrap. When Vijay at least gets an officious publisher to hire him as an assistant, it turns out he is married to Vijay’s first love. Meena (Mala Sinha) is stranded in a loveless marriage with Ghosh (Rehman), an opportunistic owner of a book imprint who might be keeping Vijay around just to make him miserable. During his nightly wanders, Vijay runs into Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute who has been collecting his poetry unbeknownst to him. All of Vijay’s plans collapse – he loses his job, his family, and all of his savings, forcing him to live on the streets. His poetry is starving him, and Vjiay grows ever more bitter, showing up at a school reunion to sing a dark song about failure, which includes the lines: “I confess I have been crushed by life’s sorrows.” The indignities pile up until Vijay would rather disappear than endure another day as himself.
Dutt was an enigmatic, quiet personality, and something of a perfectionist on the set, reportedly trashing two-to-three reels of footage that were already edited, re-casting some parts, and starting over from scratch. Character actor Mehmood recalled how many reshoots Dutt insisted on, “when he himself was acting, he would shoot take after take. He should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for giving retakes.” This was not just some vanity move, however. Dutt was trying to nail down certain moods for each sequence, and his patience gives the film its melancholic pull. Waheeda Rehman explains the reasons for the retakes: “He would not okay a shot if just one actor got it right, he’d make sure we all performed to his satisfaction. If we didn’t understand something, he would enact the whole scene. Because he understood rhythm and music and he understood the film medium very well, he knew how to get us to act in the right way.”
DP V.K. Murthy, who would execute Dutt’s vision on the set, told Nasreen Munni Kabir (for Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema) that, “It’s the Indian method of working. We constructed the sets all right, but we conceived the shot on the set.” These are remarkable improvisations which play with different POVs and registers. Waheeda Rehman plays the prostitute Gulabo, who falls for Vijay’s words before doing the same in person. The first time she meets him she is unaware of his identity, but she is still drunk on the power of his poems. So instead she treats him as a john in a bracingly erotic sequence. Rehman follows him through a park, her eyes greedily devouring him in an invitation for her services, the camera following the direction of her gaze at Vijay’s quizzical visage. There are any number of heart-stopping sequences, including a shot inside a nightclub (with a baby crying in the back) where tears run down the camera lens. This is a deeply sad movie with a qualified happy ending, one not originally included. Guru Dutt’s brother Devi recalls: “The end of Pyaasa was changed. He changed the ending because of the way the distributors reacted. They felt the ending was too heavy. The financiers requested, ‘Why don’t you have a happy ending?’ It now has a sort of happier ending.”
That “sort of” is instructive, because Vijay’s character is so profoundly disillusioned in humanity that no ending to that film could feel truly “happy.” Instead, it ends now with something like an exile and identity wipe, anything to escape the grips of the family, friends and community that had driven him to thoughts of suicide. It isn’t explicit, but there is a languorously slow sequence of Vijay walking over a bridge and on to a train depot, both possible sites of self-annihilation. Eventually a train car does bear down on him, to catastrophic consequences. Vijay lives in a reduced state, a martyr to his art, and he departs “to a place from where he shall not need to go any further.”
Pyaasa was a massive success, and one that Dutt could never replicate. He wrote about his creative isolation in an article entitled “Classics and Cash”: “In the formula-ridden film world of ours one who ventures to go off the beaten track is condemned with the definition which Matthew Arnold used for Shelley: ‘an angel beating wings in a void.’” Dutt would continue to produce and act, but would only direct one more feature. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), the first Indian film shot on CinemaScope, was his A Star is Born, a gorgeously doomed tale of an actress’s rise and her director’s fall. It ends with Guru Dutt dead in his director’s chair. He would overdose on sleeping pills five years later.