Pyaasa, 65 Years Later: Breaking Down the Film’s Visual Storytelling and Striking Relevance

As India celebrates 75 years of Independence, it's essential to ask: how relevant are the questions that artists like Guru Dutt raised so many years ago?
Pyaasa, 65 Years Later: Breaking Down the Film’s Visual Storytelling and Striking Relevance

Guru Dutt's intense obsession with art and the unparalleled attempts at making films his way reaches its zenith in 1957's Pyaasa. I don't want to speak for the artist's personal life, but the filmmaker was known for reflecting on aspects of his life while finding an expression in them through the films he made. The poet in the film, Vijay, also serves a melodramatic function capable of articulating a growing disillusionment with post-independence India. It's kind of poetic how that very name somewhat two decades later would be associated with one of the biggest mainstream stars of Hindi cinema (Mr. Bachchan), who embodied the persona of the angry young man; something that totally contradicts what Guru Dutt's Vijay stood for.

Pyaasa is a story of artistic pursuit in an unwelcoming society, amidst the growing industrialization and urban disorganisation. It's about a struggling poet, Vijay, who squanders through the post-independence economy trying to gain a breakthrough for his works. The film's pessimistic outlook on the world of print and publishing indeed makes it an interesting allegory of mass culture. Its bleak treatment of its protagonist and the world around him was met with some harsh criticism even back in the day, as people seemed worried about how it would reflect upon the 'mood' of the nation.

As India completes 75 years of its independence, many people seem to be celebrating it by bowing down to the current regime's campaigns. All while the inflation and unemployment rates hit an all-time high, and the growing intolerance and indifference towards each other in the country seem to be inching higher with each passing day. Maybe it's safe to ask the question: how relevant are the questions that artists like Guru Dutt sought to ask 65 years ago? Let's break down some of the film's visual storytelling with this piece.

The film opens with a close-up of a bee, which often represents a lover, thirsty (pyaasa!) for nectar. Vijay, lying lazily on an open field next to a lotus pond, draws poetic inspiration from the bee. However, the sight is soon undercut by the accidental trampling of a bee. The camera cuts to a close-up of Vijay's face as he winces at the tragic fate of the oblivious bee. Through such a succession of point-of-view shots, the camera not only connects the poet's visual field with the spectator's, but also generates a sense of empathy for the loss of his object of poetry. "Hum ghamzada hain, laaye kahan se khushi ke geet?"

For the course of the rest of the film, there develops tactile anxiety and desire in the viewer to see the poet reunited with his work in its material form. There's the recurrent visual motif of stairs throughout the film, which foreshadows the impending doom and the fate of its protagonist. For instance, notice how for the very first time when he encounters Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), he follows her right up to a flight of stairs, not for any sexual needs, but because he's literally chasing after his art as he feels she might have the missing copy of his poems.

In one scene in the film, Mr. Ghosh (Rehman) notices his wife Seema (Mala Sinha) conferring with her ex-lover and angrily belittles her by comparing her to a wanton woman. Cut to the very next scene, Gulabo, a streetwalker who has a policeman on her heels, takes refuge in Vijay's arms. When the policeman wants to know her identity, he calls her his wife. By placing these scenes one after the other, Guru Dutt underlines the fact that a man's view of a woman is a mirror into his character — one man sees the woman as an object of vilification while another sees her as a fellow human being worthy of empathy.

After a homeless man wearing a coat Vijay gave to him is killed, Gulabo convinces a publisher to print his poems, believing Vijay to be dead. Notice how people just assumed that it was Vijay's body, just because of the coat that he had on. Without even putting it into evident dialogue, the film highlights how irrelevant the life of a homeless man can be. When in reality, it was that very man who had followed Vijay up to the railway tracks out of concern, as he did not seem to be emotionally okay and had thus saved Vijay's life. (We all remember the images of the migrant labourers during the lockdown and the indifference with which the media had reported the incident).

The poems have now become wildly popular, thanks to the myth conjured around Vijay's supposed death. Upon learning of this, Vijay escapes from the asylum and, ironically, attends his own death anniversary gathering. A disillusioned man, he lets his identity be known — only to deny it subsequently. Having seen the emotional grime behind the glory, he doesn't want to sully his soul with it. He enters the auditorium where people seem to be posthumously celebrating his art, his arrival underlined by the crucifixion-like pose that Guru Dutt strikes during the song "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai". Clouded in the shadow of a silhouette through brilliant use of backlighting, the scene opens up cinematic space and helps convey spatial, causal, and psychological relationships within the frame.

When Vijay unexpectedly announces in front of a large gathering of admirers that he is not their poet, the crowd breaks into madness creating chaos. The malcontent poet, once released into the cinematic force field of melodrama and allegory, becomes the very object of dangerous empathy. In the very next scene, a disbelieving Meena urges Vijay to think with his head instead of his heart and embrace success. Vijay, now appearing way smaller in his stature (contrasting his god-like arrival in the preceding scene), walks towards Meena with his half-torn clothes on, willingly abandoning all the status, amplifying the ironic significance of the supposed death of the artist. He later listens to his heart, and sets off on a journey to anonymity and, hopefully, accompanying inner peace, with Gulabo.

Guru Dutt understood the inherent power of music which formed a cathartic medium here. The compositions by SD Burman remain timeless. From a thematic point of view, the screenplay can be divided into three parts, where we first witness the death of an artist, the revival of his art and ultimately the resurrection of the artist himself. All these years later, Pyaasa remains a timeless gem, not just because of its complex (and timely) themes, but because of how it understood that melodrama and tragedy are at the heart of history. The world may claim to have changed drastically in 65 years and yet, it's eerily still the same.

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