On days you feel like lamenting about all the ways this consumerist society has crushed your ambitions and your spirit, Pyaasa is the film to watch. It is, in a way, the spokesperson for all those idealists who were forced to give up on their dreams by a society that churns out money-making machines day in and day out. Here, there is no space for warmth, or compassion or sensitivity. In fact, the more calculative and cold-hearted you are, the sooner you find acceptance.
Pyaasa tells us the story of Vijay, played by Guru Dutt, who is also the director of the film. Vijay is a disillusioned young poet, whose genius has gotten lost in the inescapable frenzy of this materialistic world. It is a world where no one sees you as a person who deserves respect and kindness, unless you have something which they can use as a ladder to step up in life. And yet Vijay writes fervently, hoping that someday his writings would get published and that they would help in waking up the society from its deep ignorant slumber and infuse some humanity within. Towards the end, however, we see him losing that hope.
After 65 years of its release, Pyaasa happens to be more relevant than ever. After all, there has hardly ever been a more realistic representation of societal double standards and hypocrisy in Bollywood. It makes us realise that society has mostly changed on the surface level, it's painfully still the same, or perhaps even worse.
In Pyaasa's songs, written by the great Urdu Poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, you can feel the disillusionment and despondency experienced by Vijay. Whether it's the stark depiction of the red light areas in "Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai" or the soul-wrenching "Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai", they hold a mirror to the insubstantial life we are living, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. They talk about a purposeless world, where people don't feel anymore, don't love anymore, don't empathise anymore. All they do is live a meaningless existence, which is of no use to themselves or anyone else.
The women in Pyaasa also help in bringing out the duplicity of the world we are living in. On one hand, we have the beautiful but self-centered, Meena played by Mala Sinha, who left Vijay for a wealthy publisher. At one point in the film, she tells Vijay that love is not enough for a woman; she needs money, comfort and social status and there is nothing wrong with it. She is not very likeable, but not a negative character either. What she does in the film is portray the general conditioning of women over the years, where instead of making them realise their own potential, they are taught to choose a wealthy man in order to be considered successful in this society.
On the other hand, we have the 'heart of gold' prostitute Gulabo, played by the luminous Waheeda Rehman, who loves Vijay and his poetry selflessly. Coming from a not-so-privileged background, unlike Meena, life taught her how all a person needs to live and love is respect and empathy, both of which she gets in abundance from her relationship with Vijay. The irony is that we live in a society where someone like Meena, even though she left her lover for a wealthy man, has a lot more respect than someone like Gulabo, who gave away all her savings to get Vijay's poems published. Again, the film makes you realise how unfair the world we are living in is.
Pyaasa is known for its use of lighting and shadows, which was way ahead of its time. The way the scenes have been lit, especially in the close-ups, develops a sense of intimacy within the audience with the characters. We get to see their vulnerabilities from so close that sometimes we see ourselves in them. They don't just remain characters for us anymore, they become real people. The Christ-like silhouette of Vijay that appears before the song, "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai" is another reminder of how a good person has to suffer for as long as they live.
Throughout the film, Vijay remains the most honourable character, yet he suffers the most. He suffers because he feels, he cares. He expects good from people, perhaps just a bit of humanity and is disappointed every time. When Mala Sinha's character in the end tries to make him understand what he was losing by giving up on this world, he has had enough. His reply to her would melt the hardest of hearts as every word that came out of his mouth was as true as truth could be.