Friday, April 08, 2022

Pyaasa (Thirst, Guru Dutt, 1957)

Messiah complex

Film critic Pauline Kael once said: "Ray is the only Indian director; he is as yet, in a class by himself." She adds: "The Indian film industry is so throughly corrupt that Ray could start fresh, as if it did not exist." 

A startling statement, if one considers fellow Bengalis Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen; or more classical filmmakers like Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt; or (more recently) Mani Ratnam, Shekar Kapur, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishna-- I could go on. Yes Indian cinema may be corrupt (but what cinema isn't?); it's also a treasure cave of jewels, of a variety and beauty Kael can't possibly imagine.

Take Dutt, whose best-known work Pyaasa  (Thirst 1957) introduces us to hard-luck poet Vijay (Dutt). 'Struggle' doesn't even begin to describe his life: his brothers sell his poems as wastepaper because he's a jobless bum; wandering the streets he runs into former high school sweetheart Meena (Mala Sinha), who's married to rich publisher Mr. Gosh (Rehman); Gosh in turn hires Vijay, then fires him when he's caught alone with Meena. Everyone looks down on Vijay, everyone thinks he's a loser save for Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) who's a prostitute. Then Vijay walks into the path of an oncoming train--

Pyaasa is pure bathos, a masochistic melodrama predicated on the idea that we take the sufferings of this sensitive young artist seriously. What gives the game away (aside from Vijay's homelessness, stubborn sense of integrity, involvement with two beautiful women) is when the now-famous poet appears at an auditorium entrance transfixed by streaming light, his arms stretched out either side in cruciform pose. It may take an egotist to think he can be a lead romantic actor and a bigger egotist to think he can be a filmmaker; how big must an egotist be to think himself lead filmmaker and messiah?

What saves Casablanca from being hopeless camp are Max Steiner's score, Michael Curtiz's camera, and Bogart and Bergman's utterly committed performances-- a line like "Kiss me. Kiss me as if for the last time!" should inspire laughter till you catch sight of Bergman's suffering face and the laughter dies in your throat. Pyaasa has a similar transformative magic-- material so hilarious you should be doubled over except SD Burman's music has a melancholic lilt and Waheeda Rehman's sidelong glances have an irresistible pull and Dutt's swooping camera sends chills up your spine (think Curtiz set to playback music).

When Vijay sings ("Who are the fortunate ones who love and are loved in return?") the camera backs away as if in awe of his words (by poet Sahir Ludhianvi) then rushes towards Meena, suggesting both the song's impact and the social gulf separating the two (think of a class-conscious Spielberg set to playback music). Later Vijay stands brooding on a balcony while Gulab watches from behind; the sequence where she sings, sidling up to and shrinking away from the object of her desire, is as skillfully shot and edited a suspense setpiece (Will she leave him? Hug him? Stab him in the back?) as in any noir. The climax in Vijay's fateful auditorium as he sings of disillusionment ("This world of palaces, of thrones, of crowns") is a thrilling piece of moviemaking, with the crowd rising up in astonishment, then furious riot ("Burn it! Blow this world away!"-- think Abel Gance's Napoleon set to playback music).

Dutt has a Midas' touch: all he touches turns to gold. He takes a scene like Vijay's masseuse friend Abdul (the inimitable Johnny Walker) looking for customers in a park and creates a comic gem of a solo-- with Walker's elbows akimbo and his massage oil in a pair of cruets, he looks prepared to turn his customer's hair into tossed salad. Dutt takes a whorehouse visit, where a prostitute is forced to entertain despite the wails of her sick child, and turns Vijay's sung response ("These lanes, these houses of pleasure") into a genuine cry of disgust (for once no narcissism, the outrage directed entirely at Dutt's own sex). The noirish angles and lighting; the gritty, near-documentary imagery (the railroad yard, the waterfront), the occasional deadpan in-jokes (Meena reading an issue of Life magazine with Christ on its front cover) can only suggest the range of Dutt's effects.

Dutt in a way resembles another master of visual bombast, Orson Welles-- like Welles he's a liberal and humanist; like Welles if you scratch the surface you're likelier to find emotional cliches than a coherent political philosophy. Like Welles, Dutt cares about the poor and downtrodden, but in a way that feeds his personal demons (he's on their side because he likes the rush he feels being on their side). What makes his and Welles' films profound aren't the liberal sentiments but the obsessions eating away inside-- in Welles' case, his fascination with death and decay, in Dutt's case his hatred of the world's hypocrisy. I submit that's why Dutt's (and Welles') visual style is so expressive-- he's not just covering up political shallowness but a knot of emotions he'd rather not reveal (yet is too great an artist not to).

And we're not even enjoying all the film has to offer, I suspect. The subtitles are serviceable (better in the restored version), but if you ignore the translation and focus on the dialogue being spoken (or sung)-- if you listen to the rhythms, the sounds and aural concordances-- you suspect that the lyrics are as rich in rhyme and meter, as steeped in romance and gothic doom as, say, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Think, in short, of Poe set to playback music.

Could the film be better without Dutt's narcissism? Not sure. Aside from my suspicion that Dutt's ego fuels his intensity, I submit that his self-regard performs a crucial function (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film): where the first half is the more conventional story of a starving (if somewhat self-regarding) artist, the second half balloons into a fantasy of said artist witnessing his own funeral-- how would others praise his works, how would former lovers regret his passing? But this particular fantasy bares nightmare fangs, as family and friends realize the poet is far more profitable dead, and conspire to keep him that way. So: having had an epiphany that strips the poet of everything-- you see clothing literally being torn from his back--  he denounces everything, abandons fame and fortune, invites only Gulabo to come along ("I'm going away" "Where?" "To a place from where I shall not have to go any further"). What does he mean--  some faraway small town from where he can work in peace, or a double suicide? Does he intend to achieve the narcissist's ultimate goal or true transcendence-- if we can ever agree on what transcendence might look like? Dutt called the ending his concession to the producers but I don't know; the ambiguity of the moment roils as thickly as the fog the lovers walk into, hand in hand. 

Casablanca is a dinky little melodrama set in a studio-bound Northwest Africa, where the problems of three people amount to little more than a hill of beans in this crazy world. Pyaasa is a dinky little melodrama set in contemporary Calcutta (partly shot in actual locations) where the problems of this crazy world become one person's hill of beans-- which he duly shoves aside. A great film? I think so.

First published in Businessworld 6.7.02

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