I had the good fortune to see the 1957 Indian film “Pyaasa” the other night. The film tells the story of a poet named Vijay (Guru Dutt) who finds it extremely difficult to get his poems published. A failed college love affair and the many years of frustration he encounters from publishers lead him to a life of hopeless drunkenness. Only the great love of a beautiful prostitute named Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) offers him the kind of redemption only a real artist craves — not fame and fortune but the satisfaction of charting a personal course through the fickleness of his worshiping but oddly fickle fans.
Guru Dutt, who directed the film, frames the faces of his cast in muted light. While the characters are constantly taking forceful actions, their faces mostly convey subtle changes. One exception, Johnny Walker, who plays a massage oil salesman named Abdul, uses his expressive face with the grandest of gestures to inject more than a little humor into this dark and serious tale. When Vijay goes far down the road to alcoholism, we also become aware of how trapped his former school sweetheart Meena (Mala Sinha) feels in her confining but opulent marriage to a jealous publisher named Mr. Ghosh (Rehman). We also feel the stigma and hopelessness of Gulabo, who’s trapped in a life of prostitution with no chance of gaining society’s approval.
Pyaasa, which means “thirst” in Hindi, uses lots of recited (or sung) poetry throughout its 146 minute length. Gulabo gets involved in the story when she reads some of Vijay’s poetry on some paper she buys from a waste paper dealer. The film maintains a thoroughly engaging romantic tension, mostly through the excellent acting of Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. It surprises me that Vijay’s family and friends have so little regard for his decision to become a poet. But their indifference, and in some cases, downright scorn, turns into the betrayal and manipulation that leads to a shocking climax to this wonderful film. When Vijay discovers that his poems have reached a wider audience, his small moment of triumph doesn’t lead to greater satisfaction until he reaches for success on his own terms.
The songs, with their romantic lyrics of longing and happiness, sound like Vijay’s poems. One tuneful exception, a funny romp sung by Johnny Walker about the joys of a good head message, seems completely out of place but nevertheless provides a good laugh.