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Frames per second: What 'Pyaasa' tells us about the value of poetry

The Guru Dutt film, released 60 years ago, is an apt example of use of poetry, money and nationalism on the silver screen

Nationalism In Pyaasa

Uttaran Das Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Pyaasa, Guru Dutt, Nargis, Wahida Rehman

In a bid to instil patriotism among students, the Madhya Pradesh government has decided that school students will now respond to roll call in class, not with the universally accepted “present”, but with “Jai Hind!” The Hindustan Times quoted Vijay Shah, the school education minister: “Jai Hind is acceptable to students of all religions so I have decided to introduce it. We just want to keep our culture alive which our young generation is forgetting.” While the inspiration for such a move is unexceptionable, one wonders if merely chanting the name of the nation will inspire nationalism.

This Wednesday, DT Cinema in Delhi screened Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. I have always wanted to watch this film, arguably my favourite, on the big screen, but was unable to this time for some reason or the other. So, on Thursday morning, which was also Hindi Divas, I began watching it on my laptop. About halfway through the movie, the oversensitive Vijay (Dutt), drunk, sings: “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kaha hai? (Those who are proud of Hind, where are they?)” Released in 1957, barely 10 years after Independence, this film — and this song, in particular — is possibly one of most stringent critiques of the nation.

Sung by Mohammed Rafi, it ends with the stanza: “Zara is mulk ke rahabaro ko bulao, / Ye kuche ye galiya ye mazare dikao/ Jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kaha hai (Get the leaders of this nation, show them these lanes, this house...)” Dutt had wanted to shoot the scene on location at Sonagachi, the famous red light district of Calcutta (now Kolkata), but his team was chased away by pimps. His character in the film, the poet Vijay, rejected by life and love, gets drunk at a brothel, in a bid to forget his pain, but is moved to sing on seeing the sex worker forced to entertain her client even as her sick child cries inside.

By 1957, the shine and hopes of newly independent India had started to fade. During the first Five-Year Plan (1951-1956), India’s gross domestic product (GDP) had grown by 3.5 per cent. With good rains and good crops, per capita income went up by 8 per cent. In the general elections, the Congress under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru returned to power with more seats and higher vote percentage. The Second Plan (1957-1961), drafted by statistician P C Mahalanobis, aimed for swift industrialisation. The cracks were, however, already becoming evident: By the Sixties, GDP growth would fall to 2.4 per cent, and the war with China would expose India’s economic and political vulnerability.

In a strange appraisal of the film, Mukul Kesavan writes (in “An Actor of Genius”, The Telegraph, July 26, 2012): “The attraction of the Vijay character to a movie-going public is, paradoxically, that he is an infantilised man who can’t make ends meet or feed himself, but who believes the world owes him a living. It is hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for his brothers when they reproach their mother for feeding him off their hard-earned money. It may not have been the most fraternal thing to have said but you can’t help wondering why this well-fed, not particularly young man is still living off furtive handouts from his mother.” There is no greater misreading of this film.

Neither is Vijay infantilised nor does he believe the world owes him anything. It is easy to say, why doesn’t he get a job? But, unfortunately, it is not easy to get a job then — or now. Almost at the beginning of the film, an editor of a magazine rejects his ghazals because they are not about traditional subjects such as flowers and birds, but about poverty and unemployment. Thrown out of his house by his brothers — who will have no hesitation in claiming royalties for his poems once he becomes famous — Vijay, desperate to keep his body and soul together, tries to earn a few paisa as a coolie at New Market.

In a brilliant cameo, Bengali actor Tulsi Chakraborty (who would perform his career-defining role in Satyajit Ray Parash Pathar next year) hires him to carry his load and pays him with a coin. Later, when Vijay tries to pay for food with the same coin, he finds he has been cheated — the coin is a counterfeit. Later, when Vijay gets a job as an editorial assistant with Ghosh’s (Rehman) publishing company, he is called to his employer’s home to serve drinks to guests. At one level, this is an expression of Ghosh’s jealous for his wife, Meena’s (Mala Sinha), college paramour. But can you think of the owner of a company asking his employees to perform such tasks at his home now? Ghosh rejects his ghazals nonchalantly because Vijay is not famous, but has no hesitation is publishing them later, when he realises the book can be a bestseller.

Sahir Ludhianvi, who wrote the lyrics for the film’s songs, would have known a thing or two about the value of poetry in the market. According some sources, the lyrics of Pyaasa’s songs became so popular that music director S D Burman refused to work with Ludhianvi in future projects. A proud man himself, Ludhianvi insisted on music directors setting his words to music than the other way round, as was and continues to be common in Bollywood. He also demanded that while playing his songs, All India Radio mentioned him, along with the singer and the music director. Unlike Vijay, Ludhianvi knew how to negotiate the cut-throat world of Hindi cinema; he was best friends with Yash Chopra, and wrote a ghazal on the latter’s wedding.

“Poetry may lie at the centre of the plot, but Pyaasa’s driving theme is money. Whether it’s a poet or a sex worker, the world seems intent upon making them sell themselves,” writes Trisha Gupta in her blog chhotahazari. The poet Vijay identifies not with the rich publishers, the worldly-wise friends and brothers who would betray him at the drop of a hat, but with the prostitute Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) and telmalaashiwala Abdul Sattar (Johnny Walker). This underclass characters on the fringe are the ones who come to his aide: Sattar helps Vijay escape from the madhouse where he has been locked up; Gulabo pays for his food when he can’t, and gets his book of poems published, resurrecting him from obscurity. In this context, when a Christ-like Vijay challenges the world in “Ye duniyaaagar mil bhijaayetoh kya hai?” he is truly rejecting the world of commercial transactions.

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First Published: Fri, September 15 2017. 13:02 IST