Friday, November 13, 2009

Pyaasa ( thirsty one ) 1959

Director: Guru Dutt;  Hindi, 141 minutes

Yeh ujle darichon mein payal ki chan chan
Thaki haari sanson pe table ki dhan dhan
Yeh berooh kamron mein khansi ki than than...

These lines by Sahir Ludhianvi, one of the authentic poetic voices of renascent India, best expresses the mood. This film owes as much to lyricist Sahir as to the director hero.

It is a landmark in Hindi film. Rated among the top 100 films in a survey by Time, afficianados of Bollywood swear by it and one exposes oneself to indignation and contempt, if one were to raise doubts. It is a film that has become an institution.

One must select the right yardstick. Guru Dutt is not Ray. Lacking the aesthetic sensiblities of Ray he is the common man's  elitism. For that matter Ray is little known outside his home state. But Guru Dutt made a film that has touched a chord in many generations, as it did mine again today. Like Sahir Ludhianvi and many others of that generation, Guru Dutt must have seen the answer to the sufferings of people, which were primarily economic in origin, in the example of the perceived Soviet miracle.

The plot. Vijay ( Guru Dutt ) is a lovesick young poet who is entangled with two women, his ex college mate Meena (Mala Sinha ) and a good hearted call girl Gulabo ( Waheeda Rehman ) . Meena eventually marries a publisher. We see him struggle for recognition, get cheated by relatives, lose his mother...

If you want to pick potholes in the plot, there is no dearth. The movie is primitive in it's construction. It is full of  melodrama and self glorification. But it has the power of a vision struggling to find expression. It is authentic. Everything else should be forgiven.

It is perhaps the director playing himself in Vijay--an alienated young poet, unwilling to adjust in imperfect society, compassionately observing the sufferings and injustices he finds around him. It is a spillover from the fervour and zeal of the independance struggle, now seeking new enemies in the social distortions. It is the revolutionary temperament in-embryo.

One of the powers of the film is  the lean and lanky Johnny Walker, the yet unbeaten arch-comedian of Hindi cinema, enacting the tel maalish wala or oil-massage man. His body seems to be made of plastic and his limbs revolve around the rest of him like a catherine wheel. He puts every nerve and fibre into his acting . He is not one of your dead-pan comedians. His face has a million muscles and they are all moving. He is an expressive whorl of motion gathering power from an inner spring.  When he speaks he pulls all his vocal chords to convey the love and good nature and desire to make people happy which is his centre as it was Chaplin's. And there is a profound sadness which echoes Guru Dutt's own, accounting for the rapport they had in real life too. ( He was Dutt's discovery.)

In fact all the characters--Tun Tun the comedienne, Rehman as the villainous publisher, and a host of others--enact within the safety zone of their much loved stereotypes, repeating themselves while remaining fresh, again like the Tramp. Mehmood, who was later to forge his own brand of comedy, is seen here as a villainous brother-in-law.

The film pantheon in those days was very much a small closed circle and actors tended to play variations on familiar themes. They were usually playing themselves. The audience would start tittering as soon as Johnny Walker appeared and gave any reason to provoke that reaction. That is what they wanted and had payed for and what the imperative of economics of the industry, the money and risks involved, dictated. Guru Dutt himself falls in this category. Along with Dilip Kumar he is the eternal love sick boy just as Dev Anand is the happy go lucky modern type. They all had their oft imitated or parodied trademark mannerisms.


Ronak M Soni said...

I watched this movie because I stumbled on the fact that Gulaal (the songs of which I linked to in your post on Awaara) was inspired by the climactic song 'Duniyaa' (which you quoted in your reply).

I, too, really love the music in this movie. I was honestly surprised that pure recitation could be so effective. My favourite song is Waheeda Rehman's introduction, mainly because of her face, and the expressions on it.

I remember telling my friend about the movie:"An important character is being beaten up by a mob. Another one wants to save him. Guess the answer of one of India's greatest filmmakers to this problem."[I don't remember what he said, but he made me laugh]"The second guy fights his way into the centre, puts his arm around the first, and walks him out, while the mob is still beating up something at the old point."(it was considerably snappier when I said it.)

PS: Your review has reminded me to get down to that copy of Kaagaz ke Phool I had lying around. It's a pity I won't be home till December.

S. M. Rana said...

Bashing a point at the centre! How very apt a description, and one can find tons of that stuff unless you enter into the mood Tarantino-anything goes so long as it is good. Having been quite immersed in world cinema for a few years, it is nice for a change to be on this territory and I'm trying to cover my missing links like this one. I too have Kaagaz ke Phool lying around.