The Liberating Songs of Pyaasa
Rachel Dwyer | 10 Aug, 2016
GURU DUTT’S CLASSIC Pyaasa (1957) was released ten years after Independence, and has now achieved classic status, one of the most discussed of all Hindi films. It was released the same year as Mehboob Khan’s famous Mother India, which is seen as a great nationalist epic, and BR Chopra’s Naya Daur, films which had overt political overtones connecting them to Nehruvian visions or Gandhian views.
Pyaasa does not directly engage with issues that are associated with Nehru and the post-colonial period. Set in Calcutta, it is a world of the salon and the poetry recital, of the street and the ordinary people, worlds which mostly passed each other by, but which come together through poetry and love, rather than through politics. Yet some of the film’s songs have a great political charge, through their ideas of humanity, decency and responsibility, rather than issues specific to the moment. Is this great film of the so-called Nehruvian period of cinema something more complex, and does it address a wider number of issues?
I look only at the songs here. Like millions of others, I love Hindi film songs. Some of my favourites are from this film, composed by SD Burman, with lyrics by Sahir. I love them for a host of reasons, academic and emotional, but here I try to give an idea of how they actually work in a text, leaving aside the issues of how they were created and inserted, or their musical qualities, and even a close reading of their lyrics.
The film opens with a close-up of a bee, which often represents a lover, thirsty (pyaasa) for nectar, crushed under foot, unnoticed. The hero of the film is a poet, Vijay (Guru Dutt), but his brothers believe poetry is not a proper job and eject him from the family home. He meets a streetwalker, Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), who sings his poems, which she understands and adores. The wealthy profit from the lyrics of others, so Vijay’s first love whom he wooed with poetry, Meena (Mala Sinha), left him to marry a wealthy publisher, Ghosh (Rehman). When Vijay is assumed to be dead, Ghosh publishes a book of Vijay’s poetry, which becomes a bestseller. Vijay turns up at the ‘memorial service’, where Ghosh and his friends claim he is an imposter and have him committed to an asylum. After Vijay escapes, he asks Gulabo to share her life with him.
Pyaasa’s songs have powerful lyrics, memorable melodies, excellent singing and skilfull picturisation which make us focus on emotion and the stars. However, one of the most striking features of the film is the prominence given to the lyrics and their poetry, which extend beyond the moment of the song itself to permeate the whole film.
The film is about a poet, who as the hero brings a focus on language and lyrics to the film. When he meets his streetwalker- lover, she is reciting his poetry, which forms the major among the several romantic connections between them. Vijay had wooed his former lover with poetry, even though her tearful behaviour when he sings sorrowful love songs shows that she is still in love with him. The publisher makes a living by selling the poetry of others, but seems devoid of passion and romance and dishonest if he sees his financial advantage. The romantic conclusion of the film shows pages of poetry swirl around the lovers, as the instrumental version of an earlier song plays, showing that love is really in the air, poetry written on paper.
The poetry, which features many times in mushaira (poetry gathering) style recitations, as well as in the lyrics, is one of the film’s great features, long overdue serious analysis. It is composed by Sahir Ludhianvi, the name of whose collected works’ volume, Parchhaiyan (‘Shadows’), is used as the title of Vijay’s book that Ghosh publishes. The movie is said to be based around the story of Sahir’s love for Amrita Pritam, the famous Hindi and Punjabi writer.
Sahir wrote in Urdu, widely used as the language of lyrics in Hindi films, even though the film is set in Calcutta, which is not a major centre of Urdu literature. The poets who gather at the mushaira at Ghosh’s house recite Urdu poetry before Vijay sings Jaane Woh Kaise, and, although Vijay’s lack of success is not surprising as Calcutta seems an unlikely location for an Urdu poet, it seems that Ghosh’s fortune is built on his success in publishing Urdu.
It is not entirely clear why the film is set in Calcutta, although it could be the story’s loose connection to Saratchandra’s story of Srikant, or even refer to his massively popular Devdas, or it could be to evoke the fading grandeur of the city where art is being replaced by materialism as magnificently depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (‘The Music Room’, 1958).
The big set piece of the film is Vijay’s appearance at what was intended as his memorial meeting where he denounces the world. The song has an extraordinary amount of Christian imagery
Vijay’s lyrics are of extreme romanticism. It is poetry of defeat and sorrow, which has long been popular in Urdu literature. Vijay is thrown out of the family home, and is angry about social injustice, but his sorrow is mostly centred around Meena. He seems more upset by the injustice of her abandoning him after he wrote poetry for her at college, while her tears as he sings Jaane Woh Kaise could be for him or for herself, as she has sold her heart, exchanging her love of poetry for her desire for a good life. Gulabo, who is also in love with Vijay because of his poetry, may sell her body but always guards her poetic heart.
The poet-lyricist Sahir and the music director SD Burman had such a falling out during the making of the film that they broke their partnership and never worked together again. It is popularly held that their conflict was over the comparative importance of lyric and song—which was more important and who was to be paid more— that brought this about. Given that poetry and lyrics have such massive importance in this film about poetry, poets and publishers, it is surprising that Guru Dutt chose to keep working with the music director rather than the lyricist, even though the music for the film is also outstanding. There are also many examples of poetry recited to music, rather than sung, in the film (including Phir na Kijiye, Jab Hum Chale, Rudade Ghamen Ulfat, Gham iss Kadar Badhe), as if the lyrics themselves were not poetry enough. These poems appear to fulfil part of the function of the song, a bridge between the world of poetry and of song. For example, Tang Aa Chale, in the subtitles of the Yash Raj edition of the DVD of Pyaasa:
I am weary of this troubled life, weary of this troubled existence.
In my grief, may I not reject the entire world?
How can I sing of joy if I live in pain?
I can only return to life what life itself offers me.
Once again the memories of love stir in my heart,
I confess, that I am overcome by life’s blows.
Today I break all belief, in the illusion of hope,
Today I vow to voice no complaint against anyone.
After the title track of upbeat orchestral music, the film opens with the recital of a poem, Yeh Hanste Hue Phool, which sets the scene for the viewer as Vijay, lying on the grass in a garden, admiring the beauty, sees a bee thirsty (pyaasa) for nectar, in a conventional image of the lover desiring beauty. Intoxicated by nectar, the bee is then crushed underfoot by a passerby. Vijay asks what he can add to this beauty and walks away, setting up some of the film’s key themes of what poetry can do in this world of beauty where love is not valued.
The second song begins with Vijay sitting on a bench, hearing one of his poems being recited. He sees the back of a woman’s head, covered with her sari, and as he interrupts her, she begins to sing Jaane Kya, moving as if choreographed though not actually dancing; there is a feel of dance as she darts around gracefully to music, which keeps a tight rhythm. The two are bound together as Vijay is spellbound by her repeated over-the-shoulder glances as much as by his curiosity to know why this streetwalker is singing his poems. The viewer is also entranced as shadow and light play across Waheeda Rehman’s extraordinarily beautiful face, with half- smiles and enticement, the most memorable sequences being her playing a game of hide-and-seek with Vijay, the camera and the audience, among the classical columns of Prinsep Ghat, as she then leads him across the city to her home.
The film has one song, Ho Laakh Museebat, which I had entirely forgotten, something of a dud song recalling happy old days, before moving to Sar Jo Tera Chakraaye, a massively popular song picturised on comedian Johnny Walker as the masseur Abdul Sattar. This presentation of the second street-dweller shows the joy and warmth in their lives which is lacking from that of the wealthy who inhabit their gloomy mansions. The song uses sound effects as comedy as well as the cry of street vendors ‘Maalish, tel maalish, champi’ (massage, oil massage, shampoo), which has become iconic, bringing together lyrics, music and images to entertain and amuse.
The next song, Hum Aapki Aankhon Mein, is a dream sequence after Vijay and Meena meet in a lift, going down, significantly. It is very different from the famous sequence in Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951) with the imagery of heaven and hell. Here Meena comes down a staircase into Vijay’s life—again a descent—but then goes back up at the end. The setting is not quite heaven, but somewhere furnished with wrought iron work and drapes, and Christmas tree ornaments bob around their heads, where they dance as dry ice swirls around their feet. The style seems very Hollywood as Vijay is dressed in a tuxedo while Meena is wearing what appears to be a mixture of a sari and an evening dress, but it could also signify the Westernised world in which Meena lives. Although the lyrics are charming, it is the visual aspect and the music of the song which linger; it is said to have been added as an ‘item’.
Music Director SD Burman and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi had such a falling out during Pyaasa that they never worked together again. It is believed that their conflict was over which was more important—lyric or song—and who was to be paid more
One of the classic songs of the film is Jaane Woh Kaise. As Urdu poets, dressed for the part, recite clichés in a roomful of literati, Vijay, in his shawl and dhoti, leans on the bookshelves and recites a line of his poem. When asked to continue, he pushes himself away from the books to move into his own kind of poetry. This is about not receiving love in his life and how he will carry on without it. The song, sung by Hemant Kumar, is picturised on Guru Dutt, with the camera tracking in and out from him as he moves around the room, with his looks at the camera. Ghosh’s looks at Meena show he realises that Meena and Vijay were once lovers. Meena pretends to carry on with organising dinner, while weeping, either for him or her herself, isolated in the rich trappings of her husband’s house. The visuals and the lyrics are offset by the very simple accompaniment of piano and flute and the song is perfectly composed for all functions, including narrative, music, lyrics and images.
The love of Gulabo for Vijay is set in a devotional context, Aaj Saajan Mohe Ang Laga Lo, whose words seem to me to resonate from a collection of bhajans, such as Mirabai’s address to Krishna as Giridhara which evokes an illicit love that breaks family traditions. Here it is sung in Calcutta in Hindi by Baul musicians, perhaps recalling SD Burman’s songs in Devdas (directed by Bimal Roy, 1955) where the Bauls’ songs express the feelings of Paro for Devdas and her love for him as divine. Although Gulabo does not lip-sync, its lyrics about longing for the touch of a physical form of God, whose embrace of His devotee will make her life worth living, resonate more deeply in that she is a woman whose body is sold to men for sexual pleasure.
The song’s expression of passion and desire as something spiritual as much as of the body, about touch and physicality as well as emotion, is something more than the love that Meena has to offer, her life and her body being given as a wife to a man she has chosen only for his wealth. As Vijay says: “Apne shauk ke liye pyaar karti hai aur apne aaraam ke liye pyaar bechti hai” (love for her is a hobby and she sells it for material comfort). The camera lingers on Gulabo’s face as she listens to the song, but she hesitates to approach Vijay, the song showing her desire which she cannot express. Again, the song fulfils a range of functions in the film as well as being a standalone beautiful song.
Sahir famously de-Persianised the language of his poem Chakle (‘Brothels’) for the song Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par. It is striking that this song about prostitution does not refer to Gulabo herself, who, though living in a fairly modest building, works on the street rather than in the brothels that are shown in the song’s picturisation. A drunk Vijay staggers through a red-light area that resounds with the tablas of kothas, before the music changes to a close-up showing him swaying, touching his face with a glass of iced liquid as he dreamily begins the song, breaking his reverie to ask where the people are who are proud of India. His reaction to the corruption and degradation around him is moral disgust rather than political; he shows his romantic, ineffectual response to the world that surrounds him by producing beautiful lyrics, the problem that he set himself in the first poem of the film,Yeh Hanste Hue Phool.
FINALLY, THE BIG set piece of the film is Vijay’s appearance at what was intended as his memorial meeting where he denounces the world. The song has an extraordinary amount of Christian imagery. In Jaane Woh Kaise, the poet is given a crown of thorns, a kaaton ka haar, literally a ‘necklace of thorns’ (Matthew 27:29: ‘And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!’). In Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye, the chorus is a translation of Matthew 16.26: ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’
Meena reads the tellingly named Life magazine which has an image of Christ on the cover, and when Vijay has vanished for three days, he seems to be resurrected. He finds his brothers disown him as Peter denies Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75), and he appears at his ‘memorial’ where he stands backlit in the door like Christ by the empty tomb. The extraordinary performance of the song and the desire to burn the world is also Biblical:
Jalaa doh issey, phoonk daalo yeh duniya
Mere saamne se hata lo yeh duniya
Tumhari hai tum hi sambhalo yeh duniya
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai
Matthew 3.12: ‘he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire…’
The use of the film song in the film to fulfil many functions is seen also at the end of Pyaasa. An instrumental version of the Aaj Saajan is reprised at the end when Vijay comes to take her away. The words are not sung, but pages of poems whirl through the air. The song leaves Meena and Ghosh to their rich but unhappy marriage while pulling together the differences of the film—the Muslim pavement-dweller, the Hindu Urdu poet, the imagery of progressive Marxist poetry with Hindu devotionalism and Christian ideas of suffering and forgiveness in a final expression of love as offering hope of redemption and happiness.
The remarks above offer only a brief look at these songs. The film’s complex ideological position and its savage criticism of the absence of key human values—love, poetry and beauty—in an India of which no one can be proud, is no happy or easy celebration of the first ten years of Independence. These values are framed by a religious component which imbues them with mystical significance and aura to add a dimension beyond the worldly. This is partly perhaps why we love them so much 60 years later. Social realism and politics are subordinate to this exquisite celebration of the everyday beauty in the life of the ordinary person, something to help us survive and find value in difficult times.