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The golden age of Indian cinema: Pyaasa (1957)

Pyaasa (1957)

The film from the golden age of Indian cinema

Just like Hollywood, India also had a golden age of cinema in the 1950s. The country's independence from Britain sparked a blossoming of amazing creativity. Pyaasa is arguably the most romantic film in this proliferation of filmmaking. It has it all - poetry, love, music, tragedy, betrayal, greed, avarice, hypocrisy, pain - but most of all, it has hope.

Pyaasa, or प्यासा, means "Eternal Thirst" in English. It's considered a classic Bollywood film and is one of TIME magazine's top 100 movies of all time - up there with Casablanca, The Godfather and King Kong.


Director: Guru Dutt
Actors: Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman
This movie has characters similar to the film Moulin Rouge - the idealistic poet, the beautiful courtesan, and the rich evil man who gets in the way. Vijay is a struggling poet whose works aren't taken seriously by publishers or even by his family. His brothers even sell his poems (nazms) to a newspaper and waste dealer (raddiwala). He eventually meets and falls in love with a prostitute with a heart of gold named Gulabo.

But it's not one big happy ending - he also runs into an ex-girlfriend named Meena and her hot-shot publisher husband, Mr. Ghosh. Her suspicious husband hires Vijay and subsequently fires him. Mr. Ghosh ends up publishing a book of his poems, however, when he mistakes a beggar who is killed by a train, whom Vijay gave his coat to, as Vijay himself.

When Vijay tries to prove that he's the "dead poet" and in fact alive, no one is on his side, not even his cruel brothers. They send him to a mental asylumn. He escapes and ironically, attends his own death anniversary gathering. Now disillusioned, he sets off with his love Gulabo in order to find happiness, love and inner peace.

Storytelling Elements

The Quest for Happiness and Goodness
We see that many characters aren't as they seem. The prostitute, Gulabo, is in fact a more moral person than other characters in the film, despite her occupation. Vijay simply wants to be happy. This is in stark contrast to Mr. Ghosh, who hires Vijay.

Vijay, as a servant at Mr. Ghosh's party, recites the matla, the first sentence of the poem. He is ridiculed a bit for being a poet as well as a servant. One man says "shaairi sirf daulatmandon ki jaageer nahin", meaning poetry is not merely the territory of the wealthy. Vijay begins to sing the beautiful poem as a song:

The song conveys his loneliness and the search for happiness and love after heartbreak. At the end of the movie, after the rest of society casts him aside as a nobody and as a phony pretending to be a dead poet, he leaves with Gulabo in order to start a new life - hopefully the kind of life he was singing about in his poems.

The quest for power and the need for materialism
"Apne shauk ke liye pyaar karti hai aur apne aaram ke liye pyar bechti hai."
"For the sake of her hobby she gives her love, and for the sake of her comfort she sells her love."
- Vijay referring to his ex-girlfriend Meena's marriage to the rich Mr. Ghosh

This movie is quite similar to Citizen Kane. It shows the madness that can conspire from greed and materialism. Like Citizen Kane, it also uses dramatic lighting to create contrast and shadows, evoking a dramatic atmosphere. There is one scene where the mean, rich publisher Mr. Ghosh and his wife Meena are at the breakfast table, with Meena holding an issue of Life magazine with a crucified Christ on the cover. This is definitely a tribute to a famous scene in Citizen Kane where Mr. and Mrs. Kane are at the breakfast table, and Mrs. Kane is shown reading a copy of her husband's rival newspaper.

The Image of Christ
As mentioned, Meena is seen holding a magazine with the crucified Christ on the cover. It's interesting that this movie would contain references to the Bible, showing the influence of world cinema on director Guru Dutt. When Vijay is "resurrected" and wants to prove that he wasn't really killed, he enters the scene in a Christ crucifixion-like stance as seen below:

Photo 22463

Notice the white lighting from the back creating a silhouette for Vijay. This is a great cinematic technique!

Ranks in Society
Interestingly, this movie depicts the prostitutes in a more favourable light than the high society girls. The downtrodden women represent those in society simply trying to make a living for themselves and to care for the children. These women, in turn, are abused and demeaned by their husbands. The society woman, Meena, is a juxtaposition or foil character to prostitutes like Gulabo - manipulative, selfish and materialistic.

Lyric Translation

There are many beautiful and tragic songs in this movie. The lyrics for the song in the video above, Jaane Woh Kaise Log, are provided below in Hindi and English:


Jaane woh kaise, log the jin ke,
Pyaar ko pyaar mila.
Hum ne to jab kaliyaan maangeen,
Kaanton ka haar mila.

Khushiyon ki manzil dhoondi to,
Gham ki dard mili.
Chaahat ke naghmein chaahe to,
Aahein sard mileen.
Dil ke bojh ko dhundhla kar gaya,
Jo gham-khwaar milaa.

Bichard gaya har saathi de kar
Pal do pal ka saath.
Kis ko fursat hai jo thaame,
Deewaanon ka haath?
Hum ko apna saaya tak aksar be zaar mila.

Is ko hi jeena kehte hain to,
Yunhi jee lenge.
Uff na karenge lab si lenge,
Aansoon pi lenge.
Gham se ab grabraana kaisa,
Gham sau baar mila.

Hum ne to jab kaliyaan maangeen…


Wonder how those people were
Whose love earned love.
When I asked for (flower) buds,
I earned a crown of thorns.

Upon searching for the destination of happiness,
I discovered the pain of sorrow.
When I desired songs of love,
I earned cold sighs.
The heavy heart was clouded
when I met another sorrowful.

Every companion was lost after sharing
Companion for just a moment.
Who has the leisure to deal with
the hand of a lunatic?
Even I often found my shadow helpless.

If this is what living is, then
I will live like this.
I won't complain, I shall seal my lips
and swallow my tears.
Why fear sorrow now, since
I have earned it so often?

When I asked for flower buds…

Pyaansa is a beautiful film - I would highly recommend it if you enjoy watching old films, foreign films, or just enjoy film studies in general. Director Guru Dutt's brilliant "picturization" seamlessy combined music, lyrics, rhythmic editing, lighting and camera movement to create a magical narrative. The universal themes of love, pain, greed and hope will surely inspire you!

References/Images: UIowa, The Bollwood Fan, Time, Wikipedia

  1. MayMay saidThu, 11 Dec 2008 20:25:42 -0000 ( Link )

    Thanks for the movie suggestion, Tiffany! I’m a sucker for lovey-dovey films, and this sounds like a classic. Pyaansa will definitely be my next rental!

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  2. lucyinthesky saidThu, 11 Dec 2008 20:29:15 -0000 ( Link )

    Thanks, May. I love black and white films, foreign films and musicals, so naturally Pyaansa’s the perfect film for me. It’s interesting the influence that filmmakers have on each other…I suppose this is how the spread of ideas move. It’s so fascinating.

    Hopefully this lesson didn’t butcher the translation from Hindu to English!

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  3. lucyinthesky saidFri, 12 Dec 2008 21:58:00 -0000 ( Link )

    My bad, typo – I shall correct it accordingly. Thanks, avicster! I will also try and check Guru Dutt’s other movies out.

    The sort of idealism, romanticism and poetic bohemian spirit of Pyaasa sort of reminded me of Moulin Rouge. Even in Moulin Rouge, there are various elements of Indian culture in there – including the play within the movie of the “penniless sitar player” and the “maharajah”.

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