Even if you win this world, what is it worth?Made in 1957, Guru Dutt’s ‘Pyaasa’ has bold portrayal of society, soulful dialogues and lots of poetry.
In the spotlight of this timeless classic is a struggling poet who carries his handwritten poetry collections on a bundle of paper and wanders around looking for a breakthrough. Producer, director and actor Guru Dutt is so immersed in the movie’s story that it is nearly impossible to separate his character, Vijay, from Dutt. The worn-out clothes, the pitiful mannerisms, the pain clinging to his eyes and the heartfelt dialogues feel a bit too real in ‘Pyaasa’.
The narrative offers a glimpse into the director’s perspective, revealing his portrayal of a world rapidly urbanising and embracing capitalism, leaving no room for a sensitive poet who articulates themes of pain, separation, hunger and unemployment. An editor of a newspaper denies publishing his poems, stating that “poetry should be about flowers, wines and birds.” When Vijay asks the editor to return his poems, he finds them discarded in the dustbin. We see his intense love and passion for his work as he confronts the editor, exclaiming, “Who are you to throw my work into the dustbin?”
As Vijay wanders around the city with his poems and an empty pocket, his neighbours regard him with pity, discussing his once-promising future now marred by his choice to be a poet instead of a banker or a businessman.
One day, Vijay’s mother (Leela Mishra) finds him on the street. To avoid her seeing his condition, he attempts to run away. The close-up shot of her crying, “Vijay! Vijay!” and chasing after him is upsetting. Dutt’s exceptional use of lighting and camera angle vividly captures the mother’s desperation. She brings him home, only to discover that his two elder brothers had sold his poems to a scrap shop.
Later, he encounters Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute fond of poetry. While visiting the scrap shop, she comes across Vijay’s poem and buys it. One night, as Vijay tries to sleep on a bench by the riverside, he hears Gulabo humming his poetry. He watches her in awe, captivated by her and decides to follow her. When Gulabo realises she’s singing Vijay’s words, she proudly tells her friend, “He is a shayar (poet),” in contrast to others who dismissed him as a poor man unable to stand on his feet. “The same poet whose poems I bought as waste paper,” she adds.
Dutt shows that a writer’s work is only celebrated if they can find the right audience. The people around Vijay didn’t appreciate his craft, deeming him a man who doesn’t earn much and a failure. Society tends to value status over passion. The word ‘poet’ spoken by others and the same word spoken by Gulabo held a significant difference. She expressed it with passion, care, and love.
The story takes an interesting turn when Meena Ghosh (Mala Sinha) steps out of her luxury car and walks past a sleep-deprived, frail-looking Vijay. He observes her closely, and the camera shifts, taking us back to a time when these two were lovers. It’s a refreshing sight to recall how Vijay used his poetry to woo Ghosh, the new girl, during their college days.
Meena had broken Vijay’s heart to marry a wealthy publisher, Ghosh Babu (Rehman Khan). The sudden reappearance of his former lover adds to Vijay’s existing misery. Their eyes meet at a college reunion, attended by Ghosh Babu as well. When Vijay takes the stage to recite his poem, Ghosh Babu invites him to his office—not to publish his work or question him as his wife’s former lover, but to offer him a job as an assistant.
Vijay, facing a bleak future, accepts the job, still not finding the breakthrough to publish his works. The issue of favouritism arises as the publisher declines the work of a newcomer without even reviewing it. This sheds light on the challenges new writers face in finding a voice. Having a strong passion and the ability to craft words is not enough—it’s never enough.
The dilemma faced by Meena, though intense, is shown in a way that can be understood. She is not a villain, nor is she ‘the other woman’. She is just a wife who, at one point, had to make a tough decision. She chose the security of her life over the passion of her love. When Vijay confronts her by saying, “You sold my love for all this money,” she reminds him of his situation and immense poverty. She uses his lack of responsibility and seriousness towards life in her defense. He responds by saying that once she left, he didn’t have a reason to be responsible and serious about life.
When Vijay, in an attempt to storm out of the room, opens the door, Ghosh Babu is standing there—almost as a jumpscare. The situation escalates as he slaps his wife and dismisses Vijay from the job.
Upon watching the movie for the third time, I noticed a pattern of release of tension. Every emotionally heavy scene is followed by a lighthearted moment or a beautiful song. Dutt aimed to keep the audience on edge, maintaining a sense of suspense. One song that always stays in my mind is ‘Jane Woh Kaise Log They’, sung by Hemant Kumar, which explores themes of unfulfilled love, separation and heartbreak.
Dutt reaches the pinnacle of his storytelling prowess when, towards the end, he satirises humanity for their greed and hunger for more. Vijay’s sentiment towards people who salivate at money and lose sight of what’s important in life is powerfully presented. In the final moments, standing tall despite the hammering he’s received from society, he sings, “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh,” (Even if you attain this world, what is it worth?) This, for me, stands as the most powerful moment in the movie, conveying the central message of the entire story. In 1957, Dutt depicted what humanity and society had become, and the enduring love for this film today stems from the fact that society hasn't changed at all.
Director: Guru Dutt
Cast: Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Mala Sinha
Duration: 2 hours 22 minutes
Available on: YouTube