The Modern Renunciate in Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa” (Thirsty)

“Birth is misery, old age is misery, and so are disease and death, and indeed, nothing but misery is Samsâra, in which men suffer distress.” -Mahavira, Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra, Lecture 19, Verse 15.

***SPOILER ALERT***

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Pyaasa movie poster depicting Vijay (Guru Dutt), and Gulabo (Waheeda Rahman) in the center, with Meena (Mala Sinha) looking on unhappily from the corner. This poster kind of gives away the resolution of the love triangle.
Image source: A Tangle of Wires

The full movie is available on Youtube. Click the “CC” button to access english subtitles.

This is probably the most beautiful, poetic Bollywood film I’ve seen to date. For what it’s worth, Time Magazine agrees that its one of the best in cinema history. You really should watch it for yourself, but not everyone has a 2 hour commitment. So just read the post instead. You’ll feel like you saw it. A small amount of summarization will be necessary here, but go to Wikipedia for an actual summary.

If you are just interested in the songs, they’ll be collected at the bottom of the article with the relevant Youtube links. (you might have to hit “Continue reading” if coming from the main page.)

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Waheeda Rahman being seductive in the song “Jaane Kya Tune Kahi.” 0:14:20

The Saraswati River Runs Dry: The film starts out in a metaphorical Garden of Eden, (or should I say the Saraswati valley?) Vijay is peacefully lying down next to a river in a garden, and celebrating the beauty of nature in song. Within the first minute, the dreamy mood is broken by an anonymous leather shoe, which crushes a bumblebee before Vijay’s eyes and shatters the serenity of the moment. As he exits the park, Vijay ends the song by rhetorically asking: “What little have I to add to this splendor, save a few tears, a few sighs?”

The Eden analogy is apt because never again (on the story’s timeline) does Vijay sing a happy word of poetry. From here on, the story inhabits the corrupt material realm of fallen man.

Socialist Pipe Dreams:

“We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell. The appointed day has come – the day appointed by destiny – and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent.”  –Jawaharlal Nehru in the speech “A Tryst with Destiny,” August 14 1947

Impressive words right? Nehru didn’t invent this ideology. He just voiced the common sentiment that independence would harken a glorious new era for India, in which political and social structures would be overhauled for the better. Here is another such quote by a prominent independence leader you might have heard of:

“In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. Everybody will be his own master. It is to join a struggle for such democracy that I invite you today. Once you realize this you will forget the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, and think of yourselves as Indians only, engaged in the common struggle for independence.” -Mahatma Gandhi from “Quit India speech”, August 8, 1942

The fantasy of being on the cusp of a socialist golden age was integral to Congress’ nationalist ideology. When the heralded changes never materialized, disenchantment, despair, and even disgust at the state of Indian society percolated through the national zeitgeist.

Instead of this idealized future, Vijay finds a society in which one’s humanity is only worth what it can fetch on the market. A society permeated by hypocrisy and cruelty,  These characteristics are not unique to India, but given the high hopes engendered by the independence movement it is easy to see why some Indians reacted with such despair in the 1950s. Nehruvian socialism failed in its promises, and left India to bear the unmitigated social and economic realities of developing world capitalism. I would argue to the contrary that it intensified the harshness of those realities, but that is a topic fit for another post.

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Actor and Director of the film, Guru Dutt looking angsty.
Despite the watermark, Image source: Bollywood Updates

Vijay the Marxist: More than anything else, the film’s social critique centers around the dehumanizing conditions of Indian “capitalism.” I refer to “capitalism” in quotations here, because India by no means had capitalism, as defenders of the free market would define it. Nehruvian socialism was quite distant from laissez-faire. The definition used here is the Marxist one: an economic system in which the means of production is owned privately rather than collectively, In the Marxist paradigm, capitalism leads to things like commodification, commodity fetishism, and the alienation of workers from their labor (and therefore from their humanity.)

(If on the main page, hit “Continue reading” to read more)

All of these symptoms of capitalism fall under Vijay’s criticism during the film. Vijay’s poems were worthless until they gained exchange-value and become commodities, because until then they weren’t reaping profits for the publishers (capitalists.) After they are published into a book, the public fetishizes them. The allure of cultural sophistication the book offers becomes more important than the meaning of the poems or the intellectual labor, behind them. The consumers value the object of production (the book) so much more then the producer (Vijay), that they have a difficult time recognizing him when they see him. This is why in the final climactic scene, Vijay says: “The Vijay who you wish to welcome so warmly, the Vijay for whom you shout slogans, I am not that Vijay.” (2:12:23) He isn’t lying. He is saying that he isn’t the imagined Vijay represented by their insincere attraction to his book, but is in fact Vijay the poet who imbued the book with ignored meaning.

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Waheeda Rahman as Gulabo.

Vijay explicitly voices disenchantment with India’s apathy, and its capitulation to commodification in “Jinhen Naaz Hai Hind Par,” a poem that Vijay composes on the fly as he drunkenly wanders through a red light district. Here are several exemplary verses:

“These insidious streets where infamy is traded

Where men conceal their names, where money talks

Where chastity is bargained for, and purity is sold

Where are those who claim to be proud of India?

Where are they? Where are they? Where are they?

These old streets where dreams wither

Where flowers are trampled underfoot

These sham celebrations of color are for sale

Where are those who claim to be proud of India?

Where are they? Where are they? Where are they?

Old men pass through here; young men too stop a while,

Sons, respected fathers and husbands

These are our wives, our sisters, our mothers

Where are those who claim to be proud of India?

Where are they? Where are they? Where are they?”

(As a side note, the gloom in this song still resonates with the Indian zeitgeist. I know it’s not scientific, but just take a look at the comments section of the seperate Youtube video for this song)

Prostitution, i.e. The commodification of sex, purity, and what Vijay terms “love” is used as example of the failure of Indian society to fulfill Gandhi’s promise that “everybody will be his own master,” and Nehru’s ideal of a “free, vital, and independent” people.

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Vijay has a drunken existential crisis. We’ve all been there Vijay. 1:33:42

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Thankfully, Abdul played by Johnny Walker lends his comedic presence to lighten the mood. This is a still from the song “Sar Jo Tera Chakraye.” 0:32:22

Sell Out: Prostitution is a recurring theme in the film, as Dutt tries to communicate that everyone in Indian society is forced into degradation by alienating themselves from a part of their humanity in exchange for money. Vijay himself faces this prospect at the end of the film, but refuses (although the film ends before we can see the consequences of his refusal.) Actual street-walkers, are the most blatant example of prostitution, but far from the only ones. The two love interests of the story sell themselves in different ways. Gulabo, who Vijay ends up choosing to run off with, is a literal prostitute. Meena, in Vijay’s eyes sells herself in a much more obscene way. See the following conversation, which ensues when Meena secretly comes to Vijay and confesses that her love for him is still alive:

(1:06:30)

“Meena: Why did you sing that heart-rending poem the other day? You revived my desires.

Vijay: Forget the past Meena.

Meena: I had forgotten. I had remolded my life. I controlled my heart. Why disturb my heart? Why return to my life?

Vijay: When did I ever leave your life? You left me. Don’t try to correct your first mistake with another Meena.

Meena: I’ve made no mistake! Besides love, a sensible woman needs security and the comfort of a home. And some money is also required. For those things…

Vijay: –You married Mr. Ghosh. Selling love for wealth.

Meena: Don’t accuse me wrongly. I loved you, but you were poor and unemployed. In life, besides love and poetry there is hunger. How could you bear my burden when you couldn’t feed yourself?

Vijay: You gave me no chance. When a man has responsibilities he shoulders them. Don’t deceive yourself. You sought wealth and a high position in society. Now you have them. Despite that, you are restless and resentful. You know why? Because you have always been selfish. You never considered my plight. Now you don’t consider your husband. Life’s real joy lies in making others happy. You’ve never understood that; that’s why you’re unhappy.

(Vijay goes to leave and, reveals Mr. Dutt standing directly in the doorway)

Mr. Dutt: Wonderful. My wife’s no better than a streetwalker!”

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Meena, played by Mala Sinha defends herself in conversation transcribed above. She actually has a good point. 1:07:48

Vijay the Sannyasi: I’ve thus far framed the story in the context of a Marxist critique of capitalism, and the social discontent following Indian independence. Though Vijay’s criticism is essentially Marxist, his solution is far from it. He makes no attempt to create class-consciousness or foster social revolution. Rather, as an individual he retracts from the world, which is depicted as unalterably miserable. This idea of the world as fundamentally imbued with suffering, and renunciation as the cure has resonance far beyond the 1950s, and has deep roots in the Indian philosophical tradition.

It is a little known fact that in early Vedic thought, vegetarianism was originally seen as an immoral rebellion against the natural order of the universe. A competing group called the Shramanas (basically, the first Sannyasis) changed that. To them, adopting vegetarianism and other ascetic practices was indeed rebelling against the natural order of things. That was the point. For the Shramanas, the natural order is corrupt and produces only misery, so refusing to participate in it and renouncing it’s hollow pleasures is the only way out. This sentiment of defiant non-cooperation with a cruel, but all-powerful system is also behind Vijay’s renunciation. Buddhist Jain and many Hindu philosophies also endorse the idea that no matter how many times one is reborn into the realm of matter (i.e. no matter how long one is trapped in Samsara), Dhukkha (suffering) will reign supreme. In the non-Indian world Manichaeism and Catharism also regard the material world as essentially corrupt and begetting only evil (see also Weltschmerz or Angst for a Western analogues to Dhukka.) Interestingly, all of the aforementioned philosophical schools advocate Vijay’s course of action –renunciation as the way to escaping this miserable existence. What else can one do after concluding that the fundamental function of reality is to replicate suffering?

In Dutt’s vision of the movie, this point was to be made more explicit. The original script has Vijay not choosing neither Meena nor Gulabo, but rather leaving completely alone. This was changed at the distributor’s insistence, which is unfortunate for my interpretation because it slightly dampens the power of Vijay’s rejection  Even so, read the words Vijay sings as he is accosted by an angry mob at the end of the film:

(2:13:20)

“Burn it! Blow it asunder!

Burn it! Burn it!

Blow the world asunder!

Take this world away from my sight!

The world belongs to you, you keep it.”

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Vijay played by Guru Dutt begins to sing his final, renunciatory song excerpted above. 2:01:55

After he manages to escape but before he runs off with Gulabo, Meena asks him to explain his seemingly bizarre actions. Backed by light, he speaks the following words, calm as a sage:

(2:15:03)

“I have no complaint…against any human being. But against a society that denies the right to be human. That makes a brother a stranger, a friend an enemy. I complain against a world that worships no humans, but worships idols that destroy humans and trample them…That is why I am going away, far away.”

This movie isn’t just an attack on 1950s Indian society. It’s an attack on all human social orders, which fail to live up to the seemingly basic, but evidently impossibly high ideals of respect for life and human flourishing. Want to change the world? Vijay doesn’t bother. It’s rotten to the core. Let it burn. He just takes the hand of his true love, and walks off into the fog. Ins’t it tempting to join him?

Pshew. That got heavier than I expected. Now, onto the songs! Some of them will lift our spirits anyway.

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If I knew more about film I’d try to analyze this more. The film makes heavy use of contrast, silhouettes, and intense shadows. Is it supposed to convey the harsh, bleakness of the world? Or perhaps the starkness of Vijay’s moral choice? Or maybe the existential solitude of each character? I don’t know enough to write confidently about this.

The songs are remarkably good, even by Bollywood golden age standards. It is after all, a film about a poet with a soundtrack composed by S.D. Burman!

Logistical note: Clicking the “00:00:00” formatted digits will take you to the place within the movie where that song occurs. The song name will take you to a separate (usually lower quality) youtube video for that song. The first option is the only one with subtitles.

0:2:10“Ye Hanste Huye Phool” – Here is the dreamy, Edenic song, which we start off with before descending. Just Vijay sitting in the park admiring nature. After this we dip into into disappointing reality. On a less serious note, if you look closely, you can see that the bee is tied to the flower with a black thread, so that the filmmakers wont lose him and can tug on the thread to make him land on the flower. Bees were harmed during the making of this video.

0:14:03: “Jaane Kya Tune Kahi” – This and “Sar Jo Tera Chakraye” are the two catchiest songs of the film in my opinion. Here Gulabo tries to tempt Vijay into using her services using a poem, which she doesn’t know he authored. Waheeda Rahman’s performance is quite playful and seductive.

0:25:20: I can’t figure out the name of this song, as it doesn’t appear on the soundtrack. This is a flashback song, and is our first introduction to Meena. Here, Meena and Vijay are still together back in college, being jovial and riding around. They confess their undying love to one another. I think it has the fastest tempo of all the film’s songs.

0:31:30:“Sar Jo Tera Chakraye”  – This is the most cheerful song on the soundtrack. Here Abdul, Viijay’s only true friend sings one of his poems to try and attract customers for his oil massage business. Abdul played by Johnny Walker provides sorely needed comic relief throughout the film. It is interesting that Gulabo and Abdul, the only two characters who seem to truly care about Vijay and appreciate his work, utilize his poetry on the job. They embody his words in their actions, which ultimately, is what Vijay ends up doing in the renunciatory finale.

0:40:45: “Tang Aa Chuke Hain Kashm-e-Kashe Zindagi Se” –  I find this to be the most lyrically beautiful piece of the film. Vijay preforms this poem at some kind of college reunion celebration, which he reluctantly attends. This is when Meena sees him for the first time in years. Mr. Ghosh notices how his wife reacts to the poem, so he hires Vijay to learn more about their connection. The whole song strongly foreshadows the conclusion, particularly the lines “In my grief, may I not reject the entire world?” and “I can only return to life what life itself offers me.”

0:47:36: “Ham Aapki Aankhon Me” – In this daydream sequence, Vijay is trying to woo Meena but she acts coy and reluctant, thereby subtly drawing attention to the fact that Meena really was very reluctant to pursue a relationship with Vijay. The song’s nostalgia is thus simultaneously rendered playful and dark, which creates a really cool artistic effect.

1:01:27: “Jane Woh Kaise Log” – The poets at Mr. Ghosh’s party overhear Vijay murmuring a poem and encourage him to sing. This is pretty much just a wistful song about not getting that which one loves, which of course has a strong emotional effect on Meena.

1:11:32: “Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Lagalo” – This is a beautiful traditional Baul song about Radha longing for Krishna. We are meant to analogize Gulabo to Radha, as she longs for Vijay who she thinks is still in love with Meena.

1:22:42: Another one I can’t find the name of. If you’ve got the names to these unknown songs, leave them in a comment. This one he sings while drowning his sorrows after he gets fired, his mother dies, and his brothers disown him. Here he begins to seriously adopt the renunciation mentality, as he sings the lines “For so many years the world has rejected and dismissed me. Today I reject the world and think to forget it exists.”

1:26:50: “Jinhen Naaz Hai Hind Par” –  This is the most explicit social critique in the movie. Vijay wanders around a red light district drunk, and composing this song on the fly wherein he criticizes Indian culture for being so callous and materialistic, and for commodifying women’s bodies.

2:01:11: “Ye Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye” – The final, climactic scene of the movie where Vijay definitively renounces the world. Since this is what I take to be the most important part of the film, I’ll just close out by transcribing the full lyrics of this song.

“This world of palaces, of kingdoms, of power

This world of humanity’s enemies, this world of rituals

This world of men who crave wealth as their way of live

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

People with parched souls, with wounded spirits

With troubled gaze and sad hearts

This world, which is distraught and full of trouble

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

The world where life is considered trivial

A world where the dead are worshipped

A world where death is cheaper than life

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

A world where youth is driven to crime

A world where the young are groomed for the market

A world where love is another name for trade

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

A world where man is worth nothing

A world where loyalty and friendship mean nothing

A world where man is worth nothing

A world where loyalty and friendship mean nothing

A world where love is regarded with disdain

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?

Burn it! Blow it asunder!

Burn it! Burn it!

Blow the world asunder!

Take this world away from my sight!

The world belongs to you, you keep it.

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world?”

the end

5 comments on “The Modern Renunciate in Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa” (Thirsty)

  1. madhu Ahluwalia says:

    wonderful assessment and critique

  2. Quora says:

    What is the most iconic Hindi movie dialogue you have ever heard? (Please provide a translation too)…

    In my opinion the entire script of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, including few songs is iconic. But oh well, if I have to choose two dialogues, it has to be these two: Meena: In life, besides love and poetry there is hunger. ( Zindagi me shaayari hi nahi, pyaar…

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I must say, the greatest line from a Bollywood movie comes from Pyaasa itself! “Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya he?” For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world? It is the essence of his renunciatory philosophy, and is a sentiment which rarely reaches such dramatic and poetic heights in Indian cinema. Pyaasa one of my favorites for a reason, though I admit to not having seen Guru Dutt’s entire filmography.

      Got any movie recommendations?

  3. Indeed a really nice whole article on the movie. I watched it again today, and I thought I understood it, but the details and depth you’ve dived into is a feat in itself.

    Kudos!

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