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.)

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Book Review: Chalo Delhi: Writings and Speeches 1943-1945 By Subhash Chandra Bose

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You have to be a huge Indian history nerd to enjoy this book. It is a waterfall of primary documents, mainly speeches by or about Subhash Chandra Bose. Its not light reading, and its probably not interesting to you if you aren’t fascinated by it’s highly focused subject matter. Even I had to remember that it is a collection of primary sources so it will get repetitive and boring at times. The pacing goes at life speed, not at the speed of a well-written novel.

Now for some interesting themes I picked up: Bose’s mission required the mobilization of Indians who lived outside of India, namely those living in East Asia. Those living abroad seemed more amenable to Bose’s brand of militant nationalism than those at home. His mission reminded me strongly of the Ghadar movement, and various modern Hindu, Sikh, and Tamil Nationalist organizations which had/have their bases of support located outside of India. Why is it that non-resident South Asians seem consistently more nationalist and militant than those living in India? (Note: I think that Bose and the Ghadars show that the linked article provides an unsatisfactory answer to this question  since this is evidently a very old phenomenon, and therefore is not attributable to the post 1960s growing NRI middle class)

However, unlike the aforementioned communalist or regionalist movements, the Azad Hind government was strongly Pan-South-Asian (Pan-Bharatvarashi? Pan-Gurkani?) and emphatically inclusory. Bose was firmly in favor of a united India (including Lanka) and opposed to regionalism, classism, and caste. I seriously doubt he would have appreciated modern India’s federal structure which leaves states a degree of autonomy.

This inclusory spirit is evident in the composition of his organization. The majority of the soldiers in his army were Muslims, and the variant of Hindustani used by the organization was heavily slanted towards Urdu for their benefit  Tamils played a huge role in his organization as well due to their large numbers in Southeast Asia. Females were also included in combat roles (As a side note, the U.S. just got on board with this 4 days ago.) Sometimes Bose goes a bit overboard in the pursuit of unity. For example: at the time there was a conflict over the Hindustani language. Should the new government use Devanagari script, or Persian script? Or retain both and have the resultant communication problems and social fragmentation? Bose proposed solving this by ditching both Devanagari and Persian script in favor of Latin script, in a conscious imitation of Ataturk. This is why all Indian National Army documents were written using Latin characters.

His passion for a united India informed his stance on Jinnah and the Muslim League. Needless to say, he was virulently and morally opposed to the notion of Pakistan and seems to have disliked Jinnah as a person. This is exacerbated by what Bose identifies as Jinnah’s traitorous behavior at the Simla conference, wherein the Muslim League allegedly promised to support the British war effort in exchange for Pakistan.

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There were a few select essays, such as “Gandhiji’s Part in India’s Fight” which are great examples of Bose’s rhetorical abilities and skill in propagandizing. In that essay he repeatedly praises Gandhi’s character and dedication, referring to his many prior interactions with the man while never commenting on his diametrically opposed tactics. He thus associates himself with Gandhi’s personality cult while obfuscating Gandhi’s opposition to the Indian National Army’s violent strategy. Then in the last paragraph he throws in a direct Gandhi quote “If India has the sword today, she will draw the sword”, and asserts that Gandhi was only opposed to revolution in the past because the time wasn’t right. Now the time is right, so Gandhi supporters should listen to their hero and join the Indian National Army. Clever, no?

Another clever rhetorical tool, which I noticed, was his persistent use of vague religious language. He often refers to his revolution as a “holy war”, a vague enough term to fit into the paradigm of Islamic Jihad, Hindu Dharmayudha, or Sikh divine command to defend the innocent.

It is difficult to say how accurate his impressions of World War 2 were, given that these speeches were intended for a general audience and are thus necessarily propagandistic. Morale, to Bose was a more important military factor than technology or supplies. This is probably his most important misapprehension since it governed his military strategy. He continued to claim that Germany’s victory was obvious until the Red Army was almost in Berlin. The same claim was bade about the Japanese until late in the British-American re-conquest of Burma. However, his predictions about the post-war situation were pretty good. Bose understood that it would be an “American Century” and that the Soviets and the west would not remain allies for long. A notable error was his mistaken assumption that Britain would never “voluntarily” India after the war. Perhaps it is unfair to call that a “mistake” though, because Bose’s own actions led to the British losing faith in their Indian troops, a contributing factor to their peaceful withdrawl from the subcontinent.

One can imagine that if Hitler died prior to World War 2, or if Stalin had died while fighting the Nazis their modern reputations would have been greatly improved. In that sense, it is wonderful for Bose that he died before ever achieving a position of power. Those who admire Bose (and I am one of them) might want to acknowledge is that he was basically a Fascist. He repeatedly speaks glowingly National Socialism, Italian Fascism, Communism and the Japanese imperial state. He clearly indicates that he has no problem with dictatorship, and that India’s government should not be a democracy, but would rather be a state blending the positives of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. If Japan had won the war and Bose’s army had actually made it to Delhi, India would probably have been a Fascist dictatorship with Neetaji as the head autocrat. Judging by his harsh actions when his army faced the stressors of defeat and retreat, political freedom would not exist and political purges would have been the norm. Based on his economic theories, starvation would have been widespread as the result of central agricultural planning. For the sake of his legacy, Bose is lucky he died early.

I picked this up in Calcutta for 500 rupees  but its a lot more expensive to buy in the west. Anyway, if this review interested you then you are probably this book’s target audience.