A hall, about three quarters full, stands solemnly as the national anthem plays before a film club screening in a Delhi PVR hall: it’sPyaasa. Halfway into the 1957 Guru Dutt classic, they sit and watch an irony-laced lament unfold on screen. If an anthem is a rousing celebration, Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hain is like a softly sung dirge, slow and elegiac in tone, a statement of grief and a rumination on the state of the nation at once. Where have they gone, those who take pride in India, ask Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines. The hall, deathly silent through it, breaks into applause at the end of the song.
A few reels later, they hear the most pristine articulation of a politics of having no stakes in the status quo: Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye toh Kya Hai (So what, even if such a world becomes mine?). The breathless events towards the end of the song give no one any space to clap, but even after the sequence is over there is a pause in our collective souls: How to imagine the resolution of a story once its protagonist has rejected everything, in particular success, wealth, status?
The well-established reading of Pyaasa (1957) sees it as a disheartened allegory of young heroes being let down by the nation after nearly 10 years of independence and its failed promises—or at least as a story made possible in the context of such a failure. (It’s worth remembering that Guru Dutt wrote the original story, ‘Kashmakash’, on which Pyaasais based, in 1947/48). Unemployment, hunger, inequality, women forced to sell their bodies, lack of compassion in society, and greed for money and power are some of Pyaasa’s leitmotifs. Today, thanks to the exigencies of legally enforced symptoms of nationalism (the Supreme Court having made it compulsory for the national anthem to be played before movie screenings), we get the remarkable cinema experience of moving from Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana, written way before independence, celebrating the destiny of the land, to the realities of the nation as recorded by sensitive observers in the 1950s, to the fact that none of Pyaasa’s themes have become dated even after 60 years. Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain?
It does not feel ironical at all. The time for irony is already well past everyone once a nation adopts as its anthem the song of a poet who said he was “against the general idea of all nations”. And who wished to fight against the “education which teaches (people) that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
As Pyaasa unfolds, we see that the unemployed, unsuccessful poet-hero Vijay gets to speak exceptionally few dialogues, the many silent moments of his character being lovingly drawn out as if in a lyrical cinematic dream. When he does have something to articulate, he does so through poetry and song. In that sense, Sahir’s verse is as much ‘dialogue’ in the film as screenwriter Abrar Alvi’s lines. Guru Dutt’s erstwhile assistant, the director Raj Khosla, recalled in an interview that when Guru Dutt first heard the lyrics of Jinhe naaz hai, he became very moved and excited, saying “This is it! This isPyaasa”. Sahir had written his critique-in-verse in far tougher, more general but no less lacerating language in the original poemChakle (Brothels). The line went: “Sana khwane taqdis-e-mashriq kahan hain” (Where are those who eulogise the greatness of the East), which were softened to Jinhe naaz hai… for the film.
If Tagore’s anthem invokes the subcontinent’s vastness, its provinces, its rivers, the seas that rise to wash its shores, Pyaasa’s counter-anthem turns to the intimate geographies of Sonagacchi, Calcutta’s red light area. It describes the oppressive bylanes (kooche) and fearful lanes (sehmi si galiyan), the auction houses of traded pleasure (neelam ghar dilkashi ke), the soulless rooms (berooh kamre). The national anthem is rich with Jai(victory), mangal (well being) and ashish(blessings). The counter-anthem speaks of a society that is preying upon humanity), a barren one where every body is wounded, every soul thirsty (har ik rooh pyaasi). “Take it away,” cries the poet in the other song, pointing to the world.
The two critical songs, left without any but the most minimal orchestration by S.D. Burman, came to define Pyaasa well beyond the first run of the film, forever inscribing Guru Dutt as a tortured, sensitive soul for whom the world was too corrupt. But Yeh duniya agar is much more than a critical song. Read along with what happens in the film, it’s that radical moment when “All that is solid melts into air”. After all, how many times have we seen an underdog protagonist, finally finding recognition in a cinematic ‘happy ending’, reject all possibility of adulation, success and wealth? “I’m not the Vijay you are celebrating,” he says in public and walks away from it all.
He rises above the happy ending (just as Gulab rose above the security provided by her life’s savings, in order to get his poems published after she heard the rumour of his death). Vijay’s rejection—his act of burning all stakes in the perpetuity of such a world—is a positive and creative act in itself. Writer Abrar Alvi did not agree. It felt escapist to him; he wanted Vijay to stay and fight. And anyway, he argued, where would Vijay and Gulab “go away” from such a world?
But perhaps Vijay and Gulab’s transcendent incorruptibility and fearlessness in withdrawing from the world-as-is…in merely existing…have already rendered an alternative world real. We see what is here with such shining clarity (sadness in hearts, thirst in souls) and we do thoroughly reject it. It is only such a clear-eyed rejection that can create a world of integrity and humanity. A world in which a barber can make this radio announcement: “Look up Hannah! The clouds are lifting, the sun is breaking through…we are coming into a new world… The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly” (The Great Dictator).
In fact, this world can be found in the third stanza of Tagore’s lengthy song Bharot Bhagyo Bidhata, which lent its first few lines to the Indian nation-state. As Vijay and Gulab walk into the sunrise, it’s in a sense Tagore, the poet of nature and worshipper of the formless, who describes what is happening: “The night fades, the light breaks over the peaks of the Eastern hills, the birds begin to sing and the morning breeze carries the breath of new life….”