1957, Movies

Pyaasa (1957, Guru Dutt)

This film is considered one of the greatest Indian movies of all time and a foundational film in Bollywood history. You can bet I didn’t enjoy it.


This film is the story of a poet who can’t find success torn between two women. (As an aside: how many 1950s Indian films are about poets who can’t find success? It feels like most of the ones I’ve seen feature this plot.) The two women are his old college love, who has married a publisher, and a prostitute, who accidentally buys his poetry. That story takes up over half the movie. But there is another chapter to the story! The poet is thought to have died and becomes a success and then renounces that success for, um, reasons.

This is a typical Bollywood film in how it is constructed – it tries to be all things to all people, it has romance, drama comedy, and numerous songs, as well as a supposed moral. I find that makes it tonally uneven but I understand this is a thing in Bollywood, as it was in old Hollywood. (Doesn’t mean I have to like it!) Only one song is comic, the rest are pretty damn serious, and stand out in contrast to the sometimes comic moments around the songs. (It’s worth noting the whole final act also drops the comedy, which is another problem.)

The director-star is too old for his role, though not as too old as I initially thought. (He does, hilariously, look exactly the same in the flashbacks to when he is in college and it’s basically like the cast of 90210 in terms of how he looks.) But he does seem to have a good singing voice, as far as I can tell. (If that was really him singing.)

A couple songs are kind of catchy but most of them are still pretty Indian. It’s interesting to hear the intrusion of some western musical ideas and instruments into Indian music. The harmonica plays a major role (I believe it’s western, at least in this particular version) and there are illusions to western musical motifs. But the lyrics are in Hindi and the songs still feel much closer to Indian tonality.

The main character feels kind of useless. He can’t get ahead, but he also does things that are self-defeating. (Never more than in the climax.) He’s kind of hard to like.

The film is way too long, as it’s basically two different stories stuck together. I don’t particularly like the moral of the second half – the man strove his life to become a poet so why is he walking away? – but I understand the “art for art’s sake” impulse behind it. The bigger problem is it feels improbable and grafted on. I guess, in India, people didn’t have IDs in the 1950s. But it’s also a different story than the love triangle, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense. (Why did he forget who he was because he almost got hit by a train? Another nitpick: why does nobody care about the beggar who saved his life?)

This is absolutely not for me. Often, in old “great” films, I can find something value, or I can find perspective to rate it highly anyway. But, here, I have trouble with the tone, I have trouble with the length, and I have trouble with the behaviour of the main character. To me, the most redeeming aspect of the film is that it treats a homeless man (albeit an educated one) and a prostitute as real people with normal feelings and dreams. That feels rare for the time, to me.

Anyway, I did not enjoy myself.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.