Pyaasa is justly lauded as a masterpiece of 1950s India cinema. It’s a fantastic film whose melancholy twists and turns make for a refreshingly individual film.
Written, produced, directed and staring Guru Dutt, the 1957 film was his follow-up to the commercial success that was Mr & Mrs ’55 and he used the rewards from that film to make a darker counterpart.
Pyaasa sees Dutt play an unemployed poet and, following his unemployed newspaper cartoonist in Mr & Mrs ’55, you’d be forgiven for thinking Pyaasa was set to follow its predecessor’s pleasingly familiar story arc.
Instead in Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) we see Dutt’s Vijay start in poverty, depression and familial strife, and then sink further as his poetry fails to gain the recognition it deserves.
He goes missing following an alcoholic visit to the red light district, is presumed dead, and in his absence his poetry is published and acquires a devoted following. But as his star is rising Vijay is confined in an asylum.
Another central plot strand, and one more event you don’t expect to see in a mainstream Bollywood film today, nevermind one from the 1950s, is the love that blossoms between Vijay and Gulabo, the prostitute (with a heart of gold, naturally) played by Waheeda Rehman.
Comic actor Johnny Walker, who appeared in Dutt’s earlier film Mr & Mrs ’55 also has a role here, making a welcome – if somewhat hammy – appearance as itinerant head masseur Abdul Sattar.
This was another film shown on UK television as part of Channel Four’s autumn Bollywood Classics season, and so far is among my favourites.