Friday, May 13, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Pyaasa (1957)

Pyaasa is #583 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 02/14/11 on DVD

Ranked #420 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).


Its title can be translated as "eternal thirst" and this translation says everything you need to know about the movie.  Nonetheless, I suppose I should say a few more things about it anyway.  After all, it is  considered one of the greatest Indian films ever made (personally making my top three along with the obvious Pather Panchali and the oft-overlooked The Cloud-Capped Star).

Pyaasa is the tragic love story of a down-and-out poet and a prostitute.  Guru Dutt, director and lead, is one of the most lyrical directors of all-time and it shows most of all in this, his masterpiece.  When Time Magazine named it one of the 100 Best Films of All-Time, they called it "soulfully romantic" and they got it just right.  Dutt shows both extreme desire and utter despair in one swell swoop of his camera.  Even the songs in the movie (and yes, it is India so there must be singing and dancing) range from giddy to melancholy.  Of course this being an Indian film (and one directed by the tragic Mr. Dutt) the despair greatly outweighs the rest of the film.  As tragic as the story is, the beauty of what Dutt is trying to say comes through in a manner that is almost heavenly.  In the uniquely romantic-tragic way directors such as Rene Clair or Mikio Naruse before him or Lars von Trier after him have accomplished, Dutt's Pyaasa, much more than his earlier films, makes it a cinematic reality in the film's inherent pulchritude.

The real tragedy though, comes not in his films, but in the director's own life.  After making only eight films as a director (more as an actor) Dutt was found dead in his apartment one day in 1964.  The director was just thirty-nine years old.  The most viable story (he was mixing drugs and alcohol) is that Dutt committed suicide, but the director's family claims it was an accidental overdose.  The fact that he had two previous suicide attempts makes one take one story's side over the other.  Whatever the case, Dutt became an even more tragic figure than the one's he portrayed on film.  And the reason for this tragic finale (one that seemed to echo the ideas of his films) has a connection of sorts to Pyaasa.

Having recently separated from his wife Geeta Dutt (her voice can be heard singing in many Indian classics, including Pyaasa) and having an affair with his Pyaasa costar (as well as the star of his final film, 1959's Kaagaz Ke Phool), the ravishing Waheeda Rehman (who incidentally is remarkable as the prostitute in the movie - giving the character a certain sense of longing and desperation while also making her a strong female character) Dutt's life was in an upheaval at the time.  Of course this is all mere speculation (though a seemingly educated kind of speculation) and it is what is in his films that really matters here - even if, as with any great artist, that cinematic life is invariably entangled with the so-called real life.

As far as the film itself goes, as I have already made mention of, it is a thing of beauty - both visually and psychologically.  An artist at his bravest yet also at his most tender in many ways.  I have yet to watch the Indian auteur's final film, the aforementioned Kaagaz Ke Phool (a widescreen disaster at the time - which most likely added to his already morbid state of mind those last few years - but posthumously heralded as a masterpiece) so I cannot compare Pyaasa to it.  All I can say right now is that Pyaasa is the best of Dutt's sadly-truncated oeuvre (and even after seeing his last film, it can only drop to second best) and what a shame (as one must inevitably claim) his life and art were cut so tragically short.

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