100 Movie Musicals #30: Pyaasa (1957)

Crisply gorgeous classic about poetry, lost love, the marginalization of women under patriarchal capitalism, and the hollowness of artistic success. It’s more sprightly than that sounds!

stairs and glamour

You don’t get a lot of movies about the radical power of sad love poems about your ex, do you? But by god Pyaasa pulls it off, mixed up with a lot of cutting remarks about how degrading life is under capitalism oppressive class and gender roles in midcentury India. The protagonist of the movie is sad sack poet Vijay, who spends two thirds of the movie moping around, despondent about his ex, getting laughed out of every room for his poetry, haunting the demimonde where his work is appreciated: he writes lyrics for an itinerant head masseur, and his biggest fan is a down at the heels sex worker named Gulabo. Things take a turn when a homeless man dies saving Vijay’s life, and gets mistaken for him: Vijay’s work is a massive posthumous success, but his brothers and publisher scheme to keep him insitutionalized because he’s worth more dead than alive. The masseur breaks Vijay out of the hospital just in time to attend his own massive funeral, where he delivers a despairing jeremiad about the fallen world and inspires a riot, before walking off into the fog with Gulabo like Rick and Louis at the end of Casablanca.

“Here Love and Friendship count for nothing/would I care if such a world were mine?”

It’s not less melodramatic than it sounds, exactly, but it’s got such a plaintive, melancholy mood that the melodrama isn’t so overwhelming, and the black and white cinematography creates a series of starkly beautiful images that you can lose yourself in. It’s a long, strange walk from Vijay sadly serenading a bee in the opening scenes to inciting a riot and vanishing at the end — there’s a lot symbolically here that I’m missing, I think, not being particularly familiar with what was going down in India at the time except in broad strokes — but even on a surface level Pyaasa is riveting. It’s also swooningly romantic at points: Vijay continuing to pine for his married ex-girlfriend is goony, but Guru Dutt and Mala Sinha bring a lot of plausible tragedy to a relationship torn apart by economic precarity.

a single tear for lost love

The whole thing is available for free on YouTube.

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