When a director casts himself in a film as a brilliant artist whose talent is unrecognized by the brutish world, and then associates that artist repeatedly throughout the film with Christ imagery, we might accuse him of vanity. I will try to see the character of Vijay in Pyaasa in a more sympathetic light than this.
Naturally, all the actors give solidly good performances. Vijay has a tortured melancholy about him that is well-fitted to the character, and Meena's own quiet longing is powerfully conveyed. I suspect that Johnny Walker plays a stock comic character, but I lack the knowledge to say for certain, and even if he is stock he still provides comic relief very well, a necessity for a movie that spreads the melancholy on thick. I also noticed, in particular, how much of the acting was focused on the eyes. While in other films I noted physical acting – emotions conveyed through powerful and interesting poses, or through movement – in Pyaasa, the great deal of emotional expression was in eyes and – particularly – eyebrows.
While each character does not display a great variety of facial emotions, the expressions become stylized enough to become iconic for each character. It is easy to quickly call to mind Vijay's brooding furrowed brow, Sattar's comedic anxiety, Meena's looks of quiet distress or longing, and Gulabo's coyness that changes quickly to sentiment. Each character is defined, to some degree, by a single, well-designed emotional expression. This enhances the melodrama in the film. The characters' melancholy is not some passing emotional state among a variety of possible emotions: it is a real and omnipresent thing, kept in place by the troublesome material world that engendered it. It is not just something momentarily with them, but something fundamentally a part of them.
The first, and perhaps most powerfully, notable aspect of the film is the choice of camera shots. Pyaasa is almost entirely claustrophobic, constricted. Almost all scenes are shot either in tight, enclosed indoor spaces, or – if narrative requires they be shot out in the open – through doorways and windows and gates and arches, or constricted by pillars and columns, to give the sense of tightness and smallness in the shot. Vijay is often seen through doorways, or in an otherwise narrowly circumscribed bit of screen. He is only allowed open spaces when he is reciting poetry or when he is in some fantasy sequence – as many of the songs are. Towards the end, when Vijay has decided not to accept the fame and glory that his poetry has begun to earn him, this begins to change. Now, Vijay is shot in front of open doorways, instead of through them, and on the other side are unlimited open spaces. Fittingly, in the end he and Gulabo walk through one of these doorways, entering an open space that so far they have only occupied in fantasies.
The symbolic use of these choices is fairly obvious. Vijay is portrayed as a man constantly constricted, not a free and willing actor. Until the end, Vijay makes none of his own choices, even those that lead to his misfortunes – indeed, his misfortunes are never products of his own actions. He is kicked out of his home and made a vagabond by his brothers; he does not seek a job with Mr Ghosh, but is told at his class reunion to come and take the job; even the certainty that he might choose suicide was averted when, at the critical moment, he found himself helping another man caught on the tracks. Vijay is not a victim of his choices but of pure misfortune. He seems to make no choices at all. The moments against this trend are those in which, suddenly, he begins to recite poetry; when this happens, his poetry becomes the catalyst for changes in his life. But he does not seem to choose a moment to recite – only finds himself reciting unexpectedly. His first real moment of choice is, of course, toward the end, when he announces that he is not Vijay the writer of poetry, and runs away.
Pyaasa had two possible endings. The first is the one we see, in which Vijay rejects the adulation of the world and his now-vast audiences, to run away wit Gulabo and make what they will of their lives. The second was either more cynical or more naïve – your mileage may vary. In this other, alternate ending, Vijay accepts fame and glory from the public that once disdained him; presumably, he manages somehow to continue to romance Meena, despite her marriage to Ghosh. Mostly, this ending would play into the standard fantasy of many unsuccessful artists, and – indeed – a few petulant six-year-olds (“When I'm dead you'll all be sorry and realize how much you loved me.”). Pyaasa does not take this easy route out, and give a great emotional catharsis as Vijay – who we have sympathized with in his attempt to become known as a great poet – finally gains success. It is not such easy melodrama. Vijay cannot choose success for the same reason that he should not choose Meena: Meena disdained him despite his talent because he was not wealthy; Gulabo, on the other hand, could find his poetry in a heap of wastepaper and recognize its worth. Gulabo – perhaps because she is a prostitute – is not fooled by the world's ideas of the marks of success and value.
This all adds depth to the film. The superficial reading is that the material world is fickle, and cruel, and has no respect for art. The second reading gives a more nuanced sense to the problems of the material world. It is claustrophobic place, in which people are constantly trapped in the pursuit of wealth and fame – to such a degree that people are unable to recognize goodness or beauty if it comes humbly, but only if it comes wrapped in wealth and fame already. Vijay's previous desire to be published, to see his poems in print, is swept away as he realizes the falseness of the world he lives in. All the things of the world are tainted as part of a deeply flawed totality. The only way to escape the bounds of the material world, in Pyaasa, is to disdain wealth and fame entirely.
It is difficult not to contrast the use of songs in Pyaasa with their use in films such as Amar Akbar Anthony that we have watched already. In Amar Akbar Anthony the songs tend to break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience or playing with strict cinematic realism. Like in a musical, a street scene of people who do not know each other at all might suddenly coalesce into a well-choreographed song-and-dance number. Pyaasa uses songs differently. The more elaborate songs, the ones that threaten the film's realism, appear to mostly be fantasy sequences – an expression of what is happening to the characters emotionally, but not something that is happening in the film's “real” sequence of events. The other songs are contextualized as poetry readings, or Sattar's head massage song, advertising for customers. This vocabulary of realism maintains some of the drama of the film. If characters routinely burst into public song, and were even joined in song by strangers, spectacle would become the norm. It would be expected in the form of the film. For Vijay's poetry recitals at his class reunion, at Mr Ghosh's party, and at the great memorial service held in his honor to be dramatic, they must show themselves to be outside the norm for the film. If the film establishes as its norm that characters will regularly burst into public song, then these moments in which Vijay bursts into song and poetry would lose their power. They are strengthened largely by their uniqueness. This may be necessary because Pyaasa is, so much, a film about the poetry and the poet. If the subject was not the poetry and songs themselves, then they could be used casually. But because poetry is the film's subject, if it becomes part of the filmmaker's standard set of tools then it is as significant in the emotional content of the film as the costumes or the set is – important, yes, but not crucial.
If I am to quibble with this film – other than in looking at the unfortunate vanity of a director casting himself as a Christ figure – I would take issue with what often feels like a disjointed or incomplete plot. Sattar's romance, his flirting with the woman in the park, while entertaining, just seems to have so very little to do with anything else that is going on in the film. It feels like a diversion right at a moment when the main plot is extraordinarily interesting. Indeed, Sattar is a difficult character to deal with altogether. While the comic relief works, and is probably necessary to deal with the overwhelming unhappiness of the movie, often it is jarring, and when Sattar's comedy is a crucial plot point (as when he distracts the guard at the mental hospital so that Vijay can slip through the gate and escape) it feels rather dishonest – a convenient plot device that hurts the tone of the film, in which most plot- significant events are far more serious in their nature.
Pyaasa is certainly a nuanced film. It is rare to see a film that takes the trope of an unsuccessful artist and handles it well. The film's disdain for the material world and material success is strongly communicated; the use of claustrophobic cinematography makes a rather convincing emotional case for the idea. It is certainly enjoyable, and worth thinking on further.