Directed by: Guru Dutt || Produced by: Guru Dutt
Screenplay by: Abrar Alvi, Guru Dutt || Starring: Guru Dutt, Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman, Said Rehman Khan, Johnny Walker
Music by: Sachin Dev Burman || Cinematography: Venkatarama Pandit Krishnamurthy || Edited by: Y. G. Chawhan || Country: India || Language: Hindi
Running Time: 143 minutes
The first handful of Hindi-language Indian (i.e. Bollywood) classics I sampled were all either filmed in color (e.g. Sholay , Guide , Mother India ) or converted to such via controversial post hoc colorization methods (e.g. Mughal-e-Azam ). I have long been hesitant to try black-and-white films from South Asia for perhaps a silly, yet also serious reason: The importance of colors to South Asian culture in general. Coming from the United States, the explosion of vibrant colors seemingly common to tropical cultures and the Indian subcontinent in particular always caught my attention, and was a key ingredient of Indian filmmaking’s costume and set-design that appealed to me. Older Indian movies restricted to monochrome (e.g. Satyajit Ray’s Apu [1955, 1956, 1959] trilogy) felt contradictory to the general spirit of Indian cultural aesthetics, at least as a Westerner outsider. Hollywood film noir (e.g. The Maltese Falcon , Double Indemnity , The Big Combo , etc.) doesn’t seem to lose anything in black-and-white — if anything, the aesthetic’s harsh shadows feel more natural there — but a 3-hour Bollywood musical like Awaara feels like it’s begging for a full color palette if the success of Mughal-e-Azam’s 2004 re-release is any indication.
One of the black-and-white Indian classics I feel holds up despite its monochromatic nature is Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (“Thirsty” in English). Co-written, produced, directed by, and starring Dutt in the lead role, the 1957 Hindi favorite is often regarded as one of the Mumbai film industry’s greatest, and one of eight films the auteur directed over a twenty-year career in show business. The film in hindsight feels almost semi-autobiographical given its depressed, downtrodden protagonist, a stereotypical unemployed poet, singer, and songwriter whose work achieves widespread recognition only after his alleged “death” (Dutt himself died from a combination of alcohol and sleeping pills at 38 years of age after two previous suicide attempts).
Dutt’s magnum opus wasn’t intended to have quite such a literal personal face, however, as Dutt originally recruited 1950s megastar Dilip Kumar for the film’s main character before the “Tragedy King” backed out for reasons that are, to this day, still unknown. Replacing the 1st-choices for his films’ starring roles himself became a running theme throughout Dutt’s career (see also Aar Par  and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam ), much like the way he mentored various cast and crew proteges who would later become integral to his successful filmography, such as Pyaasa’s female lead Waheeda Rehman, supporting actor and comic relief Johnny Walker (real name of Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi), co-writer Abrar Alvi, and director of photography Venkatarama Pandit Krishnamurthy (V. K. Murthy). Rehman’s part was originally meant for Madhubala, while co-female lead Mala Sinha replaced what would’ve been Nargis Dutt‘s role, so Guru made a habit of spinning straw into bronze when he couldn’t close deals with then contemporary Bollywood megastars.
Aside from those memorable performances, all of which portray multi-layered characters who never descend into stereotypes (for counterexamples, see Johnny Levor, Mohammad Ali, Kanneganti Brahmanandam, etc.), Murthy’s cinematography is the primary attribute that defines Pyaasa despite the seeming contradiction within its monochrome South Asian background. The film achieves remarkable foreground to background depth in almost every scene, from well lit close-ups to moody, almost noir-like wide shots; characters are often staged so that every part of the frame informs the meaning of each sequence, while shading contrasts in costume-design compensate for the lack of explosive tropical colors that later Indian classics took for granted. Murthy and Dutt’s camera never moves without motivation, with subtle dolly-ins, camera pans, and lateral tracking shots expanding the length of shots in near imperceptible ways. Compared to the almost nonstop handheld camerawork and showy oners of 2010s-2020s movies — many of which are fun as hell, sure, but many of which are wholly unmotivated or distracting — Pyaasa’s photography feels like a calm, placid lake where Buddha would meditate; even its well decorated musical numbers feel tranquil in their surrealism.
The drawbacks of Pyaasa are few and far between, but include the repetitive artificiality of its studio photography as well as some rough sound editing. With regards to the former, the indoor soundstages that serve as the backdrops to most dramatic sequences and all the musical numbers constitute the bulk of the narrative. I recall the meet-cute between Dutt and Rehman and a crucial sequence at a trainyard as possible exceptions to this, partly because those sequences feel so much more physically authentic than the rest of the movie. Again, the set-design and scene geography captured by VK Murthy help the movie get the most out of its limited scenery, but so much of Pyaasa’s diegesis feels intentionally artificial a la Wes Anderson’s recent films or numerous Golden Age Hollywood classics, which I don’t like. With respect to sound editing, Pyaasa’s audio tracks shift abruptly at most scene transitions and distract from the movie’s otherwise effective pacing, background sound FX, and the emotional resonance of some monologues.
At the end of the day, though, the technical limitations of Pyassa are second fiddle to its cinematographic and screenwriting strengths, and turned out to have little to do with the film’s monochromatic film capture. The morbid, old-timey aesthetics of black-and-white filmmaking, which have long scared me away from all but the most famous of Hollywood (e.g. film noir, Casablanca , some Charlie Chaplin stuff, etc.) and Japanese (e.g. Akira Kurosawa) cinema, may yet fade away for me in one more film industry. To that end, Guru Dutt’s artistic vision of a depressed, cynical man drowning in melancholia about his life prospects will always be relatable to most audiences on a gut level, and that relatability comes through a great cast built atop solid chemistry instead of star power. While it’s interesting to contemplate how this film would’ve worked with a higher-profile cast, the one it has works regardless of the film’s color or lack thereof.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Dreary, morbid, and above all, sad, Guru Dutt endows Pyaasa with meaningful pathos through subtle visual storytelling techniques that take advantage of a well-oiled cast and crew. Both the film’s style and narrative are of another era, but its cinematic human heart stands the test of time.
— However… Pyaasa’s dependence on artificial indoor studio sets gives its diegesis a homogenous, climate-controlled feel, while its jarring sound edits call attention to its technical limitations in a bad way.
—> RECOMMENDED for the disillusioned artist in you!
? Creativity has probably never been a naturally selected trait, as copyright and patent laws didn’t exist thousands of years ago.