Sunday, July 09, 2017

Jalaa do yeh duniya: poets and merchants in Pyaasa and Navrang

[From my Mint Lounge series on song-sequences]

Once, listening to the Pyaasa classic “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil bhi Jaaye” on my car radio, I slipped into a reverie. The song’s defining visual was in my head – the disillusioned poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) in a Christ-like pose in a doorway, berating an assembly of people who have commercialised his art and treated him badly – but the setting had changed. Vijay was now stumbling through a crowd of authors and publishers at a lavish literature festival, plugging his ears each time he heard wine-glasses being clinked to seal a big book deal.

Perhaps I had been attending too many lit-fests myself around this time, while also reading criticism by gatekeepers of a puritanical view of Art and Literature: the shocked reactions to writers who preen, party, self-promote, and imbibe liquor on stage, instead of being exemplars of the Serious Artist who cuts himself off from all worldly things (and dies penniless in a gutter, to be feted posthumously by newfound admirers who feel so good about feeling so bad).

But when I think of the Pyaasa scene, I also think of a very different sort of scene from a film made two years later – another song that touches on the dilemmas facing a pure artist in a material world, but does it with splendid lightness of touch.

Broadly speaking, there are more similarities than differences between Pyaasa and V Shantaram’s Navrang. They are both striking visual experiences – one in moody black-and-white, the other in bright colour. Both are flamboyant melodramas made by auteurs who delighted in using the many tools available to them, and employed music to great effect. But amidst its many extravagant musical numbers (I dare you to watch its Holi song “Arre Ja Re Hat Natkhat” without your jaw dropping), Navrang has one song sequence that is laidback and intimate.

“Kavi Raja”, sung by the film’s lyricist Bharat Vyas, begins with a group of friends – poets as well as poet manqués – coming together for an impromptu little sammelan. Among them is the protagonist Diwakar, who has been appointed to a high position in the king’s court (the film’s setting is the early 19th century) but is struggling with his responsibilities. Soon, a dumpy composer of popular verses named Leelu (played by the wonderful character actor Agha) starts to dance and sing. “Kavi Raja, kavita ke mat ab kaan marodo,” he begins, “Dhande ki kuch baat karo, kuch paise jodo.” (“Don’t agonise so much over your verses, royal poet. Think about business and making money instead.”) As a visibly tickled Diwakar and the others chortle and applaud, Leelu lists the many things that are needed to keep the home fires burning – from ghee and garam masala to haldi and dhania – and then sly suggests: “Kavi Raja, chupke se tum bann jao baniya!” (“Poet, you’d be better off as a trader or merchant.”)

Breezy and bonhomie-filled as the scene is, the underlying lament is clear too, especially if you place it in the overall context of the film. And it makes a fascinating contrast with the Pyaasa climax.

“Yeh Duniya” is built on the conceit that Vijay is the only figure of integrity in a hopelessly corrupt world where all relationships are transaction-based. Accordingly, the scene operates on a grand, operatic meter. There are intense close-ups of the poet and his malefactors: lips quiver, faces turn away in guilt or anguish, throats dry up; the mode is solemn high-mindedness.

If I sound a little cynical, let me add that there’s no denying the beauty of the song – with Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics, SD Burman’s score and Mohammed Rafi’s voice – or the power of VK Murthy’s cinematography. What makes the scene underwhelming for me – and this applies to Pyaasa more generally – is Guru Dutt the actor.

Much like the later Manoj Kumar – an equally limited performer – Dutt thrived on playing martyrs, and Vijay is among the most tediously pedantic “heroes” in our cinema – a man who contrives to be self-pitying and superior even when people are looking out for him (I once annoyed a Pyaasa-lover by proposing that Johnny Walker was the film’s real hero). When Dutt’s Vijay rues the ways of the bazaar and the lack of appreciation for his art, it feels entitled and whiny. “Mere saamne se hataa lo yeh duniya!” (“Remove this world from my presence!”) he bawls – but, well, he is being thrown out of the hall at this point, so it’s not like he gets to make the decision. And anyway, isn’t he the one who voluntarily came and insinuated himself into this setting?

One of my cinematic fantasies involves the depressed Vijay and the boisterous Leelu in a mehfil together. Here, in one corner, is a poet making dramatic, world-renouncing proclamations – and there is another poet ticking off items for daily cooking, sardonically but good-naturedly acknowledging that even for an artist, the more mundane aspects of life are important.

Vijay would launch into a recital of woes about being ill-used by an opportunistic world. How can an artist stay alive in the face of crassness and greed, he would weep, covering his face and looking skywards. Upon which Leelu would do a little jig and suggest that if Art’s job is to engage with every facet of the human condition, perhaps the artist should stop nurturing his wounds and set about trying to understand the “baser” emotions too. And maybe even learn to cook a good meal with a pinch of dhania and haldi, instead of having Johnny Walker and Waheeda Rehman do everything for him.

[A longer post about Navrang is here. And here is the first post in the song-sequences series: Dharmendra in Teesri Aankh]


  1. Pyaasa is a weak film. And Guru Dutt a particularly overrated figure from 50s cinema. I don't recall a single film from his ouevre very fondly. I just don't understand what's the fuss about him.

    Oh. And how convenient of him (or his parents) to change his name to Guru Dutt. What with its Bengali Kayasth associations (and all the positive stereotypes associated with Bengali Kayasthas).

    Vasanth Kumar Padukone (his real name) wouldn't have worked just as well. Rigvedi Saraswat Kannada brahmins aren't as "sexy" as bengali kayasthas among the Indian chattering classes.

  2. "Much like the later Manoj Kumar – an equally limited performer"

    Manoj Kumar in my view is a far more versatile as well as a far more important figure in Indian cinema, than this narcissist.

    Manoj Kumar had many avatars.

    The Manoj who engages in casual sex in Phoolon ki sej and abandons his wife upon suspecting her virginity at the time of marriage.

    The Manoj who leaves his wife in Dr Vidya just because she happens to have more formal education than him.

    The Manoj who is a sleuth cum adventurer in thrillers like Woh Kaun Thi and Gumnaam

    The Manoj who farms his land with honest toil, and sacrifices for his younger brother without a trace of complaint in Upkaar. The epitome of Sharafat, and old fashioned virtues.

    The Manoj who manages to maintain his "Indian-ness" amidst the temptations of the flesh in London and succeeds in winning the heart of a spoilt drunk in Purab aur Paschim.

    The Manoj who cures Ashok Kumar of a severe heart ailment by playing a cassette recording of an old Azad Hind Fauj song in the 80s classic Clerk

    These are very very different characters. Remarkable range. Remarkable evolution over a four-decade career. A man whose performances ranged from the horny, run of the mill MCP in Phoolon ki Sej to the idealist Indian making his culture proud in the London of the Swinging Sixties in Purab Aur Paschim.

    A man who spoke deeply to the recesses of the Indian male's heart with his many avatars in Indira's India - an India which offered very little to these males by way of self actualization.

    A giant of Indian cinema.

    It's a travesty to compare him with left-wing alcoholics like Guru Dutt who nursed and perpetuated an exaggerated sense of themselves through their works of narcissism.

  3. Well said Shrikanth about both Gurudutt and Manoj kumar.

    About "...instead of being exemplars of the Serious Artist ...", its a goo thing writers & artists of today make a good living for themselves instead of living in poverty.
    I feel like a lot of writers and artists that I respect, love, part of my growth - esp when they are dying now one by one - I feel like they did not earn even a fraction of what some minor celebrities earn today.
    They just enriched others lives with memories and they are the endless money-making machine for publishers (articles & books) and producers (radio & films of all kinds)

  4. "I feel like a lot of writers and artists that I respect, love, part of my growth - esp when they are dying now one by one - I feel like they did not earn even a fraction of what some minor celebrities earn today"

    There is little doubt that Hindi literateurs greatly contributed to Hindi cinema with very literate scripts during the 50s/60s.

    I was watching the Hema malini / Dharmendra starrer Sharafat yesterday (one of Hema Malini's best performances). The script is laced with some wonderfully thoughtful dialogues. I checked out who the writer is. The dialogues are penned by one Krishna Chander - who was a Hindi / Urdu writer of some repute in the middle of the century. Now there really is no market for such writers in the Bollywood of today. Bollywood has taken a conscious decision to turn post-national in a sense, very removed from Indian life.

  5. Pyaasa is the best movie that I have ever seen