Roundabout: Pyaasa revisited on Sahir Ludhianvi’s death anniversary in his Centenary year

This 1957 film was inspired by the poetry of Sahir and Guru Dutt wove around it the theme of social injustice and the poignant though unspoken love of the poet and the prostitute, which rises above the prejudices of the class-torn social order
A still from Pyaasa with Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman.(Sourced)
A still from Pyaasa with Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman.(Sourced)
Published on Oct 24, 2020 10:30 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByNirupama Dutt

“Aah! Sahir Ludhianvi,’’ said banners at various spots in Ludhiana and these had been painted by his old friend Painter Bawrie, who once roamed the streets of the city with Sahir in the first flush of their youth. Those white cloth banners with beautiful calligraphy of Urdu letters in black fluttering in the gentle October breeze come to my mind after 40 years.

Those days, as a young writer journeying through art and literary journalism, I had visited Ludhiana to bring out a special page in the newspaper, dedicated to the poet who took the name of his city as his own in his phenomenal journey from poetry to film songs, a few days after his passing away. Since then one has often gone back to the work and life of Sahir Ludhianvi (March 8,1921 – October 21, 1980) in appreciation of his immense talent. With time, the poetry of Sahir, that raised a voice against war, loss, communal strife and social inequities, has become even more relevant.

In celebration of his centenary year and the growing interest in the theme of his writings, one chose to revisit the film that put a stamp on his creativity. One is, of course, referring to Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. This 1957 film is not just considered Dutt’s best, it can even proudly stand on its own against the internationally acclaimed cinema of Satyajit Ray, of course made in the genre shaped by Mumbai cinema.

Pyaasa was inspired by the poetry of Sahir and Dutt wove around it the theme of social injustice and the poignant though unspoken love of the poet and the prostitute, which rises above the prejudices of the class-torn social order. In an interview to Henri Micciollo, a French critic who had viewed Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, Satyajit Ray praised the director’s “remarkable sense of rhythm and fluidity of camera,” which he attributed to his years spent with Uday Shankar. Among French viewers Pyaasa is still acknowledged as a classic.

Sahir Ludhianvi (Sourced)
Sahir Ludhianvi (Sourced)

Acclaimed as the best romantic film of all times, Pyaasa brought to large audiences across the country the poetry of Sahir in all its glory, set to the lilting music of SD Burman. Writing on this film which was to mark the end of the Sahir-Burman magic, Akshay Manwani, the biographer of The People’s Poet, writes: “Sahir Ludhianvi, his lyrical contribution apart, remains central to the theme. The film is replete with references to Sahir and his life even if they happen unwittingly. For example, in the film’s second scene, when the publisher refuses to publish Vijay’s poems saying that poetry should be about beauty and romance instead of hunger and unemployment, the parallel to Sahir’s own brand of poetry is all too familiar.”

However, it was the genius of Guru Dutt as a film-maker that he was able to combine social struggle and romance in such an immortal metaphor which gives one goosebumps six decades after the film was made. Pyaasa was indeed a major coming together of major talents of the past century with Guru Dutt as actor-director, Waheeda Rehman, Dutt’s muse, as the prostitute Gulabo, the intense poetry of Sahir and the haunting voice of Geeta Dutt.

Sadly, Sahir and Burman fell apart because the former wanted him to acknowledge his role as a lyricist which the latter would not yield to. They, however, continued to touch magical heights even after their rift as music director and lyricist, respectively, but there will never be a Pyaasa again!

The romantic triangle of the film with Dutt, Waheeda and Mala Sinha had a parallel spillover from reel to real life with one woman and two men. The woman of course was the inimitable poet of Punjabi Amrita Pritam and the men, her first love Sahir Ludhianvi, and her lasting love, the artist Imroz. Interestingly, Imroz was appointed to make the publicity posters for the film which he did by including complete poems of Sahir with the still of the lovers Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, which was as popular as the film.

By the time the film was released, Imroz had come into Amrita’s life and there was a little story about the premier of the film that once Imroz recounted to me. “I was given two tickets for the premier show in Delhi besides the payment I had got for the artwork for the film. I went to Amrita and told her that I had got the tickets for the premier and would like her to accompany me. She, however, said that Sahir had already asked her to accompany him,” said Imroz. I remained silent for a few seconds and then asked him, “Did this trouble you?” He was quick to reply, “Not at all. She had known Sahir before she got to know me so it was all right and then he had asked her to accompany him before I did. I also went to the premiere and saw the film by myself and they saw it sitting side by side. That was all,” he replied with a smile.

Coming back to Sahir Ludhianvi’s Ludhiana and the friend of his youth, Painter Bawarie, whom I met 40 years ago, I remember him talking about Chakley (Brothels), the famous poem by Sahir, included in his first poetry collection, Talkhian. It was later to become the famous song in Pyaasa: Yeh kooche yeh neelamghar dilkashi ke (These streets, these auction houses of allurement ). “I was so struck by this poem, written when he (Ludhianvi) was still in his teens and his courage in calling the fallen woman of the streets by the names of Havva, Yashodha and Zulekha, the sacred women of three major religions of the country!”

Well, that was the spirit of Sahir and Pyaasa put together!

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