In this paper, I will compare Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959). I will argue that, while both films are respected for their astute social commentary, Pyaasa has a stronger socio-political concern, while Kaagaz Ke Phool is more personal; however, with each film, Guru Dutt attempts to express the degenerative impact the industrializing society has on its individual citizens, particularly the artists. Each film illustrates how growth in industry, and society’s increasing facilitation of capitalist business, transforms art, love, and humanity into commodities, thus creating “a world where man is worth nothing” and these things are lost.
Moreover, Guru Dutt acts in the lead role of both films, and utilizes his character to express personal concerns and conflicts; as a result, both films, although especially Kaagaz Ke Phool, are reflective of Guru Dutt’s actual life and his real struggle as an artist in an increasingly industrial world. I will analyze the films in terms of their social conscious and personal conscious. I will then synthesize Guru Dutt’s social and personal commentary, focusing on the man himself, to explain why he feels that industry has a destructive impact on art, humanity, and personal expression.
During the 1950s, under Nehru, India embarked on massive industrialization. Guru Dutt, for one, resented that industry was undermining traditional values, and promoting a (negative) shift in the Indian psyche: transforming people into products. As a filmmaker, Guru Dutt utilized his craft to reach people with his concerns. Both Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool elucidate the destructive potentialities of industry by illustrating an artist’s (a poet and a filmmaker respectively) descent into isolation, disillusionment, and loss of hope in humanity.
Moreover, Pyaasa subversively comments on the socio-political perception of art. The characters within the film, apart from Vijay (Guru Dutt) and Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), are self-concerned and do not care for artistic creation. Because Vijay is a poet, and does not provide money or food for the family, his brothers disown him and his girlfriend, who once said she “loved him and would never leave”, leaves him for a rich man (who profits from the sale and distribution of poetry as commercial products); moreover, when Vijay is assumed dead by suicide, this man capitalizes on the ‘tragedy’ by selling his poetry, insincerely marketing the notion that society “starved and killed him in this world of power” by not paying attention. Essentially, the characters are motivated by money, hunger, and ‘thirst’: desire – to be rich and successful, to “gain the world”.
Considering this, Guru Dutt clearly wishes to articulate the banality of these materialistic concerns, and the real tragedy that is society’s loss of art and humanity. This is most effectively expressed through the lyrics of the final song, Yeh Mehlon, Yeh Takhto:
“These men who crave wealth as their way of life, for what will it profit a man if he gains the world?… This world which is distraught and full of trouble… The world where life is considered trivial, A world where the dead are worshipped, where the youth are trained for the marketplace, where love is another name for trade… A world where man is worth nothing”.
This is followed by Vijay yelling “burn this world, blow it over” while being dragged away; at this point, the protagonist has become disillusioned and lost hope in society and humanity. Later, he chooses not to reveal himself to the people, because he would rather “repudiate” them and “begin a new life far away”.
Besides, the protagonist, Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt) of Kaagaz Ke Phool suffers a similar disillusionment, loss of hope, and repudiation of society – this time due to the “filthy film business”. In this world, film is already being seen as a commodity and a business; however, Sinha, a man who appreciates and cares for art, tries to maintain the sanctity of film as art. This is illustrated in several ways; for example, he creates a film adaptation of Devdas using a non-actress with an innocent and naturalistic look, he refuses to make ‘studio films’ where he does not have creative control, and he is unwilling to “sell-out”.
Similar to Vijay in Pyaasa, society and industry destructively affect Sinha. When he is unwilling to cater to studio demands, the producers get rid of him. They say “he can’t make hits, he’s useless, he’s disposable”. They don’t need an artist as a director, just someone who will do the job, not cause trouble, and make them money. Sinha is soon forgotten; as the voice-over narrative states, “this is the film business. It takes time to make a name; it doesn’t take time to be forgotten”. Moreover, Rocky’s (Johnny Walker) horse speech metaphorically expresses this phenomenon: “he was a three legged horse, broke his leg in the last run, made millions for them, but he’s useless now, so they shot him”. Guru Dutt uses this analogy to express his concern with the film industry: it uses people, treats them as commodities, strips them of art, love, and humanity, and leaves them to hang.
While Pyaasa is partially based on the poet Sahir Ludhianvi, the lyricist of the songs in the film, it is partially a reflection of Guru Dutt’s life. However, with Pyaasa, Guru Dutt attempts to make general statements; there is an individual, Vijay, but he is a composite of characteristics from varying sources. On the other hand, with Kaagaz Ke Phool, it seems that Guru Dutt, having already shown the destructive affects of industry with Pyaasa, wishes to sincerely illustrate, by using his own image, the individual artist’s plight with this destructive phenomenon. As a result, with Suresh Sinha, a filmmaker modeled after Guru Dutt, the film is relatively more self-reflective than the previous, conveying Guru Dutt’s actual situation within society.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss some of the direct connections between Vijay, Sinha, and Guru Dutt himself, such as their struggle for true artistic expression, rejection from society, isolation, and alcohol abuse. In real life, Guru Dutt smoked heavily, drank heavily, kept odd hours, had difficult relationships, was obsessed with his work, lived in isolation, and died alone. Like his protagonists, he used alcohol as a means to forget, and to rid himself of the world – to reject the industrial society and the greed, selfishness, and insincerity it brings.
Moreover, he didn’t care much for money or fame, he cared more about creating art; this is made abundantly clear with his utilization of Suresh Sinha as his proxy in Kaagaz Ke Phool. Suresh is unwilling to sell out to the increasingly commercializing film industry. He becomes upset with Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) upon seeing her in makeup at the party, stating that she “lost her innocence, and endearing simplicity”. He snidely comments “I didn’t think you’d take to tinsel town so soon”; this remark articulates Guru Dutt’s spite towards the transformation of film from art to a business commodity, and of humans from artists to commercial products.
Although the protagonist in both films experience a deep loneliness, and perhaps their acute awareness of their own isolation cannot ever be entirely removed, Suresh Sinha makes a powerful speech in court attempting to gain partial custody of his daughter. He cries, “loneliness is a burden, I have lived it for too long, and now I want to break free of it”; the passion expelled by Guru Dutt during this scene makes one realize that this is a personal expression of Guru Dutt himself. The court doesn’t grant him custody; his loneliness prevails; he struggles, searching for peace, but continues to be lost – a vagabond; and he dies alone. This loneliness is effectively conveyed by the song Waqt Ne Kiya, which states, “Life brings us, to such sweet pleasure of pain. Yourself, you are no more. Myself, I am no more. Where to? I don’t know. We have set out, but the path I know not. What do we seek, I know not, but with every breath, my heart weaves a dream”. The lyrics poetically capitulate the emotions that Guru Dutt not only feels, but wants to express to the audience.
Through social and personal commentary, Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool independently express the degenerative impact the industrializing society has on its individual citizens, particularly the artists; however, these films fit together as a personal expression of Guru Dutt and his real struggle with a changing society and industry that does not care for art, love, or humanity. They are simultaneously a memoir of the late Guru Dutt, as well as a commentary on the society that caused much of his suffering.
Moreover, his view of alcohol, as expressed by Sinha in Kaagaz Ke Phool, illuminates the source of his suffering. Sinha states, “This is no poison, nor an elixir. Alcohol: the last resort for chronic dreamers”. By “chronic dreamers”, he seems to suggest people who are unceasingly hopeful and idealistic. The protagonist in both films maintain their hopefulness despite their sobered witnessing of reality. They cannot convince themselves to fully reject the world, so they turn to alcohol (the “last resort for dreamers“, a way to ease their suffering). They cannot reject their desires and dreams by will, so they must do so by intoxication.
Furthermore, Guru Dutt films are well respected for their beautiful music that are not only aesthetically appealing, but support the plot. In Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool this support is undeniable. Of every song, the two part track that begins and ends Kaagaz Ke Phool seems to most accurately convey Guru Dutt’s feelings and thoughts regarding himself, the state of industry and society, and his situation in it. He sings:
“I have seen a world full of love. They all part, one by one, they all part. What have I found from this world? Tears alone; nothing else remains.Flowers, flowers blossomed in my gardens, even thorns. Here, in a world of greed. They all part, one by one, they all part. Fly, Fly away thirsty bee, there is no nectar here, where paper flowers blossom, not in this garden, where innocence is lost, hopes are dashed. One hand gives, a hundred snatch it away, This game that’s being going on forever, they all part, one by one, they all part”
The lyrics, through metaphor, express the dying of art, love and humanity; the killer: an ever-expanding industrial world of greedy, self-centered capitalists. Everyone leaves, he is alone in isolation. Once from a world where there was the beauty, simplicity, and naturalness of real flowers (with real thorns), and nectar (with nourishing properties for the soul), he is now in a world of phoniness, a world without beauty, without art, without hope (it’s all been taken away, piece by piece by people’s greed). Kaagaz Ke Phool ends with Suresh Sinha dying on the director’s chair that once was his. The producer yells to carry him out, they “only have until 6:30 and have to finish the movie!”; Guru Dutt makes his final subversive remark about industry.
Pyaasa (Thirst). Dir. Guru Dutt. Writ. Abrar Alvi. Perfs. Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Mala Sinha. Film. Guru Dutt Films Ltd. 1957.
Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers). Dir. Guru Dutt. Writ. Abrar Alvi. Perfs. Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman. Guru Dutt Films Ltd. 1959.