“Hiroshima Mon Amour” - Alain Resnais (1959)


After establishing himself as an inventive and artistic documentary filmmaker, Alain Resnais made his first dramatic feature in 1959 with Hiroshima Mon AmourIt was an immediate sensation, winning the International Critics’ Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and to this day it continues to stand as a must-see work for anyone interested in the possibilities of cinematic expression. The film appeared at the onset of and is sometimes loosely associated with  the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), although Resnais did not identify himself with that movement. Despite the film’s popularity with the critics [1,2], however, it was and remains controversial on several levels.  For one thing, how could one make a film that relates to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) that would encompass the full horror and suffering of the event?  And additionally, there were questions concerning what was the ultimate subject matter of the film and whether it reached any meaningful resolution.

Resnais was originally commissioned to make this film as another documentary in the fashion of his famous Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955), which was about the Nazi concentration camps.  But after thinking about his subject, Resnais felt that he couldn’t do justice to the topic in that fashion, and he declined the offer.  However, the producers already had French-Japanese co-funding lined up and encouraged Resnais to reconsider and expand the topic with the cooperation of a French fiction writer.  Eventually he hooked up with the distinguished novelist Marguerite Duras, who scripted the film with Resnais and who fashioned its famous dialogue. 

The story of the film concerns a brief love affair – not much more than a one-night stand, really – between a French woman and a Japanese man during the woman’s visit to Hiroshima.  She is there to act in a film about the Hiroshima bombing, and she has met the man casually just before the end of the location-shooting of her film production.  What Hiroshima Mon Amour goes on to present is essentially an extended conversation between these two people; but the conversation is enlivened visually by showing stream-of-consciousness images from the perspective of the French woman (the focalization of the film is entirely on her). The conversation they have touches on, in a natural manner, a number of profound themes, including love, memory, forgetting, historical reality, and time, itself.


In fact, before going further, I would remind the reader that the nature of time and narrative are inextricably linked, as Paul Ricoeur pointed out.  He argued that narrative lies at the very root of our understanding of time [3].  At its primordial level, time is not a succession of instants – that notion is only an abstract, theoretical construct.  Time, fundamentally, is understood through the narratives we construct about ourselves and the world around us with which we interact.  For his part, Resnais seems to be operating almost at the pre-narrative level – how shards of experience keep reappearing in our consciousness and how we may try to suppress them or hold onto them, depending on whether they are deemed to be parts of narratives that we want to retain about ourselves. 

These fragments of psychological experience/expression as presented in the film are mostly of four types;
  1. Objective images of the present
  2. Subjective impressionistic images of the present
  3. Subjective impressionistic images of the past
  4. Verbal (in voice-over) commentaries.
Type 1 is associated with an exterior focus, and types 2, 3, and 4 are associated with an interior focus.  These fragments are accompanied by nondiegetic music that has its role to play.  This music, most of which was composed by Giovanni Fusco, varies from dolorous or contemplative  to perky in order to reflect changes in mood and concentration. Although many people praise the musical score, I found it mostly a distraction and a weakness to the film.  Your mileage on this score may vary according to tastes.

On a thematic level, I would say that the film has four phases to it.  Since the woman and the man are never named, I will sometimes refer to them here as FW (French woman) and JM (Japanese man) [4].
                   
1.  The Hiroshima Atomic Bombing
The film opens, memorably. with the couple naked in bed, while the woman talks about having four times visited the atomic bombing museum in Hiroshima.  The psychological subjectivity of the images is evident when we sometimes see the couple doused with nuclear ash – a visual importation of images from the bombing victims shown in the museum.

Although the film’s focalization is always on FW, the focus in this section of the film is on FW’s interior.  What she saw (and thus the images that the viewer sees) are not “objectively” what happened, but instead dramatic recreations of the bombing presented in the museum.  Nevertheless, the viewer sees FW, from an interior perspective, trying to grasp what objectively happened in Hiroshima in 1945. 

She expresses horror at what she saw – how surviving women would wake in the morning and find all their hair had fallen out.  But the man soothingly tells her, in his broken French, that she saw nothing.  Whenever she says, “I saw X” (where X concerns something specific that she saw), he responds with, “No, you didn’t see X”.  She knows that, as a tourist, she probably has no right to tell a Japanese person her thoughts on these things. 

Finally she tells him, “like you, I know what it is to forget.”  And he responds with, “No you don’t know what it is to forget.”  But the woman continues:
“Like you, I have struggled with all my might not to forget.  Like you, I forgot.  Like you, I longed for a memory beyond consolation, a memory of shadows and stone.  For my part I struggled every day with all my might against the horror of no longer understanding the reason to remember.   Like you, I forgot.”
This is the historical reality that she doesn’t want the “world” to forget.  We anchor our own memories on events that are taken to be objective facts.  But sometimes the world doesn’t have a common understanding of some world-famous events. 

She goes on,
“I know something else.  It will begin again. 200,000 dead and 80,000 wounded in nine seconds.  Those are the official figures.  It will begin again. It will be 10,000 degrees on the earth.  10,000 suns, people will say.  The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. An entire city will be lifted off the ground, then fall back to the earth in ashes.“
It is worth pausing and reflecting on this for a minute in light of our present circumstances in the world today.  The American people are currently traumatized by acts of terrorism, particularly the 911 World Trade Center atrocity.  But they are reluctant to concede that the American government actually perpetrated perhaps the most villainous single terrorist act [5] – for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were intended to terrorize an entire people. Many people today (even some in Japan) prefer to believe that the atomic bombings precipitated the end of the Pacific War and therefore saved lives. There is considerable evidence, however, to say that such wishful thinking is not true [6,7,8].  The Japanese were about to surrender, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki sights were not integral to the Japanese war effort. Those bombings were meant, and only served, to terrorize a civiliain population.

FW, back in 1959, did not want the world to forget Hiroshima and what really happened there.  This part of Hiroshima Mon Amour, just by itself, is worth holding on to in an era when people seem unmindful of what happened then and could happen again.

2.  The Lovers Get Up
With the lovers still in bed, the focus turns to the lovers, themselves.  For the most part, the focus is more external and objective in this section, although there are occasional brief images reflecting FW’s memories of past events (which will be explained later in the film’s third section). 

FW now wants to immerse herself in her new love and forget about the world around her.  She says randomly in voice-over:
"How could I know this city was tailor-made for love? 
How could I know you fit my body like a glove? 
I like you.  How unlikely.
. . .
You’re destroying me.  You’re good for me.
. . .
Devour me.  Deform me to the point of ugliness."
Now after their night of passion, FW and JM get to know each other more.  She’s an actress; he’s an architect.  He asks her what the Hiroshima bombing meant to her when she heard news of it back in France, and she says it meant “the end of the war”.  He muses somewhat somberly that “the whole world rejoiced, and you rejoiced with it.”

But in the light of day, FW becomes more aware of her mundane responsibilities. She shocks JM by announcing to him that her plans are to return to France the next morning.  He wants to continue their relationship, but she doesn’t.  Departing in a taxi for her film shoot, she tells him that she is a married woman with children and that she just regards their tryst as a nice fling. 

3. Her Story
JM wants to pursue the relationship, however, and tracks her down at the film-shooting location.  After finishing her filming responsibilities, FW agrees to accompany JM to his home, where she learns that he, too, is married, though his wife is away at the moment.  Soon they are in bed again, but JM wants to know more about the woman he has come to love.  He suspects that an offhand remark she earlier made about her hometown of Nevers, France, points to something crucial, and he urges her to tell him more.

Now the mise-en-scene returns to the interior focus on FW.  Gradually, tearfully, she tells him about the traumatic event of her past – her secret teenage love affair with a German soldier in occupied France.  They had numerous secret, romantic trysts, but on the eve of the liberation, her lover was killed.  FW’s intense grief exposed her as a traitor, and she had her head shaved in public to highlight her shame.  Her family kept her locked in a cold cellar for months, and the sobbing girl was abandoned in her dungeon and assumed to be mad. Time passed, she was finally released from the cellar, and she made her way alone to Paris just before the Hiroshima bombing. 

FW tells him that the intensity of her grief was so great that she cannot believe she is now living a normal life.  Her greatest horror is that she will gradually forget her lost love and consequently cease to be herself:
“One day I will no longer remember it. . . . at all. . . . nothing.”
JM is thrilled to learn that she has never told this story before to anyone, not even to her husband.   He tells her
“In a few years when I have forgotten you, and other adventures like this one will happen to me from sheer force of habit, I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this story as the horror of forgetting.” 
Mutually realizing that they will probably never see each other again, she tells him to leave her, and he walks away.  At this point, we might expect the film to end here.  But it doesn’t, and this is where the film loses some viewers.

4.  Indecision
The remaining one-quarter of the film (22 minutes) tracks FW’s struggle with herself.  She has finally met a man who could open her up, and she doesn’t know what to do.  At one point she promises to herself that she will stay in Hiroshima and be with him every night.  But then she realizes this would be impossible.

JM comes to her again – he cannot forget her, either – and they go walking on the street.  While walking silently ahead of him, FW imagines a mini-narrative that fails to take place – that he will come up and grab her and kiss her and that she will surrender to him.  Contradictory thoughts and images are passing through her mind as she thinks about her old love and JM (she sometimes conflates the two).

She runs away back to her hotel room, but she knows he will come after her, and she lets him in.   She breaks down and cries to him, 
“I’ll forget you.  I’m forgetting you already! . . . Look how I’m forgetting you!  Look at me!”
They look at each other in search of an answer.
FW: “Hiroshima, that’s your name”
JM: “and your name is Nevers. “
Starting from different perspectives, they have both arrived at, and labeled, their distinctive narrative understandings of love and compassion.  With that the film ends.

There are differences of opinion concerning what happens at the end.  Some people believe she will stay with him in Hiroshima, while the majority believe she will part with him forever and return to France.   What really matters, though, is whether the overall narrative has reached some resolution.

Some people might say, in fact, that with respect to this narrative, FW has made no real progress at all.  She is still agonizing about the erosion of her memory, and now she simply has another fresh memory of importance that will also fade away like all the others. But I would disagree with that judgement. The experience she has had in Hiroshima – the unavoidable confrontation with the great suffering that that bombing event caused – has opened her up again. Feeling the unbearable pain associated with that historical event, has reconnected her to the depths of her feelings – including the unbearable pain of another event from her own past and also the wonders of giving herself to another soul. 

And opening up empathically, means being alive again, being herself again, being able to love deeply again.
★★★½ 

Notes:
  1. Andrew Sarris, “Movie Journal” (review of “Hiroshima Mon Amour”), The Village Voice (24 November 1960), part 1 & part 2.
  2. Acquarello, “Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959 Strictly Film School, (2000).
  3. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. They are often referred to in other quarters as “Elle” (She) and “Lui” (He), but I think this  can get unnecessarily confusing.
  5. The 1945 fire-bombings of Tokyo and other parts of Japan (not to mention the WWII firebombing in Europe) were collectively just as lethal, but they were more than a “single act”.
  6. Gareth Cook, “Why Did Japan Surrender?”, Bostom.com, (7 August 2011).
  7. Ward Wilson, “Rethinking Nuclear Weapons”, (2015).
  8. Ward Wilson, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, Mariner Books, (2014).

"The Virgin Spring” - Ingmar Bergman (1960)


Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960) was made during a period in his career when he was portraying existential examinations of religious faith.  It was made after The Seventh Seal (1957) and prior to his famed “Trilogy of Faith” – Through a Glass Darkly (1961) Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963).  Perhaps riding the waves of Bergman’s previous international successes, The Virgin Spring was a hit with the public and won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1961 US Academy Awards.  However, Bergman rarely referred to the film in his later years, and its interpretation remains somewhat controversial [1].

There are two notable aspects to the production.  Bergman usually composed his own screenplays, but on this occasion the film was scripted by the novelist Ulla Isaksson, who based her story on the 13th century ballad, “Töres Döttrar I Wänge” ("Töre's Daughters in Vänge"), which tells the story of why the 12th-century church in Kärna, Sweden, was built [2].  Bergman and Isaksson made some adaptations to this story that I will discuss below.  A second notable aspect of this film is that it was the first time Bergman used Sven Nyqvist as his cinematographer.  They would later work together on most of Bergman’s subsequent films.

What makes The Virgin Spring controversial, and this is something inherent in the original ballad, is its focus on revenge.  In fact the main outline of the story is rather simple. 
  1. A young woman, the “virgin”, sets out on an afternoon’s journey through the forest to make a religious offering to the church. 
  2. On the way, she encounters some goatherds, who rape and murder her, and then steal her clothing. 
  3. The goatherds travel to the town and, seeking to sell the girl’s expensive clothing, unknowingly attempt to sell it to the girl’s family. The girl’s father, Töre, kills the goatherds in revenge. 
This is the kind of visceral revenge scenario frequently seen in low-grade films, and some critics complain that Bergman was merely making an art-house version of this type of exploitation film. The viewer is set up with the image of an innocent girl. They are then shown some loathsome individual(s) with no redeeming features who violate her.  So the hero must avenge the villainous act by returning brutality in kind.  I would say that Bergman’s film is more than just this kind of exploitation fare, but certainly revenge is a key theme to the narrative.

Bergman’s film of this tale passes through four stages, and the theme of God’s place in this tale is fundamental to it.

1.  Karin and Ingeri
The film’s beginning introduces life at Töre’s manor, and the first person seen is Ingeri (played by Gunnel Lindblom, one of my favorite of Bergman’s actresses), the adopted daughter of Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg).  Although the focalization is initially on Ingeri, and she is seen here praying to the Norse god, Odin, it is immediately clear that Ingeri is not the “virgin”, since she is clearly pregnant.  The virgin is in fact Töre’s and Märeta’s own natural daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). 

The Ingeri character was not part of the original ballad, but she plays an important role in this story, because she offers a striking contrast to Karin and serves to highlight her pristine characteristics
  • Karin is blonde, fair-skinned, and elegant.  She is innocent, cheerful, virginal, and so used to being served by everyone around her that she is hopelessly spoiled.  She is also a dutiful Christian and says her prayers to God every night.
  • Ingeri is dark-haired, darker-skinned, sullied, and full of guilt and jealousy.  She is also basically a servant in the household and treated with contempt by those around her, especially now that she is pregnant and therefore presumed to be of loose morals.  She prays to Odin, hoping that she can summon evil spirits on the people she hates.
The contrast between Christianity and paganism was not without significance in those times, which presumably take place in the 12th century.  Sweden had only become largely Christianised in the 11th century, and the lower classes were probably still mindful of pagan beliefs in those times [3].

To emphasize just how spoiled Karin is, there is a seven-minute scene showing Märeta trying to get her (innocently) self-centered daughter dressed.  Her parents want her to get dressed in order to take some candles to the church as an offering to the Virgin Mary, and tradition calls for the person making the offering to be a virgin.  So Karin is the one to go.  Karin asks for Ingeri to accompany her, and they both set out on horseback and head through the forest towards the church.

Up to this point Karin has shown to be so exaggeratedly spoiled that we know something will happen to give her a comeuppance.

2.  Encounter in the Woods
As they travel, they come upon one of Karin’s many “boyfriends”, and his flirtatious remarks to Karin only fan Ingeri’s intense jealousy of her pampered half-sister.  When they start heading deeper into the forest, Ingeri, who is mindful of magic and evil spirits, become afraid and asks Karin to turn back.  But Karin says she will go on alone, and Ingeri can return.

Traveling on alone, Karen encounters three goatherds who are brothers, two young men and a younger boy who is about 12 or 13.  Although they smile obsequiously, it is evident that the goatherds (at least the older two) have hideously malevolent intentions.  Karin is innocently oblivious of such potential perfidy, and she cheerfully offers to share her lunch with them. 

Meanwhile, Ingeri has not returned to the family manor and has instead followed Karin.  She is watching fearfully what is going on at a distance.  Over the course of the next seven minutes, the film shows how the two older goatherds close in on Karin and then rape her violently.  This scene does not show nudity, but it was so viscerally disturbing that it was censored out of prints of the film shown in the US at the time.  Afterwards, the goatherds club Karin to death and steal her garments.  The images of them wantonly stomping on Karin’s holy candle offerings might bring to the minds of today’s viewers the hate-filled mockery of ISIS.

The younger boy is horrified and sickened by what has happened and seems not to be so satanic as his two older brothers.

3.  The Payback
The scene shifts back to Töre’s manor, where the three goatherd have unknowingly come seeking a place to sleep for the night.  The Töre estate has a number of farmhands and helpmates who eat together in the manor hall, and one of them is Simon (Oscar Ljung), who has earlier been identified as more educated than the rest (there are suggestive comments that he may be a political refugee).  Although Simon has no material effect on the story, he seems at times like a Greek chorus or poetic muse who makes meaningful comments on what is going on.  Seeing the three goatherds, Simon says to them mysteriously (there’s no indication in the film that he knows what has happened in the forest):
“A day can start out beautifully yet end in misery. Rarely have I seen a morning so full of promise as this morning. The sun shown in all its fairness and made you forget winter’s rages.  My legs wanted to dance for joy. . . . but before nightfall she lay dead. . . “
Then they all eat together in the manor hall, with Töre first saying grace to bless their meal.  The boy goatherd is still sick, and has to be laid down in a bunk.  Leaning over him while the boy is lying down, Simon almost fiendishly conjures up the following disturbing images:
"You see how the smoke trembles up in the roof hole?
As if whimpering and afraid? 
Yet it’s only going out into the open air,
where it has the whole sky to tumble about in.
But it doesn’t know, so it cowers under the sooty ridge of the roof. 
People are the same way. 
They worry and tremble like leaves in a storm
because of what they know. . . . and what they don’t know.   . .


You shall cross a narrow plank, so narrow you can’t find your footing. 
Below you roars a great river. . . It’s black and wants to swallow you up. 
But you pass over it unharmed. 
Before you lies a chasm. . . so deep you can’t see the bottom. 
Hands grope for you. . . but they can’t reach you. 
At last you stand before a mountain of terror.
It spews fire like a furnace, and a vast abyss opens at your feet. 
A thousand colors blaze there. .
. . . . copper and iron, blue vitriol and yellow sulfur.
Flames dazzle and flash and lash at the rocks.
And all about, men leap and writhe, small as ants,
for this is the furnace . . . that swallows up murderers and evildoers.

But at the very moment you think you are doomed, a hand shall grasp you
and an arm circle around you, . . . and you’ll be taken far away. . . .
where evil no longer has power over you."
Eventually the older goatherds try to sell Karin’s blood-stained garments to Märeta, who is stricken by the sight but remains silent. She locks the sleeping goatherds in the manor hall and reports what she has seen to Töre, who immediately makes plans to “bring the perpetrators to justice”.

Töre gathers his sword and while making his preparations, runs into Ingeri, who tells him everything that she had witnessed.  Girding himself up to his warrior intentions, he gives himself a birching in the traditional Scandinavian manner.  Then he enters the manor hall where the goatherds are still sleeping.  The ensuing slaughter is deliberately slow and drawn out – Töre doesn’t even use his sword – and it takes seven minutes of screen time.  It is here that the film’s exploitation critics are likely to make their case.  Not knowing that the boy goatherd was basically innocent, Töre kills him, too.

4.  Repentance
At this point the conventional revenge film would come to a swift closure.  In fact many viewers seem satisfied that the two older brothers were exterminated and believe they got their just deserts -- these viewers’ only reservations are that the young boy should have been spared.  But this film looks at thing differently. 

The viewer, in fact, has been set up twice.  Karin was self-centered and spoiled and presumably deserving of a comeuppance.  But she didn’t deserve happened to her.  Similarly, the goatherds were cruel, but it was a Christian’s, place to slaughter them vengefully.

After finishing his murderous rampage, Töre looks at his own hands and ask God’s forgiveness.  But others feel guilt, too.  Ingeri feels that her jealous prayers to Odin to bring mayhem on Karin were the cause of her half-sister’s death.  Märeta says,
“I loved her too much, Tore, more than God, himself.  When I saw she favored you, I began to hate you.  It is me that God meant to punish by this.  I bear the guilt.”
With Ingeri as guide, they go out to find Karin’s body. When they come upon it, Töre goes off by himself and looks up to heaven, saying,
“God, You saw it.   The death of an innocent girl and my vengeance.  You allowed it to happen. . . . . I don’t understand you. . . . . Yet still I ask Your forgiveness. “
He then promises to God as an act of repentance to build a church on this spot. When they go to lift Karin’s body from the ground, a water spring gushes up from where she was lying.  They all see this as a miracle.  Ingeri washes her hands in the water, and Märeta washes Karin’s face with the water.


Now I think most people see that final appearance of the “virgin spring” as an act of God, signifying his forgiveness.  I don’t.  To me The Virgin Spring is another chapter in Bergman’s decrying the absence of God.

The people who are looking for a god in the film, whether pagans or Christians, are all looking for some magical power that will come to their aid and solve their problems – or at least thwart brutal malice when it appears.  Ingeri prays to Odin, Märeta and Karin pray to God. They are looking for signs [4].  But God never answers or intervenes in this tale. When they see the spring emerge, they interpret it as God’s benevolence, but it may just be another natural occurrence that they want to interpret in a way that is favorable to their wishes.

There are some differences between the story of this film and that of the original “Töres Döttrar i Wänge” ballad. 
  • In the ballad, Töre had three daughters, and they were all slain by the herdsmen. 
  • In the ballad, the “virgin spring” appears immediately upon the deaths of the daughters, not upon the Töre’s promise of penance.
  • In the original ballad, Töre only kills two of the brothers.  He then asks the remaining brother where he comes from, and is informed that they are all the lost sons of Töre and Märeta.  This means that Töre has just killed two of his own children.
  • And the original ballad did not have the Ingeri and Simon characters. 
I believe that all the alterations to the story that were made by Isaksson and Bergman were to the good.

Interestingly, Bergman’s mise-en-scene places the viewer, who of course cannot intervene or change the course of action, into a position of an all-knowing but inactive spectator (somewhat like the god about which Töre complains).  There is no center of focalization in the film.  The focalization starts with Ingeri and meanders to Märeta, then to Töre, then to the herdsmen, and then back to Töre and Märeta.  The viewer is watching all of them, but rarely placed into a sympathetic position for the person who is being watched in order to establish complete empathy – most of the time, the “silent witness” is a bit withdrawn from the characters and placed in a position of more remote judgement.

Ultimately, to me, Bergman’s most authentic answer to his predicament of an absent god comes when Töre engages in his monologue with God:
“I know no other way to make peace with myself than with my own hands.  I don’t know any other way to live. . . . .”
His promise to God, his act of penance, is to work within his own horizon and personal circumstances and do something good with his own hands. That is the only way he knows how to live. And I think that is how Bergman saw it, too.


Notes:
  1. Peter Cowie,“The Virgin Spring: Bergman in Transition”,The Criterion Collection, Film Essays, (23 January 2006).
  2. “Töres döttrar i Wänge” ("Töre's daughters in Vänge"), Wikipedia, (19 September 2014). 
  3. “Religion in Sweden”, Wikipedia, (11 June 2015). 
  4. There is also rustic man living in the forest that Karin and Ingeri run into during their trip who believes in magical roots and herbs and makes blood offerings to Odin.

“Pyaasa” - Guru Dutt (1957)


Pyaasa (English meaning: “Thirsty”, 1957) is probably the most famous work of celebrated Indian filmmaker Guru Dutt.  Dutt, whose real name was Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone, was a spectacularly successful actor-director-producer of Hindi-language films during the 1950s and early 1960s; and over the course of his all-too-short career, he more or less established the style for popular Indian filmmaking that was to flourish in the succeeding decades.  Among all his successes, Pyaasa stands out for many Indian viewers as Dutt’s monument, because it was a box-office smash as well as a hit with the critics, both domestically and internationally  [1,2].

Despite these accolades, as well as Pyaasa’s undeniable charms, however, I believe that Dutt’s subsequent, and somewhat thematically comparable, Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) was a superior film.  I will comment further on how those two films compare, below. 

One key point of commonality between the two films is that their respective main characters (both played by Dutt) are both self-destructive and feel powerless to overcome their doomed fates.  In fact the two films fall in line with a popular narrative theme that goes back to the famous novella, Devdas, by Bengali writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhya published in 1917.  This story about a self-destructive main character who bemoans his fate has been filmed many times, most famously the 1955 film Devdas directed by Bimal Roy [3]; but its story was also an underlying current in Kaagaz Ke Phool. In all three films (Devdas, Pyaasa, and Kaagaz Ke Phool [4]) the main character feels blocked by circumstances and consequently withdraws from the world around him and descends into tragedy.  Of those three, however, Pyaasa does conclude with a decisive action, of sorts, on the part of the protagonist, which perhaps account for its greater popularity with mass audiences.

Another point of commonality between Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool is Dutt’s singularly expressionistic mise en scene, which set a standard for upscale Bollywood filmmaking.  This often featured
  • multi-plane compositions in depth, accompanied by winding camera movement
  • moody, expressionistic lighting – often featuring shadowy, partially-obscured settings
  • emotive closeups – these often capture reactive, unspoken expressions on the part of principal characters
  • narratively-embedded songs.  This was a particularly significant aspect of Pyaasa, since a major thematic element of the film is poetry and its expression of social protest.  Many of the major songs in the film are presented as poem recitals in musical form.
The story of Pyaasa is about a destitute but talented poet who feels out of step with the world around him. We could say that his poetic sensibilities make him too sensitive to the petty cruelties that we constantly encounter in everyday dealings.  The narrative dwells persistently on the poet’s dissatisfaction, but it does pass through four stages in its relentless descent.
1.  The Poet Outcast
The poet Vijay (played by Guru Dutt) is introduced in the beginning waking up in the forest and reflecting miserably on nature’s wonders and his own inadequacies.  This is presented on the soundtrack as a poetic song (presumably one of Vijay’s poems) sung by renowned playback singer Mohammad Rafi – “What little have I to add to this splendor, save a few tears, a few sighs.” 

It is soon evident that Vijay is a penniless poet who cannot get anyone to publish his work.  When he tries to sell his poems to a newspaper editor, he is told,
“Call that gibberish poetry?  It’s a crusade against unemployment. . . .
You must write poems about love”
And this is a key element to the film.  We often expect poetry to be about love or nature, but evidently Vijay’s poetry often takes the form of social protest.  This element of social commentary distinguishes Pyaasa from the usual Devdas line of personal suffering and perhaps helps account for some of Pyaasa’s persistent popularity.  Vijay is not just complaining about his own problems; he is protesting about the injustice in this world.

At home, although his mother still loves him, his two brothers reject him as a useless scrounger. They throw him out of their family home and sell his accumulated poetry for scrap paper.  When Vijay rushes to the scrap dealer to try and retrieve his papers, he learns that they were purchased by an unknown woman who was fascinated by the poetry.

Later when Vijay is sleeping on a park bench, he overhears a streetwalker named Gulab (Waheeda Rehman in her first starring role) singing his poetry, and  he follows her.  She tries to lure him for “business” to her apartment, but she kicks him out when she learns he is penniless.  After Vijay is gone, Gulab notices a paper dropped from his pocket containing some poetic lines, and she realizes that he is the poet whose papers she had purchased from the scrap dealer.

2.  Sad Memories Rekindled
Sitting on another park bench, Vijay happens to see from a distance his old flame, Meena (Mala Sinha).  Although much of his poetry complains about the world’s injustice, it was apparently inspired by a failed love affair with Meena.  Vijay lapses into a flashback about his old days at college with Meena, but the flashback is poorly cued. This poor signification of scene transitions, particularly time transitions, is in fact a general weakness of the film, and I will comment more on that below.

At a small café, Vijay doesn’t have enough to pay for a bite to eat, and he is about to be thrown out when Gulab suddenly shows up and pays off the cashier for him.  She says warmly that she knows him from his poems.  But another major weakness of Vijay (and all the other Devdas characters, for that matter) is his pride.  Feeling threats to his dignity, he rejects her act of “pity” for him.  I have commented elsewhere on the pseudo-concept of “dignity” [5], and I won’t belabor the point much here.

At this point comic relief enters in the form of cinematic buffoon Johnny Walker  (Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi), who plays the role of pimp and massage oil salesman Abdul Sattar. Walker, who was a friend of Dutt’s and appears in many of his movies, usually plays the role of an utterly inebriated (even though in real life Walker was a teetotaler) cartoonish and effeminate character, and I found his appearances irksome in Devdas and Kaagaz Ke Phool.  Here, however, he is much more tolerable, since his role in the film fits in with the narrative a little better.  Walker here sings (of course in playback by Mohammad Rafi) about his massage-oil’s virtues, and, ridiculous though it was, it was my favorite song in the film [6].

Later Vijay is induced to attend a college class reunion, where he runs into Meena.  He is invited to recite one of his poems, and he sings a sad lament about his broken heart, which evokes silent tears from Meena who is looking on.  Meena’s husband, Mr. Ghosh, is also present as a former classmate; and upon seeing Meena’s tears, he becomes suspicious about her relationship with Vijay.  To find out more, he offers Vijay a job.  Vijay, aware that Ghosh is a wealthy publisher and not knowing that he is Meena's husband, willingly accepts the job offer, even though it is only to be as a servant.

Eventually, Vijay finds out that Meena is married to Ghosh and that she married him for his money.  When he confronts her alone at their home, she tells him,
“Besides love, a sensible woman needs security and the comfort of a home.”
These words only inflame Vijay’s attitudes about how selfish and corrupt everyone is, and whatever tenderness he may have felt for her now appears to be gone.  Ghosh breaks in on them and accuses his wife of being a tramp and fires Vijay from his job.

3.  The Poet’s Departure
Things only get worse for Vijay.  Homeless and jobless, when he learns from his scornful brothers that his mother has passed away, he sinks further into depression. He goes to visit his jovial, but cynically selfish, friend Shyam, where he sometimes bunks out, and immediately drowns himself in alcohol.  Then he runs out into the street and sings another famous poem lamenting the corruption of this world as it is manifested in urban prostitution areas. But the emphasis of concern is on dignity.
Where are they the guardians of dignity?
Where are those who claim to be proud of this land?
These insidious streets where infamy is traded
Where men conceal their names, where money talks
...
Summon all the leaders of this land.
Show them the treachery,
Show them these devious streets.
Gulab finds Vijay in a drunken state and takes him back to her apartment, where he passes out.  The shadow-laden cinematography in these scenes is particularly effective here.  Vijay wakes up while Gulab is sleeping, composes a brief suicide note, and then departs. 

Vijay then goes out to the railroad yard tracks and gives his coat to a beggar in preparation for his departure from this world.  A train comes down the tracks, and it appears that both Vijay and the beggar are killed.  The suicide note is apparently discovered, and a news item appears the next day reporting Vijay’s death. 

4.  Final Farewell
Gulab decides to collect all of Vijay’s poetry and goes to Ghosh publishers to get it published. There she encounters Meena for the first time, and their contrasting personae are now in the same frame. The respectable and wealthy Meena is disdainful of the streetwalker Gulab, but Meena’s gold-digging marriage is not so remote from what Gulab does for a living.  And while Gulab selflessly offers her life savings to get the poems published and honor the man she secretly loved, Meena selfishly attempts to prevent their publication.  In the end, Ghosh accepts Gulab’s offer and publishes the poems.   The book  immediately becomes a runaway bestseller with the public, and the dead poet is lionized as a cultural hero. 

For about eight minutes of the film, there has been an assumption that Vijay is dead, but then there is a cut to a hospital ward showing Vijay prostrate and mute, but alive, in a bed.  The hospital attendants do not know who their patient is, and when Vijay eventually revives (by hearing a nurse recite his own poetry) and says he is the poet, they all think he is mad.  They immediately have him locked up in an asylum.

Meanwhile Ghosh, Shyam, and Vijay’s loathsome brothers are quarreling among themselves concerning how to share the loot from Vijay’s publishing sales.  They are summoned to the mental hospital to verify Vijay’s identity, but they all look at Vijay and say he is an imposter.  They prefer to keep Vijay out of the picture and keep the money for themselves.

Eventually with Abdul Sattar’s help, Vijay does escape from the asylum and anonymously manages to get to an auditorium commemorating the first anniversary of Vijay’s death.  Ghosh is there giving a hypocritical oration, but he is interrupted by Vijay from the balcony, who recites his most bitter condemnation of a soulless world.
This world of palaces, of kingdoms, this world of power
The enemies of humanity; this world of rituals
These men who crave wealth as their way of life
For what will it profit a man if he gain the world?
People with parched souls, with wounded spirits   
With troubled gaze and sad hearts
This world which is distraught and full of trouble
For what will it profit a man if he gain the world?

The world where life is considered trivial.
A world where the dead are worshiped
A world where death is cheaper than life
For what will it profit a man if he gain the world?

A world where youth is driven to crime
A world where the young are groomed for the marketplace.
A world where love is another name for trade
For what will it profit a man if he gain the world?

A world where man is worth nothing
A world where friendship and loyalty mean nothing
A world where love is regarded with disdain
For what will it profit a man if he gain the world?

Burn this world, blow it asunder!
Take this world away from my sight!
This world belongs to you, you keep it.
For what will it profit a man if he gain the world?
Since almost everyone that Vijay sees is out for his or her own selfish pursuits, his thoughts have now moved from frustration with his own personal circumstances (romance, family, joblessness) to a condemnation of the entire world [7]. A mass riot of destruction now breaks out at auditorium, but Vijay escapes. 

With Vijay’s existence now publicly known, there is another public meeting held to which Vijay is invited in order for him to recite his poetry and verify his identity.  But at the event, he rejects them all and tells the people who now worship the poet Vijay that he is not that Vijay. 

In the final scene he goes to Gulab’s apartment to tell her that he is going far away – and to her rapturous joy, he invites her to accompany him.
There are undoubtedly great strengths in Pyaasa.  The moody, in-depth compositions and shadow-laden photography are evocative and memorable. Guru Dutt’s existentially intense performance, as well as Waleeda Rehman’s soulful characterization are also irreplaceable [8].  And the way the song lyrics are integrated into the narrative as poetic manifestations makes the musical element that much more meaningful. 

But there are weaknesses, too.  Here are a few of them:
  • The outlandish ham acting on the part of many of the characters, particularly Vijay’s odious brothers, is disturbing.  This gross overacting goes well beyond expressionism and becomes off-putting for the viewer.
  • There are absurdly improbable coincidental meetups that have no narrative motivation.  Vijay and Gulab keep running into each other at unlikely moments.
  • Despite the employment of in-depth compositions, there are not enough establishing shots to signal scene transitions.  This is particularly a problem when it comes to time displacements, such as flashbacks. 
  • Surprisingly, there are numerous jarring jump-cuts that interrupt the narrative flow.  These are visually disturbing and pull the viewer out of deep involvement with the story.
Many of these problems were less in evidence with Dutt’s subsequent film, Kaagaz Ke Phool.  Although the production teams for the two films were largely identical – with the same cinematographer (V. K. Murthy), editor (Y.G. Chawhan), and musical composer (S. D. Burman) – it is my understanding that the production budget for Kaagaz Ke Phool was two-and-a-half times that of Pyaasa.  So perhaps with the latter film there were more resources and time available to reshoot scenes and work out problems in the editing room. 

One significant production staff difference, though, was the lyricist.  For Pyaasa, the lyrics were composed by Sahir Ludhianvi, who I understand was an established poet.  Because of some differences with musical composer Sachin Dev Burman, this was their last collaboration, and the lyrics for Burman’s music in Kaagaz Ke Phool were composed by Kaifi Azmi.  All in all, I preferred what seemed to me was Burman’s more soulful music in that latter film.  Nevertheless, perhaps Ludhianvi’s lyrics in their original language are very special and account by themselves for Pyaasa’s greater domestic popularity – I only react to the subtitled lyrics, which of course cannot remotely capture poetic expressions in their original form. 

Another difference between the two films is their endings.  Kaagaz Ke Phool ends with defeat and death, truly expressing existential despair. Pyaasa, on the other hand has a more upbeat ending.  It is my understanding that Dutt originally wanted Vijay to wind up alone – the more positive ending, with Vijay and Gulab together, was imposed on Dutt by the distributors [9].  Perhaps it was this commercially-imposed ending that helped made Pyaasa the more financially successful film.

On a thematic level, as I mentioned above, Pyaasa incorporates a social justice theme that goes beyond the existential themes of love and personal ambition underlying Kaagaz Ke Phool.  But, to me, pride and ego dominate the Vijay character in Pyaasa more than justice does.  For example, his poetic complaint about city prostitution districts in Act 3 seems to be more a concern about something that besmirches India’s reputation than it is about injustice towards women.


In fact Vijay doesn’t really love.  At least Devdas, even with all his self-pitying, loved Paro (and similarly in Kaagaz Ke Phool Suresh loved Shanti).  But fans of Pyaasa perhaps believe that Vijay is more principled than Devdas, and hence more worthy than those other characters.  It is actually Gulab who truly embodies love, not Vijay.  Even though she only first came to know him through his written words, those words resonated with her, and she came to love the man who wrote them.   So Gulab’s final embrace of Vijay in that last scene really was crucial.  It identified love as their salvation, and, by implication, the world’s salvation, too.
★★★
 
Notes:
  1. Pyaasa is ranked 45th on Murtaza Ali Khan’s 2013 list of all-time greatest films at A Potpouurri of Vestiges.  See his review of Pyaasa here: http://www.apotpourriofvestiges.com/2012/04/pyaasa-1957-legendary-indian-auteur.html.
  2.  In 2005, Richard Corliss of Time magazine ranked Pyaasa as one of the 100 best films of all time, http://entertainment.time.com/2005/02/12/all-time-100-movies/slide/all/.
  3. In fact the financial backers of Pyaasa originally wanted to enlist the star of Devdas, Dilip Kumar, to play the lead role, but they could not come to terms.
  4. Note also that the music for all three films, which in each case is a major strength of the production, was composed by S. D. Burman.
  5. See for example my reviews of The Last Command (1928)  and Bicycle Thieves (1948).
  6. S. D. Burman admitted that he adapted the tune from a British movie that he had seen.
  7. The English lyrics may appear to reference the Christian Bible, Mark 8:36:
    “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
    But the allusion seems to be different.  In the Bible it is suggested that the great material riches of the world are less than the greater value of one’s own soul.  Vijay’s poem here, on the other hand, omits the reference to soul and merely suggests that in its present state the world, itself, is worthless.
  8. Guru Dutt and Waleeda Rehman reportedly had a love affair during this period.  Viewers may look for  their affective chemistry on the screen in this film. 
  9. “Pyaasa”, Wikipedia, (20 April 2015).

James Ivory

Films of James Ivory: