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The ‘kavi’ and the ‘baniya’

In two song sequences, two very different treatments of the art vs commerce conundrum

Guru Dutt as Vijay in ‘Pyaasa’.
Guru Dutt as Vijay in ‘Pyaasa’.

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 had commercialized 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 drink 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 new-found admirers who feel so good about feeling so bad).

However, 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 laid-back 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 dancing and singing. “Kavi Raja, kavita ke mat ab kaan marodo," he begins, “Dhande ki kuch baat karo, kuch paise jodo (don’t agonize so much over your verses, royal poet. Think about business and making money instead)." As a visibly tickled Diwakar and 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 slyly 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 for 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 metre. 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, S.D. Burman’s score and Mohammed Rafi’s voice—or the power of V.K. 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.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. This is the second in a series on Hindi film song sequences. He tweets at @jaiarjun

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