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Negotiating Empathy and Excess: Pyaasa as a Melodrama of Authorship


Adaptation scholars have studied cinematic representations of literary authorship as well as their intertextual and intermedial aspects, highlighting how such reconstructions mark a return to the authorial body of the screened writer and undercut poststructuralist ideas of the dead canonical author (Elliott, 180). The existing scholarship is, however, preoccupied with representations of canonical writers, often underestimating fictional writers whose filmic configurations may introduce other literary possibilities beyond historicism.1 While regular discussions on self-conscious films such as Shakespeare in Love and Becoming Jane have drawn our attention towards the literary biopic2, there has hardly been any serious analysis of, for instance, the anxiety of adaptation in Barton Fink or the Rancieresque proletarian poet in Paterson. For a field of study so vehemently critical of ‘fidelity’, adaptation studies is strikingly faithful to literary history.

While celebrated as one of the iconic films of the golden decade of Hindi cinema (better known to the world now as Bollywood), Pyaasa (1957) is rather underappreciated as a rich cinematic text that opens itself up to a complex inquiry of screened authorship. Despite being a seminal text for Indian film scholars, the literary aspects of this landmark film have not received much academic attention.3 Sudhir Mahadevan’s fascinating study of Pyaasa as a melodrama of mechanical reproduction argues that “the movie’s stance toward popular culture, articulated as a rejection of the mass-produced commodity, runs counter to the history of print culture in South Asia” (87). The film’s pessimistic outlook of the world of print and publishing indeed makes it an unreliable allegory of mass culture. Nonetheless, Pyaasa is also a melodrama of authorship which, as the paper will argue, calls for a different historical and hermeneutic approach. In the film, Vijay (Guru Dutt) is an Urdu poet in post-independence Calcutta who loses in both love and life before abandoning society altogether at the end. Vijay is a young, sensitive poet who struggles to publish his nazms (poems) due to their cynical views on society. He is mocked alike by publishers and family members who literally treat his manuscripts as rubbish. In the forlorn search for his discarded poetry, Vijay encounters Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute who buys his manuscripts from a scrap seller. Vijay also runs into his college sweetheart, Meena (Mala Sinha), who had left him to marry a successful publisher, Mr. Ghosh (Rehman). Mr. Ghosh senses the tension between two ex-lovers and hires Vijay as a servant only to humiliate him further in front of Meena. At the end of his wits, Vijay decides to end his life but an unexpected turn of events leads to the death of a beggar who is found wearing Vijay’s coat while Vijay ends up in a lunatic asylum. For the world, however, Vijay is dead, and there is suddenly a great demand for his poetry due to Gulabo’s noble efforts and Mr. Ghosh’s selfish interests in celebrating Vijay posthumously. Vijay gatecrashes his own memorial ceremony and announces himself alive in front of hundreds of admirers who have gathered to pay him their respects. However, he is soon disillusioned with this shallow success as he dramatically declares himself dead in front of another large gathering of poetry lovers who turn riotous after this ironic declaration. After escaping a lynch mob, Vijay turns up at Gulabo’s door and together they walk away into the distance, renouncing a society that denies dignity to both the poet and the prostitute.

The subject of literary authorship is not one that enjoys considerable appeal in popular Indian cinematic narratives, except rare instances such as Mirza Ghalib (1954) and Manto (2018)4. Hollywood and British cinema, on the other hand, boast a long list of iconic films about literary writers which have inspired representation-focussed scholarship on the cinematic strategies employed to animate the writing process, a subject when otherwise viewed realistically, “would be hard pressed to yield momentum, trajectory and visual drama.” (Buchanan 3) However, a film such as Pyaasa allows us to extend such intermedial concerns beyond medium-specific strategies of representation and undertake a fuller exploration of the melodramatic imagination of literary authorship through an analysis of the affective infrastructures of print and publishing, the aural reception of writing through song and speech, and the spatio-historical implications of imagining a fictional working-class poet on the postcolonial screen.

Robert Stam’s clarion call for “a new language and a new set of tropes for speaking about adaptation” (24) resounded across the field as the scholarship over the last two decades largely eschewed comparative frameworks that privilege the literary over the cinematic. My approach in this paper has been particularly informed by Hodgkins’ work on the affective synergies of film and literature. He argues that the criterion of fidelity ceases to matter when we engage with questions of “how literary texts link up to and redirect the affective energies of cinema just as cinema redistributes the affective energies of literature.” (139) Hodgkins’ reconception of literature and film as “affective economies that communicate with each other, and with audiences, through the transmission of affective intensities”, and the process of adaptation “as a dissemination of those intensities from one medium to another” (2) helped me rethink the representation of the fictional poet in Pyaasa in terms of a cinematic adaptation of literary sensations and sentiments shared by the audience. The paper shall argue that the visual drama of authorship in Pyaasa is sustained through two affective modalities of audience engagement: (i) an empathetic identification with the poet’s emotional life through diegetic and sensory cues, and (ii) a melodramatic excess which launches a critique of the postcolonial nation-state. Although the idiom of Bombay cinema allows a seamless synchronisation of the two modalities, I have tried to isolate and understand them as separate cinematic strategies of audience engagement with the author figure. Also, while the paper is interested in how literary authorship has been imagined in Bombay cinema vis-à-vis adaptation studies, it would be unwise to bring its objectives singularly within the theoretical ambit of the existing scholarship which focuses on the screened writer as a representation in its own right. In Pyaasa, Vijay’s character is not a mere representation of a poet.5 The poet is also a melodramatic function capable of articulating a growing disillusionment with the post-independence state. There is an unmistakeable allegorical excess in Vijay’s representation that was criticised in an otherwise positive review in Filmfare:

There is no denying that the social outlook and conditions do exist. Poets and artists still languish among us for lack of recognition and encouragement, some of them die for lack of the means to live, and occasionally one dies of starvation. . . But true as the picture is, it is by no means the whole truth about life and opportunity for youth in the new age of Indian freedom. . . There is an undercurrent of reflection in dialogue, song and incident, bursting occasionally into open statement, which goes beyond the individual experience which is the substance of the tale and assumes a generality which is inherently wrong. (“Guru Dutt’s ‘Pyaasa’” 21)

According to the concerned reviewer, the generality Pyaasa achieves through the representation of the suffering poet is not only misleading but also infectious on a national scale. The malcontent poet, once released into the cinematic force field of melodrama and allegory, becomes the object of dangerous empathy.

The average filmgoer is a chronic escapist seeking in identification with the characters he sees on the screen the temporary relief from his own frustration and problems which send him back refreshed to his daily life. Too many of those who watch ‘Pyaasa’, one feels, may find in it a countrywide despair to aggravate their own dissatisfaction and unhappiness. (21)

As stated earlier, this kind of reception flags two key questions of interest that I seek to address in the paper:

i What are the diegetic and affective strategies employed in Pyaasa to make the viewer identify with the emotional life of the poet?

ii How does melodrama elevate this empathetic engagement to the generality of a shared experience?

A few methodological disclaimers need to be made at this point. Ravi Vasudevan’s definition of melodrama as a ‘public form of address’ departs from the idea of spectatorship as the formation of collective subjects under the spell of ideology and takes into consideration the different social and political variables of spectatorship (2011: 13-14). Mindfully, I do not employ empathy as a broad category of melodramatic reception that subsumes all potentialities of spectatorship. Instead I use empathy as a conceptual tool for an excavation of strategies, sensations and sentiments deeply embedded in the form of the melodrama. My task in this paper will be to explore how the embodied author in Pyaasa becomes the site of a complex interplay of “melodrama’s narrative manoeuvres and sensational logistics” (Vasudevan 2011: 404). The paper also attempts to reclaim the screened writer from the iconic associations of stardom and the hagiographic leanings of auteur theory. In other words, I consciously overlook the stylistic elements of Guru Dutt’s auteurship6 as well as the sociological implications of his stardom. Klinger’s research has shown how Douglas Sirk’s reputation as an auteur of progressive melodramas was shaped by institutional, cultural and historical contexts (160). This is not in the least to suggest that studies of auteurship and stardom have run their full course but to highlight how canons come into being retroactively7 and why it should be possible to isolate Pyaasa from Dutt’s canon as a rare Hindi melodrama about a writer. My case study overlooks discourses on auterial style and stardom in order to study why Pyaasa, as a product of its time, was perceived to have generated a countrywide despair through an emotional identification with the publishing plights of an Urdu poet in Calcutta.

Death of the Author

Stadler defines cinematic empathy8 as “an emotional process that occurs when audience members perceive, imagine, or hear about a film character’s affective and mental state and, in so doing, vicariously experience a shared or congruent state” (317). In other words, an empathetic investment in the inner life of the protagonist is established through an acute awareness of his feelings and knowledge. I develop my analysis of Pyaasa in the subsequent sections of the paper through this understanding of cinematic empathy as a combination of emotional resonance with the affective state and diegetic knowledge of the cognitive state of a character. I shall first discuss briefly how the melodramatic narrative structures the viewer’s awareness of the author’s ‘death’, and then determine how the viewer explores Vijay’s emotional life through a range of sensations associated with his poetry.

The form of the Hindi melodrama is structured by a series of diegetic revelations and obstructions of knowledge that determine the actions of the characters in a film.9 This uneven distribution of knowledge is often extended to the audience as well, where the viewers may have more information than film characters or vice versa. Any empathetic engagement with a character is necessarily dependent on how diegetic information is revealed to or withheld from the audience. The narrative significance of death in Pyaasa’s story lies in how the diegetic distribution of knowledge of Vijay’s death in the film organises audiences and characters in hierarchical ways. In Pyaasa, the author’s death is not an actual one; it is a death first erroneously attributed to Vijay and later reclaimed by him resignedly. The death of the poet, however, is an important function of the melodramatic narrative in Pyaasa as it introduces the authorial tension between anonymity and popularity, setting up clear ‘hierarchies of knowledge’ (Branigan 72-76) between the audience and the characters in the film. When Vijay is reported dead, the audience, unlike the other characters in the film, soon finds out that there has been a grave misunderstanding. Similarly, when a hospitalised Vijay finds his poems published in a book only to be informed by a doctor that its author is dead, the omniscient viewer is more aware of the situation than the bewildered Vijay.

Bordwell has argued that while the viewer’s interest in the mystery narrative is driven by curiosity, the melodramatic narrative is characterised by communicativeness. In a melodramatic film, the viewer possesses more knowledge than the characters, and the appeal of this narrative strategy lies in the revelation of “a range of emotional experience” (Bordwell 73) through the reactions of characters to an eventual disclosure of knowledge. In Pyaasa, the melodramatic anticipation of an interlocking of two corresponding pieces of the narrative jigsaw amplifies the ironic significance of the supposed death. On the one hand, we want Vijay’s admirers to realise that their beloved poet is alive and on the other hand, we want Vijay to discover how his poetry is being celebrated posthumously. A double awareness of the inside and the outside of Vijay’s diegetic world poses a conceptual problem here because empathy, as developed in the previous section, is a feeling into the character’s emotional and mental life, and therefore, the additional knowledge afforded to the viewer through the melodramatic narrative exceeds that engagement with the character’s inner world.10 However, Gaut has argued that an understanding of empathetic character engagement need not be monistic but should “account for emotions grounded on plural points of view, both internal and external to characters” (156). The viewer’s omniscient awareness of Vijay’s situation in fact enhances her ability11 to empathise with him because “the concept of central imagining is necessary but not sufficient in understanding our experience of the fictions of character” (Smith, 424).

There is a climactic shift in the knowledge hierarchy when Vijay unexpectedly announces in front of a large gathering of admirers that he is not their poet. While the viewer is aware of Vijay’s inner turmoil, it is not known that he would renounce his identity as the celebrated poet. His disassociation with his identity as a poet is a reclamation of the posthumous status mistakenly attributed to him, and this split eventually undermines the knowledge hierarchy. By the end, the viewer’s perspective is finally returned to an internally imagining one since no additional information is provided to the viewer that may be unknown to Vijay. The openings and closures of access to diegetic information sustain our cognitive engagement with the poet through the film, which in effect, as I show in the next section, allow us to access his sensory world of emotions.

Sensations of Authorship

Ironically, a characteristically harsh review12 of Pyaasa in Filmindia expressed an inability to identify with the face and voice of the poet, resulting in complete emotional disengagement:

As the picture begins we see this poet with a most unpoetic face sprawled on the ground in an utterly dull and desolate spot and uttering some verses in a voice which for a moment we thought to be the croaking of a frog in some nearby pond . . . With his stocky frame and stolid face, he looks utterly and continuously awkward and deprives the vaguely developed character of whatever little sympathy he might have received from the audience. (“’Pyaasa’ Brings Confusion” 60-61)

If we ignore its polemical strain, the above excerpt becomes quite useful in introducing a modality of character (dis)engagement in cinema which is also apparently specific to Pyaasa. Smith argues that in the viewer’s emotional engagement with a fictional character, central imagination (imagining a character’s experience from her point-of-view) generates a self-directed emotion while acentral imagination (imagining a situation externally) produces an other-directed emotion (426). Central imagination is therefore an empathetic form of engagement while acentral imagination is a sympathetic or antipathetic one. Smith discusses how point-of-view (POV) shots become “powerful prompts to central imagining” allowing the viewer to imagine a character’s experience internally.

POV shots typically work in a two-part structure involving not only a POV shot but a reaction shot. The POV shot itself shows us what the character is looking at, from her spatial position; the reaction shot tells us something (often quite a lot) about the nature of the character’s attention to the object. (417)

In the very first sequence of Pyaasa, Vijay, the unemployed poet, is shown lying lazily on an open field next to a lotus pond where he engages in the poetic appreciation of the daily delights of nature – yeh hanste huye phool (the smiling flowers), yeh mehka hua gulshan (the fragrant flower garden), yeh phoolon ka ras pee ke machaltey hue bhanvre (the bees drunk with the nectar of flowers). However, the poetic inspiration he draws from these sights is undercut by the accidental trampling of a bee. The camera cuts to a close up of Vijay’s face as he winces at the tragic fate of the oblivious bee. Through this succession of point-of-view shots, the camera not only connects the poet’s visual field with the spectator’s but also generates a sense of empathy for the loss of his object of poetry. It is noteworthy that the camera rests on the changing expression on Vijay’s face allowing the viewer to identify with his emotional transition, as evidenced in the subsequent lines of poetry he composes as he gets up and leaves:

Main doon bhi toh kya doon tumhein ae shokh nazaro?

Ley dey ke mere paas kuch ansu hain, kuch aahein.


(What do I add to the splendour of these views?

I have only tears and sighs to offer.)

The emotional intensity of these POV shots is amplified by Hindi cinema’s “own medium-specific layer of authority, that of the simulation of live performance” (Vasudevan 1989: 45). The frequent recitations and songs cue in the listening viewer to identify with Vijay’s - to use a hackneyed phrase - spontaneous overflow of emotions. These orations establish Vijay as a sensitive poet whose poetry is one of sorrows articulated with the emotional depth of a sufferer. In a college annual reunion where Vijay is invited by an old friend to recite his nazms, one of the audience members mockingly asks him to recite a happy verse. Vijay responds poetically:

Hum ghamzada hain, laaye kahan se khushi ke geet?

Denge wohi jo payenge iss zindagi se hum.

(How do I sing of happiness when I am so full of sorrow?

I only give you what life gives me.)

The face and voice operate simultaneously to render the poet’s emotions more palpable through visual and aural registers. Buchanan has highlighted the writing process as a rich field of visual manoeuvres in which the camera aestheticizes daily objects of writing such as the quill pen, inkpot, typewriter and study table to dramatize the otherwise mundane life of the writer (7-12). In Pyaasa, an emphasis on the spontaneity of poetic production runs counter to such cinematic frames through which the author is observed in his meditative or frenzied state of writing. Therefore, character engagement in Pyaasa is not sustained through a scopic observation of the writing process but a sensorial investment in the spontaneous production of Vijay’s poetry.

The sensory experience is further extended to the tactile eye13 of the viewer.  While Vijay’s poetry is released into the boundlessness of performance, his manuscripts simultaneously look for a way into the print world through the wretched route of dustbins, scrap markets and red-light spaces. While POV shots and oral transmissions establish an emotional connection with Vijay, the handwritten manuscripts generate a sense of tactile anxiety intensifying the sensory experience for the viewer. Very early into the film, Vijay is shown arguing with the publisher of a journal with whom he had left his nazms for his perusal. The publisher mocks Vijay for thinking he could publish his verses on the social ills of unemployment in a journal of love poetry. When Vijay wants his manuscripts back, the publisher claims to not remember where he had kept them. Filled with indignation, Vijay rummages through the tables and shelves in the room, tossing and throwing documents, only to eventually find his manuscripts in the dustbin. The scene constructs a confrontational tableau of the poet with his disgraced manuscripts and the publisher unapologetic at this discovery (see Figure 1). Similarly, at home, when Vijay asks for his file of poems, his spiteful elder brother says he has sold off the raddi (scrap) manuscripts to the baniya (seller) for a meagre ten annas. In the following scene, Vijay is again shown frantically searching for his manuscripts in the scrap seller’s shop before he is informed that an unknown lady has purchased them. The same evening Vijay hears a prostitute, Gulabo, crooning one of his nazms to seduce him. He follows her into a brothel to collect his manuscripts but is eventually thrown out when she finds out that he is not a prospective customer.

Negotiating Empathy and Excess: Pyaasa as a Melodrama of Authorship, Rakesh Sengupta, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Vijay finds his manuscripts in the publisher's dustbin

These sequences usher in a sense of tactile anxiety and desire in the viewer to see the poet reunited with his work in its material form. The fragile texturality of the manuscript is foregrounded through its recurrent description as raddi (scrap), which heighten our sense of pity for the poet and his work in a palpable way. The haptic sensations of scavenging for manuscripts produce powerful sentiments of loss and alienation. When Gulabo is mourning after Vijay has been reported dead, a gush of wind blows into her room and the pages start flying out of the file containing his poems. Gulabo struggles to collect them, and in the process, she finds a new purpose in getting Vijay’s spontaneous poems published and protected in the boundedness of a book (see Figure 2). The tactile desire for the book14 is regenerated through a fear of loss invoked by the free floating pages of the file. In a poignant scene, Vijay leaps out of his hospital bed to grab the book of poems the nurse has been reading, feels its texture as he reads the text on the cover, and finally folds it in his hands exclaiming, “Yeh meri kitaab hai!” (This is my book!) (see Figure 3). The discovery of his poems in print becomes a physical source of contentment shared by the viewer who is no longer threatened by the ephemerality of Vijay’s manuscripts.

Negotiating Empathy and Excess: Pyaasa as a Melodrama of Authorship, Rakesh Sengupta, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Gulabo tries to hold on to the pages flying out of Vijay's file
Negotiating Empathy and Excess: Pyaasa as a Melodrama of Authorship, Rakesh Sengupta, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Vijay discovers his poems in print

The viewer’s emotional resonance with Vijay is shot through with sensations associated with his poetry – the field of vision that idly follows an insect or looks longingly at his muse, Meena, the oral/aural transmission of his nazms, and the differential materialities of manuscripts and books. These sensations inform the viewer’s empathetic engagement with the affective state of the character, building on her awareness of Vijay’s cognitive state.

Urdu Poetry in the Cinematic City

Vijay is not an island. His flaneurial nazms of disillusionment emerge rather curiously in the city of post-independence Calcutta (now Kolkata). The grand geometry of the Howrah Bridge, the intimate columns of the Palladian porch at Princep Ghat, the gossipy interiors of the tram offer the viewer several iconic images and sounds of the city to map the wandering protagonist. In the scathing Filmindia review mentioned earlier in the paper, Pyaasa was also mocked for this seemingly arbitrary choice of setting.

Even of realism the picture has very little, a glaring example of unrealism being that Vijay, suggested to be a Bengali character, writes verses in Urdu, and that Calcutta evidently the background of the story, turns out lovers of Urdu poetry in such great numbers as to suggest that football has been replaced by Urdu poetry as the most popular entertainment of the city. (“’Pyaasa’ Brings Confusion” 61)

According to the reviewer, the two major points of unrealism with respect to Calcutta are (i) a Bengali poet writing in Urdu, and (ii) Urdu poetry being consumed by such great numbers. However, both these inconsistencies could be better studied as functions of melodrama rather than expressions of history. While the choice of setting is an uncanny one, reading history into a work of melodrama requires a more nuanced understanding of how the two categories often overlap. If we recognise the melodramatic mode as an excess of sentiments and sensations, it would perhaps be more appropriate to ask what historical sensations and sentiments are relayed by the images of post-independence Calcutta rather than inquiring into the historicity of the literary setting. In post-independence Hindi cinema, the village formed the backdrop in most films, perpetuating the Gandhian ideal of rural life as the bedrock of anticolonial nationalism (Mazumdar xx). In the same vein, while Pyaasa is set in a city, the film is, in more ways, a denunciation of urban life rather than an exploration of it. At a superficial level, the melodramatic staging of Calcutta as the home of a disillusioned Urdu poet, who is also an upper-caste Bengali Brahmin, is a defamiliarizing strategy that alludes to a lost sense of syncretism in the city and endorses a renunciation of the urban space. However, this does not explain the specificity of Calcutta in this story of postcolonial disillusionment.

I argue here that the cinematic city of Calcutta has to be understood as the site of heightened stimulation that intensifies the empathetic engagement of the film viewer. Vasudevan has argued that melodrama manipulates history through a “regime of images” freeing the viewer from “a relationship with history as something grounded in materially defined socio-political experience” (2011: 262). The mass gathering sequences in Pyaasa mobilise a phantasmagoria of violence to conjure sensations associated with the recent past of the city. Towards the end in the film, there are two sequences where organised masses turn into stampeding, rioting mobs. The scale of the great numbers is first captured through a sequence of establishing shots, followed by a moment of dramatic reversal and a spectacle of mob violence unleashed on the unsuspecting poet. In the first sequence, chaos ensues once Vijay is discovered alive in his own memorial ceremony, followed by images of stampede as Vijay cries “Jala do isey, phoonk daalo yeh duniya!” (Burn the world down and let it smoke away!). The ugly face of the stampeding mob is wrought on the painful expressions of Vijay and Gulabo as they are trampled on. The mob instinct of the masses is again brought out in a second sequence where, following the previous debacle, Vijay is supposed to address a large congregation of admirers in the same hall. The crowd, seeking proof and confirmation, is anxious to learn that their beloved poet is alive, while an onstage Vijay grows increasingly disillusioned with the shallowness of his popularity. Much to everyone’s astonishment, Vijay tells the crowd that he is not their poet. The crowd is enraged and rushes towards Vijay with their chairs to lynch him (see Figure 4). He is beaten mercilessly by the rioting mob before his friend Abdul Sattar (Johnny Walker) rescues him. The crowd continues rioting inside the hall.

Negotiating Empathy and Excess: Pyaasa as a Melodrama of Authorship, Rakesh Sengupta, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Rioting mob of poetry lovers

How are these images of a riotous mob so powerful despite the absurdity of watching impassioned poetry readers of Calcutta turn violent because of an Urdu poet? The task here is to historicise sensations in the face of a sensationalised history. Ben Singer has studied the relationship between melodramatic sensationalism and urban space in the context of early American cinema.15 The Calcutta of the 1940s and 50s makes a compelling case for a study of the cinematic city as a sensational archive of the stormy decades. The period from early 1940s to early 1950s in Calcutta has been described as:

a decade that saw the effects of a world war, the severest famine in the history of the subcontinent, the worst communal violence that looked like a civil war, massive anti-colonial and left movements, labour strikes, Independence and Partition, mass refugee influx and migration of its own religious minority – in short, urban disorganisation on a vast scale. (Bandyopadhyay 4)

The fickleness of the mob in Pyaasa captures this urban disorganisation with the fullest force of melodrama. The use of dramatic lighting and composition inside the theatrical hall intensifies the operatic staging of history16 as mediated through melodramatic passions (see Figure 5). The mob is swayed from veneration to violence in a matter of minutes which thrusts a sensational element of historical pain into the pathetic representation of the poet. The cinematic city of Calcutta in Pyaasa conjures memories associated with the city’s recent past which overdetermine the emotional trials and travails of the poet in order to intensify the viewer’s engagement with Vijay.

Negotiating Empathy and Excess: Pyaasa as a Melodrama of Authorship, Rakesh Sengupta, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Use of dramatic lighting and composition in the hall

History as a rational mode of expression is conventionally understood to be antithetical to melodrama as an emotional one. However, Landy has argued that melodrama is at the heart of history since “official or elite historical representations, especially monumental narratives of national formation, are saturated with melodrama.” (17) Drawing on this observation, Laitila has noted that the British post-war melodramas’ obsession with amnesia captures the genre’s own preoccupation with historical trauma. (27-28) Due to such overlapping tendencies of history and melodrama, it is important not to dismiss the melodramatic memory of Calcutta as a city of Urdu poets as something arbitrary and absurd. In fact, a well-researched Hindi book on the Urdu writers of Calcutta, published in 1952, is testament to this memory too (see Figure 6). A thorough litterateur, Barua, offered his reasons for writing this short history in the introductory pages of the book:

After the Partition, if Lahore had remained with India, I would have focused my attention on the Urdu writers in Lahore. But the Anarkali of Lahore has left her mark on the youth of Punjab and become a kasakti hui yaad (painful memory) forever. I have never found peace in Calcutta, except in the company of literary writers. . . In the field of literature, Calcutta has always produced new intellectual movements, and Urdu has not been far behind in that respect. Although this is the birthplace of Bengali, the passionate Urdu writers have safely left their footprints here, allowing me to collate their old and new images successfully. (16, translation mine)

Negotiating Empathy and Excess: Pyaasa as a Melodrama of Authorship, Rakesh Sengupta, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Urdu Writers of Calcutta (1952) by Barua. Source: The British Library, London

For Barua, the memory of Partition is intimately tied to the painful memory of a lost world of Urdu. His book is an attempt to salvage that past in Calcutta whose connection with Urdu harks back to the prolific years of Fort William College17. Pyaasa too adapts this memory cinematically. Dwyer has noted that melodramatic narratives draw on “a shared experience of popular history”(188), and while most viewers today, like the Filmindia reviewer, would be convinced that the idea of an Urdu poet languishing or flourishing in the streets of Calcutta is absurd, this nostalgic image of Calcutta in Barua’s account should unsettle that conviction to a certain extent. It is part of the same melodramatic memory of images18 that sensationalised the great numbers of poetry lovers as a violent mob.


While fidelity to literary figures, if not literary texts, continues to inform the scholarship on screened authorship, the affective turn in adaptation studies offers new ways of analysing complex yet overlooked intermedial imaginations, especially from the Global South. Broadly, this case study has not only attempted to rethink the existing analytical frameworks that bridge the gap between film and literature but also endeavoured to incorporate the relevance of older analytical tools such as melodrama and empathy within more recent studies of affect, materiality and memory. To address previously overlooked literary aspects of Pyaasa, the paper has drawn heavily on the conceptual traditions of melodrama as a filmic genre and empathy as a modality of character engagement. Empathy is an affective quality that is difficult to express empirically, especially when it is negotiated through cultural forms such as cinema. Likewise, the study of melodrama requires a language of affect that can contain the histrionics of the genre. The article has explored this slippery intersection of empathy and excess to rethink screened authorship as “the bleeding of affective forces between texts, between mediums, or even between artworks and audience members” (Hodgkins, 137). While genres such as slow cinema tap into our empathic faculties more directly through a realism of duration19, I have argued that the melodramatic mode in Pyaasa supports such affective transactions through character engagement, diegetic manoeuvres and historical sensations. The pathetic poet in Pyaasa is a melodramatic function whose life and poetry bring out songs of suffering and images of pain in the wake of disillusionment with the new postcolonial state. The allegorical identification of the nation’s suffering with the poet’s own - Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai? (Those who are proud of the nation, where are they?) - elevates audience empathy beyond a purely subjective experience. Finally, the cinematic city of Calcutta gathers these emotions and organises them into a violent sensorium of mob frenzy. The poet suffers many emotional deaths in this overdetermined melodrama before surviving the direct physical assault of his readers, and till the very end, his agony endures in the imagination of the desiring, sentient spectator as Vijay walks off into the distance, hand in hand with his one true admirer, Gulabo.


1  A few notable exceptions can be found in Buchanan’s edited volume where a section comprising of three essays is devoted to filmic configurations of fictional authorship. See Buchanan, Judith, ed. The Writer on Film: Screening Literary Authorship. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 193-235. Nonetheless, the volume predominantly discusses authorship vis-à-vis canonical writers. Likewise, Hila Shachar’s forthcoming book on contemporary literary biopics also focuses on the filmic adaptation of canonical authors such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and so on. See Shachar, Hila. Screening the Author: The Literary Biopic. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019 (forthcoming).

2  Shachar has argued that literary biopics “foreground and perform the work of postmodernist deconstruction” rather than reinstating the historical conservatism of literary biographies (200). On the other hand, both Buchanan and Elliott have claimed that screened authorships offer significant resistance to Barthesian notions of the dead author. The literary biopic arguably does both; therefore, it is not the most radical antidote to the canonizing tendencies of literary history.

3  This lacuna within the existing scholarship on Pyaasa could arguably be linked to the lack of adequate scholarship on film authorship itself in the context of Indian cinema. The question of film authorship is as old as film itself. A number of individuals involved in the production of films have been appreciated as authorial figures at different junctures of film history and in different contexts. The screenwriter, the director, the studio proprietor and even the star have all been imbued with the author function from time to time. From the 1960s, while the notion of the director as the auteur has dominated this contested field, there has also been an increased understanding of cinema as a collaborative medium involving a number of authors. In the Indian context, very little attention has been paid to theorizing the spectrum of collaborative authorship in popular Indian cinema, while scholars of world cinema have celebrated auteurs such as Satyajit Ray. See, for instance, Cardullo, Bert. World Directors and Their Films: Essays on African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern Cinema. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2012, 69-82.

4  A brief survey of cinematic representations of writers in Bollywood vis-à-vis Hollywood can be found in a recent analysis of Manto. See Sengupta, Rakesh. “Saadat Hasan died at 42. Manto lives on.” Indian Cultural Forum, Indian Writers’ Forum, 3 October 2018, https://indianculturalforum.in/2018/10/03/saadat-hasan-died-at-42-manto-lives-on/

5  Some yesteryear fan theories would suggest that Vijay’s character in Pyaasa may have been an amalgam of the lives of Sahir Ludhianvi (the film’s lyricist), Abrar Alvi (the dialogue writer) and possibly even the director-actor Guru Dutt. However, an academic investigation of such speculation is beyond the scope of this paper.

6  See Cooper, Darius. In Black and White: Hollywood and the Melodrama of Guru Dutt. Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2005, and Khopkar, Arun. Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2012.

7  Guillory has argued that the process of canonization “retroactively unifies disparate cultural productions” (34) to construct a tradition. It is important to note that Guru Dutt’s other seminal tragic melodramas - Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) - came after Pyaasa. These four films have contributed the most to his canonical construction as an auteur of Indian cinema with a distinctive melodramatic style. However, in the paper, I focus on the film’s immediate reception through a study of contemporaneous reviews that predate any recognition of Guru Dutt as an auteur or a tragic star.

8  There has been a great deal of philosophical scholarship on how empathy is generated in cinema. See Neill, Alex. “Empathy and (Film) Fiction”, in Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, Ed. David Bordwell and Noel Carroll. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, 175-194; Smith, Murray. “Imagining from the Inside” in Film Theory and Philosophy, Eds. Richard Allen and Murray Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, 412-430; Coplan, Amy. “Empathy and Character Engagement” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, Eds. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009, 97-110; and Gaut, Berys. “Empathy and Identification in Cinema.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXXIV (2010): 136-57.

9  Vasudevan has discussed how the uneven distribution of knowledge among film characters is central to understanding the differences between Western and Hindi melodrama. While blockage of knowledge in the former generates pathos, in the latter it creates a transgressive realm where the characters unknowingly give voice and action to subliminal passions (1989: 49)

10 This observation is in keeping with Carroll who has claimed that character engagement in cinema is enabled through assimilation and not identification. He argues that “we respond to fictional situations as outside observers, assimilating our conception of the character’s mental state into our overall response as a sort of onlooker with respect to the situation in which the character finds himself.” (312) According to Carroll, since there is no identification with the character, what the audience predominantly feels for her is not empathy but sympathy or antipathy.

11 Central/internal imagination is often reinforced by the viewer’s omniscient knowledge. Gaut writes, “Very often we have information different from that possessed by a character, so merely internally imagining his situation would not capture all that we know is relevant to determining how correctly to respond to the situation.” (147)

12 The magazine’s editor, Baburao Patel, was notorious for scathing reviews and sarcastic columns.

13 Barker explores cinematic tactility as a haptic, kinaesthetic and visceral connection between the film and the viewer that goes beyond the visual and aural experience. See Barker, Jennifer M. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

14 Littau’s discussion of bibliomania challenges dispassionate modes of readerly interpretation by paying close attention to the sensory relationship between the physical book and the reader’s body. See Littau, Karin. Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies, and Bibliomania. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

15 Singer expands on Walter Benjamin’s modernity thesis to understand how the technological markers of modernity were more palpably felt in the urban environment, leading to the “intensification of sensory stimuli” (292). He argues that early cinema’s public sphere described film as “a medium of powerful fleeting impressions, kinetic speed, novel sights, superabundant juxtaposition, and visceral stimulation, and therefore as a medium in which people perceived a striking resemblance to modern urban experience.” (130)

16 See Greene, Naomi. “Coppola, Cimino: The Operatics of History.” Film Quarterly, 38.2 (1985): 28-37.

17 Fort William College was an academic institution in colonial Calcutta where British officials were trained in a number of Indian languages for administrative purposes. Hundreds of books were published in Urdu, among other languages, for their training.

18 Barua referred to the pre-independence debate on national language as a conflict enveloped in the smoke of the national movement which “burned intensely like a funeral pyre” (14, translation mine), invoking the communal violence in the wake of Partition.

19 See Gronstad, Asbjorn. “Slow Cinema and the Ethics of Duration” in Slow Cinema, Ed. Tiago de Luca. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, 273-285.

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