As the Youtube autoplay algorithm took me from one 1950s Bollywood song to another last week, I realized that it had been eight years since I last watched Guru Dutt's Pyaasa.
The 1957 classic is one of my favourite films of all time.
I fell in love with it when I was a sheltered college student in Delhi University and the world didn’t seem as divided and unequal as it does today.
So, I decided to re-watch it as an adult. While I was halfway through the film, around the time when Johnny Walker as the masseuse Abdul Sattar breaks into "Sar jo tera chakraye", Indian twitter was blowing up. Actor Sushant Singh Rajput, 34, died by suspected suicide.
I couldn’t help but think of Guru Dutt and what was, in his view, the cruel fate that awaits artists.
Journalists, writers, poets, filmmakers, academics, and people in the creative world are torn apart from the fruit of their own labour.
No piece of art that I’ve seen illustrates that better than Pyaasa.
The world loves great art, but seldom uplifts a great artist. Guru Dutt's character, ironically named 'Vijay' (or ‘victory’) for a man who always loses at the game of life, is mocked as 'Kalidasa’ (the fourth century Classical Sanskrit poet) when he tells anyone he's a poet.
A publisher tells him that not only is his work worthless, he also has no formal education in Urdu literature. The publisher asks Vijay, "Kya tumne Mir bhi pada hai? (Have you even read Mir’s poetry?)". He is made to feel small because his clothes are ragged. His brothers sell his poetry for scraps and he later remarks, "Meri zindagi ka mol das anne hai (The price tag on my life is just ten annas)".
The film also shows us that Vijay wasn't always like this. In college, he had a vibrant social life. He was in a strong relationship. But the poet in him saw all that was wrong in the world and he went down this spiral.
In 2016, poet Ashok Vajpayee said that poets and writers are like birds on the branches of trees – they sense the coming of earthquakes before the others do. Vijay, much like the proverbial bird on the branch, sees suffering in the world when others around him go on as if all is well with the world. This worsens his mental health spiral, making him bitter towards the world.
His work finally does get recognized, but only when the world thinks he’s dead. While Vijay, presumed dead, ends up in a mental asylum, his work scales new heights. The art and the artist are separated cruelly. Calcutta high-society now toasts to Vijay’s life and refers to him as 'Shayar-e-Aazam' (The great poet). Vijay, though, does not enjoy the fruits of his own labour.
There's a cold, harsh capitalism philosophy at work here. The poetry is published, read in the buses and trams of Calcutta, recited at Mushairas. The poet is a shell of his former self, locked away in a cell.
Guru Dutt himself is said to have died from suicide - his genius truly recognized after his passing. Kaagaz Ke Phool, his other magnum opus, was a commercial disaster but found acclaim as a "Classic" long after Dutt had passed away. But he will never truly die, not while his art lives with us.
The passing of Sushant Singh Rajput betrays the same philosophy. Freelance writers share their stories of working for a pittance.
Artists are asked to design logos for free or in exchange for “experience” by corporations that can easily afford to pay them well.
In 1971, Carolyn Davidson, a design student, designed a logo for a shoe company that paid her $2 an hour.
The design is now famous as the Nike Swoosh.
There are countless stories of artists who pour their time and effort and specialized skill into their work and don’t get compensated for it. After all this, though, creative persons are mocked and told they should’ve picked another line of work or they should have "done better at maths".
This is as good a time as any to check in on every underpaid and overworked writer, producer, editor, journalist, author, poet, academic, filmmaker, actor and creative person that you know.
It is a good time to remind them that their work has value. But more importantly, it is a good time to remind them that they have value as human beings.
Note: If you or someone you know needs help, call any of these helplines: Aasra (Mumbai) 022-27546669, Sneha (Chennai) 044-24640050, Sumaitri (Delhi) 011-23389090, Cooj (Goa) 0832- 2252525, Jeevan (Jamshedpur) 065-76453841, Pratheeksha (Kochi) 048-42448830, Maithri (Kochi) 0484-2540530, Roshni (Hyderabad) 040-66202000, Lifeline 033-64643267 (Kolkata).