It is with great satisfaction that I inform you that we were very wrong. It truly is a great, amazing, interesting movie.
And for a movie made half a century ago, it still seems revolutionary. It starts off a little slow, but as the movie progresses you realise those slow first bits helped build up the characters. The acting is superb, and Waheeda Rehman is at her most luminiscent. The story is a bit melodramatic, especially towards the climax: but you could take much of it as metaphor. It reminded me of Main Azaad Hoon (which of course came much later).
The songs are beautiful. I have always loved "Jane woh kaise log", but "Jinhen naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai" gave me goosebumps. The poet-protagonist "sings" it (of course, this being Indian cinema, the great Rafi does the singing) when he finds himself in a red-light area and is shocked the fate of the women there. The lyrics are so hard-hitting I wonder nationalistic types hadn't tried to get the song banned. This song should be made mandatory hearing on Independence Day.
Pyaasa had the most sympathetic treatment of sex workers I have ever yet seen in a film. Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) is easily the most sympathetic, heroic character in the film. And the song I just mentioned points out the hypocrisy of a society that allows sex workers to be treated the way they are.
Vijay, the protagonist, seemed a little too loser-like for my liking at first. But as the movie progressed, I realised he was not meant to be perfect: just an artist. His love deserted him, so his work was all that drove him - and that being unappreciated became the tragedy of his life.
As we watched, the Guy pointed out the similarities with Devdas: a protagoinist who is jilted by his love and finds solace in a prostitute. Yet there the similarity ends: Vijay is a poet, he observes and remarks on society, and has none of the self-absorbed indulgence that marks Devdas's character. Vijay does not sleep with Gulabo to feel better about his manhood, and he does not ill-treat the women in his life: in fact, throughout the movie he is unfailingly courteous and not just to women (except for one unfortunate scene in college where he serenades a fellow-student with a poem - and of course the other student proceeds to fall in love with him: women can never resist their molesters in Indian movies, as long as the molester is the hero).
While Gulabo sacrifices her wealth - and seems ready to sacrifice her life, though thankfully the movie does not call for it - for Vijay, Vijay does not treat her badly. After the initial meet-cute sparring, he always treats her with respect, and even when every other person in his life betrays him, he trusts her and comes to her at the end. Meena had been his muse, but Gulabo is his confidante, his partner.