Shillpi A Singh
The crisp white kurta that he wears on a pair of white trousers (and not pyjamas) adorn his poetic frame; coincidentally the all-white dressing happens to be his best identifiable style statement. Strands of silver hair, neatly combed in the side parting on his head are nothing but wisdom-highlights. He prefers not to dye them because “colour black is reserved for the ink that he uses to pen down his thoughts”. Twinkle and sparkle hide behind the spectacled frame perched on his long nose, and a childlike smile makes a fleeting appearance on his face. His ageless heart that is younger than the youngest writer of our time defies the wrinkles on his visage and a mind that works overtime “kyunki fitoor dimag ke khatam nahin hote”. His wide mouth that hides below his neatly trimmed white moustache moves to utter a verse or two in quick interval, before one can blink an eye, and even then, one can’t miss the words that soothe and heal a weary heart. He speaks and pauses in equal measure. His words intoxicate and awaken at times, amuse with wit and wisdom, and above all provide solace and take one aboard a beautiful world of words that is his abode. Yes, that’s poet, lyricist, novelist, and filmmaker Gulzar for you and me.
At 86, he is audacious enough to dare age to do the unthinkable, “ae umr, agar dum hai to kar de itni si khata, bachpan toh cheen liya, bachpana cheen kar bata”. Well, it is the age that concedes defeat, even without saying a word, humbly leaving him to let thoughts dance to his words, and weave magic in his every written word, and leave the readers spellbound.
And though Gulzar reads a lot on a daily basis that is akin to riyaaz, he writes only when he is ready to shape his thoughts. “It is like a pot of water that has been simmering on the stove for a while, but only when it has reaches a boiling point that the plate covering it starts shaking, giving way to the steam to sneak out in full force. That is what writing is for me. It is an outlet to express my pent-up thoughts. But I don’t write daily,” he says.
Having authored umpteen books with short stories being his favourite form, Two, his debut novel in English examines the status of refugees after the Partition while Footprints on Zero Line brings together a collection of his finest writings – fiction, non-fiction and poems – on the subject; the launch of both books coincided with 70 years of the Partition in 2017. “Two was originally written in Urdu. But then, it included many words and phrases in Punjabi, Saraiki and other dialects spoken in that area of Punjab which became Pakistan after Partition,” said Gulzar, who was born in Dina in Pakistan as Sampoorna Singh Kalra in 1934, and went on to translate his work himself. “You may not find ‘perfect’ or ‘proper’ English in it, but you will find stories of refugees, and how life planted them all over the world,” noted the octogenarian talking about his first attempt at a longer work of fiction and whose friends Sukrita Paul Kumar and Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri had tried their hands at translation before he took over. Former diplomat-turned-politician Pavan K Varma, who has translated many of Gulzar’s works, writes in the book’s preface, “Two is a poem because the imagery reads like one; it is a screenplay because each episode is like a picture unfolding before your eyes, and it is a novel because it tells a story in a format that is neither a poem nor a screenplay.” Translated by author and translator Rakhshanda Jalil, Footprints on Zero Line, he said, “I had the advantage of reading the works of other writers on Partition. I had gone through the pain and suffering that Partition wreaked in many lives, including mine. I used to have these nightmares for many years when I used to wake up at night with the horrors of all that I had seen during those days. The writing is an expression of that suffering. The partition does not stop at the events of 1947 but continues to affect our lives to this day. The riots that take place even today are reminders of that past.”
His first film Mere Apne in 1971 starring Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha in lead roles highlighted the agony of unemployment and loneliness when he penned, Koi hota jisko apna hum apna kah lete yaaron. “Every medium has its own ways of conveying the message. Cinema is visual literature. As a lover of literature, I love traversing through the literary lanes for the songs in my films. The lyrics are another form of saying something relevant to our times, with a dash of humour, and a liberal dose of sarcasm. The means of expression are nothing else but words. I am fond of this form of expression,” said Gulzar.
His wizardry with words reflected in the directorial ventures that followed with some memorable songs, dialogues and screenplay. The last film that he directed was Tabu-Suniel Shetty-starrer Hu Tu Tu. He has restricted himself to writing since then and limited his roles in films to writing songs. “I hadn’t completed my academic education. My family sent me to Bombay after Partition to fend off for the family. I couldn’t complete my studies, and that complex was the reason for my attachment to literature. And it continues till date,” said the poet.
Wordsmith at play
His migration from literature to films happened at the insistence of friends such as filmmaker Bimal Roy and lyricist Shailendra, and he went on to pen his first song Mora Gora Ang Layle for Bandini in 1963. “Bimal Da knew my aptitude. It was he who first told me that he didn’t want me to waste myself slogging hard as a mechanic in the garage. His thoughtfulness touched me. I gained a foothold in films with my work because literature was a staple in films. My initiation into films was on literary grounds, both for the kind of films that I wrote songs for and also the same kind I went on to make later,” he remembered. In his first song, he had used a minute reference to one of Mirza Ghalib’s couplet based on the understanding of the character, situation and also the script. The words “Ek laaj roke paiyya, ek moh kheeje paiyya” were his way of reflecting on Ghalib’s “iman mujhe roke hai jo khinche hai mujhe kufr, kaaba mere pichhe hai kalisa mere aage.”
Talking of the contribution of lyricists that influenced his work over the years, he said, “All my predecessors inspire me. Sahir Ludhianavi’s choice of words is unique like when he wrote pedo ki shakhon pe soyi si chandni. It was romantic. Shailendra’s usage of everyday words in whatever song he wrote was his way to connect with the characters. He knew the medium and subconsciously and consciously, I have learned a lot from him.” There were others too whose work he studied extensively in the course of writing and found that all of them had left a deep imprint on the songs of those times. “On the other hand, I also admire the works of DN Madhok who was the first one to bring the flavor of folk songs in Hindi film songs. Rajendra Kishen’s chup chup baithe ho zaroor koi baat was an extension of a dialogue that moved to a song. Then there is Kedar Sharma who used bird as imagery in more than 50 songs. And then there were likes of Arzoo Lucknawi and Pandit Sudarshan too whose writing is commendable,” he added.
Poetry in motion
He continued his dalliance with literature and gave books and stories a celluloid dimension in his cinematic work. If Parichay was based Raj Kumar Maitra’s Bengali novel Rangeen Uttarain, Aandhi came from Kaali Aandhi by Kamleshwar, Khushboo from Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Pandit Mashay, and Mausam, which was loosely based on the story Weather from The Judas Tree by A.J. Cronin. He adapted Bard’s Comedy of Errors in Angoor. Gulzar even paid an ode to Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib with a television show starring Naseeruddin Shah and broadcast on Doordarshan in the late Eighties. He directed Tahreer Munshi Premchand Ki based on the novels of Premchand, and wrote lyrics and dialogues for several Doordarshan TV series including Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland. His Ay Hairathe Aashiqui for Mani Ratnam’s Guru was inspired from Amir Khusro’s Ay Sarbathe Aashiqui while Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se was based on the Sufi folk song, Thaiyya Thaiyya with lyrics by poet Bulleh Shah.
Hooked and booked
Tagore has been an all-time favourite of Gulzar. “I had read his translated work in English during my school days, and the fascination to read the original in Bengali led me to learn the language,” he said with a chuckle. His first tryst with Tagore on the big screen was during the making of Hemen Gupta’s Kabuliwala (1961), based on Tagore’s story. The noted lyricist wrote the song Ganga Aaye Kahan Se, which was set to the tune of an east Bengal bhatyali (boatman) folk composition by Salil Chowdhury. “From there on, my obsession with all things Bengali began to take shape, from the use of melodies to films inspired by Bengali writers and filmmakers, and even marriage to Rakhee, my “bangalan” wife, turned a Sikh writer into a half Bengali,” he quipped.
His most recent musical outing is the non-film album Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore features seven songs based on Hindi translations of poems by Tagore. The indefatigable 86-year-old poet and filmmaker has written the lyrics for compositions by Shantanu Moitra and Shreya Ghoshal, all rendered by the singer Shaan.
In 1991, Gulzar adapted Tagore’s short story Kshudhita Pashan (Hungry Stones) for his film Lekin. Earlier in 2016, Gulzar translated Tagore’s poems in a set of two books, Nindiya Chor and Baghban. Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore is a companion piece to the books.
His reverse migration to literature and writing took place when he realised that he wanted to do a lot more than just making films. “Carrying a film is a 24×7 job. If you are making a film, you cannot do anything else. If I had been only making films, I wouldn’t have written books ever. I have always loved writing and books. It is like going towards a masjid, but stopping at a mehkhana en route, and then walking towards a masjid ,” he quipped, adding that he has no plans of returning to mehkhana because “it was only Ghalib who could take a detour and go to mehkhana again.”
State of mind
The painful first-hand experience of partition has a searing presence in most of his works, and it also reflected in the overbearing narrative of his songs and poems that speak volumes of loneliness as if he doesn’t want to comfort a broken heart but tends to scratch the wounds deeper so that they never heal like when he weaves the imagery of a broken relationship in Mera kuch saaman in Ijaazat. “You think so, but it is not so. Main cigarette toh nahin peeta par har aane wale se bas pooch leta hoon, maachis hai? Bahut kuch hai jise mein phookh dena chahta hoon, par himmat nahin hai. I don’t want to make someone cry, but it is how I am wailing. I am just sharing my suffering. The words don’t speak of anyone’s loneliness but my helplessness. I am expressing the same,” he said. And in between, he keeps returning to Balli Maran in Old Delhi, be it be the intro of TV show Mirza Ghalib or the famous Kajra Re filmed on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan in Bunty aur Babli.
His poetry can be interpreted in many different ways, sometimes with so many underlying, and overlapping layers, but what stays constant is his incredible ability to match pace with the changing times, and stay relevant. “All literary creation is a dream that the writer/poet lives,” he quips with nonchalance, and what makes him relevant even today is his non-judgmental attitude to change. If he’s written soulful odes to love in Saathiya, penned Goli maar bheje mein in Satya, made the Oscar-winning Jai Ho with AR Rahman, he’s written Beedi jalai le too proving that he can read the pulse of every generation. “How are you going to survive if you don’t know the latest trends in your field of work?” he argued. “One needs to stay abreast with the change that is happening around and also in one’s field of work. It is true for a computer engineer, a photographer and also for a writer. I work like a lumberjack; always looking for new tools.” But what he has tried to stay true is to express complex ideas in the simplest of words.
According to him, the writers should not function as “an independent unit”. “A writer needs to have social consciousness in his writing. It is not a work in isolation but the work should reflect the times of the society because a writer is a piece of history that is taking place during his time. Writing is a reflection of society, so the writer has to be socially responsible. He has to chronicle it with empathy and detachment. It is not just his suffering but that of the entire society. It should reflect on all works of art, be it writing, painting or music,” he said. In Selected Poems, there is a poem about a young man with a nilgai tattoo on his shoulder. This poem concludes in just five lines, with the startling revelation that the youth’s choice of the tattoo was not just whim – in case of a communal clash, someone might see the bovine carved into the shoulder and spare him. Or Mausam Beghar Hone Lage Hai, a poem that he wrote to support the cause of climate change in Nil Madhab Panda’s Kadvi Hawa.
Films, in that respect, have come a long way in reflecting the realities of society, Gulzar believes. He’s happy that there is a new generation of writers and filmmakers telling their own stories, as opposed to adapting literary works.
He calls cinema a full-fledged independent art form in itself that needs to spawn its own literature. “Cinema’s language is imagery. It needs to create its own language and become an author and independent expression and independent creator of its literature. Like there have been many adaptations of Devdas, but its authorship will remain with Sarat Chandra for creating the story,” he argued.
Language of expression
For Gulzar, the staple language of expression remains Urdu. “Yeh kaisa ishq hai Urdu zabaan ka, Yeh kaisa ishq hai Urdu zabaan ka, Mazaa ghulta hai lafzon ka zabaan par, ki jaise paan mein mehenga kimaam ghulta hai,” he said. Talking about his love for Urdu, Gulzar noted that it was the only language that was capable of “turning strangers into friends”.
“I have seen changes in the language for decades now. This is why I don’t like to say that my language is Hindi or Urdu, I call it ‘Hindustani’ because it changes its structure with every city,” he said.
Looking back at the evolution of Urdu over a span of eight centuries, he emphasises on the need to revive the script of the language so that it is not only spoken and heard but also seen more. “Urdu is alive the same way it was earlier and it is alive with the same old strength. Its energy hasn’t reduced. Maybe its aspect is changing. Urdu is an alive language and moving ahead with times. Urdu is heard and spoken but the missing thing is that it is not seen much. There should be work done on Urdu scripts,” he said on why more scripts in Urdu should be written.
The lyricist, who bats in favour of the works of contemporary writers of the language to be included in our curriculum so that it stays alive, said, “Ghalib, Mir and others are classic names in relation to Urdu but the language has moved beyond the 19th century and is still alive. So we should move beyond these names too… There are many other poets who should be taught like the other greats. Faiz Ahmed Faiz should be part of your text today.”
Work in progress
Having realized that children’s literature is a neglected domain that needs attention, he working full-time to fill that gap with the might of his pen. His children’s book Bosky Ka Panchatantra is a collection of stories from the Panchatantra, with Gulzar lending lyrical freshness in the narration. “When she (Bosky, his daughter) was small, I would tell her these stories. These stories have always stayed with me because writing and narrating stories to a child are no less than a challenge,” Gulzar said. “To learn children’s language is a challenging task. As the generation changes, language too changes. This book is also an attempt to bring children closer to the Hindi language,” he added. He has also re-written, translated and adapted for stage popular tales like those of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Bagha (Gopi Gayen Bagha Bayen) and Pinocchio. His chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai lent a special touch to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book that was adapted as a TV show. He went on to repeat the feat in many of his works that included Potli Baba Ki, Guchche, Alice In Wonderland, Sindbad Jahazi, and Danu Danasur that ruled Doordarshan in the Nineties. A considerable portion of the songs that he has written in his long career are targeted at children including Humko Mann Ki Shakti Dena in Guddi to Lakdi ki kaathi, kaathi pe ghoda in Masoom that have charmed and warmed many hearts, and he has written songs to tickle young minds, almost effortlessly. Even today, he is busy writing for children’s theatre. “I have been collaborating with theatre director Salim Arif. We recently did an adaptation of Pinocchio where around 200 children did Kathak to a full live orchestra at the recent show in Delhi,” he quipped. But there’s a lot more that he is engaged in. “For the last few years, I’ve been working on a book on the contemporary poetry of India. I’ve translated around 500 poems, of 300 poets from 32 languages of our country. No masters, just contemporary poets. I want to make our poetry young again,” he says that his dream is to celebrate the work of the poet and make it a poem a day.
(This piece has been compiled from his media interviews)