Gulzar Birthday Special: Decoding The Legendary And Mythically Elusive Poet And Lyricist

Now when Gulzar Saab turns a year older, his poetry and lyrics appear infinitely illustrative of the human spirit’s ability to preserve beauty and elegance in the face of acute adversity.

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Gulzar Birthday Special: Decoding The Legendary And Mythically Elusive Poet And Lyricist
It’s hard to believe that Gulzar Saab is nearly 80. His wit and poetic perceptions still remain as sharp today as the time when he wrote his first film lyric Mora gora ang lai le for Bimal Roy’s Bandini. And he still plays tennis every morning to ensure that he stays fit enough to keep pace with his grandson Samay.

It’s easy to love the poetry of Gulzar. But it isn’t easy to understand, let alone know the mind which wrote some of the finest film lyrics ever and made films that have in several vital ways, re-defined the way we look at human relationships in the context of aesthetic cinema.

I still recall how easy it was to get through to the mythically elusive Gulzar Saab. At that time I was just another eager-beaver with a dream waiting to spill out of my pen. Gulzar Saab had read some of my comments on his imperishable poetry. He knew I was an ardent admirer. We had exchanged perfunctory thoughts on the language of the heart (aka poetry) when I had reviewed his superb songs in the non-film album Dil Padosi Hai where he had collaborated with Asha Bhosle and his favourite music director RD Burman.

I had misconstrued his use of the word joothe (used/soiled) for jhoothe (deceitful).

He explained the difference to me. I was enriched by his unfathomable knowledge and by his willingness to share his wisdom with someone whom he considered a kindred spirit.

One day, I asked him the relevance of the strange stirring and sensuous words he uses in his songs. I was puzzled by the line Apne Sali ve appee uthaye…in the song Din ja rahe hain ke raaton ke saaye in the film Doosri Sita.

He was avidly watching a cricket match with his assistants when I phoned to ask. “Yeh kya tum pooch baithe abhi?” he grumbled goodnaturedly. Then explained that sali was the cross that Jesus Christ carried all the way to the hill where he was crucified. And appear instead of aap hi(by oneself) was a term he had absorbed from litterateur Rajinder Singh Bedi.

Who but Gulzar Saab could imbue so many deep and reverberant influences in one zigzagging line of lyrical vision signifying the pained and profound pilgrimage of a poet from poetry to film lyrics?

He misses the composing maestro RD Burman who did all the enchanting melodies in  the films of Gulzar.

In an unguarded moment, he said , “Pancham and I were very close friends and creative partners. He’s irreplaceable in my art. Isn’t that evident from what you see and hear in my films after his death? My house is filled with his memories. I keep writing poems about him. Beyond that I don’t need to declare my feelings for him. My lyrics used to drive Pancham to despair. ‘Arrey yaar, tu phir aa gaya!’ Remember the phrase 'Tinkon ke nasheman tak' in Aandhi?  Pancham wanted to know the location of the place called ‘Nasheman’. But it was mutual. He'd sometimes use strange phrases which I’d incorporate in my lyrics. Things are just not the same without Pancham. He was so integral to my cinema. Achcha hai, ab mujhe itni filmein nahin banaani padti. Pancham’s loss is irreparable in my life. Pancham is Pancham.”

And then he cheers up. “I do miss Pancham. But I enjoy working with AR Rahman, Anu Malik, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal Bhardwaj. They represent the new sound, and I’m happy to be part of it.”

I don’t claim to be as vital to Gulzar’s life as his pyara Pancham. But I feel he gives a place to me  that only a favourite son can get. Gulzar Saab has an ability to swathe you in specialness. You hear the same music of concordance in his lyrics too.

Listen to  Humne dekhi hai un aankhon ki mehekti khushboo haath se chooke issey rishton ka ilzaam na do. These are probably the best lines I’ve ever heard defining the indestructible indefinable intangibility of human relationships.

I once overheard a fellow-lyricist make fun of those lines. “How can you see the mehekti khushboo in the eyes… and what’s geela-geela pani? Isn’t pani meant to be wet?”

I feel sorry for the pedantic and excessively pragmatic people of the world who can’t see the beauty of a fragrance as Lataji sings 'Humne dekhi hai' or feel the flapping of a fragile wing against a cloud as Ashaji sings 'Phir se aiyo badra bidesi tere pankh mein moti jadungi'.

Gulzar Saab took me under his wings, and my wings became studded with the moti (pearls) of his knowledge. He’s known as a poet, lyricist, writer and director. But he’s a lot more . He’s a visionary and an artiste who can see to the very core of humanity and extract the most cherishable juices out of the driest images of life.

Among the many things that he has taught me through his art and personality the one lesson I’ve learnt is to value human bonding above professional allegiances. “Don’t write any and everything in your columns. Withhold information. It’s always preferable to not give away everything.”

Poetry flows from Gulzar Saab’s entire sensibility. Ever since he entered the portals of Hindi cinema with the lyric Mora gora ang lai le in Bimal Roy’s Bandini his words and images have made a lasting impact over moviegoers’ hearts and minds. His dialogues and scripts for films like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Ashirwaad and Asit Sen’s Khamoshi and directorial ventures like Mere Apne, Khushboo, Mausam and more recently Maachis and Hu-tu-tu have constantly broken barriers between the mainstream and realistic cinema.

Yes, it’s more than five years since his last directorial venture Hu-tu-tu. He sighs, “I guess one reason for this is the changed atmosphere in the film industry. I feel like a discordant note in the present day cacophony."

As a lyricist, which has been the most difficult song Gulzar saab has written? He ponders. “One of the most difficult songs I wrote was Ek tha bachpan for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwad. There I had to look at the memory of a father through the eyes of a woman and a child. To get that double vision into one song wasn’t easy. But then who said life was simple? It’s as simple or as complicated as we may like to make it.”

Some such sincerity of purpose shines through in his cinematic poetry. Each nugget flows out with the inevitability of a spring flower blossoming in the early morning as the dew gathers around the garden of the human condition.

Even outwardly light-hearted lyrics like 'Chand churake laya hoon', 'Dakiya daak laya' and 'Dhanno ki aankhon mein' secrete a wealth of  understated meanings simmering to swim to the surface at full tide.

It’s interesting to note how Gulzar Saab’s first lyrical opportunity came his way. Recalls the poet-extraordinaire, “It was for Bimal Da (Roy’s) Bandini. Shailendra was supposed to do all the lyrics. But then something happened between them. I was given the chance to write a lyric. That was how Mora gora  ang in Bandini came to me and a motor mechanic became a film lyricist.”

Gulzar Saab gets nostalgic about the past. “How I miss those greats from the past with whom I had the privilege to work, like Burman Dada (SD Burman), Hemant Kumar, Salilda(Chowdhary) and directors like Bimalda and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. They made such a difference to cinema.”

The nightingale Lata Mangeshkar who has sung many of Gulzar’s most memorable lyrics thinks of him as an extraordinary poet. “His images are so sharp and real, and yet so poetic…No one can portray homely figures out of life so poetically. Whether it was Tere bina zindagi se in Aandhi or Aapki aankhon mein kuch mehke huey se khwab hain in Ghar …I always regarded Gulzar’s songs as a special challenge. When I produced Lekin I could think of none but Gulzar to direct and of course write the lyrics. And what lovely songs he gave me…Yeh bhi koi jeena hai yeh bhi koi marna…”

“An artiste must always be known by the work he does,” says Gulzar Saab. His discipline as an artiste and a human being is so impeccable, one can decipher the rhythms of life in his every gesture.

This connection between the man and the artiste makes his poetry extraordinarily deep and sensuous. From Ganga aaye kahan se in Kabuliwala to Sehma sehma from the non-film album Visal... the poetry of Gulzar is the poetry of love and faith, probing and healing.

“I never look at life’s vagaries in one straight line. There’re always rough edges, zig zags, rough corners and uneven edges… my words convey the utar-chadhao of life,” says the iconic poet.

In a word rapidly filling up with philistines, Gulzar represents that untouched unspoilt acme of excellence which we gradually seem to be losing touch with. He won’t write a single line that’s even remotely vulgar or compromised, won’t talk the language of crassness even if it means doing sparse work.

His output is way too sparse as compared with some of his other colleagues. “But at least I’ve the satisfaction of knowing every word has come from the heart.” He laughs.

Gulzar Saab loves the Urdu language. “Urdu is my favourite language. It’s as dear to me as it’s to some of my colleagues from the written word. I know no better means of communication. My writings from the start, even my diary, are written in Urdu. I can also write in Devanagari, Bengali and English, but not as fluently as Urdu. I’m also happy because it’s an award for my written work. You know writing has always been my primary passion. A  book has always been more fulfilling than a film. In writing a book, aisa kabhi nahin hota ke koi hasrat baqi reh gayi. Though with a film I can touch crores of hearts at one go, a book has more of me in it than a film. The medium of writing is the most autonomous, complete, fulfilling and self dependent form of creativity. In writing you can never complain about things going wrong. Good or bad, you have to stand by your creativity. Cinema is more collaborative. There’s always the danger of someone spoiling your work, or you spoiling someone’s work.”

Now, when Gulzar Saab turns a year older - or shall we say younger? - his poetry and lyrics (which are the one and the same) appear infinitely illustrative of the human spirit’s ability to preserve beauty and elegance in the face of acute adversity.

We need Gulzar Saab to remind us that songs aren’t just about humming a tune. They often hum the secret of a meaningful life.

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