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Birthday Special: Gulzar Saab As I Know Him 




It’s hard to believe that Gulzar Saab is  82. 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(a.k.a  poetry) when  I had reviewed his superb songs in the non-film album Dil Padosi Haiwhere he had collaborated with Asha Bhosle and his favourite music director R.D. 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 kindered spirit.

To this day I ask 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 DoosriSita.

He was avidly watching a cricket match with his assistants when I phoned  to ask. “Yeh kya tum pooch baitheabhi?” 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 appee 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?

Today Gulzar Saab  is pained by  the onslaught  of mediocrity in all walks of life. He misses the composing maestro R.D. 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 kenasheman 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 A.R  Rahman, Anu Malik, Shankar-EhsanLoy 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 the human relationships.

I once over-heard 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 singsPhir se aiyo badra bidesi tere pankh mein moti jadungi.

Gulzar   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. With-hold 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 lyricMora 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 andAsit Sen’s Khamoshi and directorial ventures like Mere Apne, Khushboo, Mausam and more recentlyMaachis 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 presentday 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 kiaankhon 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  inBandini 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(S.D. Burman), Hemant Kumar, Salilda(Chowdhary) and directors like Bimalda andHrishikesh 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 mehkehuey se khwab hain in  Ghar …I always regarded Gulzar’s songs as a special challenge. When  I produced LekinI could think of none but Gulzar to direct and of course write  the lyrics. And what lovely songs he gave me…Yehbhi 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 ahumanbeing 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.

He laments the rapidly falling standards of film music. “Suddenly the standard of lyrics has been  drastically lowered. Something very tragic is happening to the music market. The level of writing  has come down drastically.  Even when there’s an opportunity to write aesthetic lyrics  the words to be used are severely restricted.  As a lyricist I’m not allowed to go beyond the prescribed vocabulary.  Even if I use one unfamiliar word I’ve to offer a hundred explanations and justifications.”

To what  does he attribute these declining standards? “Well, one problem is that many filmmakers make films in Hindi without knowing the language. Their knowledge of Hindi comes from ads and popular films. For a lyricist, that’s  a major hurdle.  Earlier producers either liked or rejected a  lyric. But now strange demands are made .Yeh daal do wohdaal do.  And out of 10 songs I’m supposed to write  Chaiyyan chaiyyan(Dil Se)  comes up  at least 5 times for reference.  No matter what the situation they want to sneak ‘Chal Chaiyyan Chaiyyan’ into the song. Either they fail to understand me or I  fail to understand them. Believe me, I was really happy working with Mani Rathnam in Dil Se. He’s the only director who told me to give him abstract images in my songs. He talked to me like a painter  and a 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 Devnagri, 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 hasratbaqi 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 selfdependent 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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