Gulzar Saab as I know him

It’s hard to believe that Gulzar Saab is nearly 90. His wit, poetic perceptions still remain as sharp today as the time when he wrote his first film lyric 'mora gora ang lai le' for 'Bandini'

Gulzar (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @joybhattacharj)
Gulzar (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @joybhattacharj)

Subhash K Jha

It’s hard to believe that Gulzar Saab is nearly 90. 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 reviewed his superb songs in the non-film album Dil Padosi Hai where 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 patiently 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 good-naturedly. Then explained that salib 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?

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 sings Phir se aiyo badra bidesi tere pankh mein moti jadungi.

Gulzar Saab is 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.

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.

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’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 (S.D. Burman), Hemant Kumar, Salilda (Chowdhary) and directors like Bimalda and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. They made such a difference to cinema.”

“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.

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 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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