Gulzar, The Poet Of Images

On his 88th birthday, we look back at the stories behind some of Gulzar’s most loved songs
Gulzar, The Poet Of Images

In an interview with Kausar Munir, Gulzar said, "You ask how I stay relevant even after more than five decades of writing?" He pointed to his study table, full of books from around the world and from regions within the country. "By feeling the pulse of the gully-mohalla, the nation, the globe that I live in. Being master of Urdu doesn't interest me, being part of the global society does, breathing hope into that society matters to me."

Born Sampooran Singh Kalra, lyricist, author, screenwriter and director Gulzar has been the bard of modern India. He came to Bombay after the Partition and was encouraged to join the film industry by poet and lyricist Shailendra and director Bimal Roy (Gulzar met and became friends with them because they were all members of the Progressive Writers' Association). Over the course of a career spanning 62 years (and counting), Gulzar has penned haunting lyrics for Bollywood, ranging from "Mora Gora Ang Laile", which referenced the Bhakti poetic tradition that fuses romance and religious devotion, to the cheerful Hinglish in "Pleaj". He's also written movies like Khamoshi (1969) and Anand (1971), as well as directed more than 20 films, including Mausam (1975), Aandhi (1975) and Maachis (1996). He received the Sahitya Akademi Award for Urdu in 2002 and the Padma Bhushan in 2004. He has also won an Academy Award and a Grammy for "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire (2008). 

In 2016, Gulzar was approached by Nasreen Munni Kabir, who wanted to document his songwriting process. Jiya Jale: The Stories of Songs offers the reader, as Kabir put it, "backstories of how some of his most memorable songs came to be written." Gulzar has proven with his lyrics that he can be strikingly contemporary, whether you look at his work from the Sixties or the songs he's written most recently. "All creative works reflect their period and the personality of the artist," Gulzar told Kabir. This is why he doesn't approve of remixes: "One must respect the past, respect the work and creators of that work. In the same way, if you changed the instruments Hemant Kumar used in his songs, you would take away the musical history of those times."

Here are some of our favourite stories from Jiya Jale: The Stories of Songs.   

Hum Ko Man Ki Shakti Dena

In Guddi (1971), the protagonist, played by Jaya Bhaduri, is late for her school assembly and made to lead the prayer. The song she sings is "Hum Ko Man Ki Shakti Dena". Recalling the lyrics he wrote, Gulzar said, "There's the line: 'Saath dein toh dharm ka, chalein toh dharm par,' and as you know 'dharm' means faith. Here, I am playing on a pun because Guddi is in love with the movie star Dharmendra. So this line has a double meaning—it talks about taking the right path and in the context of the movie it could also mean Dharmendra. In spite of the song being a school prayer, you can always find space for humour."

Decades later, while recording songs for Ok Jaanu (2017), Gulzar was in the studio with the composer trio of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy — whom Gulzar describes as "three musketeers" — and that hymn from Guddi came up. Shankar Mahadevan asked if Gulzar had written it and before Gulzar could reply, director Shaad Ali said it was a "traditional song" that he remembered singing in school. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra was also there and he also recalled singing it in school. It was after all of them had almost convinced themselves that "Hum Ko Man Ki Shakti Dena" was a traditional prayer by an anonymous lyricist that Gulzar told them he'd written it. 

Guddi was based on a short story Gulzar had written. "Guddi was the story of my sister, whom we called Jeet. Her real name is Surjeet Kaur. Jeet had this habit of cutting out pictures of Dilip Kumar from magazines and keeping them lovingly in her notebook. That gave me the idea of writing a short story about a young girl who is in love with a star," he said. The film was directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar wrote the lyrics, screenplay and dialogues. 

The "luggage" song

When asked about "Mera Kuchh Saamaan" from Ijaazat (1987), Gulzar recalled that composer R.D. Burman called it his "luggage song". Initially, Burman didn't think the song would work commercially. "While we were recording the song, he [Burman] said he had changed his mind about it," Gulzar recalled. "At first he thought it was too long. But when Ashaji [Bhosle] started humming a line, he started enjoying it. It did not matter if the song was a hit or not. Pancham knew it was a good composition…something new, something different."

It turns out that Burman was a "mad cook" and would have cooking contests with Bhosle, who is also an excellent cook. "Whenever we were recording, we would wait at the studio at the end of our session because we knew she [Bhosle] would bring home-cooked food for us," Gulzar said. Burman's speciality was making European dishes and the composer had a passion for chillies. "He would order the seeds from Burma, Singapore — various places — and plant them," Gulzar recalled. "The terrace of his garage was covered with pots of chilli plants. He crossbred them too. Your mouth would be on fire if you happened to eat any of his chillies."

In case you were wondering, Gulzar's own cooking repertoire extended to making tea using a tea bag.

Dil Hoom Hoom Kare

Kalpana Lajmi's Rudaali (1993) was about a Dalit woman named Shanichari, who becomes a rudaali (a woman hired to cry at funerals, particularly for upper caste families). Shanichari also has a secret: She and the local zamindar, Lakshman Singh (Raj Babbar), are in love. The song "Dil Hoom Hoom Kare" was a poetic description of Shanichari and Lakshman's relationship and has two versions, one sung by Lata Mangeshkar and the other by Bhupen Hazarika himself. 

Without using any caste-specific terms, Gulzar's lyrics clearly communicate the social divide between Shanichari and Lakshman. For instance, in the line "Teri oonchi attaari maine pankh liye katvaaye. (With clipped wings, how can I fly to your high abode)," the term "oonchi attari" refers to Lakshman Singh's higher status in the caste pyramid. The lyrics "Jis tann ko chhua tu ne, us tann ko chhupaaoon. Jis mann ko laage naina, voh kis ko dikhaaoon? (I hide the body you once touched. To whom can I show the heart you once saw?)," refer to moments in their doomed love story. Shanichari sings this song in the presence of Lakshman and his father (played by Amjad Khan), and only Lakshman truly understands the song's meaning.

Kabir asked Gulzar what it meant to have the composer record his own version of the song the way Hazarika did. "It's a very big advantage because he's the creator of the song," said Gulzar. "A composer knows the delicate nuances of the notes he has used. Even the most excellent singers interpret the song in their own way. There is always a slight variance. After all, songs are not sung by computers." 

Jiya Jale

This was the first collaboration between A.R. Rahman and Lata Mangeshkar, and she went all the way to Chennai for the recording. "As we were planning to leave for Chennai, sometime in 1997, Lataji expressed her concern to me and said it was reassuring to her that I would be there, as she knew no one at Rahman's studio," Gulzar told Kabir. "Jiya Jale" was recorded at the first studio that Rahman built. "It had a spiritual and sentimental significance for him [Rahman]," Gulzar said. Describing Rahman's working style, Gulzar said, "He asks the singer to sing the same line or phrase many times and keeps recording the various takes. So Lataji kept singing. Each time she sang a line, quite naturally there was a small difference in rendition—this is normal for an artist. So Rahman gives her the song, lets her make it her own, but ultimately he's the one who chooses the take he thinks works the best."

While writing the Hindi lyrics, Gulzar had to make sure it was romantic, but not vulgar because Mangeshkar would not sing any song that had to do with sex."It was imagining a night together when you're in love," he said. "That's why the song was not picturised as a typical wedding night. The words create the mood. I explained the meaning of the song to Mani [Ratnam] sir and Rahman, and I remember Rahman said, 'You're a poet of images.'"

"Traffic of religions"

Written by Gulzar and sung by Rekha Bhardwaj for the album Ishqa Ishqa (2004), the song "Teri Raza Meri Raza" gives thanks to God while grappling with the feelings that come from God being an absent presence. The song has lines like, "Tu hi mera qaazi. Pehle bhi tu, aage bhi tu (You decide all. It began with You. The future is You)" along with others that speak of the melancholy of not being able to see God: "Na kadam dikhe na nishaan pada. Ik gubaar utth ke utar gaya. Main qareeb hi thha khada hua, Mere paas se tu guzar gaya (I saw no footstep or trace of You. Just a haze drifted by. I was standing near. I could feel You pass me)."

When asked whether he believes in God, Gulzar told Kabir, "I do not deny Him but I do not accept Him. I question Him and ask why He does not appear before me."  In another poem of his, Gulzar writes that he and God are separated by the "traffic of religions". Gulzar said in Jiya Jale, "I don't believe in a God who keeps tabs on your life. He is not an accountant. So it depends on your definition of God. I believe there is a force, a system of the universe or universes."

Working with his daughter

Gulzar wrote the songs for Meghna Gulzar's Talvar (2015). Vishal Bhardwaj was the composer. "Meghna can be a difficult director to work with," Gulzar recalled. "She rejected four versions of a song that Vishal had composed and I had written for Talvar, before finally approving 'Jis din aakaash bedaag hoga.' She said the reason she rejected the previous versions was their mood of romance and those were not what she wanted. Children can be difficult to work with [smiles]. When we came up with 'Jis din aakaash bedaag hoga,' Vishal and I realized how right she was."

Recalling the lyrics for a song in another one of Meghna's films, Filhaal (2002), Gulzar said he wasn't sure about using the title of the film in his lyrics because it didn't sound musical to him. However, Meghna insisted. "We were working together not as father-daughter, but as lyricist-director. So you must follow the director's orders," Gulzar said. Ultimately, it was Meghna who unwittingly gave him the key lyric, while explaining that she wanted the song to talk about living in the moment. She summed up the mood as "Filhaal mujhko ye lamha jee lene de" (For now, I want to live in this moment) and that made it into Gulzar's lyrics.

Jiya Jale: The Stories of Songs, Speaking Tiger, Rs 499. 

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