What can one write about Sahir that he himself has not penned eloquently? For every turmoil he went through in his personal life, for the relationships he had and for his socio-political views, he found an onscreen outlet. Perhaps what defines him best is his own verse from the movie Kabhi Kabhie: 'main har ek pal ka shayaar hoon', he was a poet for all times and all sentiments. Born Abdul Hayee, he took the pen name Sahir Ludhianvi, Sahir meaning magician, and a master conjurer of immortal verse he turned out to be.
A life like Sahir's cannot be covered in a full-length feature, let alone a single article so for this article I have picked few of my favourite songs/poems that have been my window into the vast canvas that is Sahir's work.
Chalo Ek Baar Phirse Ajnabi Ban Jaye Hum Dono (Gumrah, 1963)
Are all happy endings about happily ever after? Is there a sweet spot between the extremities of a blissful union and the agony of separation? Sahir's lyrics light the path to this sweet spot or the beautiful turn as he calls it: 'Woh afsana jise anjaam tak lana na ho mumkin, use ek khoobsurat mod dekar chhodna achha'. In my teens my fascination for this line was so immense (and behaviour understandably immature for the age) that I broke up with a particularly sweet girl for no other reason but to be able to recite this line in real life. Through this song, Sahir also memorialised his love story with Amrita Pritam on celluloid. Every line of this song is dipped with the finest of analogies while also serving as relationship lessons: Taaruff rog ho jaye to usko bhoolna behtar, taaluk bojh banjaye to usko chhodna achha. It is better to forget acquaintances that have turned to illness and leave relationships that become a burden. Sahir's antidotes for the Devdases and Arjun Reddys of the world.
Mere Mehboob Kahin Aur Mila Kar Mujhse (Gazal,1964)
The Taj Mahal has been used in countless songs as a monument of undying love. That Sahir used it to make a statement on the rich and poor divide is a wonder in itself. What generations saw as a husband's dedication to his wife, the poet of the proletariat saw an emperor's final laugh at the common man's love – 'ik shahensha ne daulat ka sahara lekar hum gareebon ki mohabbat ka udaya hai mazak'. Notice how something as small as lovers deciding on a meeting point is gradually enlarged as he denounces the vulgar display of wealth that is the ivory white mausoleum. Sahir's image of a rendezvous point for lovers is a place (utopian as it might seem) where the purity of love is unblemished by inequalities of the society.
Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Vo Kahan Hain (Pyaasa, 1957)
The character of Vijay the poet in Pyaasa is said to be inspired by Sahir's own life. Irrespective of the veracity of this claim, it is undeniable that Sahir reserved some of the best lines of his career (and for Sahir, that is saying a lot) for this movie. When every second person with an internet connection is thumping his pride on social media today, Sahir's question remains pertinent 'Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan hain?' Sahir would have been massacred on social media and lynched in the real world for asking this today. The tragedy of a poet's work, especially a socially conscious one like Sahir, is that the timelessness of his work is a direct reflection of degradation in society. The inequalities, the poverty, the patriarchy: they're still around as they were in the post-independence decade when he wrote about them. Pyaasa is autographical for Sahir in more ways than one. His disillusionment with the world around comes through in the climactic 'Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai' where he denounces the world with its materialism and avarice. For someone who never found his companion he innocently wonders about the people whose love was reciprocated in ways his own never was in 'Jaane vo kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila'.
Tu Hindu Banega na Musalman Banega (Dhool ka Phool, 1959)
Sahir was an atheist but he was believer in the ultimate of things: humanity. He removed humans from the hidebound shackles of dogmatic religion as he wrote 'tu hindu banega na musalman banega, insaan ki aulaad hai insaan banega'. Wouldn't that simple tenet make an egalitarian society? His hopes for the kid in the story also seem to be his vision for a newly independent India in its infancy: tu aman ka aur sulah ka armaan banega.
Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein (Kabhi Kabhie, 1976)
Another onscreen poet through whom Sahir channels some of his finest lines. More than the popular song version of Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein, it is the slightly melancholic but infinitely more poetic version of that poem (which Amitabh recites at a later point in the movie) that continues to appeal to me. Tu nahi, tera gham teri justaju bhi nahi, guzar rahi zindagi kuchh is tarah jaise ise kisi ke sahare ki aarzoo bhi nahi. As he accepts the darkness that his life has ventured into and the fact it will consume him, he takes a moment to contemplate the life that could have been nestled in the softness of his love's flowing hair.
On his birth centenary it is important to understand Sahir's contribution to Hindi film songs. This was a poet who never sacrificed his wit and erudition to the altar of market demand. He wrote on feminism long before it was "woke", he made his commentary on society and the powers that be, and he called out the inequalities as he saw it, all the while continuing to remain at the peak of fame and leaving behind an enviable body of work for posterity. That is the biggest trick that the wizard exited the stage with.