Confession 1: Like most writers, I thought the only thing that intimidated me was a blank page.
Confession 2: I learned the true meaning of intimidation when I was scheduled to meet and write about Sampooran Singh Kalra – the only Oscar-, Grammy- and National Award-winning Indian writer. Our beloved Gulzar.
What if he brought up a film of his I hadn’t watched? What if he started reciting Urdu poetry? Do I speak with him in English (he’s uncomfortable with it), or Hindi (that I might botch up)?
Irrational thoughts, I know. But you’ve got to account for irrational thoughts, when an icon is at the receiving end of your questions.
He was the fresh, new voice of the 1960s, with hit songs like Mora Gora Ang (Bandini, 1963) and Humne Dekhi Hai (Khamoshi, 1969); in the ’70s and ’80s, he helmed Mere Apne (1971), Kinara (1977), Ijaazat (1987), amongst others, highlighting the common man’s frustrations, hopes and dreams; today, there’s a fascinating vintage quality to him, while he writes beautiful poetic lines in the times of Fevicol Se, Munni Badnaam and Lovely Ho Gayi.
Living in the present
Seated across from the poet, writer and filmmaker, I realise that all those fears were, in fact, irrational. He’s fine with English. He talks about the movies I’ve watched. He recites a nazm (couplet) in the middle of an answer, but quickly translates it for me, too.
And surprisingly, he isn’t dismissive of item songs at all. “In fact, [contemporary songs and films] are very much a reflection of the kind of society we live in,” he says, contemplative. “It’s not fictitious, is it? Women are being objectified and schoolchildren are being raped. I defend cinema on this front. It still shows only about 10 per cent of the atrocities. If films portrayed all the evil – the scams, the scandals and rapes and murders – as it is, we’d be in a deplorable situation!”
If some movies and songs offend us, we have to take a harder look at the kind of life we’re living, and the society we’ve helped create, he believes.
Today, he’s defending films, but writing for the industry was never part of the plan. In his late 20s (the 1960s), Gulzar was a car mechanic in Bombay, and wrote poems in his spare time.
Gulzar’s mischief, memories, and poems as ‘ironed clothes’
Even articulating these simple thoughts is a task. Writing, Gulzar believes, is a full-time job. “When writers say that they need to ‘set the mood’ or ‘get into the zone’, those are all ways to procrastinate. Not prerequisites.”
He narrates a funny story where legendary Tamil poet Vairamuthu wanted to write a few lines for AR Rahman in his garden. “Rahman had argued, ‘There is no poetry blooming on my plants that you can pluck out!”
It is this quality about the ace music composer that has impressed Gulzar. “Rahman works on an airplane and in the studio with equal zest; there’s no such thing as a body clock,” he says.
His own set-up, however, is similar to a corporate job. Even today, Gulzar “works” for seven hours a day. “I enter my office at 10am and pack up at 5pm.”
The seven hours include reading, research, making charcoal sketches (“very much a part of the process”) and most importantly, rewriting. “The first version of my work is never the last version,” he admits. “Sometimes, a poem matures over time, sometimes feedback helps.
But a new problem has arisen: when I recite my work for feedback, people record it and put it on YouTube and Facebook in its nascent stages. The final, sculpted version then seems outdated.”