When he was born on March 8, 1921, his father named him Abdul Hayee; when he began writing poems, he was advised to choose a pen name. At that time, he was reading Allama Iqbal's elegy on Mirza Daag which had a couplet:
'Is chaman mein honge paida bulbul-e-shiraaz bhi...Sankrron sahir bhi honge sahib-e-ejaaz bhi'
He chose 'Sahir' (wizard) as his nom de plume because, he thought, he would be good enough to be counted among the hundreds of poets referred to in this couplet.
Many now count him among the five top Urdu poets of the 20th century. Contrary to the custom, he never used his pen name in his poems; few know his real name, but 'Sahir' is familiar to all readers of Urdu poetry and ordinary cinema-goers.
Sahir's slender volume of verse aptly entitled 'Talkhiyan' took Urdu readers by storm and overnight, at 23, he became a heartthrob of the youth. Sahir was fond of films but was dissatisfied with the poor quality of songs in those days.
He believed he could write better songs; so he moved to Mumbai to try his luck.
For two years, he could not get a foothold in the slippery world of filmdom.
One day, his friend from Ludhiana, Mohan Sehgal, a music director, advised him to meet SD Burman, who wanted someone to pen a song to the tune he had composed. As Burman Da played the tune, Sahir extemporised the song:
'Thandi havaen, lahraake aaen...Rut hai jawann, tumko yahaan kaise bulaaen'
Burman was highly impressed and this song of film 'Naujawaan' became an instant hit.
Burman invited Sahir to write songs for film 'Baazi' (1951) which was directed by the legendary Guru Dutt.
'Baazi' became a blockbuster primarily because of its songs.
The troika of Guru Dutt, Burman and Sahir made some memorable movies such as 'Jaal', 'Taxi Driver', 'Munim ji', 'Devdas' and, above all, 'Pyaasa' which was based on Sahir's life.
It had 22 songs which all became very popular. 'Pyaasa' is used till today as a benchmark for measuring the poetic quality of the film songs.
Sahir wrote all types of songs that were picturised on various characters: heroes, heroines, villains, dancer, beggars, labourers, farmers, soldiers, robbers, masseurs and fishermen etc. His songs have been sung by all famous singers and composed by 30 music directors. In all, he wrote 700 songs for 101 films. Most films succeeded at the Box Office because of his songs. He knew his worth, so he charged a rupee more than what was paid to the music director. For this, he came in conflict with many established music directors and singers. When someone taunted that his songs were popular because of Lata's voice, he declined for two years to pen songs for the films in which Lata's voice was used. He introduced Sudha Malhotra who achieved instant fame. 'Kabhi Kabhi' broke all records. HMV recording company presented a record of gold to Sahir. A unique honour indeed!
Sahir had high self-esteem. He never compromised his poetic sensibility; he succeeded in winning respect for film song writers. He compelled gramophone companies to give the name of the writer on the record and also pay him royalty. Similarly, he made All India Radio announce the name of the writer along with the names of the singer and the composer when the song was played.
Sahir had many firsts to his credit. He pioneered the introduction of Punjabi folk in Hindi films in 'Naya Daur'. He used Punjabi folk and other unconventional couplets in a 15-minute Urdu qawaali in 'Barsaat ki Raat', the longest and perhaps the best in Hindi movies.
Despite the constraints of film songs, Sahir always conveyed a message through them. He strove to raise the status of women, condemn injustice and inequality in society and motivate people to live with dignity and honour and never to lose hope or confidence. Sahir's song in 'Sadhna' is a classic:
'Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko...Mardon ne usey bazaar diyaa'
So is the poem on the plight of prostitutes in Pyaasa.
Many prominent poets wrote film songs but only a few succeeded in this genre. Sahir's success in this field is however unsurpassed. Poetry brought him fame, but films brought him wealth and popularity. He will always be remembered as the person who took poetry out of drawing rooms and 'mushairas' and put it on the silver screen for millions to enjoy and appreciate.
He was a wizard of words who could hold both the elite and the plebian spellbound. As a film lyricist, he has no peer. On March 8, the President of India will release a commemorative stamp on Sahir in what would be a unique honour for the most prodigal son of Ludhiana.