Gulzar on how an 80-year-old Urdu poet stays relevant in Bollywood
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Gulzar on how an 80-year-old Urdu poet stays relevant in Bollywood

How does an 80-year-old Urdu poet stay relevant today? Bollywood legend Gulzar says it’s about never looking back and embracing the present, one item number at a time.

brunch Updated: May 04, 2015 01:31 IST
Nihit Bhave
Nihit Bhave
Hindustan Times

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.

Read:Pluto lost its status as planet, I lost mine in family, says Gulzar

His pen-name was Gulzar Deenvi (after his birthplace Dina, now in Pakistan). He was also a member of the progressive writers’ movement and attended its meetings with friend and mentor (and iconic Bollywood lyricist) Shailendra. Through Shailendra, Gulzar met Bimal Roy, whose film Bandini would become his first project as a lyricist.

Fifty two years on, even at 80, Gulzar shows no signs of regret, or of that typical cynicism that is so common in the people of his generation. Maybe his trademark starched, white kurta has repelled it all these years.

But he’s the most upbeat, forward-looking person. "I don’t like to say things like ‘Hamaare zamaane mein yeh hua karta tha…’. One shouldn’t lament about the fact that the current generation isn’t repeating what they did. At least they aren’t repeating your mistakes in the process."

Film actress Tabu, who worked with Gulzar on his last two directorial ventures, Maachis (1996) and Hu Tu Tu (1999), has noticed this quality about him, as well. "He never dwells on the past," she says. "I think it comes from working with the likes of RD Burman and Sanjeev Kumar. All those artists kept up with the changing world."

Don’t get him wrong, though. Gulzar hasn’t been ruthless about leaving the past behind – as is noticeable through pictures scattered across his office. There are photos of his daughter, Meghna Gulzar (or Bosky, as she’s known from his poems) at different stages of life; a rung on his bookshelf is dedicated to his screenplay of the 1988 DD show, Mirza Ghalib (he considers it his best work) and there’s a wall clock with RD Burman’s picture as its face – all indicative of times cherished and people he loves.

"Nostalgia is a sweet place for a poet and writer to be in," Gulzar believes. "But it’s an indulgence; a distraction. You can’t live in a distraction."

Writing – A chore

It is his need to keep up with the times that has helped him stay relevant for five decades in the film business. "Gulzar sahab is non-judgmental about change," says theatre director Salim Aarif, who has helmed many a play written by him. "He absorbs everything."

If Gulzar has written emotional odes to love, he’s also penned Kajra Re. If he’s made the Oscar-winning Jai Ho with AR Rahman, he’s also written for a Yo Yo Honey Singh single (Horn OK Please) in Dedh Ishqiya (2014), proving that he can read the pulse of every generation.

"How are you going to survive if you don’t know the latest trends of your field of work?" he argues. "It’s true for a computer engineer, a photographer and even a writer. I work like a lumberjack; always looking for new tools."

Over the years, one of his USPs has been the expression of complex ideas in the simplest of words. In his words, the confession of love becomes Aajkal paon zameen par nahi padte; the chore of house-hunting becomes Do deewaane sheher mein; the grief over a relationship-gone-sour is Mera kuch saaman tumhaare paas pada hai – all literal, yet lasting.

This simplicity of thought had attracted filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj, too. "My father teased me for liking his poetry," recalls Bhardwaj. "When I liked, Aapki ankhon mein kuch, mehke huey se raaz hai, my dad said, ‘Aankhon ki kya mehek hoti hai?’. He criticised the poems just to irk me, and it worked every time," he says.

Read: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.”

What inks his pen

FB and YouTube are spoilers, but he isn’t averse to technology. "While shooting for Maachis," Tabu recalls, "desktop computers were all the rage. And he was so interested in knowing how they worked. Even when the first iPhone came out, Rahman recorded songs on it, and Gulzar sahab would sit by his side to understand it."

"You can’t fight technology," he says. "This generation adapts to it so quickly; my grandson solves my queries about the mobile phone." It gives him immense joy to talk about his grandson, Samay, who has now become his muse. The experience of bringing up a child has inspired him to write all over again.

Another inspiration that inadvertently makes its way into his works, is the Space. "I often write about the moon, and more often than not, it is to symbolise a person, or a quality," Gulzar says. "NASA is my favourite website. The universe with its abstract nature attracts me. The abstract element in my poetry comes from there."

In fact, in the recently released translation of his collection of short poems, Pluto (HarperCollins India), he mourns the loss of Pluto’s planetary status: "Seeing Pluto sad on being rejected thus, my heart sinks. It is so far away, so tiny, so all my pint-sized poems I gift to it."

The collection also boasts of short poems on romance, Partition, and farmer suicides – issues that have disturbed and driven him. "I can understand when someone succumbs to depression, but I never thought suicide would be a group phenomenon."

He has even written about it in film songs. "Beedi Jalai Le is about the zamindaarana system," he says. "‘Aise kaante ke daant ka nishaan chhod de’ is where I compare zamindaars to Alsatian dogs who leave bite marks. What people took away from the song is a different thing."

Writers, Gulzar says, should not function as "an independent unit". "What you write reflects the society you live in, so be socially responsible," he advises.

Of literature and lyrics

Films, in that respect, have come a long way in reflecting the realities of society, Gulzar believes. He’s happy that there is a new generation of writers and filmmakers telling their own stories, as opposed to adapting literary works.

"There’ve been four adaptations of Devdas, but its authorship will remain with Sarat Chandra for creating the story," he argues. After adapting various literary stories into films like Parichay (from Raj Kumar Maitra’s Rangeen Uttarain), Namkeen (from Bengali writer Samaresh Basu’s Akal Basant), and Angoor (from Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors), there came a time when even he wanted to "become the author" of his own films.

"Gulzar sahab says that my films are original and not adaptations, so I’m just exploiting Shakespeare’s name," jokes Bhardwaj, who has adapted Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. "But I think it’s a twisted compliment."

Cinema, Gulzar says, is an independent art, and needs to spawn its own literature.

Songs, however, seem to have gotten a bit repetitive. While he maintains that songs aren’t independent of the script, and will only be as innovative as the story, he also feels that most lyricists have gained their knowledge of the language from films.

"And they are giving it back to films without adding anything of their own," he states. "Song-writing is a function of about 75 words, anyway. If you want to add that 76th or 77th word, you have to be well-versed with the language."

It’s safe to assume that Gulzar’s own vocabulary begins at the 76th word. Sometimes, his song titles (like Ibn-e-Batuta, Bekaaran, Bismil) alone have young fans scrambling for an Urdu-to-English dictionary.

And perhaps, that’s the goal: to spread the word(s) and educate by means of entertaining.

(Photos by Satish Bate)

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First Published: Apr 30, 2015 17:42 IST