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Tracking the journey of a CR welder who became Hindi cinema’s literary icon

ByAmbarish Mishra
Nov 07, 2023 05:52 PM IST

Shailendra brought Hindi cinema closer to the laity. His soulful songs continue to reverberate through fields and factories, bastis and bazars, cafes and caravanserais, forty-seven years after his death

MUMBAI Shailendra never wanted to write songs for Hindi cinema. He considered films a progeny of capitalism. When Raj Kapoor offered him ‘Aag’ in circa 1947, Shailendra, so goes the story, turned it down, saying, “I want to arouse the people of India with my poetry.”

Tracking the journey of a CR welder who became Hindi cinema’s literary icon
Tracking the journey of a CR welder who became Hindi cinema’s literary icon

A year later, Shailendra, wracked by financial worries, wrote two songs for Kapoor’s ‘Barsat’. Overnight, the Central Railway welder became Hindi cinema’s literary icon.

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Shailendra brought Hindi cinema closer to the laity. His soulful songs continue to reverberate through fields and factories, bastis and bazars, cafes and caravanserais, forty-seven years after his death.

In a career spanning 18 years Shailendra penned nearly 800 songs for 171 films, blending myths and metaphors, rhythm and raag, Sufism and Marxism. With his straight-from-heart ditties the diehard Marxist established, as it were, the dictatorship of the proletariat in the world of light and shade.

Speaking at a recent function, held in suburban Mumbai, to commemorate Shailendra’s birth centenary, renowned poet-film maker Gulzar paid glowing tributes to the wizard of words.

“Shailendra chose words which, although simple, were layered with an enriching sub-text. He could write ‘Dum bhar joh idhar moonh phere, O chanda, main unse pyaar kar loongi’ -- a powerful image couched in spartan words,” said Gulzar.

Few know that it was Shailendra who prodded Gulzar to write his first song for Bimal Roy’s ‘Bandini’. “I wasn’t too keen to join cinema as song writer. However, Shailendra-ji pulled me up : ‘Go and write the song. Tum ko Bimal-da se zyaada aql hai kya ?’ (Do you have more wisdom than Bimal-da ?),” said Gulzar who has over the years been acknowledged by film aficionados as Shailendra’s literary heir.

When Shailendra made his debut in filmdom the idea of popular entertainment was fast changing, paving way for new alliances and equations. The phenomenal success of ‘Rattan’ and ‘Kismat’ -- both musicals -- compelled production houses to re-jig their strategy. They began to invest heavily in songs.

Trained playback singers, ace composers, fabulously talented musicians (especially those from Goa) and young poets teamed up to turn film music into high art--and flourishing commerce.

Shailendra and his peers deepened the films’ literary content. They avoided gooey sentimentalism and cliches : ‘Uiee maa’ and ‘hai re dayya’ were chucked out of the window. The new-age poets came with new ideas and dew-fresh images.

While Majrooh, Hasrat Jaipuri and Rajinder Krishan wrote frothy romantic numbers, Shailendra and Sahir voiced the angst and aspirations of a nascent nation bruised by Partition -- yet eager to transform an ancient civilisation into a modern, inclusive republic.

While Sahir dipped into the heavily-embellished Urdu poetry, Shailendra wrote in a simple, unadorned style: ‘Dil ka haal sune dilwala, chhoti-si baat mein mirch masala, kahate rahega kahanewala’; ‘Nanhe munne bachche teri mutthi mein kya hai’ and ‘Haaye re woh din kyoon naa aayae’, the heartachingly beautiful composition of Pandit Ravi Shankar for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Anuradha’.

Shailendra’s imagery was exquisite. “I would give away my right hand to him for ‘Woh kaun hansta hai phoolon mein chhupkar’ (the first line of the first stanza of ‘Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen’ from ‘Madhumati’),” said Rahul Yadav, a young Hindi poet who runs a tea stall in a Mumbai suburb.

Lyricists acquired an exalted status as they helped perpetuate the screen persona of central protagonists--whether male or female. ‘Awara hoon’, penned by Shailendra, nurtured Raj Kapoor’s Chaplinesque image. With ‘Mera joota hai Japani’, which turned Kapoor into a household name in Soviet Russia, Shailendra skilfully fused Hindi cinema with Nehruvian ethos, celebrating pluralism and peace.

India had its first brush with feminism when Waheeda Rehman danced her way to freedom to the beat of ‘Aaj phir jee ne ki tamanna hai’ in ‘Guide’, yet another Shailendra gem.

Shailendra’s range was incredible. He could write on unrequited love -- (’Rula key gaya sapna mera’) and a farm labourer’s yearning for rains (’Dharti kahe pukar ke’) with equal felicity. The list of songs is endless.

Shailendra was a disciplined writer. Myth has it that he would begin his day with a short walk along the Juhu beach. Mornings were set aside for Shankar-Jaikishan (S-J). Shailendra knew well that writing for films was a high-pressure job and that deadlines have to be honoured, rain or sunshine.

He was adept at writing on a beat suggested by the composer, which is a fairly tough job, said trade veterans. Amidst the heat and tumble of the recording studio, Shailendra would be seated in a corner honing divine words, tweaking a line here or a musical phrase there -- a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Often, a single word or a fleeting image would trigger the poet’s imagination. Once, S-J, ace musician Dattaram and Shailendra were on their way to Kapoor’s Chembur studio. As the car sped past a ravishing beauty, Jaikishan looked back eagerly for a second glimpse. Dattaram remarked, ‘Jaisahab, mud ke kya dekhate ho ?’ Shailendra got his first line--’Mud ke na dekh mud ke’ (’Shree 420’).

‘Teesri Kasam’ proved to be Shailendra’s Achilles’ heel, it is said. As producer he put his heart and life’s savings into the film, which was inordinately delayed. By the time it was ready for release black and white films were no longer in demand. Wracked by mounting debts and protracted legal battles Shailendra succumbed to heart attack on December 14, 1966, which was Raj Kapoor’s 42nd birthday.

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