When Hu Tu Tu failed at the box office in 1999, Gulzar took retirement from filmmaking. The self-imposed exile was caused only partially by the debacle of the film. Having given more than 30 years of his life to films, he felt he had not done justice to his talents as a poet, short story writer and someone who could spin yarns for children. He was not guilty of presumption.
He had arrived in Bombay, not to write lyrics or to make films, but to do poetry, share the stage with the best of Progressive Writers. He hobnobbed with them, he had addas with them. But wrote lyrics to keep the kitchen fire burning — after all, writing a song was better than working in a garage! The songs kept him in the limelight. For long, the poet stayed on the backburner. And now, post-Hu Tu Tu, is he unleashed! Making up for the lost years, he has changed gears — in the autumn of an enviable career, he has found a new spring. Barely a year goes by when we don’t get at least three to four books by Gulzar or on him.
In fact, his is a unique case where an active writer is constantly written about too; there are books stemming from conversations with him, there are biographies, there are books from recollections of meetings with him. Then, there are those he pens himself, some poetry, some short stories. And the books transcend the language barrier. Gulzar himself may write only in Urdu but that has not prevented the publishing world from coming up with a plethora of books in English and Hindi too.
Interestingly, the Urdu world has, at best, been lukewarm to his substantial talents. Equally interestingly, Gulzar, like other Urdu luminaries, seems to have found a wider audience with translations over the past decade or so. Whether the celebrated poet writes about Ghalib or Mir, he finds a ready readership. Never mind if one book is called Selected Poems and the other Neglected Poems. Whether he translates the works of Pavan Varma or Sukrita Paul, it does not matter. Gulzar’s name matters. He lends popularity by extension too. Not too far back, we had a fairly illuminating book revolving around Skype conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir. It created a few ripples on the circuit. More recently, Gulzar had the audiences spellbound when he chatted about his new book, Half a Rupee Stories. As he spoke of his attempt at writing a novel — it turned out to be a long short story instead, Gulzar could as well have had the multitudes eating out of his hand.
The book, a Penguin publication with translation by Sanjoy Shekhar — he also translated Gulzar’s 100 Lyrics — is a wonderful storehouse of memories. He talks with great candour about Bhushan Banmali, with whom he wrote many splendid screenplays — the much-talked about Aandhi being among them. In a display of humour, not often associated with his serious persona, Gulzar recalled that Banmali loved his wife Usha and his mother-in-law Santosh in the same fashion! “If he was miffed with Usha, he would seek solace in Santoshji. And when he fought with Santoshji, he would shuttle back to Usha”.
Similarly, he talked about Kuldip Nayar and his trips to the Wagah border every year on August 14 to foster Indo-Pak friendship. He happily called the two nations “a pair of twins born a day apart”. Then, there were other uplifting moments, each of which stemmed from a short story in the book.
Through with aath aane ki kahaniyan, I thought the veteran would probably take a break from writing, and from being translated. I was wrong again. Just a few days after this conversation, I got on my table a new title, Bosky’s Panchtantra! Bosky, the nickname given to his daughter Meghna, remains an enduring figure in his children’s books. After Bosky ki Gappein and Bosky ka Kauvanama, it is time to flip through Panchtantra.
Meanwhile, I am wondering if Gulzar, a keen tennis player, is treating his life post-Hindi cinema as a long tie-breaker? Every point is important, any shot a winner.