He is perhaps one of the best lyricists in Hindi cinema that people of every living generation know, admire, revere, almost worship, even though he says, “After all these years, I still feel I don’t belong to films.” But he is so much more than that, is Sampooran Singh Kalra, born in 1934 (or 1936, depending on who is doing the counting) in Dina, now in District Jhelum in Pakistan. We all know him as Gulzar, one of the best known poets and lyric writers in contemporary literary history, for his work in films as much as for his compositions in pure verse.
In public gatherings, especially at filmi events, he comes across as reticent, restrained, gentle, elegant, and pristine. Perhaps his strictly starched white pajama-kurta is responsible for this, since those who know him know that he can be funny, loving and ever so wonderfully mad. His daughter Meghna, better known as Bosky, his wife Rakhee, whom he still refers ever-so-old-fashionedly as Rakheeji and his grandson Samay would know him better, of course!
In conversation with filmmaker-writer Nasreen Munni Kabeer, Gulzar reveals facets of a man, a poet, that not many of his fans would normally see. The tale begins when Kabir is making a 49-part TV series for UK’s Channel 4; Gulzar was persuaded to speak on film about the great lyricists of Hindi cinema. Some years later, the documentary filmmaker and the poet met again, this time to talk about Lata Mangeshkar’s music.
Finally, at the end of 2010, Gulzar agreed to be the subject of a book, one that focussed more on his young days and his work as screenwriter, lyricist and poet, instead of revisiting what had already been written about in previous books — Saibal Chatterjee’s “Echoes and Eloquences: the life and cinema of Gulzar” and Meghna Gulzar’s biography of her father, Because he is ... From thereon started a delightful series of conversations, mainly via Skype, that revealed more of the man who is the poet than perhaps formal interviews could.
And the stories just kept coming! In this delightfully written book, which has no pretensions to being lyrical or even brilliant writing, but is evocative and draws pictures of a life led without too many complications, Gulzar speaks of growing up in Dina and then Delhi, his attachment to his father taking him there. “The day he was leaving for Delhi, he saw me crying inconsolably at the railway station as his train pulled out. He realized just how upset I was being separated from him and decided it was best that I should live with him in Delhi.” And to pass the time he spent in the storeroom of his father’s caps and cloth-bags shop, the young Gulzar discovered books – Urdu detective novels, Tagore’s poems and other Bengali works. And that was when he stole his first book! Read the story to know more on that one… And tragedy visited the young man in January 1960. His father passed away and “When he died, I lost all incentive to make something of my life … All motivation vanished with him.” But life goes on, he learned, and work in Bombay (as it was then), where he lived at the time, kept his mind from brooding for too long.
He started his film career as Bimal Roy’s assistant and found friends in Om Prakash, Sahir Ludhianvi, Sagar Sarhadi, Balraj Sahni and others, who are now considered the doyens of the film world. It was a tough life, but a happy one, with food, poetry, friends and assignments keeping Gulzar busy. And as that life goes on, each day growing into the next with a new poem, a new song, even a new film, Gulzar gains status, knowledge, a larger audience. He has never been part of a traditional mushaira, he tells Kabir, and explains how poems get written, how they are structured, how they find layers of meaning and significance. The man who writes so tenderly about love explains its expression and how that has changed. “All the words for love have been overused,” says the poet. “Yet we can still appreciate the old ways of expressing love”, he speaks of Ahmad Faraz’s couplet and rues, “Such thoughts are not expressed these days … Sensibilities change, and as a result, poetry changes.” For him, writing poetry is the most satisfying kind of writing, he explains, since “I can talk about the world around me — the beauty of nature, the struggles and the violence in the world.” Science fascinates him and he finds astronomy “poetic”.
Charmingly, Gulzar says that “I felt so dejected when Pluto was no longer regarded among the nine major planets. It hurt me.” Oddly, his reason makes sense: “I identify with Pluto. It reminds me of my own place in the family. Sometimes I was a part of the family and sometimes removed from it.” And as a delightful tribute to this attachment, “My next collection of poems will be called ‘Pluto’. All the poems will be very short — perhaps six or seven lines each.”
Along the way to the end of the book, the conversation touches on the Partition. “I used to have nightmares for almost twenty-five years,” Gulzar recalls, “I found myself running, escaping … My sleeve gets caught on a nail and I can’t free myself. Images are distorted. Terrifying nightmares.” And in his happier dreams, “I am playing cricket!” Today, “I still dream, but while I am wide awake.”
(Ramya Sarma writes on films and life in Bollywood)