He lives in a world where deities come with an expiry date. Yet this devotee of literature who has risen to be the high priest of Hindustani poetry has been ploughing a lonely furrow for close to 50 years. Ever since the poet-turned-reluctant lyricist wrote “Mora Gora Ang Laye Le” for Bimal Roy's piece of understated elegance “Bandini”, Gulzar's has been a constant presence in the film industry. More like a river in the plains than a gushing cascade, Gulzar continues to be quiet, gentle, profound. He has never screamed for attention; never needed to. He has instead beseeched, almost cajoled his readers, his listeners, his viewers to pay attention. When Gulzar talks – or writes – the world listens; his powers of oratory second only to his prowess with the pen.
Yet, Gulzar won't pen his autobiography, preferring instead to let his poems do the talking. “My poems are my biography. They reflect my way of thinking. They are not accidental. I know what I am writing. With my poems, I feel I have covered every moment of my life that I can share with the public. Other things are too personal. Not everything is for the public. Why should I explain things that are very personal?” Yet isn't it true that he penned the timeless song from “Khamoshi”, “Humne Dekhi Hai in Ankhon ki Mehakti Khushboo” for his ladylove Rakhee? “It is true I had written this song when we were seeing each other. And yes, Rakhee has beautiful eyes, very evocative eyes. At that time many people wondered if I had written the song for her and the word reached her. She asked me once, if I had penned it for her. I replied, ‘ if you think so, then yes!'.”
Back to poetry
The master of the unsaid is in fine mettle today, holding back something, sharing a lot. He indeed has a lot to share. Once he turned from being a poet to a lyricist to a filmmaker. Now, he is taking a U-turn. He has said goodbye to films, is concentrating on his poetry, his writing for children. And has just added a new leaf to his growing tree of accomplishments by turning a translator too! Gulzar is working on the poems of Pavan Verma and Sukrita Paul, two faithfuls he has stood by with greater diligence than is the norm in a constantly changing world. “They are both friends, and have been so for a long, long time. I am working on Pavan's book but it should take more than a year. He is very versatile, very creative, from Ghalib to Krishna to Being Indian, he has done it all. However, the translations I have done for Sukrita should be out shortly. The collection is called Poems Come Home. Translations are not easy but important. I enjoyed doing Sukrita's translation though it took me a couple of years. Culture oozes from her poetry. She brings to you the scent of the soil. This book did not start off as a planned translation exercise but once I was through with some 20-25 poems, I suggested to Sukrita that we might as well publish them. I want Hindi-Urdu speaking people to read me. Hindustani helps me to reach the common reader.” One notices he prefers to call Urdu as Hindustani. “Is not it Hindustani,” he retorts, gently, his tone as free of creases as his blameless starched white kurta, only the gilded jootis detracting from the serenity of his attire. “I have dressed in white since my college days. Isn't white a colour too?”
His communication is often gentle, maybe even unwitting, interrogation; the interviewer often ends up donning the role of the interviewee. Today is no different. “So, what do you think of Hindi-Urdu literature for children,” he asks, then goes on to answer it himself, “Hindi-Urdu are zero. There is nothing in children's literature in these languages. Bengali and Malayalam are much better. Even Marathi is good. However, Punjabi and Assamese are zero again.” So, what is the best way out? “I am doing poetry for children. I want to take Rabindranath Tagore to them in Urdu. I have noticed even his works are different in Bengali and English, there is a different layering, the nuances are different. I have just done two translations of Tagore for Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. In fact, I have stopped doing films because they take so much of your time. I feel I should write more and more. There is only limited time available.”
Possibility of growth
Yet he is not entirely happy with the way people – few as they are – speak or write Urdu these days. “The language has to grow. It has to learn to assimilate. You cannot be speaking Persianised Urdu any more. There are so many words in Urdu of other languages that I call it Hindustani. We cannot be using expressions like ‘takht' or ‘tabut' which cannot be related to today.” He feels strongly about linking language with a community. “Let Urdu not be regarded as the language of Muslims. Else it would fall prey to fundamentalists.”
His unhappiness with the world extends to Hindi films and songs too. “Why should we not be proud of songs in our films? The first talkie, ‘Alam Ara', had 50 songs, ‘Indra Sabha' had 72 songs. Are the Italians ashamed of opera? Why should we be embarrassed of our cinema? Hindi cinema has its own grammar, logic and structure. But today people seem embarrassed of softer emotions. Sad songs have gone away. Songs are ceasing to be part of the narrative today. I am happy to have introduced the new generation to certain forgotten words like ‘lihaf' and ‘ghilaf' with a song like ‘Beedi jalai le' but I am pained at the focus on speed at the cost of depth.”
Time for introspection. Time again to listen to Gulzar. “Dil dhoondta hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din,” as Gulzar wrote many summers ago. The distance between the devotee and the deity is blurring!