Shailendra didn’t get the place he deserved in the Bollywood pantheon. As we celebrate his 89th birth anniversary this month, his youngest son Dinesh Shailendra clears some myths about his father
From lullaby to lingering pain, there is a Shailendra song to soothe every emotion. The welder from Mathura failed in his profession but effortlessly blended words for posterity. Among his peers his understanding of films as a medium different from poetry and theatre stood out. Hailing from Bihar, Shailendra, born as Shankardas Kesrilal on August 30, 1923, spent time in Rawalpindi and Mathura before moving to Bombay. Perhaps that’s why he could write in a variety of dialects, in a language that suited the character. Sample this: When Raj Kapoor took Kaviraj — that’s how Raj used to address Shailendra — to K.A. Abbas for narration of a script, Abbas ignored him. After two-and-a-half hours of narration, Raj Kapoor asked, “Kuchh samajh mein aaya Kaviraaj?” Shailendra replied, “Gardish main tha, par aasman ka taara tha. Awaara tha.” A shocked Abbas finally noticed the stranger in his room for he had summarised his two hours of effort in one line. The three together with Shankar Jaikishen made a formidable team in the years to come.
Some years later, disappointed by what Hasrat Jaipuri offered them, the Anands — Dev and Vijay — knocked at the door of Shailendra to bail them out. Hurt at being the second choice, he quoted a price that was unheard of in those days. The brothers had little choice. They agreed and narrated the story. Before the evening could descend they had the mukhda of “Gata Rahe Mera Dil” with them and “Guide” began to roll.
Brimming with such anecdotes, his youngest son Dinesh Shailendra is trying to resurrect his father’s memory in times of instant gratification. “People say he was a non-believer but as a young boy in Rawalpindi he used to sing bhajans in temples. It was after my grandfather lost all his money and shifted to Mathura and Baba lost his mother and sister because of poverty-related illness that he lost faith in God,” says Dinesh who has the diaries of his father.
“He wrote a poem ‘Mera Pehla Pyaar’ which implied his love for poetry. He has penned down how he was bad at his job of a welder at the railway workshop at Matunga and how he felt when during a kavi sammelan two girls turned up on stage to seek his autograph.” It was during one such poetry soiree organised by progressive writers’ forum that a young man introduced himself to Shailendra as Prithviraj Kapoor’s son and asked him to write a song for his film “Aag”. “Baba was reciting ‘Jalta Hai Punjab’ and it matched the theme of Partition in “Aag”. However, he said I don’t sell my poetry and walked away. A few months later when my mother developed some complication during pregnancy, he went to meet Raj sahib at his Mahalaxmi office and asked him if he could lend him 500 rupees. He promised him to return it in instalments. Raj sahib instantly gave him the money. But after some days when Baba went to return the money, Raj Sahib refused. Instead he asked him to write a couple of songs for ‘Barsaat’. It was then that Baba wrote ‘Barsaat Mein Tumse Mile Hum’. It became the first title song of Hindi films and a partnership took shape.”
Working on a documentary, “Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hai”, Dinesh, who assisted Basu Chatterjee and worked as a second unit director on the Hindi version of Kamal Haasan’s “Mumbai Express”, wants to clear up the myths that have accrued around Shailendra because of lack of voices to speak for him.
Like every uncompromising creative soul, Shailendra suffered for nudging the worldly wisdom, for believing in humanity. He discovered the dark side of the industry, the complex mysteries of relationships when he turned a producer with “Teesri Kasam”. The film had all the ingredients of the New Wave much before Shyam Benegal’s “Ankur” took root. Unfortunately, “Teesri Kasam” turned turtle at the box office and its failure sucked the life out of Shailendra. The popular perception is that Raj Kapoor didn’t charge for the film, but Dinesh contends that this is not true. “Nobody works for free in the film industry and nobody worked free for my father either. Raj sahib took his money and so did Shankarji.” The film took five long years in the making. “There were many reasons and one of them was Raj sahib didn’t give dates.” Did he want to see ‘Sangam’ released first? Dinesh doesn’t give a clear answer but doesn’t deny the possibility either.
He agrees the film had gone over budget but maintains that financial difficulty was not the reason for Shailendra’s death. “His death is often presented as something suicidal. The kind of money he had taken for a film like ‘Guide’ if you translate it into today’s terms, the best of present-day lyricists could not even dream of it. He used to charge around a lakh for a film. Money was not an issue. He died because of heartbreak,” insists Dinesh.
Dinesh, who has himself faced a similar situation as his film “Ladies Only” is still waiting in the cans, has his reasons. “ ‘Teesri Kasam’s’ shooting started at Mohan Studios in Bombay but later it was shifted to Bina, a town in Madhya Pradesh, an unheard of location for a Bollywood film. My maternal uncle, who was the production controller, suggested Bina to director Basu Bhattacharya. We later discovered that his prospective wife was from Bina and that he opted for the location to impress her.”
The final blow, he says, came when he was not allowed to attend the Delhi premiere. “He had stood guarantee for the distributor of Delhi. A large amount of money was to be paid. There was court injunction in Delhi; a warrant was issued against him. He should not have done it. All the people he worked with ditched him. The film was released in theatres where Dara Singh’s films used to excel.”
Dinesh points out that his feelings reflect in the songs that he wrote in his last days. “Be it Rula Ke Gaya Sapna Mera” or “Kabhi Jo Kehna Paaya Baat Woh Hoton Par Ab Aayi, Aadalat Uth Chuki Hai Ab Karega Kaun Sunvayi…Tumhari Bhi Jai Humari Bhi Jai, Safar Jitna Tha Ho Gaya Taye Na Tum Hare Na Hum Hare,” establish his sense of being betrayed.”
Shailendra passed away on December 14, the birthday of his mentor Raj Kapoor. “Teesri Kasam” went on to win the President’s Gold Medal for the best film and over the years it has become not only a classic but a commercial success as well.
Between the lines
Was “Paan Khaye Saiyyan Hamaro” taken off the airwaves because All India Radio considered it obscene? “In a way the song was the ’60s version of ‘Bidi Jalaile’,” says Dinesh.
Dev and Vijay Anand had already left for Udaipur to shoot “Guide” when S.D. Burman recorded “Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tammanna Hai.” When the song was sent to the location, Dev Anand didn’t like it but changed his mind when during the shoot it became a hit with the unit members.
Dinesh is planning to bring out a collection of Shailendra’s unpublished 50 poems. “He deserves space in literature. At the time of the riots after Partition he wrote, “Bhagat Singh is baar na lena kaya bharatwasi ki, desh bhakti ki aaj bhi sazaa hai phansi ki.”
At the recently concluded Habitat Film Festival at New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, where “Teesri Kasam” was screened, one was shocked to find the posters of the film with some unknown people credited as producer, director, music composer, lyricist… “It is a fraud that my elder brother noticed some years back at a DVD shop in the U.S. I had called a press conference but the copyright issues are so complex that you can’t do much. Also I found a family member involved in it. So we didn’t pursue it. Even today I don’t know under whose name the film’s CDs are being sold in the U.S.,” says a visibly shocked Dinesh.
The person in charge at the Habitat removed the posters immediately and apologised for the oversight but Shailendra continues to suffer the price of simplicity.