Dreamers amidst the dream merchants — it isn't selling out, just surviving

Hindi cinema is a unique world. It forces poets to turn lyricists in order to stay in business. Then, rather cruelly, they discover fame can be fleeting. Every Friday summons up a new deity. Yet, somewhere in the inner recesses of their minds, they long for that one moment when fame will not arrive as a visitor but sit smugly on their shoulders. A time when box-office numbers will not affect their fortunes.

It works for a handful, like Gulzar who came to Bombay to become a poet and only reluctantly became a lyricist for the redoubtable Bimal Roy’s Bandini. He stayed on to have an innings which will complete a golden jubilee next year. Of course, he has been in the autumn of his career in cinema longer than some in a lifetime! And quietly moved on from ‘Mora Gora Ang Leyi Le’ to ‘Bidi Jalaile’. Predictably, the muted applause has given way to whistles and cheers, from the classes to the masses. Meanwhile, Gulzar has kept the poet in him alive and smiling; a couple of poetry collections, and a work of short stories steadily move off the shelves.

A little earlier we have had luminaries like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Hasrat Jaipuri and Sahir Ludhianvi. Each of them was a poet who had to dumb himself down to suit the requirements of the age in the film industry. They reaped their rewards. Majrooh gave up his medical practice for poetry. Then distilled his poetry for cinema. From ‘Boojh Mera Kya Naam Re’ to ‘C.A.T. Cat, Cat Mane Billi’, he wrote them all. He got popular approval. Of course a Dadasaheb Phalke award could not be incidental. He too kept the embers of the poet in him alive through soirees. And was often applauded as much for his content as presentation.

Much like Kaifi Azmi, who once spent an entire day putting together ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’ for Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool. A Progressive writer, he stayed in the industry yet remained an outsider. He could be working with millionaires but could as well be reciting poetry over chai at addas with friends. The result? Only he could pen, ‘Yeh Duniya, Yeh Mehfil Mere Kaam Ki Nahin”.

Much like Shakeel Badayuni. He was the life of mushairas. A sensitive poet who drew sustenance by writing about the downtrodden. Yet he too married the industry halfway: he did a Mughal-e-Azam as well as Mother India, talking with equal relish about the fearlessness of love in the former, and the fate of the poor in the latter. A hugely popular lyricist, Shakeel, like Kaifi, Gulzar and the rest, remained a poet at heart. Little wonder, he composed the evergreen title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand while tapping the dashboard of music director Ravi’s car. Easy!

Then, in times more recent, we have had Nida Fazli and Javed Akhtar, two men of entirely different hues united by their success in the cinema. The industry again sought to reduce men of letters and spirit to mere peddlers of words. Yet, the two kept the inner fire simmering, reserving their best for either non-film albums or presenting their kalams at mushairas. Films sustained their body, the rest was for their soul. Of course, Javed, compensated for an ‘Ek Do Teen’ with ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha”. Much like Gopaldas Neeraj, who found the abrasive world of Bombay films too difficult for his poetic sensitivities. Yes, he did pen ‘Khatmal Dheere Se Jaana” but he was essentially a poet whose heart lay elsewhere. He effortlessly slipped into the shadows, finding solace in his kavitas. Going one step further was the late Shahryar who courted fame with the songs of Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, but refused to step out of Aligarh to mingle with the dream merchants. Success came to his doorstep on his terms. He remained essentially a poet. The Hindi film industry often does that to sensitive beings. Yet, it is the same industry that gives them food for thought, and survival, in the bargain making their struggle as an artist more bearable, and their pens more profound.