The Dadasaheb Phalke award is the latest, and hopefully, not the last, recognition of Gulzar's excellence. Reflections on his poetry, his lyricism and the artistic restlessness that keeps him going even after half-a-century in the film industry
Ek sabab marne ka, ek talab jeene ki,
Chaand Pukhraj ka, raat pashmine ki.
(In my soul flows a reason to die, a yen to live,
To savour those topaz moons, to relish those velvety nights.)
This is just one among Gulzar’s many magical phrases and he carries an entire galaxy of them in the potli (bundle) of his imagination. It could also be among the stanzas he is very passionate about. So much that he picked up names for two of his poetry collections - Pukhraj and Raat Pashmine Ki - from it.
What is it that makes him so unique? Is it the dexterity with which he juggles with the rasas as he weaves poetry? Or is it, perhaps, the deliberate abstractness in his works? Or is it, simply, the matter of being in the right place at the right time, where he could occupy the vacuum created by the loss of poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra and Kavi Pradeep?
I feel it is all these and more. He is an admirer of abstraction no doubt. But he is also a connoisseur of the quotidian — I say this as a humble compliment. As I mentioned in a review of I Swallowed The Moon, a book on Gulzar's poetry by Saba Mahmood Bashir, he is:
“An auteur who handholds the reader in locating the profound in the mundane; the microcosm in the minutiae; the numinous in the nebulous.”
He makes even an average poetry lover, with no other exposure than a fleeting appreciation of Hindi film music, locate meaning in such prosaic objects like a piece of clay (Bemaani si cheez tha vo, mitti se bana bhatti mein paka); a spinning wheel (Chappa-chappa charkha chale); and even a cigarette (Peele-peele se jungle mein bahta dhuan) or a beedi (Beedi jalaile jigar se piya, jigar ma badi aag hai na).
He considers No smoking — a film for which he wrote four exquisite songs with cigarette as the leitmotif — among the best among his recent albums. His lyrics are one of the primary reasons the viewer finds himself getting sucked into the movie's vortex.
Gulzar is like those renaissance-era artists who never became a victim of their accomplishments. He has never let his creativity outmanoeuvre his curiosity. Hence, he has continued to evolve.
Having entered as a protégé to Bimal Roy and done songs and dialogues for films, he went on to become a director, for films as well as serials. And though among the few who tasted both creative and commercial success, he neither took his accomplishments too seriously nor allow them to subdue his skills.
His artistic restlessness ensured that he continued to write poetry, dialogues and screenplay even as he gained unprecedented popularity as a lyricist.
As a director, he explored themes and possibilities like, romance that develops between two protagonists who can neither speak nor hear (Koshish); a lady trying to come to terms with emotional turbulence she experiences when the man in her present turns out to be the murderer of the one in her past (Kinara); an unlettered village lady, in the twilight of her life, adding substance to the lives of unemployed, disillusioned and rebellious youngsters (Mere Apne).
He has also adapted works of literature like that of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Khushboo, based on Pandit Mashay); mythologicals (the story of Meerabai, Meera); and has even taken inspiration from perhaps the most hilarious of the Bard's comedies (A comedy of errors adapted as Angoor).
His heart is sansaari (this-worldly) as he expresses through the song O dil banjaare (Maya memsaab) but his imagination surpasses boundaries of space and time. Just sample this:
"Vaqt ke sitam kam haseen nahin,
aaj hain yahan, kal kahin nahin,
vaqt ke pare agar mil gaye kahin,
meri awaaz hi pehchaan hai, agar yaad rahe"… (from Kinara)
(“Sublime are the pathos time imposes,
it takes but a moment for us to transform from something to nothing,
However, if we were, ever, to meet beyond the boundaries of space and time,
my voice is my only identity, if you care to remember”)
He calls himself a 'greedy poet' whose restlessness continues to thrive, giving him the fillip needed to engage in ever more stimulating and resplendent endeavours. And he continues to adapt himself with the changing times. Just take the usage of English words like 'bore' (Chote-chote shehron se, khali bore dopaharon se from Bunty aur Babli) or 'darling' (7 Khoon Maaf). Or the lead protagonists talking about 'tossing’ Gulzar's favourite companion, the Moon (Chand utha chal toss karein, chehra tera aur chaand meri from Jab Tak Hai Jaan)
What explains his ongoing evolution, even after spending more than half-a-decade in the industry? I think, it is his emphasis on 'becoming' rather than 'being'. This, perhaps, comes from a certain dissatisfaction, pain and poignancy only an autodidact can have.
Gulzar means much more than just a poet to me. He is someone from whom I seek inspiration every time I wield a quill to scribble some random poetry. When I got an opportunity to come face-to-face with him at a recent literary festival, my first expression was that of gratitude toward him for having stimulated me into writing poetry.
And he nonchalantly said, deadpan:
"Haan, bahuton ko barbaad kiya hai humne"
("You are not alone. I have wreaked havoc on many a minds")
Having quit film direction about two decades ago, he is currently translating Rabindranath Tagore's corpus. I found it to my utter amazement that he learnt Bengali just to read and appreciate the poet laureate in original.
Another recurrent facet that illustrates his restlessness is his desire to write for children. He was not just a popular lyricist, but also among the most sought-after artists when it came to writing for children. And he instilled this longing even in his proteges like Vishal Bharadwaj. After R.D. Burman, Vishal Bharadwaj is the composer with whom he has done maximum amount of work centred on children.
His film Kitaab and Bharadwaj's film The Blue Umbrella were similar in the way they dealt with children as individuals, as I wrote earlier. Kitaab was one film entirely seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old. And so were jingles for series as Jungle Book, Potli Baba Ki and Sinbad.
Both a polymath and a polyglot, I hope he continues to explore new horizons and master new genres, skills and languages. For, Aasmaan ke paar shaayad, aur koi aasmaan hoga (There must be a horizon beyond the expansive sky that fills the naked eye).