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The feminist poet of Hindi cinema

Log aurat ko fakat jism samajh lete hain/ Rooh bhi hoti hai is mein yeh kahan sochte hain

It’s one of those wonderful coincidences that International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide on March 8, falls on the same date as the birthday of a poet who brought a feminist, progressive sheen to Hindi film lyrics. Yes, that’s Sahir Ludhianvi – that exceptional lyricist who, through his body of work, crafted an image of the woman that was distinct from the way she was then popularly portrayed.

Sahir was unarguably Hindi cinema’s only feminist poet – a distinction that assumes additional significance when you consider that he wrote during an era that had stalwarts like Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra and Gulzar. I say this because while these poets might have written some lyrics of a feminist nature, Sahir’s preoccupation with gender oppression and gender egalitarianism runs like a leitmotif through his body of work. The film lyric, by its very nature is circumscribed by context; yet, Sahir moulded it adeptly to express his ideology, both in his serious and light songs.

Much of Sahir’s angst came from a childhood in which he helplessly watched his mother’s oppression at the hands of his licentious zamindar father. The sensitivity that this awakened in him to women’s suffering found expression in such powerful songs as Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain (Pyaasa) and Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko (Sadhana), which lashed out at a patriarchal, exploitative society that had double standards for men and women. But the most direct expression of his anger was undoubtedly Tu mere saath rahega munne – while it was written for a situation in Trishul in which an abandoned woman vows to bring up her unborn child on her own, it was clearly about Sahir’s mother’s own unrelenting custodial battle and the struggle she went through to raise him.

Tu mere saath rahega munne is remarkable not so much for the lyrics as the fact that it subverts the gentle, dreamy traditional lullaby into one that paints the grim reality of life (Main tujhe reham ke saaye mein na palne doongi/ Zindagani ki kadi dhoop mein jalne doongi). It also unleashes a terrible wrath, seeking, as it were, to sow the seed of revenge in the child's subconscious: Zakhm seene me liye, khoon nigahon mein liye/ Mera har dard tujhe dil me basana hoga/ Main teri maa hoon, mera har karz chukana hoga

This has to be the first and only anti-lullaby ever written, and it could only have come from Sahir.

But Sahir’s feminism wasn’t only about angst and indignation – it coloured even his lighter romantic songs, giving a status to women that was different from the abla nari/ pampered beloved/ decorative doll stereotypes of those times. The woman who sang about her man being her devata and protector could never have come from Sahir’s pen – he urged his woman to shed her perceived weakness and stand up for herself: Poncch kar ashq apni aakhon se, muskurao to koi baat bane/ Sar jhukaane se kuch nahin hoga, sar uthaao to koi baat bane. In a light-hearted sequence in Vaasana, centering around the heroine being unable to lift her own luggage, he wrote a delightful song, Itni naazuk na bano, which, while being ostensibly teasing, is a clear advocacy of the need to be independent. Goes a verse: Yeh na samjho ke har ek raah mein kaliyan hongi/ Raah chalni hai to kaanton se bhi chalna hoga/ Yeh naya daur hai, is daur mein jeene ke liye/ Husn ko husn ka andaz badalna hoga.

Given that lyric-writing is a contextual craft determined by the song situations in a film, is it fair to assume that Sahir would have written the grovelling Aap ki aankhon ne samjha pyar ke kaabil mujhe type of songs if he had to? Or the vulgar, objectifying ones? I doubt it. There is little evidence of this in his work of three decades – indeed, he was known to refuse to pen songs that offended his sensibilities. The famous example of this is Jubna se chunariya khisak gayi re, the raunchy kotha song in B R Chopra’s Dhund, which had to be written by composer Ravi after Sahir put his foot down. It is worth noting that Sahir was the in-house lyricist for Chopra’s production house, yet refused to compromise.

Interestingly, Sahir wrote perhaps more kotha/brothel songs than any lyricist in Hindi cinema (Devdas, Pyaasa, Chitralekha, Sadhana) without ever descending to cheapness. The sex worker/courtesan, depending on the context of the film, was an object of sympathy or sensuousness in his lyrics but always a human being entitled to her emotions and dignity. The sublimation of a streetwalker’s desire into bhakti ras in Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo from Pyaasa is a famous example; as is the courtesan’s taunting of a moralistic holy man in Chitralekha. Sahir has outdone himself in this song written in chaste Hindi: Yeh bhog bhi ek tapasya hai/ Tum tyaag ke maare kya jaano/ Apmaan rachaita ka hoga/ Rachna ko agar thukraoge/ Sansar se bhaage phirte ho/ Bhagwan ko tum kya paaoge.

Essentially then, the lyricist was no stuffy moralist but someone who differentiated between the male gaze variety of songs and genuine expression of sensuousness (those ‘feminists’ who defend today’s vulgar item songs as a celebration of female sexuality would do well to heed the difference). He explored this sensuousness at a time when love songs were mostly about romantic abstractions (though even in this sphere he was on par with the best): lines like Pighale badan teri tapti nigahon se or Roohon ke roohon se, jismon ke jismon se/ Sadiyon ke naate hain are not easily found in other lyricists’ work. Also, amazingly, his songs spoke of consent in an era where chhed-chhaad stalking numbers were very popular – take Sone Ki Chidiya’s Pyar par bas to nahin hai mera lekin phir bhi/ Tu bata de ki tujhe pyar karoon ya na karoon; or Insaaf Ka Tarazu’s Hazaar khwab haqeeqat ka roop le lenge/ Magar yeh shart hai tum muskura ke haan keh do.

A fortnight before the release of Insaaf Ka Tarazu, the feminist poet of Hindi cinema passed away after a massive heart attack. Sadly, there’s never been another like him again.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 2:46:33 PM |

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