A Progressive poet who loved and lived the good life; a 'revolutionary poet' who wrote some of the most enduring love songs of Hindi cinema; an atheist who created several remarkable devotional songs; an egotist who alienated big-ticket music directors, yet stood up for a number of immensely talented newcomers; an idealist who waged a lone battle to have the contribution of lyricists acknowledged ... Sahir Ludhianvi was an enigma: a difficult man to understand, and even harder to sympathize with, but one who has never ceased to fascinate.
Sahir was also probably the only songwriter in Hindi films whose poetry made its way into films in its purest form. So great was his stature as a Urdu poet that he never had to mould his poetry to suit the demands of songwriting for cinema; instead, producers and composers adapted their requirements to his poetry. His songs in films like Pyaasa, Naya Daur and Phir Subah Hogi are acknowledged classics.
This well-researched biography includes an in-depth analysis of his poetry and songs, translations of some of his finest works, both in cinema and out of it, and interviews with a galaxy of luminaries like Javed Akhtar, Yash Chopra and Dev Anand. It traces the poet's rich life. from his troubled childhood and equally troubled relationships to his rise as one of the pre-eminent personalities of the Progressive Writers' Movement, and tracks his journey as lyricist through the golden era of Hindi film music, the 1950s and 1960s.
Akshay Manwani turned to freelance writing after a brief career in the corporate world that gave him little personal satisfaction. He has since written on Indian cinema and popular culture for a variety of publications such as The Caravan, Business Standard, Man's World and Mumbai Mirror.
His attempt to profile the life and work of Sahir Ludhianvi through this book stems from the belief that much needs to be done to preserve the legacy of unsung legends. It is also his way of saying thank you to the poet-lyricist who has given him immeasurable joy through his songs. Akshay lives in Mumbai with his wife and daughter.
In his insightful account of the genesis of cricket in India, the historian Ramachandra Guha writes, 'The social history of Indian cricket suffers from one enormous disadvantage: that we, as a people, have a criminal indifference to the written record.
Guha might well have been speaking for Hindi cinema, for we, as a nation, have mostly ignored documenting the history of perhaps the only obsession other than cricket that cuts across the cultural milieu of India. There is scant literature available on the Hindi film industry, as indeed of the many people who shaped it into its current form. The few biographies that hit bookshelves each year have either the usual suspects, Guru Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, as their subjects or are bereft of any substance.
What about the likes of Khwaj a Ahmad Abbas, Akhtar Ul Imaan, Renu Saluja, V.K. Murthy and scores of other technicians who helped in the evolution of popular Hindi cinema without ever stepping into the limelight? Bunny Reuben's ... and Pran and Jerry Pinto's Helm, the latter written without any input from the lady in question, are exceptions, and efforts that must be feted.
Ganesh Anantharaman's Bollywood Melodies, an outstanding piece of work on the Hindi film song, is another such exception. In many ways, Bollywood Melodies is a catalyst for this book, for it was while reading Anantharaman's work that a fundamental truth about the plight of lyricists dawned on me. That of the many times we find ourselves enjoying a melody, there is little or no cognizance of the songwriter. How we never tire of praising Talat Mahmood's or Kishore Kumars vocals. How very frequently we dole out compliments appreciating the genius of Naushad or S.D. Burman. Yet, there is no recollection of the men who penned the words, the men who gave soul to the melody.
Ganesh even offers a plausible explanation for this stepmotherly treatment handed out to lyricists: 'They [the lyricists] haven't usually generated that degree of awe and adulation from film music lovers. Possibly because we are a country with a much stronger oral tradition than a written one, compounded by our higher levels of illiteracy."
Also, a melody isn't constrained by geographical boundaries or distances. Which is why, in a culturally dissimilar nation like ours, where language changes every 500 miles, it was possible for 'Bombay' Ravi'' to gain popularity in the Kerala film industry, but impossible for Kaifi Azmi to captivate the state's Malayalam- speaking population with his Urdu lyrics. A corollary to this characteristic of a melody works to the advantage of composers in another way as well. There are innumerable instances of film compositions being inspired by folk music or having strong regional or Western influences. Yet, it is the craft of the songwriter that gives the song an identity of its own.
Take, for example, the evergreen 'Ae dil hai mushkil, jeena yahaan' from C.I.D. (1956). The tune for this is directly inspired from an American folk ballad 'Oh my darling, Clementine'. The words in the original are those of a bereaved lover who loses his beloved in a drowning accident. In contrast, the song inC.I.D. has an element of joy to it. It is bereft of the lament that characterizes the original and is, instead, a vivid, lyrical description of Bombay. If the song has become Bombay's unofficial anthem over the years, it is Majrooh Sultanpuri's wonderful play with words, rather than O.P. Nayyar's score, that is responsible. It is Majrooh's 'Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan' that makes this song 'ours'.
This awareness of the plight of songwriters set me on the idea of doing something that would put in perspective their invaluable contribution to Hindi cinema. It was then that I started thinking of doing a biography of one of the lyricists from the golden era of the Hindi film song, viz., the 1950S and the1960s, all of whom were stalwarts in their own right. I actively sought reading material on each one of them towards this end. I then followed a process of elimination to narrow down on the choice of subject.
Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi were amongst the first to be struck off the list. This is not because their work lacked in quality, but because I firmly believed that any attempt on my part to outline their legacy would pale in front of the efforts of their immediate families to do the same. Hasrat Jaipuri, too, from what I have read of him, is survived by family members, but his work did not have quite the same timbre that Majrooh's or Kaifi's lyrics possessed. A closer examination of his work also reveals that, working with the same music director duo of Shankar-Jaikishan for Raj Kapoor, Shailendra was able to create a far bigger impact than Hasrat. In fact, poet-lyricist-film-maker Gulzar rates Shailendra as probably the finest of film lyricists."
Jan Nisar Akhtar's contributions were few and far between. If anything, the quality of the man is better gauged by his standing as an Urdu poet espousing the cause of the Progressive Writers' Movement. And I must confess that during this exercise in elimination, I did not know much about Rajinder Krishan. This is a comment on my ignorance than on Rajinder' s quality as a songwriter. Over the course of my research for this book, I have learnt to appreciate Rajinder's legacy, which now leads me to say that he remains perhaps the most unsung songwriter of his time.
Shakeel Badayuni was a difficult option to eliminate. The romantic essence of his songs was unmatched. But compared to the two lyricists left on my list, his work never quite touched me in the same way. Evenso, it has to be admitted that Shakeel, like Majrooh and Kaifi, was one of the more difficult names to drop while selecting the subject for this book.
I was then left with Shailendra and Sahir Ludhianvi. It was now a question of selecting one who appealed to me the most.
Admittedly, Shailendra fascinated me more initially. He died really young, at the age of forty-three, in1966. In this time, in a career spanning a little over fifteen years (the least in comparison to the aforementioned songwriters), Shailendra left an indelible imprint on our cinema through films like Shri420 (1955), Madhumati (1958), Anari (1959) and Guide (1965). However, one catch remained: Shailendra's family members have also planned a book on him, which influenced me in my decision to plump for Sahir.
The late Urdu poet from Punjab, Naresh Kumar Shaad, once had the opportunity to interview Sahir Ludhianvi.
'When and where were you born?' asked Shaad, to start the interview.
Sahir's reply, a potent mix of wit, sarcasm and a hint of tragedy went thus: 'Aye jidat pasand naujawaan, yeh toh bada rawaayti sawaal hai. Is rawaayat ko aagey badaatey huey is mein itna izaafa aur kar lo -kyu paida hua?' (Young man, this is a routine question. Instead, when you ask me that question, add 'why were you born?').
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