From a Motor Mechanic to a Celebrated Poet: The Wondrous Journey of Gulzar

Sampooran Singh Kalra went on to become a much revered name in literary and film circles. Lily profiles the fascinating life and achievements of Gulzar, as he is better known. His rise to fame could put any Bollywood blockbuster to shame. Gulzar fell in love with the hazel eyed Raakhee. Before that his long and beautiful relationship with the gorgeous tragedy queen of Indian cinema Meena Kumari was the talk of the town. Not long after the birth of their daughter Meghana, Raakhee and Gulzar separated. He was an indulgent father. Professionally, he donned many caps, excelling as scriptwriter, film director, lyricist, poet, and television serial director. Winner of Grammy and the Academy Award, Gulzar has received numerous awards. Here’s a life sketch of an amazing poet-thinker-writer, exclusively in Different Truths.

A young lad, along with his family was uprooted during the partition of his country from his hometown of Deena in Jhelum, Punjab. This town is now in Pakistan. He was born on August 18, 1936. Drawn to the sound of music that came from his neighbours’ homes, listening and reciting Sher-o-Shayri and playing antakshari were his chosen pastimes. As the family reached Delhi he already had stars in his eyes which pulled him to Mumbai, the land of dreams. Born to Sikh parents Makhan Singh Kalra and Sujan Kaur, Sampooran Singh Kalra went on to become a much revered name in literary and film circles. I write today about the fascinating life and achievements of Gulzar. His rise to fame could put any Bollywood blockbuster to shame. Very few people though would recognise him by his real name. I remember reading somewhere that music exerted such a pull over Gulzar that he would go and listen to the concerts of Ravi Shankar and Ustad Akbar Ali Khan during his college days.

Mumbai saw Sampooran Singh working in a garage in Worli as a mechanic. This helped him earn his livelihood as he wrote poetry in his leisure time. I often reflect on the humble beginnings of many poets with potent pens. Sampooran Singh was using the pen name Gulzar Deenvi initially after his hometown Deena. When asked about this phase of his life once, Gulzar said, “I had a knack for colours.” He used to touch up accident affected cars by mixing colours. Like many spectacular poets before him, in his initial forays into writing, he was pulled up by his father for whiling away his time in aimless writing. Those who love the arts are fascinated by films too, as was Gulzar. He would hang around the film studios. He joined Bimal Roy Productions, in 1961, but his first break as a lyricist came, in 1963, when Shailendra, the song writer, requested him to write a song for Bandini. With music by the revered S D Burman and sung by Lata Mangeshkar, the song “Mora gora ang leyle, mohe Shyam rang dede” (take my fair skinned body and give me your dark hue) became extremely popular. Gulzar wrote the songs and dialogues for Aashirwad, in 1968, which did not generate much interest. It was with the 1969 film Khamoshi that the song “Humne dekhi hai in aankhon ki mehekti khushboo” (I have seen the fragrance of those eyes) brought him  great recognition. The blending of the senses in these lyrics arrested attention. The popular film Guddi, in 1971, had a prayer, which got acclaim and many school assemblies had children singing his words “Hum ko mann ki shakti dena” (O Lord! Give us strength of mind).

Gulzar donned many caps but poetry was what brought him close to the heart of every man. The rainbow reality of his simple choice of phrases throwing up vivid visuals of everyday life endeared him to his readers. The fresh and free flow of his lyrics infused Hindi film music with a unique sensitivity the left one agape at its sheer fluidity.

He also used Bhojpuri, Marwari and Punjabi influences in his penmanship. “Chunni le ke soti thhi / Kamaal lagti thhi.” The lyrics of this song from Maachis astounded with its novelty. Picked up from his close proximity to the simple Punjabi life. The quaint habit of women who curl up to sleep with their scarves covering their bodies modestly, flashes in your mind immediately, and takes you to thoughts of many such women you might have known over the years. It is this ability to talk of the experiences of his growing up years, which resonate in the hearts of so many as in:

Ya Garmiyon ki raat jo

Purvaayiyaan Chalein

Thhandi safed chandron pe

Jaagein dair takk

Taaron ko dekhte rahein

Chhatt par pade hue

(On breezy summer nights

Staying awake till late in the night

On the cool white sheets

Just lying on the terrace gazing the stars).

This song from Mausam left a lasting impression that made people fall in love with his individualistic style of writing, far different from the flowery artifice of film songs.

Or his poem:

Nazm uljhi hai seene mein 

Misre atke hue hain honthhon par 

Udte phirte hain titliyon ki tarah 

Lafz kaagaz par baithhte hi nahi 

Kabse baithha hua hoon mai jaanam 

Saade kaagaz pe likh ke naam tera 

Bas tera nazm hi mukkammal hai 

Is seh behtar bhi nazm kya hogi 

(The poem is enmeshed in my heart

The lines are stuck on my lips

They fly hither and thither like butterflies

Words just don’t sit on the paper

Since long I have been sitting my love

With your name written on a blank sheet

Your name is complete on its own

What better poem could there be than this.)

The mindlessness of war between India and Pakistan is subtly highlighted in the lines:

Lakeerein hain toh rehne do

Kissi ne roothh kar shayad gusse mein kheench di hongi  

Unhi ko ab banaao paala 

Aur aao kabaddi khelte hain

(These lines that divide us let them be

Someone must have etched them in a fit of rage

Let us use them to divide the field into two halves and play kabaddi).

The satire is brought about without flowery words or other literary devices. The game of kabaddi is played in a spirit of camaraderie and joy in the subcontinent. Lines of the borders should be treated as the line bisecting the playing field.

The delicate nuances of emotional depth play hide and seek with raw nerves in his pulsating verses. So direct and compelling are his words that one has to pause with a morsel in hand before one swallows them into one’s being. There is no other writer of Hindi film songs quite like Gulzar for he is a rung above all in this towering edifice of lyrics.

The film Aandhi released in 1975 saw the beginning of a powerful partnership between the path breaking music director RD Burman and Gulzar. The songs haunt with their profound lyrics as well as lilting melodies:

Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa nahi 

Shikwa nahi shikwa Nahi 

Tere bina zindagi bhi koi zindagi nahi 

(Without you I have no complaints about life

Because without you, life isn’t really life). 

Tumhe yeh ziddi thhi ki hum pukaarein 

Hume yeh umeed woh pukaarein 

Hai naam honthhon pe ab bhi lekin 

Aawaaz mein par gayi daraarein.

Gulzar fell in love with the hazel eyed Raakhee. All things that were Bengali endeared him and this lady mesmerised him. Before that his long and beautiful relationship with the gorgeous tragedy queen of Indian cinema Meena Kumari was the talk of the town. Meena Kumari besides being a powerful actress with the seductive voice was also a poetess who wrote her heart out in Urdu. Gulzar’s romance with her was the stuff dreams are made up of.

Sadly Meena died early, and it is said that her heavy drinking took its toll. Well, his marriage with Raakhee, in 1973, was a second one for her. She was the reigning queen of Hindi films those days. Not long after the birth of their daughter Meghana, Raakhee and Gulzar separated. Rumour says it was because Raakhee went back to films and even signed up Kabhie Kabhie with Yash Chopra without breathing a word to Gulzar. It would have been the perfect marriage perhaps as a poet and a pretty lady put together could be magical:

Sheher ki bijli gayi

Band kamre mein bahut der talak

Kuchh bhi dikhaayi na diya 

Tum gayin thhi jis din

Uss roze bhi kuchh aisa hi hua thha 

(With the power outage in the city

For a long time nothing was visible

In the closed room,

The day you left

Something similar happened)

Gulzar wrote thus about their painful parting. The decision to part was torturous. He called it “the longest short story of my life”. They live separately though still married. They raised Bosky (name of an exquisite silk fabric), as she is lovingly addressed, together. She had her room, toys and cupboards in both the homes. Her father was indulgent. Gulzar was sporting enough to let her spray paint her ceiling when she was a kid. He came religiously to pick her up from school every day and even learnt to braid her two plaits into exactly the same length.

If he took Bosky shopping, he let her make her own choices, however, ghastly they might be.  She went to live with her mother in her teen years though. Gulzar dotes on his daughter and his sensitive female side shows up when he lets his grandson Samay ruin the walls of his house with red marker pen scribbles!

Bosky says that she has rarely ever been talked to in a loud voice by her dad except once during her piano class. He is ‘mushy’ around his grandson, she says. The one time that she remembers seeing emotion and worry on Gulzar sahib’s face was when his dear friend of many years, the incomparable ghazal singer, Jagjit Singh was ill in hospital.

Though Gulzar donned numerous coloured caps of a scriptwriter, film director, lyricist, poet, television serial director, his philosophic and profound worldview resonates in his delicate verses. This song, sung ably by Kishore Kumar, from the film Parichay, loosely based on the film Sound of Music was on all radio channels and on every tongue:

Musaafir hun yaaro na ghar hai na thhikaana 

Mujhe chalte jaana hai bas chalte jaana 

(I am a traveller in the quest of life

No address no home to call my own

All I have to do is go on, just go on forever).

Another song from the film, Gharonda, reflects the search of two love birds for a home in a city:

Do deewaane sheher mein 

Raat mein ya dopahar mein 

Aab o daana dhoondte hain

Ek aashiana dhoondte hain 

(Two crazy hearts in love

On a mission day and night

Searching for a love nest to call their own).

Then came a film, in 1987, directed by Gulzar called Ijazat. A particular song touched every single heart that had ever been in love. It also bagged two national awards. One for Asha Bhonsle as playback singer and the other for Gulzar, the lyricist: Mera kuchh saamaan tumhaare paas padaa hai (I left behind some memories with you).

The year 2008 was a landmark year for Gulzar as the world caught sight of his prodigious talent in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. This song was on everyone’s lips:

Jai Ho Jai Ho 

Aaja aaja jind shaamiyaane ke tale

Aaja zariwaale neele aasmaan Ke tale

Jai Ho!

(Come join me under the marquee of life/ The beautiful shimmering blue skies / Let’s rejoice!). AR Rehman composed the memorable music to complement the poetic genius of Gulzar. The song got accolades and brought home the prestigious awards.

Ishquiya was a film that rocked the ticket counter due to its unusual catchy numbers:

Dil toh Bacha hai 

Aisi uljhi nazar unse hatti nahi

Daant se reshmi dor katti nahi

(The heart is naive like a child

Caught in such an eyelock, it’s tough to look away

As much as one may try

It’s hard to break away).

When a Hindi version of the Jungle Book was made Gulzar sahib and Vishal Bhardwaj worked on a song for kids that became a cult song:

Jungle jungle baat chali hai pata Chala hai 

Arre chadhi pehen ke phool Khola hai

(Hear you all, the rumours that are doing the rounds

A young cherub has been found in his diapers).

As a lyricist he worked with many talented music directors like R D Burman, Salil Choudhry and A R Rehman. Films of note that left an indelible mark bore Gulzar’s stamp like Aandhi and Mausam. The television series Mirza Ghalib was immaculately directed with a deep sense of the work and times of the great poet Mirza Ghalib. Besides being a film director, Gulzar is a screenwriter, producer, author and a poet of distinction.

Gulzar is the recipient of the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India. He won the highest award for Indian cinema, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. The Sahitya Academy award also came his way. Gulzar bagged numerous national film awards, 20 Filmfare awards, 11 for Best Lyricist and 4 for Best Dialogue. In the 81st Academy Awards he received an Academy Award for best original song for Jai Ho, along with Rehman. One Grammy Award also for best song written for a motion picture, television or other visual media for Jai Ho again.

Gulzar also received the 2012 Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration. At 80 plus, Gulzar has no regrets. His thoughts are as progressive as when he went for meetings of the progressive writers’ movement in his youth with his mentor Shailendra, the song writer. He does not dismiss item songs nor does he look down on them. He feels cinema is a reflection of the times we live in. Not one to live entrenched in the past, he never says, “Hamaare zamaane mein yeh hua karta thha” (In our times this is what happened). His crisp white kurta pyjama clad persona comes across as a man who has not become a cynic with age as lots of us do.

Tabu who worked with him says that he never dwells in the past. Working with the likes of Sanjeev Kumar and RD Burman perhaps rubbed it off on him.

Of course there are photographs of his daughter Bosky in his office. A wall clock with RD Burman’s picture on its face and the screenplay of his 1988 television serial Mirza Ghalib line his bookshelf. These are things close to his heart. His thoughts are aptly summed up in his own words, “Nostalgia is a sweet place for a poet and writer to be in. But it’s an indulgence, a distraction. You can’t live in a distraction.”

©Lily Swarn

All translations by the author.

Pix from Net.

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily has published English poems in three anthologies. She was awarded Reuel international prize for poetry 2016. A postgraduate in English from Punjab University, she was awarded a gold medal for best all-round student and academics. She edited her college magazine and wrote middles for newspapers. Poetry blossomed after her young son's sudden demise. She writes in Hindi and English. Hailing from a defence family, she is settled in Chandigarh.
Lily Swarn