Writer and filmmaker Gulzar on winning the Dadasaheb Phalke award, his hopes for the new generation and the realism of current cinema.
You’ve got so many awards, but does being felicitated with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award feel like something else?
Yes, this one evokes a different feeling. This award has summed up my lifetime’s work — it’s not just for one song, film or composition. You know, my father was very disappointed when he got to know that I wanted to write poems. I remember, he said, “Saade ghar eh marasi kithon jam paya? (How did an entertainer take birth in our family?)” I wish my father were alive today because then he would know ki uss marasi nu manzil labh gayi (that the entertainer has found his destination).
You were telling me that your father was the first person you wanted to talk to after you heard the news.
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Yes. I just wanted to tell him that I hadn’t done too badly for myself. We come from a vyaapari (business) family. In those days, going into the film industry was not considered a compliment. I wanted to be a poet and a writer; films were never my dream. My father couldn’t understand what was the need for me to go away, if I just wanted to write. He used to tell me, “Kitaaban likhniya ne taa ghar bai ke likh le, par hatti te taan jaana payega (If you want to write books then do so sitting at home, but you have to go to the shop).” I was tickled to read that something like this had happened to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too. He was busy reading his books when his father asked him, “Majj da gataava othe rakh de (Go and keep the buffalo’s mixture there).” He was so immersed in reading that he didn’t hear his father. So his father said, with a note of exasperation, “Inaa ki padh raha hai tu, kaida pradhan mantri ban jaana hai? (Why are you studying so much, are you going to become the prime minister?)” (Laughs) This is what happens. Pata thode hi hota hai (nobody can foretell).
When was the first time you realised you could write?
Yaad kahan rehta hai (One forgets). But it’s only in the last 15-20 years that I got the confidence that I could write.
Really, just 15-20 years ago?
(Nods) Tees-chalees saal lag jaate hain vaagh pakadne mein (It takes 30-40 years to hold the reins). Gaane toh achche likh raha tha (I was writing good songs) and that gave me a feeling of fulfillment, but then I used to think ki iss baar toh ho gaya lekin next time hoga ki nahin (this time I did it, but I don’t know if it will happen again). That went on for a number of years, until one day I knew I could do it. It happens with everyone. I remember a conversation I had with (actor) Soumitra Chatterjee, who told me that he trembled every time he went on stage. Till I have broken the first phrase, ek minute ke liye woh trembling toh mujhe bhi hoti hai (even I tremble for a minute).
You gave yourself your name, your takhallus (pen name) Gulzar. Do you have anything to say to your name today?
I don’t have any other name. When I tried to express myself, I took a name. I don’t need a name that is an indication of any caste or religion. Gulzar aur bhi hain lekin mera naam itna sa hi hai (There are other Gulzars, too, but my name is just this much). When people meet me and call me by my real name, I don’t appreciate it. I feel as if they are boasting that they know my real name (Sampooran Singh Kalra).
I liked it, when at the time of giving me the Padma Bhushan, they asked me, “Kya naam likhna chahte hain? (What’s the name you want to write?)” I told them I want this name because you have always seen my work with this name. Even my payments come in this name. “Meri rozi issi naam, Gulzar, se chalti hai. Waise naam ka ek aur kissa hai. Sunogi? (I earn my living with this name, Gulzar. By the way, I have another story about a name. You want to know?)
When my daughter Meghna was born, woh chotti si, silky si thi (she was small and silken). So I gave her the name Bosky, which is a kind of silk. Rakheeji didn’t like the name at all. Then, one day filmmaker J Om Prakash came home and said, “Bahut mazedaar naam hai. Agar munda hota toh kya naam rakhte? (It’s a fascinating name. What would you have named a boy?)” I replied, “I would have named him lattha (a kind of a cotton cloth).” (Laughs) You see, I come from a family of textile shop owners.
Do you write every day?
Yes. Every day. I’m at my desk. I write. I read. You have to. Lafz toh dhoondne padte hain. Mil jaate hain par dhoondne toh padte hain. Uske liye kaam toh roz karna padta hai (One has to look for words. You get them after you search for them. For that, one has to work every day).
Do you write on your laptop? And you write in Urdu, right?
(Smiles) Only in Urdu. I’ll show you how I write. (Opens a notebook lying on his desk, and flips the pages to show me his work — words, verses written in Urdu with a black fountain pen ink.) Everything starts from here.
Does feedback matter to you?
Of course, because without that, you won’t know. You can’t always live in your dhun (own world). You can’t progress unless you learn not only to receive criticism, but also invite criticism. There are people who admire my work, and say, aap bahut achcha likhte hain (you write very well). But when I get feedback from people that my imagery is difficult to understand, I get to know whether or not I communicated my thoughts well. A tree can’t grow by itself, it can only grow when someone prunes it.
What does the poet in you feel about India? You have seen India as a child, as a young man, as a deeply political filmmaker of Mere Apne, Aandhi, Maachis and Hu Tu Tu?
India’s independence was very tragic. We could never really enjoy it because of Partition. There was a lot of bloodshed, a lot of pain… mela ujad gaya tha (lives were ruined). Naa Pakistan ko woh khushi mili naa humko. Khushi mehsoos karne mein bahut samay lag gaya (Neither was Pakistan happy, nor were we. It took a lot of time to feel that happiness). When the feeling finally started sinking in, the first generation that got us our freedom started going away. This was when corruption started coming in, and soon became a business. I’ve always felt sorry that we didn’t stand up to it. I’ve been saying this to the younger generation, that the fault lies with us. We couldn’t give you a free and flourishing India. But now I want to tell the younger generation that it’s your turn. You are at a turning point, whereas I am a buzurg (elder). So I will stop apologising now. Ab aap ke haath mein desh hai (Now the country is in your hands). Humse miss ho gaya, par aap log sambhal lo (We missed our chance, but you take charge).
Are you hopeful that we can save this country?
Yes, and that’s because your generation is very selfish. They don’t want India for its Ganga, but for their economic pride and self-respect. I’m hopeful because the chaos and crisis has reached a saturation point. This is our only chance. If it goes down a little bit more, then there is no scope. The youngsters have to realise that things are in their hands now. And I’m happy that I’m alive to see this.
Years ago, the British adopted the divide-and-rule policy. India is voting in this election on a similar issue. Have we grown as a nation or regressed?
I’ll tell you what. Currently, I’m working on a big poetry compilation of this era. I’m translating poetry written in 30 languages to Hindustani, and the best poetry is from the north-east. It’s because of the turmoil. Up to independence, our poetry was very vibrant, but in the last 60 years, all poetry became depressing. The reason why poetry from the Northeast is so vibrant is that they want to turn it around. I want to remain hopeful because even though there are issues, we can’t say that India has not progressed. I feel that India’s story is like walking up a spiral on a mountain. You walk and walk and then you turn and you can see the sky. Yahan se ghoom aaya toh aasmaan nazar aa gaya… phir nahin aaya… phir ghooma, aur phir nazar aa gaya. India has always seen a spiral rise. I’m hopeful that aasmaan phir nazar aa jaayega (the sky would be visible again); you just have to take the next turn.
Last time, we decided that I won’t ask you when you are making your next film, but I’m breaking the pact. When?
(Laughs) I’ll also repeat my question. Zaroori hai kya? (Is it necessary?) I understand that I’m working through the medium of film, but my work is not just about feature films. In fact, the most perfect form of film is the short film — it’s the purest form of cinema. I made Kirdaar, a series of short films based on stories from different authors in different languages. They are releasing a two-and-a-half-hour DVD of Godaan and Nirmala out of Tehreer: Munshi Premchand Ki, the serial that I made for Doordarshan (DD). I keep doing what I want to do, but the format need not be that of a feature film. I wanted to make documentaries on Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, which I did. All this is cinema for me. I could have done another 15 hours of work on Tagore, but DD didn’t allow it. Budget was a problem and I couldn’t go to any other channel because this is not their food. I really wanted to make a documentary on Dharamvir Bharati, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t get the funding. Within all the limitations, I try to do what I want to.
What are your impressions about the current crop of filmmakers?
See, we have to realise that during my time, films had better subjects. But when you see those films, they look staged. The cinema that is being produced today is more real. It’s only now that our cinema is maturing. For instance, Raavan. I’ve never seen the kind of visuals that Mani Ratnam captured in that film. And then there is 7 Khoon Maaf, a daring story and so visually and poetically rich. In Bunty Aur Babli, it was not the character who sold the Taj Mahal in the film, it was the director, Shaad Ali, who sold Taj Mahal to us through his visuals and energy. I have full faith in today’s filmmakers. I really admire my daughter Meghna. She had such a tough time getting actors to do her debut Filhaal. Everyone felt the concept of surrogacy was unreal. She had a new thought so she wrote Filhaal, but everyone felt ki apne father se likhai hogi (she must have asked her father to write). Nobody wanted to do this film because it was so unreal (then), and today the same people have done the same thing in real life. This is the reason why I like today’s filmmakers. They have a voice and they want to make films on real issues.
But still nobody is making a film like Ijaazat. You brought out the complications in man-woman relationships so well. What’s your take on modern love in films?
Jo aaj kal filmein bana rahe hain unse yeh poochiye. Main toh jab tak bana raha tha, theek hi bana raha tha (Ask those who are making films these days. Till the time I was making films, I was doing okay). For me to comment on this, I have to fall in love. Again. (Laughs) What you call complicated, I call complex. Human relationships are always complex. The beauty of life, where men and women are concerned, is that it can never be explained through a formula.
One of the most important people in your life is your grandson Samay. How many stories have you told him already?
I have one non-negotiable rule: 6 am to 8 am is my time, when I play tennis, and 6 pm to 8 pm is when I am with Samay. Kahaniyan toh main uski sunta hoon (It is I who listens to his stories). He tells much better stories than I can ever tell.