‘Zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulao/Yeh koonche yeh galiyan yeh manzar dikhao
Jinhe naaz hai Hindi par woh kahan hain?’
— Pyaasa, 1957
‘Ek naya suraj chamka hai, ek anokhi jau-bhari hai/
Khatam hui afraad ki shahi, ab jamhoor ki salaari hai’
Recently, at the 6th Jashn-e-Rekhta festival held in New Delhi, lyricist Javed Akhtar was asked if Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain?” from Pyaasa (1957) — a trenchant critique of the social and political situation in independent India — are still relevant today. Akhtar agreed but was quick to suggest that it wasn’t something to be proud of. “Yeh koi khushi ki baat nahi hai, yeh bohot dukh ki baat hai. It only means that all those sufferings, suppression and social issues are still present in our society.” Poetry, he added optimistically, will “exist so long as there is injustice.”
One of the greatest Progressive poets, Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetic legacy has remained alive through the decades, showing us the way from time to time. Sahir who braved the ghastly Partition and whose poetry mixed elements of incisive social commentary, defiance and subversion into the highly populist film medium would probably be turning in his grave seeing the threat to secular values in India today. A lifelong communist, Sahir wouldn’t have been silent. To mark his protest, he’d have expressed himself by way of a poem. As the poet once wrote, “Har koocha shola-zaar hai, har shehar qatl-gah/ Yakjahti-e-hayaat ke adaab kya hue? (Every road burns, every city is plagued by murder/ Where did the etiquette of togetherness disappear?).” Even today, wherever there’s oppression, injustice, human right violations and economic disparity, Sahir’s admirers quote him, making him as relevant as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Pablo Neruda.
Born as Abdul Hayee in 1921 in Ludhiana, Sahir Ludhianvi is a name that the world of Urdu poetry and Bollywood film music swear by. What makes his talent and achievements significantly more remarkable is that he was at his pinnacle in Hindi cinema’s golden age where he had to vie with the likes of Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra and Shakeel Badayuni to carve a niche for himself. Imagine the talent and originality anyone would have needed to succeed against such a tall order. In other words, Sahir was the best among the best. Although he wrote lyrics for around 80 movies in a career spanning over three decades, one film towers over every other. Even after fifty years, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa has managed to retain a hold over popular imagination. The songs of Pyaasa are a saga in itself. Sung by Mohammed Rafi in god’s own voice, “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain?” is a scathing indictment of the Nehruvian era. Over the years, it has become an anthem of protest, appropriated by dewy-eyed idealists who believe politics to be a revolution for the common good, much like Sahir who used his art as an instrument for social change. “Fundamentally, Jinhe naaz hai Hindi par is an evocative commentary on the plight of the women living on the margins of society,” writes Akshay Manwani in Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet. Set in a brothel, as the doomed lover and poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) observes the exploitations of courtesans from such close quarters, “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par” echoes Vijay’s cries and inner turmoil at the deplorable conditions in the new country.
What makes the song even more relevant in today’s political climate are these potent lines, “Go, call out to the leaders of the nation/ Show them these streets, these bylanes, these scenes/ Where are they who take pride in India?” Author Manwani is right to point out, “Sahir had the audacity to hold a mirror to the people of India to show them at their unflattering worst.” Sahir often reworked his published poetry into film songs, or recycled old themes that he had explored before to produce a new creation. Since his non-film poetry was written in chaste Urdu, he would some times simplify the same thought when employing it in cinema. “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par” is no different. It was a rehash of a popular sonnet from his poetry anthology ‘Talkhiyaan’ (Bitterness). Titled Chakley (Brothel), the original poem went, “Sana-e-khwaan-e-taqdees-e-mashriq kahan hain?” (Where are they who praise the purity of the East?). But so impressed was director Guru Dutt with Chakley that he created a special situation in Pyaasa to include “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par”.
Sahir’s poetic gloom
Auteur Guru Dutt’s labour of love Pyaasa’s legacy in the Indian cinematic canon is indisputable. So much has written about this masterpiece and yet, the film’s still an enigma after all these decades. Globally, it is Pyaasa and not Mughal-E-Azam, Bandini or Mother India that has acquired the reputation of Hindi cinema’s greatest cultural ambassador. Western critics have even dubbed Dutt as India’s Orson Welles. In its archive, the University of Iowa writes that Pyaasa “represents a high point in Indian cinema that, along with Mother India and major films by Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy, confirms the 1950s as Hindi cinema’s golden age.” Author Jerry Pinto breaks the fourth wall in an essay on Waheeda Rehman (‘Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema’) to ask rhetorically, “You know Pyaasa. If you don’t, you should put down this book and go and see it and then come back.”
Revisiting the cult classic recently, one rediscovers the many joys of Pyaasa — VK Murthy’s atmospheric black-and-white photography, the sublime close-ups of Waheeda Rehman who has never looked more breathtaking (save for Teesri Kasam where protagonist Raj Kapoor’s first reaction at her divine beauty echoes that of the audience’s: “Uri baba, yeh toh pari hai”), Johnny Walker and Tun Tun’s deliriously comic turn, Mala Sinha’s lasting regret, the sophisticated Rehman’s jealousy and a heart full of bile towards his wife’s old flame, Mehmood’s evil brother and Shyam’s selfish friend (Saadat Hasan Manto, are you listening?). And then there’s Guru Dutt, the master of melancholy who renders an essentially defeatist film even sadder by his gloomy presence. There’s no denying that it is this unrepeatable combination of actors and technicians led by Guru Dutt’s vision that made Pyaasa what it is today. But if Pyaasa’s doomed romanticism has never ceased to add countless admirers to its list, generation after generation and decade on decade, it is in large part due to Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry and music composer SD Burman’s celebrated minimalism. In fact, the movie doesn’t belong to Waheeda Rehman. It belongs to neither Rehman nor Johnny Walker. It doesn’t even belong to Guru Dutt. It belongs to one man — Sahir Ludhianvi. To imagine Pyaasa without its poetry and music is like imagining Giza without the Pyramid or Paris without Eiffel. It’s not just Sahir and SD Burman’s finest hour at the movies. It’s arguably one of the best soundtracks that Hindi cinema has ever produced, since Alam Ara ushered in the sound era in 1931.
Quenching the creative thirst
Guru Dutt’s seventh film as a director, Pyaasa was what you might call a swan song. After Pyaasa, he made the equally riveting Kaagaz Ke Phool — the one last gasp of a dying artiste before the creative fire is extinguished. Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool are two of his most personal films, both complicit in the making of the Guru Dutt myth. They share one common thread. In both, Dutt’s protagonists deal with the irony of earning posthumous fame while living a life marked by tragedies and failures. The parallels between Kaagaz Ke Phool’s unsung film director and Dutt are unmistakable. It’s clear that Dutt who died at the young age of 39 kept his best for the last. Pyaasa, for one, is ambitious in scope but at once, intimate in scale. Written by Dutt’s trusted aide Abrar Alvi, it follows the tormented poet Vijay (Dutt) whose worldview keeps getting bleaker after each misfortune. First, his family disowns him. Then, his girlfriend (Mala Sinha) leaves him to marry a rich publisher (Rehman). Finally, the gold-hearted Gulab (Waheeda Rehman, still very much a coy teenager in her first major Hindi outing) accepts him unconditionally. She’s a sex worker who is enamoured by his powerful poetry. For her, after reading his deepest thoughts enshrined in his poetry, there’s nothing more to know about the man. This is as selfless and spiritual as any relationship can get. She finds Vijay’s poetry collection accidentally at a local scrap shop and immediately recognises his lost genius. Both an ardent fan and lover, she’s the first one in the world that Vijay has grown to hate who believes in his talent. This is a film that’s firmly on the side of the poor and the pip-squeaks. Vijay, Gulab, Abdul Sattar (Johnny Walker)… they are all society’s rejects. Pyaasa captures Vijay’s angst and anguish at the hypocrisy and blatant opportunism of the modern world that has neither time nor inclination to appreciate his invaluable poetry. Dutt closes the film with heavy irony. While a back-from-the-dead Vijay has finally earned the spotlight that he so craved for he wilfully rejects the well-deserved honour as well as the world that has no place for a long-suffering artiste like him. The famous scene towards the climax when Vijay enters the auditorium, in a classic case of Christ-like resurrection, has reminded many observers of the Crucifixion.
Christ or no Christ, Guru Dutt managed to evoke immense passion and misery in Pyaasa. Today, his intense performance has become synonymous with Pyaasa, but apparently, it was Dilip Kumar and not Dutt who was the Plan A for it. Looking back, one does wonder whether Pyaasa would have been any better (what could be better than this?) had the Tragedy King accepted the role of Vijay. Certainly, this was the greatest character that Kumar never played. Though an eminent director, few thought highly of Dutt as an actor. No less than Dutt’s own close associate Abrar Alvi had remarked, “I felt and still feel that as an actor he was stilted, and his real talent lay in direction.”
For a film that romanticises the troubled life of a poet, Sahir Ludhianvi was but a natural choice. Was the film based on Sahir himself, especially his passionate but incomplete love story with the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam? Such speculations surrounding Pyaasa are legion. There’s no doubt that the film borrows many of Sahir’s philosophies. For example, the verse, ‘Hum ghamzada hain, laaye kahaan se khushi ke geet/ Dengey wohi jo paayenge iss zindagi se hum’ that Vijay hums at the college reunion scene is a revised version of his own poetry, ‘Duniya ne tajurbaat-o-havadis ki shakl mein/ Jo kuch mujhe diya hai, lauta raha hun main.’ The more obvious clue: Vijay’s published book is called Parchhaiyaan, which is clearly inspired by Sahir’s anti-war poem written in 1956. Best of all, the film’s misanthropic worldview is pure Sahir.
A salvo against cruel humanity
Dutt was close to comedian Johnny Walker, who was an essential part of the Guru Dutt troupe and often played the happy-go-lucky wingman to him. In return, Dutt gave Walker at least one song in every film and here, his wispy masseur Abdul Sattar got the film’s most playful number, “Sar jo tera chakraye”. That coupled with the dreamy “Hum aapki aankhon mein”, the wistful “Jaane woh kaise log the” and “Aaj sajan mohe” with its Hindu imagery showcase Sahir Ludhianvi’s sheer versatility and his strong command over both Hindi and Urdu. As Javed Akhtar who has earlier drawn attention to Sahir’s adept use of nature as an imagery, summed up in the book Talking Songs, “Sahir never allows you to forget the surroundings, the backdrop constantly — and perhaps this fact gives his romantic song a mystical quality.” Sahir proved that he could write a song as per any situation using the simplest of idioms, thereby earning the sobriquet ‘People’s poet.’ Note here that Sahir was keen to make a name for himself as a Bollywood lyricist from the early stages of his life. Author Akshay Manwani describes him as an egoistic man who took pride in his poetry (much like Vijay). Nevertheless, he held the film music genre in high regard and is believed to have always given it his all. Interestingly, songwriter Gulzar, who calls Shailendra the “best lyricist in Hindi cinema,” offers a different perspective in the conversational book In the Company of a Poet, by Nasreen Munni Kabir, “I don’t think Sahir Saaheb ever read film scripts. I always felt Sahir Ludhianvi was a poet who was embraced by cinema, but did not embrace cinema in return.”
You know that’s not true because Sahir fully embraced cinema, although he believed in the primacy of poetry over music till the day he died. Nobody could convince him otherwise. That was the reason for his infamous fallout with SD Burman after Pyaasa. In Kaagaz Ke Phool the following year Burman dropped Sahir to work with Kaifi Azmi. Incidentally, it was Burman who gave Sahir his first big break in “Thandi hawayein” picturised on Nalini Jaywant in Naujawan (1951). It was said that Sahir had become arrogant after his success as a lyricist and felt his own contribution to Pyaasa was greater than Burman’s. This high-handed behaviour irked the maestro. In Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, Javed Akhtar whose father Jan Nisar Akhtar was Sahir’s close friend, admits, “Burman-da is my favourite music director.. But yes, in Pyaasa, Sahir’s contribution is more than Burman-da’s.”
Perhaps, the song that best embodies and sustains the Pyaasa myth comes the last. If “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par” pricked the nation’s conscience, “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye” is one step ahead. It’s the poet’s disillusionment with the world and humanity at large. The same year as Pyaasa, Sahir Ludhianvi struck a more hopeful note in “Saathi haath badhana” in BR Chopra’s Naya Daur. A year passed and Sahir, drunk on Faiz’s influence, would outline the utopia and a better future for humanity in “Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi” from Phir Subah Hogi (1958). He’s the same poet who would later give us such timeless melodies as “Tum mujhe bhool bhi jao”, “Aye meri zohrajabeen”, “Yeh ishq ishq hai”, “Main zindagi ka saaath”, “Chalo ek baar phir se”, “Kabhi kabhie” and “Mail pal do pal ka shayar hun”. But such is the allure of Pyaasa that whenever we think of the classic, our thoughts immediately turn to Sahir. Pyaasa’s poetic gloom has quenched the thirst of generations, from Mahesh Bhatt to Piyush Mishra. Moreover, Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Kabhi Kabhie (1976) drew comparisons with Sahir’s life, who also wrote the film’s lyrics. Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal (2009) and the recent Manmarziyaan (2018) were a tribute to Sahir. Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2011) was called the Pyaasa of our times. Some websites tell you that even Shraddha Kapoor’s favourite film is Pyaasa!
Make no mistake, Sahir’s relevance refuses to die. But this takes the cake — in September this year, in a scene reminiscent of Pyaasa, Sahir’s prized possessions consisting of his many handwritten letters and poetry were recovered from a scrap seller in Mumbai, not unlike Gulab’s discovery of Vijay’s papers. The worthless poet of Pyaasa turned out to be worth a lot more than he ever imagined, after all.
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