The poet-lyricist on Tagore, writing for children, the script he has just finished writing and throwing away 'obnoxious clichs'
Gulzar turns 82 this August. His imagination, dynamism and commitment to the art of visually stirring poetry is still unmatched. Hindi cinema’s most famous poet, lyricist and graceful renaissance man has adapted to new linguistic paradigms effortlessly, without compromising on the cadence or the nuances of Urdu and Hindi. His latest project, a two-set translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s two works, is the culmination of a lifelong wish. In an interview at his home in Bandra, Mumbai, Gulzar talks about Tagore’s influence in his life, writing for a new generation of adults, his films, and the script he has just finished writing. Edited excerpts:
With ‘Baghban/The Gardener’ and ‘Nindiya Chor/The Crescent Moon’, you have achieved your long cherished dream of translating Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali poems into Hindi and English. What is Tagore’s influence in your life? Is it true that he made you a thief?
(Smiles) Well, this is a story that has become a part of my life now. Let me say that discovering Tagore was the turning point of my life. When my family moved to Delhi after Partition, I started working in a small shop that had a small lantern and a chimney. There was a small bookshop nearby—from where I used to borrow jasoosi (detective) novels for four annas.
The man who owned the library got fed up with me because I used to read a book a day. One day, he asked me tersely, “Kitni kitaab padh lega? (How many books will you read?)" I said, as many as you have in your shop. So he gave me a dusty, old, thick copy of Tagore’s Gardener. He must have thought I wouldn’t understand this and I especially wouldn’t be able to finish it off in one day. The moment I started reading Tagore’s poems, woh kahin mujhe lag gayi (they touched me) and I never returned that book. So yes, Tagore made me a thief.
But in life you never know what clicks. Tagore’s poems have remained with me till date. I learnt Bengali just so that I could understand him better. He continues to inspire me. The circle that started forming when I was a child is only growing now. I firmly believe that Tagore should be taught in schools all over India.
Tell us a bit about the process of building these two collections? How long did it take?
It took me five years. I searched for the original poems, uss mein waqt laga (that took time). You don’t just land on translations. You read, you follow, you build on it. People think Tagore is only about Gitanjali. That is not his only high. It was a book he wrote to present Indian spiritualism to the West. Mujhe yeh theek karna tha (I wanted to correct that), which became my motive. When I decided to translate his works, I knew it came with great responsibility. He is considered a holy cow. Sabse pehle toh ghar pe maar padti (first I would be criticised at home)—(laughs, referring to his wife Raakhee, a Bengali). I wasn’t happy with Tagore’s own translations in English. Maybe he was, but I wasn’t, so I took it upon myself to do it. English mein zubaan ka culture hi nahi aata (English cannot capture the nuances of the language). I have followed his original Bengali works and then translated them. To the best of my efforts, I have remained honest to Tagore. I presented the first copy to President Pranab Mukherjee and he asked me, “You have done it from Bangla? How?" I replied in Bengali that I could read and speak in Bengali. He did a double take and I felt very honoured when the President spoke about Tagore with me. Even though I received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award from the President, it was only after we discussed Tagore that I felt I had had a conversation with Pranab Mukherjee.
For someone who has such an enviable body of work, how do you keep yourself motivated? How do you choose your projects?
Issi liye toh filmein banani chhod di (This is the reason I stopped making films). There are so many books in my head. See, I don’t have unlimited years. I rely on my conviction and devotion to pursue whatever I’m passionate about. When you find something that makes you feel that only you can do it and nobody else, then you automatically want to do it. Like, now I want to translate the works of the Bangladeshi poet Kazi Nazrul Islam and write a play on the Bangladeshi leader Mujibur Rahman. I recently travelled to Bangladesh to collect material on both these personalities. Now this will keep me going.
And you write every day?
Yes. Every day I’m in my study. I write. I read. I research. You have to. Lafz dhoondne ke liye kaam toh roz karna padta hai (one has to work hard in order to find the right words).
Literally an entire generation has grown up on your words… those who sang ‘Lakdi Ki Kathi’ now sing ‘Tujhse Naaraz Nahin Zindagi’. Do you feel the power you wield over so many people?
I think I have learnt with my work too. When you are choosing your own way, you end up leaving signposts and, in that process, others can learn too. But there has never been a guarantee that I’m always on the right path, sometimes if I go wrong then I go wrong. There are a hundred masters you learn from. Kuch kissi se seekhte hain aur kuch kissi aur se (you learn different things from different people). It’s like Munshi Premchand’s short story Idgah. I read it when I was a child and there was this imagery of Hamid’s dadi’s hands getting burnt as she made rotis. My mother used to make rotis in the tandoor and she also had marks on her arm. When I read the story to my father, he got tears in his eyes and he said, “Jao maa ko sunao (read it to your mother)". She also was touched. I realized that one story touched all three of us.
And then that imagery came in ‘Chappa Chappa Charkha Chale (Lohe ke chimte se lipte ko mara tha)’ from ‘Maachis’.
Yes. As I grew up, my view of Idgah changed from a human perspective to a social one. Reacting to that short story was the first step but learning has to be at all levels. Like I enjoyed Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s stories because of the way he etched relationships in a family set-up. In similar vein, take the story of Cinderella—it affects children even now because of the emotions it evokes of having a stepmother. Like in Masoom.
You reminded me of Lakdi Ki Kathi…. You know (director) Shekhar Kapur was not happy with the song. Shekhar was adamant on adding a line, “Bibiji tea pee ke aayi". I didn’t agree and left the song midway. Shabana (Azmi) fired him and told him, “Bachchon ke gaanon pe kabhi Gulzar se panga mat lena (don’t ever mess with Gulzar when it comes to children’s songs)."
Famous words by Shabana Azmi, considering that even after 23 years ‘Chaddi Pehen Ke Phool Khila Hai’ is a rage all over again with the release of ‘The Jungle Book’. How did you come up with this expression?
The National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) was making the TV show on The Jungle Book and Jaya Bachchan (chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, India, at the time) asked me to write a song for it. I had met Vishal (Bhardwaj) in Delhi and saw real talent in him. He had moved to Mumbai and this was the first project we worked on. Vishal played some tunes for me, one of which clicked, and I immediately wrote the lines: “Jungle jungle baat chali hai.. pata chala hai.. chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai." There was a gentleman called Ravi Malik who was at NFDC. When he read the lyrics, he freaked out.
He came cribbing to me. I asked him problem kya hai? Tumhare office mein kaun chaddi nahi pehenta? (who doesn’t wear underwear in your office?)" (Laughs). He didn’t relent. As a last-ditch attempt to compromise, he asked if he could make it lungi pehen kar. I left the song. Jaya got to know, she called me back. We finished the song and it became a rage. But Malik saab was still grumpy. He didn’t pay Vishal and again came complaining to me that he didn’t understand how I could use this imagery. So I told him that, “Poori story mein Mowgli ne kya pehna hai? (What has Mowgli worn in the story?)" He’s like a flower that blooms in front of all the animals. That is Mowgli’s image. Chaddi was not irrelevant. But the song gave me a peculiar intro. Women with kids in their arms used to come to me and say, “Beta yeh dekho chaddi waale uncle hain.. Inhe hello bolo (This is the chaddi waale uncle, say hello to him)." (Chuckles).
What’s your magic formula for writing songs for children?
There’s no formula. It’s quite simple really. Children like to play with a song. It has to be as easy and engaging for them as if they are playing with a ball. I wasn’t trying to philosophize in Lakdi Ki Kathi. It was just instinct. Children like to own the song and then express it as their own. Like, Aao Bachchon Tumhe Dikhayen is also a song for children, but you can’t play with it. The cleverness of Masoom was not in the songs but in the screenplay.
Can you elaborate?
In the opening scene, when that puppy comes and he topples the photo frame, the scene that followed showed the attitude of everyone. All the characters were in front of you in just one scene. That was the cleverness.
These little clever touches in your films—be it the famous flashbacks or those conversations within conversations—have been a hallmark of all your man-woman relationship stories. For instance, in ‘Aandhi’, when she says to her estranged husband, ‘Bilkul waise hi ho… zara bhi nahin badle.’ He replies, ‘Zara kamzor ho gaya hoon.’ She refutes this: ‘Nahin… kamzor toh nahi ho. Tum toh kabhi kamzor nahin thay….sirf duble ho gaye ho kuch.’ Where do they come from?
Now I’m also reminded of Ijaazat, when the married couple meet as strangers and she asks him, “Wahin rehte ho?" And he replies, “Wahin pe hoon.. Lekin sab kuch wahin nahi hai." They come from life and following the characters and their emotional road maps. In Ijaazat, even though they meet after so many years, she can’t stop herself from folding his clothes and keeping them properly in his suitcase. The concern remains even after the distance.
This kind of intimacy is rarely seen in today’s love stories. What is your take on modern love and its depiction in Hindi films?
Love has changed, so stories also will change. Tell me, if you fall in love, will you send your special someone kitaab mein purza daal ke (notes hidden inside books)? Now, the grammar of relationships has changed. Now it’s all about a boy saying, “Hi Mom. This is so and so..we are friends..and this weekend we are going to Darjeeling." Conversations and connections are becoming easy now. Pehle the boy would stutter and stammer in front of his mom. He would be like, “Maa.. Maa.. yeh yeh.. he wouldn’t be even able to take the girl’s name..and just say, yeh mere college mein.." And it was up to the mom to fill in the gaps. Time, people and language have changed, so scenes also have to change. In today’s films, mothers speak in English and drive cars. This is good progress. If the woman has changed, then stories will also change.
So if you were to remake ‘Masoom’, it would be a different story altogether?
Yes, it won’t be the same because the woman has changed. She might not object to the child because pre-marital relationships are no longer frowned upon. She might even laugh about it with her husband and rib him that you told me about all your ex-es but not about her. The attitude of the conversation will change. She might say we decided to have only two children and now you have another son; I hope there won’t be a fourth one now. To this, he can quip, “Mera koi chance nahin hai.. Tumhara hai toh bata do (there isn’t a chance of that. If there is for you, tell me)." This could be a new and interesting take on a modern relationship.
Does nostalgia grip you? Do you go back to your old work?
Yes. Like it takes me years to finalize a poem for my book. Since the past two months, I have been collecting my unpublished poems from 2006-10 so that I can finalize some of them for a book. Mujhe apna purana work verbose lagta hai (I find my old work verbose). I feel I could have been brief. Till Kitaab, all the films I made were verbose. Because I’m a writer, I used to feel even if I have shown it visually, to be safe, say more. Slowly, I learnt that if the man is holding a pistol, he doesn’t need to say, “I will shoot you".
You have etched many memorable characters. Which ones are your favourites?
Rekha and Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) in Ijaazat. You can see how Rekha’s walk changes after her marriage. Utpal Dutt was brilliant in Libaas (the film hasn’t been released). And how can I forget Sanjeev Kumar in Angoor? The way he says, “Mujhe nanga dekha hai aapne (you’ve seen me naked)" in one of the scenes, only he could do it. Sanjeev and Pancham (R.D. Burman) were the anchors of my films. They would do anything I asked of them.
What can you tell us about the forthcoming film ‘Mirziya’? How did director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra convince you to write the script?
For now, I can only tell you that Mirziya is aaj ka (today’s) romance, with an echo of the past. Rakeysh is so involved in each and every line that sar khaa jaata hai (he eats your head). His favourite question is, “But why would he say this?" To which I say, “That’s because this is his nature." You have to explain again and again to him. Then he agrees.
Can anyone say no to you?
Only the director can. A director can’t direct if he’s not convinced, so he has the right to ask and keep asking, and it’s the writer’s duty to keep working till the end and not let even one word go without him owning it.
Right from ‘Khamoshi’s’ ‘Humne dekhi hai in aankhon ki mehakti khushboo’ to ‘Kaminey’s’ ‘Humne gilhari ke jhoothe matar khaaye thay’, your penchant for using unusual imagery is captivating. Do you have a secret dictionary?
The pursuit is not to find something unusual, but to be with the script and the character. If I’m doing three films and all the songs are sounding the same, then that means I’m not doing the right job. If the same tune doesn’t work, then how can we accept the same words in songs? Today, all the heroes sound the same; the songs are half in English and half in Hindi. Even I did that in Bunty Aur Babli: Aankhen bhi kamaal karti hain, personal se sawaal.. in Kajra Re, but that was the character.
Have you ever been asked to change a word or a line?
I’m supposed to give options. At times I have to tell the composer what the word means. Like when we were working on The Hundred-Foot Journey, A.R. Rahman was in Los Angeles, I was in Mumbai and the film was being shot in France. We were discussing a song on Skype and Rahman suggested some dummy lines and said we need something like “sanam" here. I told him to stop using that word. He got tense and asked if it has a bad meaning. I said it has the worst meaning. You see, there are certain words, which are clichés, some are bad clichés and some are obnoxious clichés. According to me, sanam is an obnoxious cliché and should never be used again.
Do you ever get upset when people don’t get your words?
I left a film because the director didn’t understand the meaning of the word zardi (the colour of yolk) and wanted to change it to haldi (turmeric). I also can’t make songs with hook lines. A star once came to me with a hook line and told me to write a song around it; I had to tell him to leave my office. For the song in Lekin..., Joothe Naina Bole Sachchi Batiyaan, a journalist wrote a big article that Ashaji (Bhosle) has pronounced the words wrong and how can Gulzar let it go? I was asked to clarify. The person didn’t understand the expression. It was not jhoote, but joothe which means something that others have tasted.
As the tolerant-intolerant, national-anti-national debate continues in the country, do you think writers and film-makers can be political?
These days people are afraid. People are oversensitive. People are scared to say anything because nobody wants to get into a controversy. In Bunty Aur Babli, we used the word “Oye Ramchandra" in a song. Earlier, we used to have a common character called Ramu Chacha in our films. But these days you can’t.