Never a vacant moment, his unfussy desk is his constant muse. He writes mostly in Urdu – poems, lyrics, stories, scripts, dialogue, reminiscences and more – in legible black ink long-hand.
Clearly, ever since he gave up film direction after Hu Tu Tu in 1999, he has zestfully renewed his first love, writing – culminating in an estimable collection of books, some slim, some voluminous – stacked discreetly behind his decades-old collection of the paperbacks and hardcovers of literary tomes which have been his most loyal companions through 87 years.
Now, he has published Actually…I Met Them, taglined Memoirs – a collection of 18 pen-portraits of his mentors and the creative geniuses of Bombay's show business – largely from the Bengali School of thought. With a frank ‘gee-whiz’ child-like candour, he admits that he still has to pinch himself hard to believe the collaborations truly transpired for a boy who left his home at an impressionable age from Punjab’s Dina, Jhelum (now in Pakistan) to Delhi and eventually to Bombay to check out if the Big City would give him luck-by-chance to realise his impossible dreams.
In this pursuit, Gulzar admits that there are some scars which still have to heal, like the unshakeable grief of being unable to attend his father’s funeral. In Bombay, he shared a pokey room in suburban Chaar Bangla, Andheri, paying the rent by toiling as a garage mechanic. A roof above the head and addagiri with like-minded strugglers meant more than gazillions.
That’s where the part of Memoirs ends. The remaining 160 pages of this hardcover edition are dedicated to succinct throwbacks to his gurus and creative comrades who have occupied a permanent space in his heart and mind.
Characteristically, in the by now-famed Gulzarish ada (style), he writes from the backseat, with palpable humility, self-effacing wit and gratitude for the glory days that were. His subjects are his heroes whom he recreates, especially for the ‘now’ generation, who may be clueless about the infinitely gifted artists and artisans of the vast world of Bombay-produced cinematic classics of the 1950s to the ‘80s, be it in the form of films, songs, screenplays, and plot premises.
Originally penned for a Calcutta newspaper in Bengali, the text is now accessible in English. Because of their brevity, the chapters do leave you asking for more. Yet, it would have been contrived to flesh them into lengthier essays. Enough insights and flashes of wisdom can be gleaned from the pages, to make this endeavour a rapid and edifying read.
Naturally, commencing with his apprenticeship with the iconic Bimal Roy, this account isn’t a hagiography but a summer warm recollection of how the newcomer in the fold accidentally landed his first opportunity to write the lyric Mora Gora Ang Laile for Bandini, following a tiff between versesmith Shailendra and composer SD Burman.
As an assistant, the lyricist multi-tasked on quite a few Bimal Roy projects. Unfortunately, while finessing the script for Amritkumbh Sandhane, located against the backdrop of the Kumbh Mela, Bimalda’s health was fluctuating.The director passed away at the age of 56.
Almost orphaned, Gulzar soldiered on with Bimalda’s circle of professional friends, which is amplified in the vivid portraits of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay (Kumar) and of course Hrishikesh Mukherjee. The alliance between the writer and Hrishida was responsible for such imperishable works as Anand (Gulzar’s name was omitted inadvertently from the credits but restored), Namak Haram, Guddi, Golmaal, Musafir and Chupke Chupke among many others. Hrishida’s mastery at editing and organising low-budget short-cuts are elaborated upon; if he had an Achilles heel, it was his obsessive habit of playing chess right in midst of a shoot, just like the rewind to music composer Salil Chowdhury discloses that he could never be separated from his immersive sessions of carrom.
The reader is more than likely (at least I was) to be particularly interested in the chapters on RD Burman and Sanjeev Kumar. It was almost as if they were a set of triplets, conjoined to one another. RD Burman would often balk at the absence of the ‘poetic’ quotient when the lyricist opted for blank verse (as in Mera kucch saaman in Ijaazat), yet the result snagged National Awards for both Gulzar and Asha Bhosle.
The composer’s fondness for growing a variety of chillies in his apartment garden, and compounding them into fiery spices, is just another vignette about the Dum Maro Dum chartbuster.
As for the rapport with Sanjeev Kumar, it was founded in implicit trust. The actor was paired as Jaya Bhaduri’s father in Parichay and husband in Koshish simultaneously, much to the horror of trade soothsayers. Wouldn’t gel, they warned. Fortuitously, Gulzar as a director succeeded in asserting that such formulaic notions are entirely dispensable.
Only three women feature in the anthology. These recall his creative trysts with Mahashweta Devi, Sharmila Tagore who was recalcitrant at the outset with a bold line of dialogue in Mausam, and Suchitra Sen whom he would address as “Sir” during the shoot of Aandhi. A controversy had erupted, when the film was close to celebrating a silver jubilee. The contention was that it was too close for comfort to the real-life personality of Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi. It was banned for a while. “Sir” never returned to Bombay cinema but if the stubbornly reclusive star made an exception in keeping her doors open in Calcutta, it was always for the creator of Aandhi.
Peppery, sweet and salty anecdotes are strewn throughout the book. Note especially his dogged pursuit of roping in Ravi Shankar to compose the score for Meera, even if that meant chasing the sitar maestro to New York and completing the soundtrack in Amsterdam.
Lata Mangeshkar had refused to sing for the project, citing the excuse that she had just recorded a similar album for her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar. Wary of annoying the prime songstress, Laxmikant-Pyarelal had quit too. Yet today, the album of Meera by Ravi Shankar with the songs rendered by Vani Jairam are a collector’s item.
Aah, there’s a note of regret expressed candidly in the portrait of Satyajit Ray. Gulzar was pencilled in to write the Hindi version of Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen, but the project went through the cracks. Next, on learning that Ray was about to kickstart his first and as it happened, last Hindi film Shatranj ke Khilari, his fan-boy writer barged into the airport before the auteur was about to board a flight and pleaded, “I would honestly like to write for you.” Bad luck by chance, this time, Ray had already finalised his team.
The other dramatis personae in the book are the charismatic actor Uttam Kumar (his Kitaab protagonist), the lovably eccentric Kishore Kumar, the celebrated author Samaresh Babu, the loquacious director Basu Bhattacharya, the legendary classical vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and veteran director Tarun Majumdar through whom he met Raakhee, the girl he fell in love with. If it was at first sight, that’s excised, shyly, but yes that’s his first confession about the girl he married, on the record.
In effect, there’s a world of information and insights in the compactly-published book. However, the editing (or is the translation?) could have avoided repetitive words like “renowned”, for instance. That amounts to nitpicking though. Actually…I Met Them is quite a treat. No tricks here.
Publisher: Penguin-Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 499
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