There is something intrusive about asking for insta-reactions— on the passing away of a supreme artiste. That irksomely annoying, “What are your feelings today” cliché has to be darted.
With the utmost procrastination on my part, I still somehow resolve to call on the iconic writer-poet-lyricist-director Gulzar. After all his collaboration with the legendary chanteuse Lata Mangeshkar, who passed away on 6 February, on countless songs and in the making of the well-remembered film, Lekin, has been nothing short of extraordinary. Here, then, are excerpts of my conversation with Gulzar saab:
Sir, I don’t know how to begin. May I ask you to start from any point you would consider appropriate?
Gulzar: (Pause) My first song for the film industry – ‘Mora Gora Ang Laye Le’ – for Bandini was rendered by her. I had aspired to become a literary writer at the outset, but Shailendra pushed me towards writing that lyric for Bimal da (Bimal Roy) and becoming his assistant. There had been some misunderstanding between Lata ji and Sachin da (Sachin Dev Burman), for nearly three years he hadn’t asked her to sing for him. Yet when she came to the Film Centre recording studio, there was no sign of anything amiss between them.
She was cordial, humble, affectionate, never ever patronising. There was one rehearsal for the song and the recording went smoothly. I was standing nervously outside the recording room, though I was a rank newcomer she went out of her way to tell me that she had especially liked the line, ‘Tohe Raahu Laage Hairi…Muskaaye Jee Jalaaye Ke Hoon’.
In fact, it was a practice in the industry that whenever Lata ji would render a song, even the biggest composers and lyricists were extra-conscious of doing justice to her stature.
Were you fond of any other playback singers of that era?
Gulzar: I wasn’t a huge film buff, so to speak, then. I’d listen to songs on the radio, of course. There were singing stars like Suraiya, and earlier Noor Jahan who went to Pakistan in the Partition. Lata ji, after a struggle in her teenage years, justly became the dominant female voice of the nation.
You have had an equal rapport down the decades with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.
Gulzar: For me, they are like Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin who first landed on the moon, one after the other. It was like Lata ji was on the window-side and Ashaji next to her. Un mein koi zyaada aur qam nahin hai (There is no question of who’s better between them). It’s like there used to be two sides of a vinyl long-playing record, which would have Side 1 and the flipside.
Could you give us an insight into Lataji’s method of working?
Gulzar: She would be particular about rehearsals, even going a day before to Salil Chowdhury’s recording room at Mohan Studio or to Madan Mohan’s on Peddar Road.
To tell you of an instance of the way she would grasp lyrics, I had written the line ‘Aapki Badmashiyon Ke Yeh Andaz Hain’ for one of the songs in Ghar. Pancham (R.D Burman) was apprehensive that she would not like the word ‘badmashiyon’. I told him it was a word that could be addressed to a child or a beloved, and if she didn’t approve of it, I would change the word on the spot. But she sang the lyric comfortably. When Pancham exchanged a meaningful glance with me, she caught on and laughed, “But that’s the only new thing about the song.”
Before the rehearsals, Lataji would always ask for what kind of character and the age she was singing for. Was it a college girl? A working woman? No other singer did that. This could put off some directors but when they would hear the results, they’d admit she was right.
Would she ever require more than one take?
Gulzar: Since she would already know the nuances by rehearsing, her first take would work. In fact, Pancham, I were extremely thrilled with her first take for a song recorded by the famous Daman Sood at the Western Outdoor studio. However, Daman requested a second one. Surprised, Lataji wondered what she had done wrong. Daman said, “No, no, nothing, there’s no need for one.” But she went right back into the cabin and gave us an even better rendition.
She had a wonderful sense of humour. Could you give us some examples?
Gulzar: See, every filmmaker, composer, lyricist has always wanted to include at least one Lata Mangeshkar song in a film’s soundtrack. When Vishal (Bharadwaj) was recording ‘Yaad Naa Aaye Koi’ for Maachis, he was relatively a newcomer. He said he was nervous, she laughed and told him, “Please treat me like a newcomer too!” and the ice was broken.
And once I had used the phrase Radha Vrindavani, to which she smiled, “Oh, this is like Majrooh saab using the name of his hometown Sultanpuri!”
Then once she narrated a joke about the Pakistani dictator Zia-Ul-Haq. It seems his barber would constantly ask him, “When are you calling for the elections?” Annoyed, Zia-Ul-Haq asked his personnel to check out his motives and the barber simply told them, “Whenever I ask him that his hair stands up and becomes easier to cut!”
Which among the songs by Lata Mangeshkar rendered for your lyrics are closest to you?
Gulzar: ‘Hamne Dekhi Hain Un Aankhon ki Mahekti Khushboo’ (Khamoshi), and from the films directed by me, ‘Roz Akeli Aaye’ (Mere Apne) and ‘Jis Mod Se Jaate Hain’ (Aandhi).
How was she as a producer of Lekin?
Gulzar: She was a bad producer because she was too generous. She came to the shoot only once in Rajasthan and twice on the sets in Mumbai and showered the unit with personalised gifts. Since she knew I collect Gautam Buddha statues and figurines, she gifted me three of them made of precious stones.
About six months ago, she sent me a big heavy marble statue of Buddha, and ‘phoned and said, “Yeh mere ghar chale aaye the…mujhe pata hai inhe kiske ghar pahunchana hai.” (“Buddha had come over to my place but I knew whose house he had to reach.”)
She was very pleased with Hridaynath Mangeshkar’s music for Lekin. ‘Yaara Seeli Seeli’ did become very popular but she had a soft spot for the folk-based ‘Sunio Ji Ek Araj’.
Could you recall the recording of your lyric Jiya Jale for A.R. Rahman?
Gulzar: That was the first song she did for Rahman, and flew to his studio in Chennai to record it. She made it a point to tell us that she had liked both the lyrics and the composition.
Did you sense her voice evolving over time?
Gulzar: Unhe jaisa suna tha vaise hi rahin (Her voice remained as pure as it was always). She would record only on days when her voice was in good shape. Indeed, she was the last of the perfectionists.