A Poet of the People: The Life of Legendary Lyricist Anand Bakshi
An unimaginable number of his 3,500 film songs are nothing short of anthemic.
Ever so often, I want to kick myself. Here was a man, not quite acknowledged as a legend in his own lifetime, who wanted to talk. “Do drop by, baatein karenge. Not an interview, just… over tea or a ‘hard drink’ if you like. And there’s always some great Punjabi food at my place. I’ve so much to say, things I’ve kept inside me.”
“Li..iiike?” I drawled, curiosity aroused.
“Do you know, I used to be in the Navy? Then there was a naval mutiny, the Partition happened. I had to reach Lucknow to join my family,” narrated the aspiring singer-poet-lyricist born in Rawalpindi.
“Sure sir,” I exulted. “Will drop by soon. Your place is at Bandra, close to Carter Road, isn’t it?”
Enmeshed in the grind of daily journalism, that ‘soon’ took a long time coming. As it happened, my friend, the outstanding cinematographer Santosh Sivan was about to direct his first big Bollywood film, the Shah Rukh Khan-produced Ashoka, and wondered if I knew Anand Bakshi. Would he write the lyrics?
An Abiding Loss
The wordsmith was Santosh’s first choice. After all, of the lyricist’s 3,500 films songs, an incalculable number were anthemic. Consider for instance, just his output for Shakti Samanta, notably Aradhana, Kati Patang and Amar Prem; Raj Kapoor’s Bobby and Satyam Shivam Sundaram; and even a qawwali for Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay which wasn’t used eventually since the film’s running time had skittered beyond control. Never mind. His other Sholay tracks Yeh dosti hum nahin , Holi ke din, Jab tak hai jaan, Koi haseena and Mehbooba Mehbooba for the cult blockbuster, haven’t lost their zing over time.
Circa the pre-production preps of Ashoka, Anand Bakshi wasn’t well – a terminal illness had been detected, and he hardly moved out of his Bandra apartment.
“Santo, I don’t know,” I reasoned. “He may not agree, he has cut down on his work. Besides, you don’t know Urdu and Hindi. How will you understand what he comes up with?”
I sensed that my friend was crestfallen. So, I called Bakshi saab to find out if he would meet Santosh Sivan. He agreed, adding generously, “That’s only because you’ve called up. Come over with this Santosh. We’ll see how it goes? Tell him to come over an hour after you do. Chai peene ke baad un janaab se mil lenge.”
Perhaps a cloud of loneliness and an acceptance of mortality had set in.
The Bandra apartment was well-appointed, dotted with richly upholstered sofas, chairs as well-stuffed as Christmas turkeys, and an ageing carpet. The sunlight, though, just about filtered in.
Elaichi tea, pakoras and Santosh arrived in that order. The two got along famously. Mission accomplished? Not quite. After a month, Bakshi saab called in a panic, “Director bahut accha hai but his assistants are driving me up the wall. I feel they’re not happy with my work, they keep raising objections. I gave them this lyric San sana san, which they had the nerve to say is stale. Stale! We’re not on the same wavelength. With your permission, I want to drop out.”
My permission? “Sir give me five minutes, I’ll just speak to Santosh.”
“No point, I’ve done what I could, they can use my songs or throw them in the dustbin,” he riposted firmly. “I heard that they’re already approached Gulzar for the rest of the songs. That’s fine with me. Leave all this, it’s not your fault, let’s meet as friends. I want to share so many things from my life. Is next Sunday okay with you?”
Evidently, he had many stories to tell. It has been my abiding loss that I couldn’t reconnect. That Sunday never came. Anand Bakshi passed away at the age of 72, following a heart seizure, on 30 March 2002.
Today, to reconstruct his oeuvre of lyrics is as hazardous as to pack in all the riches from Alibaba’s cave into a carry-bag. On the other hand, since he was unpretentious and avoided filigreed metaphors, he never acquired the status of a poet. A majority of his songs were unapologetically populist. They created instant imagery, employed an accessible vocabulary and were playful to the point of being tongue-in-cheek.
“Popularity means you are not a serious writer,” he had said casually. “I’ve even been accused of vulgarity although so many of our folk songs are explicitly raunchy.” The accusations he was alluding to were vis-à-vis Subhash Ghai’s Saat saheliyan khadi khadi (Vidhaata) and Choli ke peechhe kya hai (Khal Nayak). Despite that charge of vulgarity, the lyrics sound quaintly Victorian compared to, say, the overtly-intended Bhaag DK Bose ditty of Delhi Belly.
Clearly a modernist, Anand Bakshi had grasped that youthful penchant for acronyms with Yeh Ilu Ilu kya hai for Saudagar, contrasted by the old boys Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar breaking into the tangy duet Imli ka butta. Indeed, Subhash Ghai and his Wordsworth, in a manner of speaking, formed a mutual admiration society. Their long-lasting collaboration also yielded the robustly in sync Gautam Govinda, Karz, Vidhaata, Hero, Meri Jung, Karma, Ram Lakhan, Pardes and Taal, arguably one of AR Rahman’s most dance-stomp inviting Bollywood scores.
Bakshi’s songs opted to tell mini-stories-within stories, even becoming pieces de resistance of a gamut of films from disparate genres. Evidence: Saawan ka mahina pawan kare shor (Milan), Hum tum ek kamre mein bandh ho (Bobby), Bindiya chamkegi (Do Raaste), Duniya mein jeena hai to (Haathi mere Saathi), Dum maaro dum (Hare Rama Hare Krishna), Gaadi bula rahi hai (Dost) , Maar diya jaaye ke chhod diya jaaye (Mera Gaon Mera Desh), Anhonee ko honi kar de (Amar Akbar Anthony)…and so so so many more. I could go on endlessly, and seriously ask your forgiveness if I have missed out on any reader’s personal favourite.
He could be goofily inventive, using a string of film titles for the Mere jeevan saathi duet of Ek Duuje ke Liye.
Consistently catchy, and not merely for the fun songs, he could effortlessly metre mukhadas and antaras with a twist of sobriety to reveal another facet of his artistry. Check out Kuch toh log kahenge and Chingari koi bhadke (Amar Prem), the title songs of Main Tulsi tere Aangan Ki and Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Ab ke sajan saawan mein (Chupke Chupke) and one of his earliest tracks from the 1950s, Dharti ke laal naa kar itna malaal (Bhala Aadmi).
Perhaps the only feat Bakshi couldn’t pull off was as a superior-quality playback singer despite repeated efforts.
“Try to kiya tha,” he had shrugged. “In Mome ki Gudiya I gave my voice to as many as three songs. I fancied myself maybe... lekin chala nahin (but it didn’t take).”
Inevitably towards the late ‘90s, Anand Bakshi’s prolificity and joie de music declined. He did want to look back with candour, perhaps craved a patient listener.
But then you never expect extraordinary people to just up and go away. Like many journalists at the time, I took him for granted.
Today his songs defy mortality. Which is why I want to kick myself as the memory of San sana san returns to me. No one canonised him as a poet of the people. No one could detect that maybe, just maybe, he was referring obtusely to himself and a muse, when he wrote for Bobby...excerpts:
Main shaayar toh nahin
Magar ae haseen
Jabse maine dekha tujhko
Mujhko aashiqui aa gayee…
…Doston mein raha dushmanon ki tarah
Main dushman toh nahin…
..Sochta hoon agar main dua maangta
Haath apne uthakar main kya maangta?...
..Main qafir toh nahin
Magar ae haseen
Jabse dekha maine tujhko
Mujhko bandagi aa gayee
Main shaayar toh nahin…
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on March 30, 2016. It is now being republished to mark Anand Bakshi’s birth anniversary.)
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