The Unani hakim who ministered to the soul as a wounded poet

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Mumbai – 25 May,

Had he not been associated with Hindi films, lines like "Main akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar/Log saath aate gaye aur karvan banta gaya" would have been enough for his fame.

Majrooh Sultanpuri, however, dominated Bollywood for decades, writing lyrics right for what would be K.L. Saigal's swan song ("Jab dil hi toot gaya") to frothy love ballads that would send listeners of his grandchildren's age jiving ("Pehla nasha, pehla khumar").

Asrar-ul Hasan Khan 'Majrooh Sultanpuri', who passed away on this day in the year 2000, was associated with the film industry from the mid-1940s till his death.

One of the top quartet of Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, and Shailendra, he outlived and outperformed all of them with his nearly 4,000 songs for about 350 films. Majrooh also became the first lyricist to be conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1993 — it was only in 2013 that Gulzar became the second. On the other hand, he received just one Filmfare Award (for "Chahunga main tujhe" in "Dosti", 1964).
Mumbai, 25 May

All these accomplishments, however, pale before his greatest contribution — along with Faiz Ahmed 'Faiz' — to the cause of Urdu poetry. These committed revolutionaries had decided to disobey the orders of their Communist bosses to abandon the ghazal (because it was a "feudal remnant" and unsuited to articulating class consciousness). Somehow, Majrooh and Faiz managed to convince the bosses that this form could feature a new idiom and imagery without losing its lyrical nature.

Details about Majrooh's early life are contradictory, with his year of birth in different accounts ranging from 1915 (as per Urdu scholar Khaliq Anjum, who cited the poet as telling him so), 1919 (a journalist quoting his son) to 1922, and whether his traditional schooling was due to his father's distrust of modern studies or their financial condition.

He trained as a unani hakim in Lucknow, began to practice, and participated in local "mushairas", where he made a mark for himself, and more importantly came to the attention of Ali Sikandar 'Jigar Moradabadi', who made him a protege.

Majrooh was attending a mushaira in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1945, when he was approached by noted film producer A.R. Kardar to write lyrics, but he rebuffed him. Kardar then sought the intervention of Jigar, who convinced his protege that this career would help support his family. Majrooh then impressed Naushad, a poet himself and fairly well-established by then, to get his break with Saigal's 'Shahjahan' (1946).

Being a member of the Progressive Writers' Association, Majooh's fledgling career nearly ended when he was arrested, along with Balraj Sahni, in 1949 for leftist links and imprisoned for two years. it resumed seamlessly when he came out.

The Urdu poetry of 'Majrooh' is superlative, especially for its simplicity and lyrical cadence — "Shab-e-intezar ki kashmakash na pooch kaise sahar hui/Kabhi ik chiraag jala diya kabhi ik chiraag bujha diya" — but it got overshadowed by his career in films, where he evoked the same magic.

Let us take 10 of his well-known and less well-known offerings, mouthed by several generations of actors and actresses, to showcase his talent.

"Gam diye mustaqil kitna nazuk hai dil": Few debutants are lucky to start writing for legends, but Majrooh had the fortune to start his film career with Saigal himself. "Jab dil hi toot gaya.." is better known, but this melancholy yet slightly more restrained ghazal from "Shahjehan" (1946) is equally treasured by Saigal connoisseurs.

"Laagi chhute na ab to sanam": Many music aficionados will have heard the song, sung by Mohd Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, with its distinctive jangling yet harmonious music by Chitragupt, but will find it difficult to identify the film, which was "Kali Topi Lal Rumal" (1959), and starred Chandrashekhar, Shakeela, Kumkum, and Agha.

"Kabhi aar kabhi paar laaga teer-e-nazar": The lyrical cadences of Urdu do not need a courtly or even genteel setting, and can coexist with Hindi, as this song, performed by a gang of woman construction workers shows. Take the line "Pahle milan mein ye to duniyan ki reet hai/Baat mein gussa lekin dil hi dil mein preet hai", as rendered by the redoubtable Shamshad Begum, who was sadly getting out of fashion, to the peppy beat by O.P. Nayyar. The film was "Aar Paar" (1954), starring Guru Dutt and Shyama.

"O haseena zulfon wali jaan-e-jahan": If you think Urdu poets could only write songs of deep (unrequited/hopeless) love or melancholy musings, this lively song, performed by the irrepressible Shammi Kapoor, in "Teesri Manzil" (1966), will make you think again. Over half a century later, its words and music (by the incomparable R.D. Burman), and the magical voices of Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle, still resonate and sparkle.

"Aasman ke neeche hum aaj apne peeche": Few songs can match the cheerful insouciance of Dev Anand as much as this from the crime caper — with a twist — "Jewel Thief" (1967), with Kishore Kumar at his most exuberant and the always excellent music of S.D. Burman.

"Raat kali ek khwaab mein aayi, aur gale ka haar hui": This is another song, with its playful yet profound lyrics, that still strikes a chord among music lovers — and has outlived the film it is in — "Buddha Mil Gaya" (1971) and its lead stars — Navin Nishchal and Archana. The always dependable voice was that of Kishore Kumar and the music was by R.D. Burman

"Inhi logon ne le lina dupatta mera": There is a fine line between being naughty and vulgar, but Majrooh kept to the right side with this 'kotha/tawaif' song from Meena Kumari's swan song "Pakeezah" (1971), in which he uses the earthy yet melodious cadences of his native Awadhi. The singer was Lata Mangeshkar and the music by Ghulam Mohammad — who was another one who did not last in the film's overlong gestation.

"Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko": As the last example shows, Majrooh was equally adept in framing lines for the actresses and in this Bollywood potboiler, "Yaadon Ki Baarat" (1973), aided by the sensuous voice of Asha Bhonsle and the mod music of R.D. Burman, he crafted the best expression of love for the delectable Zeenat Aman.

"Haal kya hai dilon ka na puchho sanam": The 'qawwali' is a much-loved and staple music form in the Indian subcontinent — and in Bollywood films, but sometimes, its rich language and lesser-known references can puzzle the unaware. In this rollicking example, featuring Jeetendra as a 'rough-diamond qawwal", a smirking suited-booted Vinod Khanna, and a nigh unrecognisable Rekha, we have one of the best popular examples. The film was "Anokhi Ada" (1973), the singer Kishore Kumar, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal scored the music.

"Jaanam samjha karo": It is the mark of a good songwriter that he can tap the pulse of his current time. In this non-film, and subtly sensuous 1990s song, featuring Helen Brodie and Milind Soman, in what could be Asha Bhonsle's first pop outing, Majrooh showed that he still had the power to dazzle the young generation and evoke the tropes, the millieu, and the expressions that they were familiar with.

And this was not a flash in the pan — he had done it nearly a quarter of a century ago, with "Bangle ke peeche teri beri ke neeche", or, better known from its interjection, "Kaanta laga" in "Samadhi" (1972),


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