The influence of Hindi film song in the life of people of India, often cutting across barriers of language and region, should never be underestimated. People keep humming Hindi film tunes all the time and remember and observe their moments of joy and sorrow, romance and rejection in terms of soulful tunes and lyrics from films. Many famous composers and poets, singers and musicians ( as well as film-makers and actors) have contributed to this cultural treasure.
While several poets and lyricists of great capability have contributed immensely to this—and over a dozen names can easily be recalled in this context—there are two names whose contribution is very special in the sense that whenever we think of the creation of a better world, we in India often hum or recall some of the words of these great poets. In terms of capturing the deeper meaning and philosophy of life in a way the touches the heart of people, the contribution of Shailendra can never be forgotten. On the other hand when it comes to articulating the anger, protest and impatience against the injustices of the entrenched systems– whether in terms of exploitation of people, suppression of honest struggling youth or humiliation of women—It is Sahir Ludhianvi who comes the closest to those people of India whose most earnest yearnings are for justice at all levels. While he is more a poet of protest yet he also provides solace and guidance in terms of articulating what needs to be achieved in a socialist and secular ( but above all a more humane) society.
As India celebrates the 100th birth anniversary of the great poet today on March 8, 2021 his first film that comes to mind is course Pyaasa. Sahir has contributed so many great songs to so many great films, but how can one ever forget the early contribution he made to Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. Many, many people still remember Ye Duniya Agar Mil Be Jaye to Kya Hai as the greatest song of protest ever. Here there is not just passionate articulation of the anguished astonishment of innocent young people as they encounter the many layers of an unjust system, but within the five minutes of this song we move from anguish to a deeper understanding of the need for rejecting the false values of not just wealth but also the yearning for achieving fame within an unjust and repressive system. In another song of this film jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kaha hai this anguish and rejection of false achievements that comes with it is carried further , albeit more in terms of irony than protest.
These two songs reflect the courage of young Sahir in carrying forward the voice of protest further than any compromising poet would dare to. Again in terms of his protest against humiliation of women and gender injustice, Sahir dares to venture far beyond the idiom to which we are more used. No song reflects this better than this one from Sadhana—aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardo ne use bazaar diya. This is a song which simply tears apart the entire system based on gender injustice, and does so with great courage, passion and depth. This is poetry which unsettles you so deeply that you simply feel compelled to do something against these injustices.
On the other hand Sahir is not always the angry young poet, he can also be much more gentle in pleading a cause like communal harmony so dear to him, as in the immortal bhajan from Hum Dono, allah tero naam , ishwar tero naam. However in another famous song on the same theme—tu hindu banega na musalmaan banega, Sahir can be both pleading for peace as well as castigating those who spread communalism in very angry words, all within a single song.
His diverse talents were very visible even in Pyaasa, remembered more for its protest songs, but also containing that other great song aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo. Here a devotional or bhakti song is used to convey the depths of a woman’s very intense feelings for her beloved in a very memorable way. On the other hand another song from the same film was Jaane wo kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mil, which became the most hummed words for feelings of rejected love for a generation. In similar vein is Chalo ik baar phir se ajanabi ban jaye, from Gumrah film, albeit on a more mysterious note.
Yet such is his versatility that he could also pen the most celebratory quawali on romance and love ( yeh ishq ishq hai ishq ishq, from Barsaat Ki Raat), and also come up trumps with a college evening romantic song ( the extremely popular number from Dhool ka Phool film—tere pyaar ka aasra chaahta hoon ). The yearning of a young lover to get more time with his departing beloved found much-celebrated expression in Abhi naa jao chod kar song from Hum Dono, but at the same time Sahir could write the much-loved romantic song for ageing coples as well—Ai meri zohar jabin, from Waqt movie.
Beyond romance, he could pen the deepest feelings of a father for the departing married daughter—babul ki duayen leti jaa, from Neel Kamal film. But perhaps the most lasting symbol of his versatility is the quiet, deeply philosophic song from Chitralekha movie, Man re kahe naa dheer dhare.
We the people of India will never forget you Sahir. Although you were so modest as to proclaim—mai pal do pal ka shayar hoon ( Kabhi-Kabhi film) , you will be remembered for generations. Whenever we are sad, we will find hope with you in that immortal song wo subah kabhi to aayegi from phir subah hogi film. Whenever we get together for some great work, we will sing what you wrote for Naya Daur movie many years ago—Saathi haath badaana, ek akela thak jaaye to milkar bojh uthaana.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author who has been close to several social movements.