Saying It In Urdu — Bollywood Doesn’t Do It Anymore

gurudutt-waheeda-pyaasaHow Urdu, the language of love and revolution, is slowly being elbowed out of its last surviving bastion of Bollywood


A friend was all fire and brimstone when another one quoted Kaifi Azmi to drive home his message. In his piece titled ‘Indian Muslim Women: Bottom of the Bottom,’ Syed Ubaidur Rahman, a Delhi-based journalist, wrote: “Across the nation women are either used as a commodity or as sex objects. Renowned Urdu poet late Kaifi Azmi rightly termed the status of women in Indian society as ‘Mal bardari ka janwar ya bistar ka khilauna’ (a hapless animal used for carrying goods or a sex toy).”

It’s not possible to disagree with the argument that if Indian Muslims are at the bottom of the heap in many ways, their women are at the bottom of this bottom. I could understand why my friend was appalled though. The expression employed was crude even if candid.

The Progressive writers’ movement, to which Kaifi belonged, tended to use such strong language to shock and awaken the sleepy social conscience.

That said, Kaifi was a very fine poet and endlessly celebrated women, championing their rights and voicing their angst with rare sensitivity. His poem ‘Aurat’ (Woman) is a case in point:

uth merii jaan mere saath hii chalna hai tujhe
qalb-e-mahoul mein larzaan sharar-e-jang hain aaj
hausley waqt ke aur ziist ke yak rang hain aaj
aabgiinon mein tapaan walwale-e- sang hain aaj
husn aur ishq ham aawaaz-o-humaahang hain aaj
jis mein jaltaa huun usi aag mein jalnaa hai tujhe
uth merii jaan mere saath hii chalnaa hai tujhe

(Arise, my love, for now you must march with me
Flames of war are ablaze in our world today
Time and fate have the same aspirations today
Our tears will flow like hot lava today
Beauty and love have one life and one soul today
You must burn in the fire of freedom with me
Arise, my love, for now you must march with me)

This is but just one stanza from a powerful epic song that deserves to be read and cherished by all women—and men. Kaifi remained loyal to his ideals even in his film poetry without compromising on high literary standards to which he subjected himself. The poet, the father of actress Shabana Azmi, defied great personal odds including a debilitating disability, to persevere in his lifelong social commitment.

In fact, all Progressive movement greats, from Majrooh Sultanpuri to Sahir Ludhianvi and from Jan Nisar Akhtar to Akhtarul Iman, who wrote for cinema were driven by strong social commitment and dreamed of a red,  socialist dawn.

Even poets like Shakil Badayuni, the eternal Romantic, Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra who were not part of the movement in the strictest sense, came up with sublime, stirring poetry that fired up both young lovers and revolutionaries.

The industry attracted some of the greatest names of Urdu literature from Manto and Sahir to Majrooh and from Krishan Chandr and Ismat Chughtai to Ali Sardar Jafri at some stage or the other.  There were numerous others who did not attract such celebrity but were nonetheless accomplished artists in their chosen field.

The influence of these Marxist writers and poets was so immense–it also had something to do with the spirit of the pre- and post-Independence times—that filmmakers were forced to follow their vision.

All of Mehboob Khan’s classics, including Mother India, celebrated strong Indian women and protested social and economic inequalities. Most BR Chopra films and many of Dilip Kumar starrers–Nehru’s hero, in Meghnad Desai’s words—such as Footpath, Naya Daur, Leader and Ganga Jumna belonged to the same school.

Even a conventional filmmaker like Raj Kapoor under the influence of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas made classics like Jagte Raho. All of Abbas’s movies were overtly socialist and carried a strong message for society.

By the way, it was Abbas, the man who wrote and made movies, authored a much popular column in ‘Blitz’ and wore many other hats besides who introduced a lanky, awkward looking man called Amitabh Bachchan to Indian cinema.

Most writers and poets including greats such as Premchand were touched by the powerful, all-consuming Progressive movement in some way or the other.  It was en vogue and considered the most natural thing to do.

Even those who came from conservative societies or from a feudal background like Josh did, didn’t seem to find the heavy Marxist influence inhibiting. Because for many it was a force for change. Not just against the order of the day but all things obsolete, orthodox or in Marxist terms bourgeois.

Of all the writers and poets who got associated with Indian cinema Sahir Ludhianvi stands out and apart for the distinction and richness of his contribution. Everything Sahir touched turned to gold.

Every song is a gem, and every magical line he wrote carries his distinct stamp and can be distinguished from the lot that has been passed down by some of the finest practitioners of the art.

Every word Sahir wrote was imbued and tinged with his irrepressible idealism and fiercely free spirit.  From classics like Guru Dutt’s immortal Pyasa, a film apparently inspired by Sahir’s own life, to typical Yash Chopra potboilers like Trishul and Kabhie Kabhie (in which the protagonist played by Amitabh Bachchan was again modeled on Chopra’s favorite poet), Sahir’s magical touch transformed the mundane into something out of this world.

While his contemporaries like Majrooh Sultapuri and Shakil Badayuni weren’t any less accomplished, Sahir’s poetry touched a different level. It was illuminated and shone bright with his infectious idealism, soaring imagination and his cold anger at the injustice and oppression he saw all around and his yearning to see a better world.

His pen was at its sharpest when it lamented the declining values of society, the senselessness of war and politics, and triumph of materialism over love. Whenever he wrote of love, those songs were invariably tinged with sorrow.

He was truly a poet of the people, highlighting the pain of a farmer crushed by debt, a soldier fighting someone else’s war, a woman forced to sell her body, the youth frustrated by unemployment, the family living on the street and other victims of society.

Remarkably, all through his idealism and revolutionary zeal and activism, he managed to maintain the highest literary standards and quality in whatever he wrote. His poetry never degenerated into didactic, moralizing posturing.

His was the voice of a wounded soul and powerful conscience and it touched you instantly and in unimaginable, profound ways. And it wasn’t just revolutionary fervor all the time; Sahir could be incredibly moving and pensive too when situation demanded like when he wrote incidentally in chaste Hindi: “Man re, tuu kaahe na dheer dhare”! (O my heart, why do you remain restless?). It was all about letting go.

Where does Urdu stand in Bollywood today, once considered its last bastion? It appears to be in dire straits, if not on deathbed, just as it is in the rest of the country in all spheres of life.

The fine Urdu poetry, not to mention powerful dialogue and script writers, that had been the hallmark of the so-called Hindi cinema for nearly a century, has been replaced with a strange and pedestrian Hindi-English and often Punjabi concoction. Indeed, what you see or hear today is anything but poetry.

Poets like Javed Akhter, who is perhaps the last link in the tradition of Sahir-Majrooh-Kaifi although not in the same league, have no work while people who have nothing to do with Urdu or Hindi or even poetry have been churning out hit and profound numbers like ‘paan mein pudina dekha; naak ka angina dekha’ and ‘Mere photo ko seene se yaar,
Chipka le saiyan Fevicol se’!

The genius of inimitable and versatile Gulzar, who holds the distinction of 11 Filmfare awards as a lyricist, has had to adapt and reinvent himself to come up with stuff like ‘bidi jalai le jigar se piya.’ But not everyone can be as adept as Gulzar who at 79 continues to excel himself in so many genres as an artist.

Among the recent arrivals, there are bright sparks like Irshad Kamil and to some extent Prasoon Joshi. In general though things are depressing.  But then this is hardly surprising given the degeneration seen not just in all affairs of the industry but the predicament of Urdu in general. As for women, Sahir and Kaifi must be turning in their graves at the way Bollywood treats them today, which is again a mirror reflection of the treatment meted out to women by Indian society.

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