How Sahir Ludhianvi merged political ideology into film lyrics

A poet beyond compare, Sahir Ludhianvi's lyrics were unlike any before him or since. On the 36th anniversary of his passing, we remember the rare poet who did not bend to the whims of cinema, but shaped the medium to his own will. 

Shriram Iyengar

For a poet who is remembered as the creator of some iconic lines that swear for eternal love and undying romance, Sahir Ludhianvi was a rebel at heart. A poet, who came of age in tumultous times, his lines often echoed the political, social, and human concerns of the age. From poems against religious dogmatism, male patriarchy, to almost anarchic communism, Sahir Ludhianvi gave Hindi cinema lyrics that would add a political depth and edge to a medium largely consigned to as entertainment. 

Abdul Hayee ‘Sahir’ was born in 1921 in a jagirdaar family. Born to one of his father's many wives, he was never accorded the status of heir in the family. The painful separation of his mother, and the struggle of poverty that followed pushed the young Sahir towards a rebellious attitude towards life. In many ways, his poetry was a seamless progression that traced its origins to Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. For someone who had educated himself in the language of his peers, Sahir found the perfect balance between the high flowing language of Iqbal and the graceful lyricality of Faiz. In fact, it is from Iqbal's couplet that he borrowed his nom-de-plume from 

Is chaman me honge paida bulbul-e-shiraaz bhi 
Saikdon sahir bhi honge saahib-e-ijaaz bhi 

(There will be poets like Haafiz who will be born in this garden
There will also be thousands of magicians and those who perform miracles.) 

His pen name is not the only thing he borrowed from Iqbal. Akshay Manwani, author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People's Poet, says, "He acknowledges the influence of Faiz, and Iqbal, and even Majaz. Any doyen of Urdu poetry had to be aware of the traditions and standards of the literature. Every poet of that language was influenced by these poets." Manwani points out the lyrics of Phir Subah Hogi (1958) as an example. "Iqbal wrote 'Tarana e Hind', (Saare jahaan se accha/Hindustan hamara). Sahir rehashes it in the film 'Phir Subah Hogi (1958) saying 'Cheen o Arab hamaara/ Hindustaan hamaara/ Rehne ko ghar nahi hai/ Saara jahaan hamaara.' He simply gave it his own interpretation. You can only do this once you are aware of the tradition," Manwani says. 

It was his association with the Progressive Writers' Movement that firmly established Sahir Ludhianvi as one of the foremost revolutionary poets of his generation. He soon became one of the leading voices against capitalism, suppression, corruption, and religious dogmatism. Even his romantic poetry vulcanised into a political statement. Manwani says "His early poetry was romantic, about love and loss, as a young man's is. However, his first published work, Talkhiyaan (Bitterness) contains some fantastic works that merge his romantic attributes with his awareness of the political and social atmosphere around him.It was published in 1944-45. In that anthology, he has very profound political poems." Among these was the legendary 'Kahat E Bangal' (The story of Bengal) and Chakle. The latter would become the cinematic expression of angst in Pyaasa (1951). 

Where Sahir Ludhianvi diverged from his fellow Progressives is in his refusal to bow down to the cinematic medium. While greats like Majrooh Sultanpuri, and even to a certain extent, Kaifi Azmi, allowed a certain distinguishing feature between their published works and cinematic works, Sahir remains steadfastly a poet. Lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya says, "It is unfair to tag him as a lyricist. He was one of the leading poets of his generation. What we know of him is through his songs. They carry the height of his thought, his ideology, and language, but it is his poetry that truly celebrates him." Another famous writer, and a fellow resident of Sahir's bungalow, Gulzar, says this of the great poet, "Every poet who took to writing lyrics had to accept the medium.

But Sahir Ludhianvi and perhaps, Pandit Pradeep, were poets whom the medium accepted on their own terms. Their poetry remained intact in the lyrics." Javed Akhtar agrees. He says, "Sahir was the first writer who brought thought to the film song. There is no big gap between his literary poetry and his songs. Many of his songs are pure literature." In fact, by example, Sahir himself never quite liked the tag of a lyricist. He famously forced Raj Kapoor's hand to use Khayyam, instead of Shankar-Jaikishen, for 'Phir Subah Hogi', since he believed only someone with a knowledge of Urdu poetry will be able to find the right music for his words. To put it in Akshay Manwani's words, "Cinema adjusts to Sahir. Sahir does not adjust to cinema."

However, his ideology did not prevent him from writing for different perspectives. An atheist, he famously wrote 'Allah tero naam', that magical praise for a secular god. Yet, he does not sidetrack from his ideological standpoint. For instance, 'Tora manwa kyon ghabraye' from Saadhna (1958) is an example of Sahir's ability to intitiate a conversation about female oppression in a bhajan. The song, featured on Vyjayanthimala, urges the prostitute to step into the temple without fear. 

However, he reserves his most severe indictment of male patriarchy in 'Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko/mardon ne use bazaar diya'. The song is blistering in its vitriol, and stands out as a remarkable political statement. Sahir writes:

Yeh woh beizzat cheez hai jo, 
bant jaatee hai izzatdaaro me

Avtaar payambar janatee hai, 
phir bhee shaitaan kee betee hai
Yeh woh badkismat mann hai jo, 
beto kee sej pe letee hai. 

In Chitralekha (1964), he points out about the fickleness of the male heart that terms the woman as temptation. He says 'Sansaar se bhaage phirte ho, bhagwaan ko tum kya paaoge?'. It is little wonder then that some of the most leading feminist filmmakers of the time, Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, and Bimal Roy had Sahir Ludhianvi as their first choice. 

Manwani emphasises that these were not statements from an ivory tower philosopher. He says,"You do not have to look far for Sahir's feminist influence than his mother. He relates to his mother strongly. The unfortunate separation between his father and her, he is very aware of the fact of her suffering. To be born into a heritage, and denied. She had to struggle to make ends meet for herself and her son. he was very aware of this oppression that she had to face, and it reflects in his poetry. He writes 'Duniya ne tajurbat o hawadis me jo mujhe diya hai/use lauta raha hu main' (What the world has given me in terms of experience, I shall return it in the form of poetry.)" 

However, it would not be right to dismiss Sahir Ludhianvi as simply an ideologue who chose cinema as a medium. He could transform some of the simplest words into the most memorable ones. 'Sar jo tera chakraaye' from Pyaasa is another example of the diverse ability of the lyricist. That he did not choose to stoop to popular demands was a sign of integrity. His poems, and songs, were a call for social justice, equality, and truth. As Sahir himself wrote, "Meri hamesha koshish rahi hai ki jahan tak mumkin ho filmi naghmon ko takhleeqi shayari ke qareeb la sakun aur is sanaf ke zariye jadded samaji aur siyasi nazariye awaam tak pahuncha sakun. (“I have always tried to bring film songs as close to creative writing as possible in order to convey current social and political issues, through this medium, to the common masses.)

Yet, within him lurked the carefree poet who could deliver 'Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya' for a dashing Dev Anand on screen. He could pen the romantic 'Abhi na jaao chhod kar' with the same ease with which he wrote the despondent 'Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai' from Pyaasa. 

Since the death of Sahir Ludhianvi, poetry in Hindi cinema moved through lesser political circles. Anand Bakshi, Anjaan, and others tried to occassionally raise questions against the system. But few have matched the courage, anger, and truth as Sahir had. His poetry, beautiful as it was, carried within it the voice of a hurt, oppressed population. Sahir Ludhianvi is a constant reminder of the progressive idea that cinema, and poetry, needs to express far more than just beauty. It needs to carry the soul of the time in which it is born.