Rajinder Krishan: The man behind iconic lyrics

On the renowned lyricist’s 29th death anniversary today (23 September), we take a look back at his life and career through the eyes of his son, Rajiv Duggal.

(Courtesy: Rajiv Duggal)

Sonal Pandya

Rajinder Krishan’s lyrics defined the classic black and white era and continued on into glorious colour. He had a special understanding with his music composers that almost always resulted in magic. He worked with everyone from C Ramchandra to Bappi Lahiri.

As a young man, he started writing poetry at a young age. When he resided in Shimla, Krishan attended an all-India mushairas (Urdu poetry reading session) that eventually led to his coming to Bombay to try his hand in the Hindi film industry. After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, he wrote the song ‘Suno Suno Ae Duniya Walon Bapuji Ki Amar Kahaani’.

He first found fame with the film Bari Bahen (1949) with songs like ‘Chup Chup Kade Ho’. Krishan quickly rose through the ranks with popular songs like ‘Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon’, ‘Govinda Ala Re’ and ‘Eena Meena Deeka’. He won his only Filmfare Award for the song ‘Tumhi Mere Mandir’ from Khandaan (1965).

Krishan with Madan Mohan and Lata Mangeshkar
Courtesy: Rajiv Duggal

Krishan tried his best to include meaning and note in the lyrics he wrote. One such example is ‘Tum Hi Ho Maata Pita Tum Hi Ho’ from Main Chup Rahungi (1962) which has become like a prayer in many schools across the country.

His lyrics which fit the situation that the films demanded were catchy and simple. When put to music, they became classics. And yet not much is known about him. Krishan’s son, Rajiv Duggal who is also a music composer explained, “He was not interested in promoting himself. He just didn’t bother to the extent that if people tried to promote him for something, he would say, “Eh!”

Lyricist Swanand Kirkire said in a television programme on Krishan, “Somehow you know all the Sahir songs, somehow you know most of the Majrooh songs, you know Shailendra’s songs, but you don’t notice Rajinder Krishan.”

For a period of nearly 40 years, Krishan worked on over 350 films. Duggal said, “Officially there are around 250-260 films in the market. When he passed away, I had a list of 386 films. Unfortunately, that list got misplaced in the midst of changing two houses. My younger brother had it in his book. And his wife must have throw it away when they changed houses. Of course, later on, by the 1970s, his work had reduced a lot. The 1950s was his absolute golden period. There were other lyric writers who were prominent. There were cliques of people who get along. It’s a factor. Even in his time, he had his clique, he had C Ramchandra and Madan Mohan.”

Krishan with his son Rajiv and music composer C Ramchandra
Courtesy: Rajiv Duggal

Eventually, he had a falling out with both composers but never spoken any ill towards them. “Dad was like that, he would never mix business with pleasure. He had that ability that he would go into a party and he would be the life of a party. People would gravitate towards him. And he loved his drinks.”

Not only was he a creative and in-demand lyricist and also wrote the screenplay and dialogues for several hit movies from Nagin (1954) to Bombay to Goa (1972), including the comedy classic Padosan (1968).

Rajinder Krishan with Sunil Dutt.
Courtesy: Rajiv Duggal

Contrary to what is widely reported on the Internet, Krishan was not fluent in Tamil. Yes, he did work on a number of successful Tamil-to-Hindi remakes, but he did not speak the language. Duggal  clarifies, “He did not know. It’s on Wikipedia. It’s totally wrong. He did not know Tamil at all. That’s all bullshit. Satish, my first cousin used to work in a lot of my dad’s films as a chief assistant director. He would get the dialogue written and deliver it to the producer. So I asked him to reconfirm because they keep asking about this Tamil thing. I said, “Satish, did Dad know Tamil?” and he said, “No.”

Krishan was commissioned by the studio heads in Chennai to work on their scripts. The process was that “they would give him a script and he would read it and he would just start narrating. In the earlier days, the assistant would write down what he was saying, [and later] obviously tape recorders became handy. He was very fast basically in everything. It’s not like that he would sit and rewrite, just start. He would write a song in five minutes in free hand.” He would write in Urdu on whatever he could find, even cigarette packets.

Rajinder Krishan at musical sitting with his assistant Rajendra Kumar (far left)
Courtesy: Rajiv Duggal

One of Krishan’s former assistants went on to find fame of his own. Duggal reveals that “for six years, Rajendra Kumar was my dad’s assistant. Dad was born in Jalalpur Jattan which was a small town and after that it became a really big industrial town in Pakistan. It’s about 50-100 km inside the border. My mother was from an another village which is a little bit away from my dad’s. Rajendra Kumar was from one of the villages over there, near my parents, so his father had sent him to Dad, to get him a job. In fact, our first place at Charni Road when I was born and where we lived for nearly a year, Rajendra Kumar apparently stayed with us for three-four months when he first came to Bombay. That’s why when we went to his house sometimes on the kid’s birthdays, in front of Dad, he had a very hangdog expression.”

Despite not being very musically inclined, Krishan was a favourite with those he worked with. “Dad could not hold a tune. My dad knew nothing about music. He could not sing but he had some God’s gift within, that he could get the rhythm and feel. [With] RK Nayyar, Dad was so much of a fixture in his camp that in one movie RK Nayyar decided to take Anand Bakshi, so they had a sitting for one song. This is what I’ve heard from other producers that they were working and RK Nayyar was not satisfied and apparently Anand Bakshi said, “Aap Rajinder ji ke saath hi kaam kar saakhte ho. He can’t work with me.” So he came back to Dad. I think RK Nayyar never worked with any other lyric writer.”

A. V. Meiyappan, Rajinder Krishan, Madan Mohan, Chitragupt and C Ramchandra
Courtesy: Rajiv Duggal

Even down south, the head of AVM Studios couldn’t say no to Krishan. “In the entire AVM Studios in Chennai, nobody was allowed to smoke. My father would go, take out his cigarette and sit anywhere. And in AVM’s office, Meiyappan Chettiar, he would light up. AVM never had the guts to tell him, 'Please don’t do this!' (laughs) He appointed one guy whenever Dad came because he would follow him around with an ashtray. And Dad, I’m sure, knowing Dad, he wouldn't have bothered. The cigarette would burn down to a crisp and he’s still thinking about whatever he’s doing. He’s either writing songs or income tax. In the later years of his life, his pet peeve was income tax. ‘Yeh income tax kya hoti hai cheez. Hum gaane likhte hain, government humse paise lete hain.’ [What is this income tax? I write songs and the governments takes money from me.] (laughs)”

Krishan famously won the tax-free jackpot at the horse races in the late 1960s. Duggal said, “The jackpot was one-third him, one third my Mom and one-third my brother, but the face is Dad’s only so everyone [thought it] was Daddy’s jackpot. But yes, it was in the same family. That’s when his work reduced. People were probably scared, otherwise people were asking him to come and finance their films.”

Krishan died of a heart attack in 1987, at 68, after spending a week in hospital. Besides his work in films, he also recorded some private albums for his children. Duggal still has one unused song written with him by his father which he hopes to release one day.