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Remembering Wajahat Mirza, dialogue writer of Mother India and Mughal-e-Azam

On the screenwriter’s 109th birth anniversary, we examine his distinguished career in Hindi cinema. Writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar spoke to Cinestaan.com about his admiration for the writer and his rich legacy.

Sonal Pandya

Wajahat Mirza (sometimes spelt Vajahat Mirza) was born on 20 April 1908 in Sitapur in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. He assisted cinematographer Krishan Gopal while still a student at Jubilee College in Calcutta before moving to Bombay to become one of the most successful screenwriters of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, however, not many people know of Mirza's contribution to classics like Mother India (1957) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

Mirza was right-hand man to filmmaker Mehboob Khan. His dialogues on Aurat (1940) were appreciated by audiences and acclaimed by critics. When Khan remade Aurat as Mother India (1957), he turned to Mirza once again for the dialogues. Mother India became the first Indian film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Italy’s The Nights Of Cabiria won by just one vote.

Writer-lyricist Javed Akthar believes that Wajahat Mirza was one of the biggest unsung heroes of Hindi cinema. "Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam and Gunga Jumna are three huge milestones of Hindi cinema. And anybody should become almost immortal if he is the writer of all these three films," he told Cinestaan.com in a telephone conversation. "It’s so sad that hardly any people know about him. I never had the good fortune to meet him. But I have great admiration and respect for him. I think he was a fantastic writer."

Mirza wrote for Mehboob Khan’s productions from Watan (1938) to Behen (1941). He also contributed dialogues for K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Dilip Kumar's Gunga Jumna (1961), Leader (1964), Shatranj (1969), Ganga Ki Saugand (1978) and the long-delayed Love And God (1986).

He won the Filmfare Best Dialogue award consecutively in 1961 and 1962 for Mughal-e-Azam and Gunga Jumna, both starring Dilip Kumar. Mirza shared the award for Mughal-e-Azam with Kamal Amrohi, Ehsan Rizvi and Aman. Because the award was shared by four writers, it is hard to tell who wrote which dialogue for each scene in Mughal-e-Azam. But such was the power of Wajahat Mirza’s pen that he could write for the court of a Mughal emperor as well as conflicts between two brothers in rural India with astonishing ease.

Akhtar said Mirza used "unbelievably colloquial and natural, real language! Without getting into rhetorical or theatrical mode, he created such effect, which is not easy for any writer. We remember the big dialogues but it is the small lines that only masters can write."

Akhtar went on to share instances from Mirza’s dialogues, where he used the right words to set the tone for the film’s scenes. In Mother India (1957), when Nargis’s character Radha is with her starving children after the flood, the moneylender Sukhi Lala (Kanhaiyalal) comes to make her an offer. “In the night, with a lantern in hand, Sukhi Lala comes to meet her and [says] you become my woman and I’ll look after your children. She rejects his offer. As he is leaving, he says, “Achhi tarah soch vichar kar lo Radha, kauno jaldi naahi hai. Sukhi Lala bahut sabar wala aadmi hai [Think about it carefully Radha, you have all the time. I can wait].” This line turns him into a vulture. It’s such a frightening expression. There is something so cold about it. It gives me goosebumps.”

In his Filmfare award-winning dialogues for Gunga Jumna (1961), Wahajat Mirza was even more deliberate with the way his characters spoke. When the ‘good’ brother Jumna (Nasir Khan) first arrives in the city and has no options, he comes across a stolen necklace that he hands over to the police. “[The policeman] can see looking at Jumna that he is in very bad shape and asks him, "Main tumhare liye kuch kar sakta hoon? [What can I do for you]?" [Jumna replies], "Koi naukhri mil sakegi? Main bahut takleef main hoon [Can I get a job? I'm in a lot of distress]." [The word takleef] is so simple and effective! It’s an expression of a good man, a decent person. The choice of words, not many people are sensitive enough to it anymore."

After the 1970s, Wajahat Mirza did not write any longer. He died in Karachi, Pakistan, on 4 August 1990 at the age of 82.