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Interview Hindi

Andalib Sultanpuri recalls father Majrooh's spontaneity as a poet: Anniversary special

On Majrooh Sultanpuri's 20th death anniversary, his son, filmmaker Andalib Sultanpuri, looks back on his career and recounts some interesting incidents.

Keyur Seta

Hindi cinema has been blessed with a long line of brilliant lyricists ever since the talkies were introduced. These songwriters played an important role in popularizing film music, especially in the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s.

But Majrooh Sultanpuri was a rare lyricist who not only worked in Hindi cinema for over five decades but also remained relevant and popular all the while. Majrooh wrote songs for stars from the legendary actor-singer KL Saigal in Shahjehan (1946), his debut as a lyricist, to the three Khans (Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman) in the 1990s in films like Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), Baazigar (1993) and Jaanam Samjha Karo (1999).

Born Asrar-ul-Hasan Khan in a small village in Sultanpur district of the erstwhile United Provinces in 1919, Majrooh was all set to become a hakeem, a doctor practising the traditional Unani system of medicine. But he was also a poet who used to take part in mushairas (public poetry conferences) and it was at one such event that the young poet was noticed and got a break in Shahjehan. There was no looking back thereafter.

Majrooh went on to write lyrics for over 350 films, including such hits as Andaz (1949), Mr & Mrs 55 (1955), Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), Sujata (1959), Dosti (1964), Patthar Ke Sanam (1967), Pakeezah (1972), Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973), Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (1977), Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994) and Pukar (2000).

On the great lyricist's 20th death anniversary (Majrooh passed into the ages on 24 May 2000), his filmmaker son Andalib Sultanpuri looks back at his father’s life and career and shares some interesting anecdotes. Excerpts:

How would you describe your father and his work?

I got this answer from the small and simple village from where he hailed. I visited it in 2017, after nearly 25 years. My father’s friends there were 18 or 19 when he left. Now they are 70-plus. One friend said Majrooh Sultanpuri saheb wasn’t like any other poet. He didn’t need to sit near a river and think. He was a spontaneous shayar. It used to come instinctively.

Similarly, whatever decision he took in his life was never planned. His confidence was so high that he knew that whatever challenges he took on, he would surmount. He used to get up in the middle of the night at 12:30 or 1 am, wake up Amma and go to Khandala for two days. This was how he was.

Andalib Sultanpuri

So, how was it growing up with such a personality?

I was born in 1961. You need 12–13 years to get into your senses, which happened to me in 1975. At that time Abba was 56 and had done a lot of work. From 1975 onwards to 2000 I was in my senses. But I never sat with him and understood his work, which is, not depressing, but very sad for me. Now when I see his work, I feel like hitting my head on the floor thinking why didn’t I sit with him to understand his work? Now I have to go to those who used to sit with him to ask about his work! I feel so ashamed.

But the comforting part is that this happened because he never made us feel that he is Majrooh Sultanpuri in the family. He just behaved as a father to his children and as a husband to his wife. This is the thing that consoles me and I think it’s not my fault.

One of your father’s early songs, ‘Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya’, is considered a classic. How special was the song for him?

I don’t know if this is a fact, but there is a theory, I don’t know the whole story, KL Saigal saheb always used to drink before recording a song. But [music director] Naushad saheb wanted him to sing this song in his senses. It went on to become such a huge success that it is said that Saigal wanted this song to be played at his funeral procession. But I don’t know if this is a fact. My father also liked this song, but he liked ‘Gham Diye Mustaqil’ more, from the same film. 

Decades later he wrote ‘Pehla Nasha’ from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) which is appreciated even by today’s youngsters.

This incident was told to me by Jatin [of the music composer duo Jatin-Lalit]. After finishing the songs, they felt the songs are good but one X factor is missing. [Filmmaker] Mansoor [Khan] told my father that we need one romantic song. My father felt that he and Jatin-Lalit should visit a resort for a few days. On the first day, he was just lying around while Jatin-Lalit were waiting for the sitting. But he was enjoying the coolness and calmness of the place. He then asked Jatin to get some drinks. Jatin did as told, but he and Lalit were confused. Eventually the first night just passed.

Early next morning Jatin-Lalit heard some noise in the balcony. It was him. He told them to write down the first lines of the song. Then he said they should pack up and leave. He gave them the antara in the lift. And the rest is history. Even today this song stands out brilliantly. The composition, picturization, the way Udit Narayan sang and the way it was written, it turned out to be the full package.

While being involved in poetry and lyrics, how did he get involved in politics in 1949-50?

He was part of the progressive writers’ movement. That’s why they called him a communist or an atheist. But he wasn’t a communist. He just felt everyone should be equal, but he wasn’t inclined to leftism. When he joined the movement, he met seniors like Kaifi Azmi and others.

Because of that stamp, the incident with [India's first prime minister] Jawaharlal Nehru happened. He had been to a mill workers’ association meeting. This is where he recited that poem [against Nehru]. At that time Morarji Desai was the home minister of Bombay state. He had a warrant issued [and Majrooh was jailed]. Then in 1951, the amendment restricting freedom of expression came. So, actually speaking, my father was the first person in India to be arrested for exercising his freedom of expression.

Your father also wrote the lyrics for your first film as director, Jaanam Samjha Karo (1999). How special was this for you?

It was unbelievable. It was a dream. But it was a hilarious dream. Anu Malik was flying high then. And he is a very aggressive person. My father did not like his aggressiveness. He had worked with my father on Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995). The film had a song, ‘Aisa Zakhm Diya Hai’. The intro of the song was pre-written [by someone else]. Mansoor [Khan] wanted to keep it as is. My father agreed and wrote the rest of the song. But a case was lodged against my father in the writers’ association by the lyricist who had written the intro.

My father got angry and called Mansoor and said, ‘What is this nonsense?’ Mansoor is a family friend and he got scared. He called up the Venus people and told them to resolve it. Venus told the lyricist that he had sold his work to the label, so he didn’t own the song any more and Venus was free to use it in any manner.

But my father was upset with Anu Malik as he didn’t tell him earlier who had written the intro. Music composers usually use dummy words as intro. Sometimes the lyricist uses those as the intro. My father thought this was such a case.

For Jaanam Samjha Karo we had earlier signed Anand-Milind since the producer used to work with them. But Judwaa (1997) had become a hit and Anu Malik was riding high. So, Salman Khan insisted we should go with Anu. I didn’t say anything but I got worried because Anand-Milind were like family to us. And my father didn’t like Anu Malik. Except for the last two songs, I was the mediator between them for all the songs and everything used to pass through me.

My father was shocked when he was asked to write, ‘Main Ladki Akeli, Peechhe Pade Ladke, Sau Sau Daily’. He simply refused, but then he wrote it since it was my first film but he refused the credit. The lyrics of that song are credited to Anu Malik.

Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote songs for actors from KL Saigal to the three Khans. How did he keep updating himself to stay relevant in every era?

I think this is because of his penchant for reading literature. Till his last days he used to read. He used to give three or four songs on the same situation. He wrote the song ‘Wadiyan Mera Daaman’. Then there was this song ‘Jaiye Aap Kahan Jaoge’. I was amazed to see the same thought written by the same writer with two different singers and music directors. 

He had such mastery over words. I don’t want to name the 1990s writer who broke the record for writing the highest number of songs. He was stuck with words like ‘jaanam’, ‘jigar’, ‘jaanejana’ and ‘sanam’. These words were introduced [to Hindi song lyrics] by my father as he had a mastery over Farsi, Urdu and Arabic. Like the line, ‘Yehi din hai, masti ke sin hai’. Nobody knew that ‘masti ke sin’ meant days of enjoyment. I really should have sat with him and understood how he did it.

Did your father ever rue the fact that he won just one Filmfare award in his life despite having such an excellent career?

[Awards] have become a joke. Pyarelal saheb himself told me something. If you are nominated for any award, you then have to 'do fielding' [start currying favour]. You need to sweet-talk the judges and do anything to promote yourself. This also happens at the Oscars. You don’t get an award on merit. You have to spend money, which is well known. And I am talking about the 1960s. It used to happen then too.

When ‘Kya Hua Tera Vaada’ was nominated, Pancham-da [music director R D Burman] called up my father and said the Filmfare guys have said that if they pay Rs25,000, both of them will get an award. My father got angry and said this is nonsense. He said he never hankered for an award before as well, so why would he now?

The final nail in the coffin came after Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. Shyam Benegal read out the nominations which included ‘Pehla Nasha’. Everyone from the film was present — Mansoor, Aamir Khan, Nasir [Husain] saheb, his wife, etc. When Abba’s name was announced, Aamir shouted, “Majrooh saheb, aap hi ko milna hai. Jaiye aap. [Majrooh sir, you are getting this award. Go ahead.] So my father walked on to the stage. It became very embarrassing for the Filmfare people.

He was told this is just the nominations but he felt he had won the award. Benegal also thought he [Majrooh] was to be given the award and so he gave it. Then somebody came and asked Benegal to open the envelope. When the envelope was opened, they realized the award was for Sameer. That really pissed off Aamir and the whole family.

But my father got the Dadasaheb Phalke award. He was not only the first lyricist but also the first writer to get this award.

President Shankar Dayal Sharma presenting the Dadasaheb Phalke award to Majrooh Sultanpuri in 1993