Article Hindi

Sahir, the poet who carried the conscience of a new India – Centenary special

Born exactly 100 years ago, Sahir Ludhianvi, the man who defined the conscious lyricist in Hindi cinema, remains the gold standard in politically conscious, progressive poetry.

Shriram Iyengar

It might be decades, another century perhaps, before Sahir Ludhianvi's relevance and role in redefining lyricism in Hindi cinema begins to fade. Born Abdul Hayee on 8 March 1921, Sahir went on to become one of the standard-bearers of poetry in a new visual medium through the teen years of Hindi cinema.

Fiery, outspoken, with an immaculate command of the language, Sahir Ludhianvi's influence remains as powerful as ever. Even in his birth centenary year, the poet commands attention with his lyrics that have seeped into public consciousness.

Why is it that Sahir continues to strike a chord? Says author Akshay Manwani, "He was the only one in the film medium who was overtly political in his writing." Manwani, author of Sahir: The People's Poet clarified that while many lyricists, like Shailendra, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi, were part of the Progressive Writers' Association or the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), their songs catered to the need of the screenplay. Politics was only inserted when the story demanded it.

Sahir was different. Dev Anand's film Hum Dono (1961) features the popular bhajan 'Allah Tero Naam', which continues to be the strongest reminder of the secularism and equality that defined the early idea of independent India. While the idea is no longer practised or preached by the powers to be, the song remains immortal. Surprisingly, the situation in the film demanded no reference to secularism. It called for a song by a woman praying for the health of her soldier husband away at the front. The plea for secularism was Sahir's own image imprinted into the lyrics.

Manwani adds, "In Waqt (1965), the song 'Din Hai Bahar Ke', his response to her is 'Dushman hai pyar ke / Jab lakhon gham sansar ke / Dil ke sahare kaise pyar kare.' Now, there is nothing in the screenplay at that moment to suggest that this young man should be concerned with the problems of the world or humanity. That is the beauty of Sahir Ludhianvi."

Even at his playful best in Johnny Walker's iconic 'Sar Jo Tera Chakraye' from Pyaasa (1957), Sahir slips in a reminder to the power of the common man, saying, 'Naukar ho ya malik / Leader ho ya public / Apne aage sabhi jhuke hain / Kya raja kya sainik.' A decade into the new India, Sahir's poems were a reminder to society of the direction it had promised to move into and the possibilities.

When the screenplay suited him, of course, Sahir was fiery. Yash Chopra's Dharmputra (1961) is an example. The songs, 'Yeh Masjid Hai Woh Butkhana' and 'Yeh Kiska Lahu Hai Kaun Mara' would probably rile a growing tribe of easily offended political pawns and religious fanatics today but were loved and praised for their ideas.

In this, Sahir Ludhianvi remained a poet first and always, a lyricist only occasionally. Evidence of this arrives in his pièce de résistance Pyaasa, which carried one of his poems, 'Chakle', with very little changes into the film's language.

Speaking of this, Manwani says, "If you look at the film which people refer to as his most famous work, Pyaasa, the fact that he is calling out 'Zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulao / Yeh kooche, yeh galiyan, yeh manzar dikhao', he is questioning the country's leaders whether this is the nation-state you have created where women are being sold for money. This is where Sahir was different from anyone before him, during his time, or after. The political song has almost died from our cinema. Even when it was there, it was only he who was doing it with a certain sense of duty." Today, of course, Sahir might have been dismissed as an 'andolanjeevi' (professional protestor) or 'urban Naxal'.

The state of women and their liberation was another theme that rose repeatedly in Sahir's work. As someone who shared a very close relationship with his mother and was devastated by her passing, he would classify as being among the more 'woke' poets of his age.

Lyricist Tanveer Ghazi has turned to Sahir often for inspiration. The writer of 'Kaari Kaari' for Pink (2016), Ghazi says Sahir remains among the foremost feminist poets in Hindi cinema. "For years, the woman has been an object in use, for affection, for anger, or for criticism," he explains. "Sahir transforms this by making her speak out. The most famous, and searing, Sahir nazm for me is 'Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko / Mardon ne usay bazaar diya / Jab jee chaaha machla kuchla / Jab jee chaaha dhutkaar diya'."

Used as is in BR Chopra's film Sadhna (1958), the song is a clear statement that lays bare the oppressive nature of patriarchy in society. Sahir minces no words and does not spare his own gender when mentioning 'Mardon ne banayi jo rasme / Unko haq ka farmaan kaha / Aurat ke zindaa jalne ko / Kurbani aur balidaan kaha.' As violent and abusive trolling of women becomes commonplace, oppression and media hounding become standard practice for those in power or otherwise, Sahir's relevance continues to shine. Perhaps, there is a reason the poet's birthday is also International Women's Day.

Ghazi adds, "There are always two types of lyricists in any film industry. One is compelled to write on the basis of the needs of the market, and as it changes, their work changes. Then, there are those who think the market will remain in its place, but how can I say something that is my duty as a writer to say? A responsibility to speak about the world, society, the right things."

It helped that Sahir was a towering poet in newly independent India. Filmmakers were familiar with his poetry, his style, his ideas, and often shared similar ideologies. Filmmakers like Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, avid readers of literature themselves, were familiar with and enjoyed working with Sahir.

Manwani says, "These things don't work in silos where three directors love poetry and shape the opinion of society. Today, when people say lyricists don't write good poetry it is because people don't value language anymore."

Pointing to the nazm 'Taj Mahal' by Sahir, he says, "That was a different time when people read and had an appreciation for poetry. They would take the poem as it is and use it in the song. One of his most non-cinematic poems was 'Taj Mahal', whose punchline goes, 'Ek shahenshah ne daulat ka sahara lekar gareebon ki mohabbat ka udaya hai mazaak.' That song was used as is in Ghazal (1964). I think he had that kind of an audience. Yash Chopra was a fan of Sahir even before he became a big director."

It is noteworthy that Chopra himself was witness to, and a survivor of, the communal violence during Partition. His first film as director, Dhool Ke Phool (1959), featured this eternal classic penned by the poet.

Ghazi says, "Javed Akhtar saheb once said, 'If Sahir were alive today, he would be unemployed.' I agree with him to an extent." It is certainly hard to see filmmakers today working with a lyricist who did not shy away from speaking truth to power, no matter what the consequences. He would not change his poems to fit the medium. Rather, the medium, and those who controlled it, adapted to use Sahir's poems.

As governments grow increasingly insecure of words, and depictions of inequality and lawlessness on screen, poets like Sahir are scarce. Manwani points out that this is why he continues to be so relevant and powerful. "Even today, whenever an injustice is done, or communal harmony is needed, we remember Sahir's songs. We think of bhajans in the time of war, his nazm 'Khoon Sirf Khoon Hai' whenever aristocrats take over wealth and use it against the poor, or oppression against women... Sahir is eternal."

Through his lyrics and poetry, Sahir Ludhianvi introduced to Hindi cinema the language of revolution. This revolution was not limited to class or ideology. It extended to feminism and equality. A maverick to the end, he brought to a fairly commercial industry political thought and subtext. 

Sadly, at a time when chief ministers call 'secularism' a flaw that needs to be done away with, Sahir's need is felt more than ever. Manwani says, "There is a famous speech given by Utpal Dutt on Satyajit Ray saying it is not adequate to call Ray a renaissance man. He was a moment in the conscience of man. For Sahir, I would paraphrase the same. He was a moment in the conscience of Hindi cinema. He was the conscience of our society, asking difficult questions and showing citizens the mirror to where they stand. In that sense, he will always be timeless."

After all, the poet said it himself: ''Main har ek pal ka shayar hoon / Har ek pal meri kahani hai.'