I came to Sahir Ludhianvi in the way I’m coming to most artists and Hindi films of the 50s and 60s presently: through Guru Dutt. Sahir had penned the lyrics for four of GD’s films: three directed by him (Baazi, 1951; Jaal, 1952; Pyaasa, 1957) and one by T Prakash Rao (Bahurani, 1963), which had GD opposite Mala Sinha again after Pyaasa. The first three all had music by S D Burman and the last by C Ramachandra. Sahir and SD never worked together after Pyaasa, and that also forms a part of this piece.
I learnt a bit about Sahir (real name, Abdul Hayee) through all the amounts I’ve read on GD, and then started reading a bit about him through other sources. I don’t think I’ll end up wanting to discover anyone from those times (or before or after) the way I have done with GD. So, I thought the best way to find out more about Sahir at one go would be through his biography by Akshay Manwani.
While waiting for the book to arrive and while reading a few other pieces on him, the first and constant remark I would encounter about him would be: ‘He was arrogant.’ Couple that with, so to speak, his rough visage, with pock marks and all (although he was a strapping six-footer), and you begin nodding in assent.
But Manwani’s book does a lovely and necessary flip of that statement. Manwani is empathetic to Sahir (the way perhaps Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar was to the Talwars), beginning with how he zeroed in on which lyricist of the golden age of Hindi cinema he wanted to write a book on. Apart from the body and quality of work, Manwani decided to write on a singleton, as he would possibly have no kin in the years to come to hold forth on him (unlike the way GD’s younger son, Arun Dutt, took his legacy forward while he was alive).
Manwani spends some time – just the right amount – decoding Sahir’s “arrogance”, discussing it only in the latter parts of the book. This perception about Sahir comes from various notions and actions of his. He would ask to be paid Re 1 more than the music director, with the firm belief that the lyricist was more important to a film’s music than the latter. For most of Sahir’s movies, the music director would weave a melody around Sahir’s words rather than the usual practice of writing to a tune. And finally, Sahir’s words weren’t lyrics, they were poetry. In both a descriptive way of speaking as well as, erm, a poetic way of doing so.
Pyaasa itself owes a lot to Sahir’s association with the movie. Apart from Vijay, Guru Dutt’s despairing poet in the film being modelled around Sahir (only the profile, the philosophy was all GD’s), the lyrics Sahir penned for the movie are considered among the best in world cinema of any time. A few weeks after it released, after it became a hit, new posters were put out carrying lyrics of some songs and with Sahir’s name either prominent or ahead of SDB in the credits. This may have led to the clash between Sahir and SDB, which eventually had them parting ways.
Sahir just wanted to bring focus to the art of poetry and its significance in the movies. If that is considered arrogant, never mind how oversimplified, reductionist or binary that reading is, so be it. In keeping with the soul of Pyaasa, when is the true artist ever rightly understood?