The power of his feather-caress words, the hallmark of Gulzar's poetry ensures everyone has a favourite. So, the announcement that the poet, lyricist, scriptwriter and filmmaker was being conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for 2013 on Saturday led to much happiness among his fraternity and fans.
Gulzar was his soft-spoken self when approached for a reaction. "I am thankful for the appreciation that this highest award stands for. I am humbled that I have been chosen for this honour," he said in his signature baritone.
The phone kept ringing at his Pali Hill residence, Boskiyana, as the who's who of the film and literary fraternity called to congratulate him. Among them, Bharat Ratna, nightingale Lata Mangeshkar. About the "much-deserved," she said: "Some of my own favourites among my songs have been his lyrics. His understanding of human feelings and the way he expresses them in simple words ensures everyone understands them."
While Gulzar had been a lyricist for many films like Kabuliwala (1957) and Shriman Satywadi (1960), the magical fusion of his words and the songstress' voice for Bandini (1963) with the song Mora Gora Ang Laile began an association, which would give Hindi cinema some of its greatest musical gems.
The octogenarian Sampooran Singh Kalra (Gulzar's real name) was born in 1934, in what is now the Punjab province of Pakistan. His family migrated to Amritsar from where he came to Bombay. Among the odd jobs he did then was working at a garage.
"It's this journey from the grassroots which one finds reflected in both the imagery and language of his poetry which borrows as heavily from the literary as the colloquial — even if it means dipping into Hinglish — without losing any of the lyrical charm," says cultural historian Mukul Joshi, who cites the instance of Sautan sapoli mori kaate jeheriya from Gulzar's adaptation of Begum Akhtar's iconic dadra in the recent Dedh Ishqiya and Aankhein bhi kamal karti hain/Personal se sawal karti hain from the 2005 chartbuster Kajra Re from Bunty Aur Babli.
Though most of his work since Bandini has been in Hindi and Urdu, the way he imbues his lyrics with Braj Bhasha, Awadhi, Khadiboli, Punjabi, Haryanvi or Marwari has made him popular with everyone from eight (Chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai) to eighty (Tum pukar lo, tumhara intezaar hai). The 45th Phalke awardee was conferred a Padma Bhushan in 2004 and the Sahitya Akademi award in 2002. Apart from four national film awards, he has also won an Oscar at the 81st Academy Awards for Jai Ho with AR Rahman in Slumdog Millionaire.
Best known for his association with the music composers like RD Burman, AR Rahman and Vishal Bharadwaj, he has also worked with others leading composers like Sachin Dev Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Shankar Jaikishan, Hemant Kumar, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Madan Mohan, Rajesh Roshan, Anu Malik, and Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy.
His films — Koshish, Mausam, Aandhi, Maachis and Hu Tu Tu — have also received acclaim. Aandhi, which many felt borrowed from the life of Indira Gandhi, was banned by the government during Emergency. This led to a drought in awards.
"It wasn't until much later that he began getting awards again," remembers Joshi who quips with a laugh, "Even they realised that it'd in fact increase the award's honour."
For the small screen too, Gulzar has written title songs for serials like Kuch Khoya Kuch Paya and Swayamsiddha (both sung by Lata Mangeshkar). His iconic work Mirza Ghalib and Tehreer... Munshi Premchand ki among others will always stand out.
His poetry anthologies — Chand Pukhraj Ka, Raat Pashmine Ki and Pandrah Paanch Pachattar — showcase the Triveni, a form of stanza he pioneered. In fact, it was his love for poetry that brought him and the late Meena Kumari, who herself dabbled in poetry, close. She bequeathed him a poetry notebook and collection of coloured stones in her last days. His short stories are published in Raavi Paar and Dhuan (smoke).