LITERARY NOTES: Once a poet, always a poet
By Intizar Husain
I came, I saw and I conquered. But enough is enough. I am going back home. That is what celebrated filmmaker Gulzar seems to be now saying to us in In the Company of a Poet. “I have a limited number of years ahead of me, so I had to draw the line somewhere. That is why I decided to stop making films and return to literature, from where I began.”
On being asked whether he regrets his decision, he replies: “No, not at all. I am more at peace with myself. I still get offers to direct and usually say, ‘Yes, one day’.” He added, “My last film Hu Tu Tu was released 12 years ago, in 1999. I have no regrets and I can say without the slightest hesitation that writing is far more fulfilling. It is a total commitment to a subject. A book is a statement of beliefs. And so is a poem.”
This may come as a shock to his fans who have celebrated him as a great filmmaker. Should we compare Gulzar’s case with that of Tolstoy, who after his elevation to the status of a celebrated novelist, renounced all his achievements in the realm of fiction and started writing Biblical parables with the zeal of a missionary?
In the Company of a Poet begins with a dream Nasreen Munni Kabir, the book’s writer, had seen. “The trigger for this book,” she says, “came to me in a dream I had sometime in 2010 in which the great Sahir Ludhianvi and Shailendra bid me to tell Gulzar Sahab that we should jointly write something on their work”. As a result, they had over 25 Skype sessions, each lasting hours. “Our conversations in Hindustani and English were recorded and later transcribed,” Kabir says. The book may be seen as an autobiography compiled in a modern way. The volley of questions and queries coming from Kabir works Gulzar up and he starts recalling his past:
“I once assumed that you are from U.P.,” Kabir says to the poet.
“No,” Gulzar replies and tells her that he is Punjabi and brought up in Delhi. And if people mistake him for being Muslim, they are not far from the truth: “My brothers and I are indeed culturally Muslims. We have always loved speaking and writing in Urdu. Saying aadaab and Insha Allah comes naturally to us. I am grateful to my father that he raised us in such a broadminded way.”
He adds that “some people have even mistaken me for a Bengali. I speak Bengali fluently. I used to wear the Bengali style dhoti kurta at one time. I was an assistant to Bimal Roy.”
Gulzar is right in saying that things just happen and push you in a certain direction. That was certainly what happened with him. As he talks about his love for books and his craze for poetry, it becomes clear that he was destined to be a poet. But circumstances pushed him in the direction of films. “I really did not want to work in films,” he says. “It was my friend, the poet Shailendra, who forced me.” And he soon found himself in the company of distinguished personalities of the film world — directors, musicians, actors, actresses and song writers such as Bimal Roy, S.D. Burman, Lata Mangeshkar, and of course, Meena Kumari, to whom he offered to fast in place of her, knowing that because of her illness she was not in a position to fast during Ramzan. “I said to her ‘you must have your medicine and I will fast in your place. We will share the sawab’.”
He narrates his experiences in the film industry, his observations about personalities he met, about their achievements and about the art itself. Satisfied with what he achieved in this field he decided to bid adieu to this glamorous world and return to his own world, that of literature.
Now he is engaged wholeheartedly in writing. He has profusely written poetry as well as short stories. And he is leading a peaceful family life with his wife Rakheeji, his daughter Meghna, and his grandson. “Last night the whole family spent the evening together. This is living together. Yet Rakheeji lives in her house, and I live in mine. I don’t need to explain, do I? The way we choose to live is personal.”
“You have worked in Indian cinema since the 1960s. Do you have a sense of belonging to the film industry?” asks Kabir at the end.
“I entered the world of films reluctantly and walked away by choice. I am still circling around that world, but from the outside. After all these years, I still feel I don’t belong to films. So when you ask me this question I want to ask you, do you think I belong?”