The secret to Gulzar’s success
- A new set of books tells us about the poet-director’s inimitable ability to adapt novels
- The books cover three of his films: ‘Aandhi’, ‘Angoor’ and ‘Ijaazat’
It’s never a bad time to write about Gulzar. He is eternally contemporary, without ever following or solidifying a trend. Some of that currency comes from the fact that, at 84, he is the only versatile man in Bollywood—poet, lyricist, screenwriter, author, director, known to engage with the politics of our time. In 2015, Gulzar criticized religious intolerance in India and expressed support for writers who had returned their government awards in protest, which led to considerable public ire against him. He has a signature style, a man whose speech, diction, gait and crisp white kurtas are iconic of an era of Hindustani that flourished in a newly independent India—progressive, but steeped in a multicultural Indianness. Lesser known for his alacrity on the tennis court, he is an artist who bridged, for more than 60 years, the gap between Urdu and regional literature on the one hand, and popular cinema on the other.
Hindi cinema today has a multi-idiomatic, democratic rubric—any kind of story works as long as it is pitched the right way, and has the right distribution machinery. Adaptations are fashionable all over again. Optioning rights of books are more saleable than ever before. So what still makes Gulzar’s film-making relevant and unique? After all, the last film Gulzar directed was Hu Tu Tu in 1999.
A set of three new books, each on Gulzar’s best films—Aandhi (1975) by Saba Mahmood Bashir, Angoor (1982) by Sathya Saran, and Ijaazat (1987) by Mira Hashmi; all from HarperCollins India—encapsulates his career as a director, and offers one standout reason.
Gulzar was one of the first Indian film-makers to have recognized the cinematic potential of novels, and had the ability to interpret them through a prism that is uniquely his own. Of course, it was much easier then since publishers were not involved and you could just buy a book and adapt it to film. As simple as this, as Hashmi quotes him, talking about adapting Ijaazat from Subodh Ghoshal’s story: “I bought the story from Subodh da, who was quite elderly by the time I got to know him, and started working on it."
By bridging the gap between literature and mass cinema through adaptations, Gulzar perfected a middle-ground aesthetic that made commercial as well as aesthetic sense. As it appears from these three books, rich in detail about the making of each film, one of Gulzar’s biggest gifts is the ability to read and understand Bengali.
Knowing Bengali was an advantage at a time when Hindi cinema had an abundance of Bengali directors. His directorial debut, Mere Apne (1971), was a remake of Tapan Sinha’s Apanjan, about a widow who moves to a city from a village to live with his nephew. Many adaptations from Bengali literature and cinema followed. The story of Aandhi, in which Suchitra Sen played the role of a politician and Sanjeev Kumar an old lover whom she briefly reunites with in the course of her turbulent political career, was written by the Bengali writer Sachin Bhowmick and later changed to Gulzar’s liking by the Hindi writer Kamleshwar. There are a few examples in Bashir’s book on Aandhi: Khushboo (1975) was culled from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s short story Pandit Moshay; Kitaab (1978) from Samaresh Basu’s Pothik; Lekin (1991) was based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Khudito Pashaan. He worked with many Bengali writers, including Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, and, famously, with director Bimal Roy, who was his mentor—all of them were part of the Progressive Writers’ Association. Gulzar’s politics is gentle, and is often distilled into a scene, sometimes even a moment, as in many of Satyajit Ray’s films. Gulzar has spoken about his desire to work with Ray. Like Ray, he found much of his material in books. Both have written and directed for children.
Soon after independence, even as Mahatma Gandhi tried initiating the idea of a common script, the predominant culture war was between Hindi and Urdu supremacists. Bashir writes: “In time, the rift between the two languages increased—Hindi went on to become more and more Sanskritized and Urdu more Persianized. Today, one gets to hear this Sanskritized Hindi through All India Radio and Doordarshan, both state-owned broadcasters. Similarly, the Persianized Urdu is broadcast on Urdu channels. However, the language of the masses is Hindustani and that is the language Gulzar used in the film. It was a conscious choice to do so." Gulzar’s comfort in Hindustani, while deriving from Bengali and Urdu literature, made him a much more popular figure in Indian cinema.
For her book on Angoor, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors, with Sanjeev Kumar, Moushumi Chatterjee and Deven Verma in double roles, Sathya Saran met Debu Sen, an assistant of Bimal Roy who worked closely with Gulzar. Sen recollects that Roy had entrusted him with the writing of a film called Do Dooni Char, also a Comedy Of Errors adaptation. Saran writes: “Sen protested, saying that if the film was being made in Hindi, Gulzar should be given the task of writing it. He would be the right person to convert a regional script into one that would appeal to the diverse Hindi-speaking film audiences across the nation."
Through his years writing lyrics and his own books, Gulzar has retained his priority as a poet and lyricist who is concerned primarily with the ability of words to evoke imagery and moods. As actor Naseeruddin Shah, who played the role of Mirza Ghalib in Gulzar’s television series on the Urdu poet, tells Hashmi in her book on Ijaazat, “He writes poetry like doing a painting."
But why a set of books on his films such as this is so eminently readable even to those who aren’t Gulzar’s fans is because they tell us how Gulzar has continued to embrace the new without losing his signature—a poet-artist who, instead of tapping into anguish or disillusionment about the status quo, is deeply concerned with the redeeming qualities of human interaction, even momentary ones. For fans, this set is a collectible.