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Gulzar & Javed Akhtar: When two greats come together

A tete-e-tete between Javed Akhtar and Gulzar underscores the subtleties of their relationship and poetry

Gulzar & Javed Akhtar: When two greats come together

(L-R) Writer-translator Rakhshanda Jalil, poet-lyricists Gulzar and Javed Akhtar with host Atika Farooqui at the launch of 'Jadunama', a coffee table book on Akhtar. ANI

Sumit Paul

Mee arzam nee min tafeezat un’bayan.

(My poetry thrives in his company — Jalaluddin Rumi’s famous quote in Ottoman Turkish on his friend, mentor and soulmate Shams-e-Tabriz)

Poetry flourishes when pitted against the poetry of yet another equally great poet.

— A Latin proverb

Using an oft-quoted cricketing analogy that pacers hunt in pairs, one can say that poets and writers write in tandem. And when they write in tandem, the most sublime always emerges as a creative outcome. We have the examples of Ezra Pound and TS Eliot and PB Shelley and John Keats. We’re lucky that in our times, we have two stalwarts — Sampooran Singh Kalra ‘Gulzar’ and Javed Akhtar — enthralling us with their simple but profound poetry. Recently, when the two wizards of quill met on the occasion of the release of Javed’s biography, ‘Jadunama: Javed Akhtar Ek Safar’, the audience got a peek into the greats’tête-à-tête. The poets engaged in light banter — with Javed sharing how he was mistaken for Gulzar at the airport and Gulzar reciting a poem that said how a girl gushing over him had mistaken him for Javed. “Humesha se yahi darr tha ki woh kambakht mujhse achha likhta hai (I always knew this rascal writes better than me),” Gulzar read out.

Now, before descanting upon the craftsmanship of Javed and Gulzar and defining their respective poetic styles, it’s important to know the times we’re in. Gulzar and Javed are writing in an era when all languages are on the wane. Urdu is no longer the Urdu of Ghalib, Dagh and Momin. It is not even Sahir or Shakeel’s chaste and chiselled Urdu. It is simple Hindustani or diluted Hindi, known as ‘bolchaal ki bhasha’, everyday language. This generation understands the colloquial Hindi or plain Urdu, stripped of Persianised vocabulary.

Catering to the readers and listeners in their own tongue, nay lingo, without compromising on one’s class and creativity, to be able to relate to the classes and masses in the same vein, is no joke. But both Gulzar and Javed have mastered this art to a T. Recall Gulzar’s ‘Koi vaada nahin kiya lekin kyon tera intazaar rehta hai/ Bevajah jab qaraar mil jaaye, dil bada beqaraar rehta hai’ (There was no promise, yet heart waits for you/ When you feel contentment so effortlessly, heart becomes restless) from the movie ‘Seema’ (1971). Now, mull over the enigmatic beauty of misra-e-saani (second line in a couplet): ‘Bevajah jab qaraar mil jaaye/ Dil bada beqaraar rahta hai.’ Javed also wields his formidable pen and writes, ‘Dard ke phool bhi khilte hain, bikhar jaate hain/ Zakhm kaise bhi hon, kuchh roz mein bhar jaate hain’ (The flowers of pain blossom and they soon get scattered/ However deep the wounds may be, they get healed erelong). This is what we call relatable poetry. ‘Shayari jo aap se mukhatib ho’ (Poetry that converses with you), in the words of Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. You instantaneously forge a bond with both the poets.

One more example of Gulzar’s straightforward but poignant poetry is: ‘Aap ke baad har ghadi humne/ Aap ke saath hi guzari hai’ (Once you left, I lived every moment with you). How beautifully Gulzar describes the absence of one’s beloved. The pragmatism and requirement of changing times, climes and closeness in a relationship cannot be described better than Javed Sahab when he writes in a matter-of-fact manner: ‘Tab hum donon waqt chura kar laate thay/ Ab milte hain jab bhi fursat hoti hai’ (We used to steal hours from time’s corpus/ Now we meet when time allows). And when Javed resorts to mulhafat (Persian for a mild and sweet complaint, upalambh or ulhana in Hindi), he says: ‘Tu toh mat keh humein bura duniya/ Tu ne dhala hai aur dhale hain hum’ (Please, don’t call me bad/ You’ve made me this way).

Both Javed and Gulzar are great observers. They look at life (dis)passionately and often with a justifiable sense of resignation. Look at this couplet that ensued from Gulzar’s pen: ‘Khuli kitabon ke safhe ulat-te rahte hain/ Hava chale na chale din palat-te rahte hain’ (The pages of an open book keep turning/ Whether breeze blows or not, days roll by). The same intensity of thoughts and candour in a relationship will make Javed Akhtar write, ‘Humare dil mein ab talkhi nahin hai/ Magar woh baat pahle-si nahin hai’ (Though there’s no bitterness in my heart/ That attachment is not same either). The duo has observed life in many roles. Javed teamed up with Salim Khan and wrote the finest screenplays for films like ‘Sholay’, ‘Zanjeer’, ‘Deewaar’, to name but a few.

Gulzar is a one-man army; a veritable polymath who wrote the story, dialogues, directed the movies and penned songs too. Famous film critic Devyani Chaubal wrote that because of his versatility, Gulzar could infuse a riot of emotions into his songs. Remember and you’ll start to hum, ‘Tum aa gaye ho noor aa gaya hai’, ‘Maine tere liye’, ‘Mora gora ang lai le, mohe shyam rang dai de’, ‘Aane wala pal jaane wala hai’ or ‘Aankhon mein humne aapke sapne’. The list is interminable. Just listen to his lyrics. They seem to be talking to you. Gulzar has this art of writing conversational poetry. Here’s an example: ‘Haath chhootein bhi toh rishte nahin chhoda karte/ Waqt ki shaakh se lamhe nahin toda karte’ (Though hands are not together, a bond is not broken/ Don’t pluck the moments from the branch of life). The same versatility and profundity of emotions is palpable in the numbers of Javed Akhtar. His ‘Tere liye’, ‘Kuchh na kaho’, ‘Main yahan hoon’, ‘Do pal’, ‘Ajab si’, ‘Sandese aate hain’, ‘Main agar kahoon’, to name but a few, have a unique flavour of rusticity and beauty.

Once in Karachi, Pakistan, I asked an old Urdu journalist about the Indian poet-lyricists whom she liked. Pat came the answer, “Sahir, Majrooh, Kaifi and Shakeel from yore and Gulzar and Javed Akhtar from this era.” Her words still echo in my mind, “Inn donon ne Hindustani shayari ki izzat aur asmat ke parcham ko buland rakha hai” (Both have upheld the flag of Hindustani poetry’s respect and modesty). Pakistanis have a greater emotional bond with Gulzar as he was born in Dina, now in Pakistan. That journalist quoted Gulzar’s famous couplet, ‘Zameen-sa doosra koi sakhi kahan hoga/ Zara-sa beej utha le toh ped deti hai’ (No one’s as good a friend as the soil is/ Just a mere seed and it puts forth a tree). She was all praise for Gulzar’s natural baritone. “It gives me goosebumps,” she coyly added.

Originally written in Hindi, Arvind Mandloi’s ‘Jadunama’ has been translated into English by Rakhshanda Jalil. It is different from run-of-the-mill biographies that only eulogise and extol. Rather, ‘Jadunama’ opens a wide window into Javed Akhtar’s life journey, as it steadfastly refused to follow a time-worn narrative, or take any well-trodden path. Propelled by the winds of humanism, Javed Sahab is like that ship sailing in the sea that has cast its anchor in the many ports of Time. By the way, Javed’s father, Jaan Nisar Akhtar, was also a poet par excellence who wrote quite a few songs. ‘Ye dil aur unki nigahon ke saaye’ (‘Prem Parbat’, 1975) is his immortal creation. Moreover, Javed’s grandfather was also a famous Urdu poet whose name was Muztar Khairabadi. So, in a way, poetry runs in his blood (daudti-phirti hai sukhnvari meri ragon mein).

True to his name, Javed has been a coruscating star on the firmament of creativity and literature (aasman-e-adab ka roshan sitara). Readers may be aware that Javed means Eternal and Akhtar connotes a Star, thus, an Eternal Star. In Islamic traditions, names are very important and it’s believed that a good name endows an individual with all the goodness and positive attributes. This happened in the case of Javed Akhtar. Javed Sahab will turn 78 on January 17, but age hasn’t been able to stymie his creativity. Nor has it been able to thwart the juggernaut of Gulzar’s poetry. In fact, like old wine, their poetry has matured with age.

While concluding, I still think that a lot can be said on the two literary giants of our times. To quote Shakeel Badayuni: ‘Sukoon-e-dil ke liye kuchh toh ahtamaam karoon/ Zara nazar jo mile, phir unhein salaam karoon/ Mujhe toh hosh nahin aap mashvara deeje/ Kahan se chhedoon fasana, kahan tamaam karoon’ (Where to start and where to end). This is indeed an enigma. May Javed Sahab and Gulzar Sahab continue to warm the cockles of our hearts with their poetry. Written in a different context, an Urdu couplet of Naubatrai ‘Nazar’ applies to Gulzar and Javed, ‘Ek chaman, doosra sitara hai/ Saath donon ka mujhe pyara hai’ (One is ‘garden’ and another is a star/ I love the company of both). It’s worthwhile to mention that the takhallus (nom de guerre/ pseudonym) Gulzar is a garden or bed of roses. I round it off with TS Eliot’s words: “When two creative minds meet, the collaboration is always fruitful and influential.” It sure is. Javed and Gulzar’s quintessential example vindicates Eliot’s words.

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