There is a certain childlike restlessness to Gulzar’s personality that undergirds his writing. The Sahitya Akademi and Dadasaheb Phalke award-winner may be entering his 82nd year, but he is unstoppable. Among other pursuits, he is currently translating 17 different poets for a collection titled A Poem A Day. His translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry into Hindustani, which took five years, came out this year as Nindiya Chor and Baaghbaan (HarperCollins), and a collection of his televised screenplays, Tehreer Munshi Prem-chand Ki (Roli Books), was released earlier this month. It is an autodidact’s creative anxiety that keeps Gulzar — poet, writer, and filmmaker — active and innovative.
Litterateur at heart
Though Gulzar is known among the non-Hindi readers more for his blank verse poetry for films, he has always been a litterateur at heart. In the last 15 years alone, at least 10 of his poetry and prose collections have been released in print form. However, it is his love for Bengali in general and Tagore in particular that inspired him to read the relatively less circulated works of the Nobel Laureate and adapt them for non-Bengali readers.
Through biographies and his own poetry, we get a glimpse of not just his early life in Dina, Delhi and Bombay, when he was known as Sampooran Singh and not Gulzar, but also his love for progressive literature. He never tires of recalling that when he was in Delhi in his pre-teen years, an Urdu translation of Tagore’s The Gardener triggered what would be a life-long love of Bengali literature.
Gulzar’s dalliance with Bengali writings further flourished under writers and filmmakers like Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, whose cinematic sensibilities had a strong Bengali slant and some of whose films were adaptations of literary classics. This motivated him to learn the language and read original versions of books he had earlier read in their Urdu translation. Now, 70 years later, this has resulted in a Hindustani translation of Tagore’s collections. We don’t get a literal recreation; we get to see how Gulzar views Tagore’s poems — through his own muses and motifs like the moon (chand), the village pathway (pagdandi), the boatman (maanjhi). We also get reflections of Gulzar’s own personality, the boyish innocence he has preserved through all these years, and the strong feminist core that has informed both his writing and his film-making.
“I wanted to present Tagore as a romantic,” Gulzar says. “Because of Gitanjali, his image in our mind is that of a saint. Not many people know about his romantic side, about the poetry he wrote during his youth.”
Gulzar’s own literary works comprise a rich corpus of children’s literature: works like Bosky Ka Panchtantra, Potli Baba Ki Kahaani, and Karadi Tales, and the numerous poems, ditties and jingles he has composed for serials. However, if Nindiya Chor reminded me of one Gulzar creation, it was the character of Babla from the poet’s somewhat autobiographical movie Kitaab. The poems in this book, most of them in the form of conversations that a child has with his mother, read like the recitations of an innocuous Babla, one who expresses desire to be understood better in a world where no one seems to have empathy for him. The most poignant example of this in the book is the poem Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Here the young child expresses his wish to enjoy the freedom of a bangle-seller, a gardener, a watchman — rather than be shackled within his school uniform.
“Tagore set very high standards on poetry for children,” says Gulzar. “Many of our poets tend to patronise children by producing textbooks rather than poems, using motifs like aasmaan, patte (sky, leaves) in a dry manner. We need to treat them as individuals, as equals, not to ‘parent’ them through poetry. Tagore understood this well.”
His feminist core
Gulzar also wrote strong women characters for films like Namkeen and Ijaazat. The feminist side of him is evident in Baaghbaan. Tagore, when asked once about why he wrote, is said to have attributed his poetic impulses to the virahani naari (a lonely woman with unrequited love) that resides in his heart, the lady who makes him narrate tales of longing and separation. Through the poems for Baaghbaan, it is the virahani naari in Tagore’s own heart that cries out in anguish. If the voice in Nindiya Chor seems to have filtered through Gulzar’s own Kitaab, Baaghbaan looks like an adaptation of Lekin, a movie that had its roots in Tagore’s own Kshudhita Pashan. “I wanted to capture Tagore’s original voice, the voice that found expression only in Bangla and that was not replicated in the English translations,” says Gulzar.
In one of his most personal poems, Gulzar called himself an insignificant piece of clay whom no one at home wanted when he was a child (“Bemaani si cheez tha vo, mitti ka banaa, bhatti mein pakaa”), and who ran away in search of meaning. This search for meaning was kept alive in him through his involvement with the Progressive Writers’ Association, with Bengali filmmakers, and through his reading of Bengali poets like Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Jibanananda Das. It is this desire to find meaning, a certain restlessness to recreate the works of these greats, and a sense of wonder that keep him going.