Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet For All Reasons, written by noted music historian and archivist Manek Premchand explores the massive gamut of the legendary poet-lyricist’s works in films and literature. The first poet-lyricist to win the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, Majrooh left behind a remarkable corpus spanning songs for all situations, moods, storylines and characters. Working with the top most music directors and film directors for over 6 decades, from the middle 1940s to early 2000s, he wrote songs that topped the charts, broke taboos and set benchmarks.
Silhouette Magazine caught up with Manek Premchand for a chat on his book, which is winning acclaim with music and film buffs. We also asked the contributing authors their experiences about working on the book.
Antara: What made you decide on a book on Majrooh Sultanpuri? How did the idea come about?
Manek Premchand: I was always in admiration of Majrooh’s work in cinema, but didn’t have the courage—much less the ability—to curate it. However, there was something that had kept gnawing at my heart. He had told me in a long interview what I had also heard him say to others later: that it was tragic that people who decided the merits of poets in cinema had themselves no idea of poetry. That was so true and that had been troubling me. I looked around and found that his non-film work had many admirers, especially in academia from the Hindi-Urdu heartland, but film work, and in English? Hardly. Thanks to my limited knowledge of Urdu and passion for lyrics-driven music in Hindi films, I decided to bell the cat, study his work and present it to generations of people who had enjoyed his poems without knowing their authorship or real meaning.
Antara: Such a massive corpus of work Majrooh Sahab left behind. How did you start planning the structure for the book?
Manek Premchand: His canvas, both in the number of years and range of emotions, was daunting. But getting 7-8 music friends to write their thoughts about specific areas of his work emboldened me, as also the fact that I knew if I took it one day at a time, a substantive corpus would eventually emerge, and with it, some focus about the man and his work. Ideas of subjects too came every now and then.
Antara: You have done deep research into his life and works for this book, as you do for all your books and articles. But was there a difference here, in the way you researched or assimilated your material? Particularly because your earlier biographies were on singers or music composers and this book is on a lyricist?
Manek Premchand: Yes, I was walking on thin ice here. But I was doing the same when writing about Talat or Hemant, though the challenges were different. In fact, Hemant was both a singer and composer, while Talat was a singer and for some years also an actor. These are not areas that I could call my turf, but I guess some research, combined with lots of passion had allowed their biographies to be born. Majrooh on the other hand was only a poet, and it is this area I’m most comfortable with, in the Hindi film song. Hence the subject was relatively inviting, but here it was the range and depth of his work that constantly stumped me. Antara, there was one other thing. If he could see what’s going on here on Planet Earth, I just wanted him to be happy that finally someone had made a fair attempt to understand and showcase his opus to English reading people, in a friendly but factual way. I would fervently like to imagine he would be happy. I certainly am.
Antara: What would you list as your biggest challenges in this project? How difficult or easy was the research?
Manek Premchand: The research was difficult but when you bring passion to the table, research is fun! The biggest challenge was in fact minor areas, for instance, someone had written that Majrooh had used the pseudonym Naseh (meaning advisor) before dumping it in favour of Majrooh. Ascertaining that was an issue. The chronology and length of time of the many places he lived in before coming to Bombay in 1945 was recorded differently by different writers. That was an issue too. How long was he in jail, and exactly when, that also was open for debate. But eventually, these issues were resolved.
Antara: After biographies of Talat Mahmood, the singer and Hemant Kumar, the singer-composer, we have from you, the biography of Majrooh, the lyricist. Is there a method in the journey?
Manek Premchand: If I can connect any dots here, perhaps the idea is to showcase the work and lives of people who contributed in a huge way to making us happy musically, people who could do with some more profiling and listing of their work.
Antara: Can you tell us why the title of your recent book is Majrooh Sultanpuri, The Poet for all Reasons? There’s a play and a movie called A Man for all Seasons, and there’s a track titled A Song for all Seasons. Why did you choose the word Reasons instead of the conventionally accepted and understood word Seasons?
Manek Premchand: Both words refer to a person’s capabilities or versatility, but there’s a subtle difference. While there are only 4 seasons, there can be far many more reasons. A poet for happiness and misery, but also for hope and despair, spirituality and love, dignity and doom, the whole range of human emotions. Majrooh offers us nuances of all these and more. I felt Reasons was more apt here.
Antara: Your knowledge about Hindi film songs is phenomenal. Why did you invite guest authors when you could have done the book alone?
Manek Premchand: The authors I invited know so much more about their areas than I do, so with apologies to Sahir Ludhianvi, it was a kind of Saathi haath badhaana project. 🙂
Antara: What would you consider Majrooh Sahab’s hallmark – that set him apart from his contemporaries, especially in an era when Hindi film music saw its golden period and poetry was riding the high tide of creativity?
Manek Premchand: Many of the poets of his time were phenomenal, but his longevity stands out. His songs of banter set him head and shoulder above the rest, and so do many of the words that he introduced into cinema, something that perhaps only Hasrat Jaipuri can compete with. His favourite words, especially the word sanam—explained in some detail in the book—set him apart. His songs of comedy, especially with Dada Burman, are special too.
Antara: Majrooh Sahab is the rare lyricist who started with the legendary KL Saigal in 1946 and continued writing for heroes of the new generation, right into the new millennium. More than 55 years of successful writing, churning hits, adapting to generational changes in styles and lingo… what was his magic mantra?
Manek Premchand: I think the mantra was the idea of always adapting to new social mores and reflecting them in his work. That’s why he remained relevant for so long. He also had this self-respect that had him write, perhaps as his own mission statement, Hum hain raahi pyaar ke hum se kuchh na boliye, never mind that Dev Anand, on whom this song was filmed, gained beautifully with that imagery. 🙂
Hum hain raahi pyaar ke hum se kuchh na boliye (Nau Do Gyarah, 1957) SD Burman / Kishore Kumar
Antara: From mischievous, naughty songs to romantic odes from deeply spiritual songs to angst-laden songs on social inequalities – how did he manage to ride so many different boats at the same time with perfect balance?
Manek Premchand: His experiences were deep and his reading had kept step, which is why his canvas was so wide. You are referring to his film canvas. If that isn’t awesome enough, can you imagine his work in the non-film arena? It is these two boats, film and non-film, that makes his oeuvre so absolutely stunning.
Antara: Five years ago in an interview you had told me, “Till society begins to value writers, like management gurus, doctors and IT people, we cannot imagine throwing up great poets. Meantime there does seem to be a small shift in giving writers their due now.” Do you think things have changed for the better now?
Manek Premchand: Oh yes, I remember that beautiful interview, but is it 5 years already? Time flies! Yes, there is a small shift in giving writers their due, but the graph sadly remains flattened. Wikipedia, for example, with all their goodness, will tell you so much about thousands of films, but in most of them will not name the lyricist. Art Director? Yes. Cinematographer? Yes too. But the person who writes meaningful songs—the only things we enjoy even away from the film—no. People still need to be pointed in the right direction. Read the above-mentioned complete interview here
Antara: If I ask you to compare your own books against each other, how satisfying would you say the Majrooh book has been?
Manek Premchand: I would rate it as my best work, but I am aware that people prefer reading short profiles or quick music essays. So the reader may hold a completely different view.
Antara: Tell us about your latest release Windows to the Soul and Other Essays on Music.
Manek Premchand: Windows to the Soul is just out, in January 2022, and while it is a collection of many articles I have written in newspapers, there are many unpublished essays in it too. The original articles were constrained by the number of words that the editor allowed me, but now they are larger. There are subjects like why Madan Mohan should get a posthumous Bharat Ratna and why it is ironic that Sadhana, on whom so many songs having to do with the eyes were filmed, had to stop acting because of an eye problem. There are essays on musical instruments, such as the tambourine, whose personality doesn’t encourage it to be part of sad songs. In fact, in retrospect I wish I had titled that story, “Ro mat Pushpa, I hate tears!” 🙂
Antara: Windows to the Soul can easily be called a textbook on understanding the Hindi film song. You have covered an amazing range of facets and aspects of the Hindi film song, which many of us have never noticed separately. One thing about your essays that intrigues me greatly and this is also about your research, your style of writing and your books, how do you draw up such detailed lists of songs to illustrate each of your studies? For instance, in the essay ‘Extended Preludes’, you have lists for songs that have more than 2 minutes long preludes, and then those that have longer than 90 seconds but less than 2 minutes and those that have preludes between 60 and 90 seconds! And then the essay on Musical Epilogues has a list of songs that have at least a 30-second postlude. I am just giving two examples to ask you one question – do you listen to all these songs over and over again to create these incredible lists for each topic? Do you keep on working on the lists organically or create the list when the topic comes up?
Manek Premchand: So, for decades I kept buying cassettes and CDs. Then I digitised all those thousands of songs painstakingly between 2003 and 2010. Those were not easy days when you got YouTube to offer you rare songs and a program to convert them to MP3 in a jiffy. I had to convert them in real time on my computer, meaning I would have to listen to each song from start to finish as it was being digitised. I used those times to note what I heard as the song’s salient features. Ghazals were slotted thus, and saxophones, the Beats Per Minute of songs, etc etc. Long preludes and postludes were slotted too. Today I’m rewarded by just searching by keywords in my database. So now the search is done in a jiffy!
Antara: Two book releases back to back – Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet For All Reasons in December 2021 and Windows to the Soul and Other Essays on Music in January 2022 – how is the author in you feeling at this remarkable record?
Manek Premchand: Happy, relieved in a sense too. Hopefully, they will be received well.
Antara: What is next on the platter?
Manek Premchand: No idea really. But I am waiting for some baani from above. Hopefully, it will happen soon! Thanks for this chat Antara. Your own work inspires!
Antara: Thank you! Wish you all the very best for many such books to come from your pen.
We posed one question to the contributing authors who have written a chapter each in the Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet For All Reasons. The question:
The responses from the contributing authors are below, in the order of their chapters appearing in the book:
Antara: Talk about getting the dreamiest of topics to write on for a chapter and that too for a prestigious book project! These are moments when you can’t believe your ears. My first contribution to a book was a chapter on a song that encapsulates life – Wahaan kaun hai tera musafir in Guide, the Film: Perspectives by Lata Jagtiani ma’am. An amazing dream come true! Then came the offer from Manek Premchand sir to contribute a chapter on Hemant Kumar’s Bengali music for his book The Unforgettable Music of Hemant Kumar – an unbelievable living dream which I co-authored with Sounak Gupta! And now this – Majrooh and SD Burman! Phew! Times when you need to pinch yourself to check if its actually happening. 🙂
Now to write on a team which created songs that are all my favourites is a tough job because you are so much in love with all the songs yourself! But on a serious note, as I revisited the songs, this time primarily from the lyrics point of view, I discovered how deep they actually were in meaning, purpose, emotions and philosophy. When Majrooh and SD Burman worked together they not only created iconic hits, they made daringly flirtatious songs, cocked a snook at the system, kindled romance, celebrated love, introspected on life and inspired hopes and dreams.
The most enriching part was to discover my own self in these songs that resonated my innermost thoughts, sometimes cloaked in humour, sometimes dipped in pathos. Majrooh and Burman Dada excelled in creating tailor-made songs that sat so naturally on the characters that if you take the song away, you break a vital link in the story. Teaming up with Dev Anand, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla – stalwarts of their times, they had the best of voices singing the most loved songs of all times. I could not have asked for a topic dearer to my heart and I am deeply grateful to Manek Sir for this dream opportunity.
Deepa Buty: For me writing has always been enriching. Writing a small article also requires a lot of research and study. When I got an opportunity to write about the wonderful combination of Majrooh-Pancham, I instantly grabbed it. Not only is this one of my fav combinations but the combination has given us some of the best songs from late 1960s to mid 1970s.
Keeping a track of their hit films and studying about the films which flopped or didn’t do well at the box office, what really made me happy was that their not-so-known numbers are also so good. For example, the lori from Abhilasha or songs from Heeralal Pannalal, Naukar, etc. That they created some of the best melodies in the mid 70s even after a series of flops shows their dedication towards their work.
As I’ve already mentioned in my chapter, this combination is legendary and one of a kind. Pancham had been working with Majrooh from the time he was an assistant to S D Burman. They shared not only a wonderful professional rapport but a great personal bond too. They were as good as father and son. Majrooh’s children considering Pancham as their elder brother is a good enough proof of this. While listening to the stories narrated by Andalib Sultanpuri, one could feel the strength, warmth and the depth of that bond.
One rarely gets to see a bond such as Majrooh-Pancham, which is not only enriching but also endearing. Their beautiful bond gave us some beautiful words and beautiful music, which caressed our hearts and touched our souls. Like a fine wine which fills the glass of silence and gets better as it ages!
Lata Jagtiani: The Majrooh OP Nayyar connection fascinated me a lot. It was when I began working on OP Nayyar’s biography that several facets of this friendship came to light. As a wildly impetuous and dominating composer, as a genius beyond compare, OP Nayyar too was deeply committed to his art. The flip side of this demanding nature was that geniuses become intolerant and take off on those they work with, the creative genius does not permit them to accept compromises and adjustments. Yet Majrooh was able to navigate his way forward with this self-willed and charismatic composer because he had the depth and the power to understand that he was expected to rise to meet the demands of the art, not the artist. It was the work that mattered, not the egos involved, and this deep commitment to work engaged the two of them to create work that, to date, remains on our lips.
The wisdom required when working with the impetuous OP Nayyar was Majrooh’s and it helped them go forward together and create astounding melodies with perfect lyrics.
It was a lesson in life that I learnt. When working with a genius, one must not expect social niceties to play their part. The genius may take you on a rollercoaster ride of up today and down tomorrow, all you have to do is stay focussed on the work – on the song in this case – never focus on the genius, he can only create astounding work if he is ruthlessly committed to his art, not otherwise.
As a team, Majrooh-OP Nayyar was a team made in heaven, because their melodies were nothing less.
Madhur Trivedi: In the process of doing intense research, collating facts and writing I found that I was testing my skills and pushing boundaries as a writer, to come up with an essay that would be worthy of a heavyweight book such as this. Writing, editing, reviewing and rewriting till I was totally satisfied with the end result was both challenging and rewarding.
To have Manek guiding and advising a newbie like me, and skillful editors fine-tuning the book was very reassuring. And to discover hitherto unknown facts about the extraordinary poet that we were all writing about was fun! To conclude: For me, the journey was both enlightening and enriching.
Monica Kar: This whole journey has been an eye-opener, to say the least. I grew up with Majrooh’s lyrics and was even aware of Majrooh having worked with multiple generations of composers. Even so, my given assignment – the Chitragupt-Majrooh pair – had me start at a complete loss. The number of songs I could recall by this pair wouldn’t even cover both hands! Neither one of them were new to me individually, but the pairing was unfamiliar.
When in doubt, start at the beginning. Hearing all the compositions this pair created that I could find on YouTube led me to hours of aural joy. I discovered more and more ‘old friends’ that I hadn’t heard in decades, hearing as many for the first time ever and falling instantly in love with them.
But hearing songs, appreciating them and even falling in love with them is the easier part. Writing about them is a different kettle of fish altogether, as I was about to discover. The directive was to take half a dozen of their best songs and write about them. But the more I heard, the more complicated it became and the more confused I got. Choose 6 songs out of over 100? Should I choose the ones that enamoured me or the ones that were popular? Should the chosen songs just have good lyrics – wasn’t this a book dedicated to Majrooh’s poetry? – or should they also reflect the magic Chitragupt sprinkled on them – wasn’t my chapter dedicated to their pair?
Assuming that I could narrow this down to the required number of songs, how would I write about them? Were there any common elements in their work that I could base my story on? Three rough drafts later I was no clearer about the goal of this chapter. Finally, the fourth draft was based on a ‘straight from the heart’ rather personal response to and observation of the music this duo created. And that became my final draft. Where I focused to find the excellence in their partnership, not just the songs. Apart from everything I learned about the prolific work of these two gents, I learned a couple of new things about the written expression as well.
The most enriching part of this journey was to use the boundaries of my self-set parameters as a scaffold within which to allow my wandering thoughts to blossom into expression rather than allow these parameters to constrict me like a rigid fence. As I write this, I realize I imbibed more than I had thought from the work of this “jodi” – haven’t they given priority to expression in song after song, not limiting their creativity for lack of big banners, successful actors etc? A huge thanks to Majrooh and Chitragupt for lessons learned.
And an even bigger thanks to Manek for inviting me to contribute to this thoroughly readable, enjoyable, and informative book.
Sundeep Pahwa: It was the most surprising moment of my life when Manek Premchand the author of the book phoned me and asked me to write an article on the relationship between Majrooh and Nasir Hussain. Completely taken aback by this, my first response was ‘Let me think’. After a few days, I gave him two options of how to present the same and I told him that I was not confident to write in English whereas all the other co-authors were masters in writing. Let me be frank about his reply. ‘Have confidence in yourself and please do not worry about the language, I am more concerned about your inner thoughts. Go ahead with whatever you think is the best,’ he added.
This reply gave me a lot of confidence and I started to pen my thoughts about what was related to my personal viewing of Nasir sahib’s films right from my school days. I admit I watched Teesri Manzil when it was released only for Shammi Kapoor and Nasir Hussain. Majrooh sahib was nowhere in the picture then. Sadly, lyricists were a neglected lot in Hindi films then and continue to be so even today. This write-up in a book helped me to get the point of view of the writer/shayar for which I am obliged to Manek Premchand. I have known him for more than a decade and my perspective about lyricists in Hindi Cinema has grown immensely. Many thanks once again for letting me be a part of your most ambitious project as a writer.
Vijay Kumar: It was on May 24 last year when Manek Premchand WhatsApped a message, enquiring if I could contribute an essay reflecting on Majrooh’s collaboration with Roshan and his son Rajesh. The essay was to be a part of his book on Majrooh. The book eventually came out titled Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet For All Reasons.
The suggestion elated me, I felt honoured, as it came from the one who thought, way back in the year 2014, that I had it in me to write on Hindi film music with a focus on deconstruction of lyrics. I grew as a writer but never thought that one day I would be part of Manek’s magnum opus on Majrooh.
For a moment I thought Manek was being indulgent; for why would he, a film historian widely known and acclaimed, need me to contribute? But soon after, an apprehension took over: will I be able to live up to his expectations?
Delineating the Majrooh-Roshan collaboration…I did not really know its extent. I soon learnt that it was much less relative to Majrooh’s collaboration with SD Burman, OP Nayyar, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Pancham. Yet some of the films Majrooh did with Roshan and Rajesh Roshan together were exceptional creative efforts, namely Aarti, Mamta, Kunwara Baap and Doosara Aadmi.
Learning a bit in-depth about Majrooh and Roshans was a prerequisite to an essay on their collaboration. I, therefore, read whatever material I could lay my hands on. This was rewarding. I also viewed many of their films. It was rather easy to pick films and songs to focus on in my essay.
While the essay that I penned will pass as a short one yet it took about a month of study of the connected literature and viewing of films. This preparatory work indeed enriched me as to my information base. It also pulled me out of my creative inertia, even if temporarily. I must however say that I enjoyed reflecting on the film Mamta the most.
Thank you Manek Premchand for taking me along on a literary and enriching pursuit.
Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet For All Reasons
Author: Manek Premchand
Published by: Blue Pencil, December 2021
Available on Amazon | Flipkart | Blue Pencil
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