Invariably, I find that when I’m discussing old Hindi film songs with like-minded friends, we end up praising a song for its music. Often, equally, we admire the singer(s). Then comes the picturisation, the actors and actresses who appear onscreen, even the scenario itself.
Rarely do we talk first and foremost about the lyrics. I’ve been guilty of that, too; more often than not, I pay attention to the words of a song only if the music has already got me hooked.
So, to make amends, a post on one of Hindi cinema’s greatest lyricists, Shailendra, who was born on this day, August 30, in 1923. Janamdin mubarak, Shailendraji!
Shailendra was born in Rawalpindi and later moved to Mathura, where he worked as a clerk in the railways, before shifting to Bombay in 1947, where he met Raj Kapoor—and thus began (with two songs in Barsaat), Shailendra’s innings in Hindi film music. Over the next almost two decades, Shailendra wrote some of the most beautiful songs in Hindi films—and won three Filmfare Awards for Best Lyricist.
Here, therefore, are ten songs in which I think Shailendra shows off his talent as a poet particularly well. As always, these are all from films I’ve seen (since Shailendra died in 1966, I don’t need to put in my usual stipulation for the period). And, no two songs are from the same film.
You can download a copy of the transcribed lyrics for these songs (along with translations) by clicking here.
1. Mere saajan hain us paar (Bandini, 1963): This is one of those hauntingly beautiful songs that almost resonate with anguish and deep (even if unrequited) love in every syllable. Kalyani (Nutan), waiting for the ferry to take her to the home of her fiancé, unexpectedly sees the man she once loved (and who jilted her); and a nearby singer simultaneously launches into a song that echoes Kalyani’s own feelings. Broken-hearted, yet pledging to remain true, no matter if the object of one’s affections has turned away…
2. Zindagi khwaab hai (Jaagte Raho, 1956): Songs defining zindagi (life) are a dime a dozen—and this one, cynical and philosophical at the same time, is one of the finest there is. A drunk, tottering through a deserted street, extols the virtues of drink as a means of bringing oneself to ‘life’. And what a life! Whether truth or falsehood, right or wrong, actually alive or really just in a zombie-like state: who knows? Who cares?
3. Dil ki girah khol do chup na baitho (Raat Aur Din, 1967): A change in style here from Zindagi khwaab hai, but the basic tenet is pretty much the same: that life is to be lived. In the here and now. Dil ki girah khol do chup na baitho is a sophisticated flirtation: a way of saying that yes, we are strangers; but let us come together, and forget what lies behind – and even disregard what lies ahead. In essence, remain strangers at heart, united only for the moment in the enjoyment of life.
4. Poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi (Meri Soorat Teri Aankhen, 1963): The agony of a man rejected by everybody just because of his ‘ugliness’ is embodied in this poignant song. Shailendra uses the motif of a never-ending night, of lamps that fail to light up darkness; of a moon and stars that cannot be seen; even of a coming dawn that brings not a single ray of hope—to depict the gloom surrounding the singer. Very touching, and beautifully rendered by Manna Dey, to SD Burman’s music.
5. Wahaan kaun hai tera, musaafir (Guide, 1965): Guide had one great song after another—and this one, sung by SD Burman himself, is one of the best. It accompanies the credits, as Raju (Dev Anand), ex-tourist guide, ex-manager and lover of the dancer Rosie, and ex-swindler, emerges from prison and sets out into the unknown. While the entire song focusses on the loneliness of this solitary traveller, with no-one to look for his coming, it is the last verse that particularly appeals to me: Kehte hain gyaani, duniya hai faani; paani pe likhi likhaayi. Hai sabki dekhi, hai sabki jaani; haath kisi ke na aayi… what a wonderfully appropriate metaphor for life.
6. Hain sabse madhur woh geet jinhe (Patita, 1953): From several of the songs I’ve listed so far, it seems as if some of Shailendra’s best lyrics are reserved for sad songs—or songs of cynicism and world-weariness. In Hain sabse madhur woh geet jinhe, Shailendra himself proves it: by saying that our best, or most melodious, songs, are the ones that we sing in tunes of sorrow. I especially love that line about “Jab gham ka andhera ghir aaye, samjho ke savera door nahin”—it’s so comforting, and such a great message of hope.
7. Tu pyaar ka saagar hai (Seema, 1955): I am not a fan of bhajans, filmi or otherwise. One major reason for that is that most bhajans tend to confine themselves to flattering the deity in question, piling on the maskaa like nothing else.
That is why this one gets my vote. It doesn’t treat the Almighty as a somewhat detached but all-powerful being who can shower us with wealth/power/fame/etc, but as one who is a guide, a comforter, a dear friend, an ‘ocean of love’. Shailendra’s god becomes the one to whom we, confused, lost and without direction, turn for guidance. A very personal, intimate relationship.
8. Na main dhan chaahoon (Kala Bazaar, 1960): Yes, another bhajan: it just goes to show what a fine lyricist Shailendra was. Here, again, the song doesn’t dwell incessantly on how mighty and all-bestowing the Almighty is; instead, it focusses on the frailty of us humans, our weaknesses and flaws. My favourite verse is the one that turns the image of a snake and snake charmer on its head: Moh-mann mohe lobh lalchaaye, kaise-kaise yeh naag lehraayein—in this world, greed is the snake, swaying enticingly and mesmerising us.
9. Mud-mud ke na dekh (Shree 420, 1955): … and, like Dil ki girah khol do or Zindagi khwaab hai, another of those songs that centre around the fulfilment of one’s own dreams, regardless of whether in pursuit of those dreams, we trample over others or not. Here, Raj (Raj Kapoor), lured into the glittering world of fashionable Bombay, stops briefly to look back at Vidya (Nargis) as she rushes away from a party—and he is immediately pulled back by this song, sung by the shrewd, calculating Maya (Nadira). The words of the song—extolling constant change, constant movement, and looking blindly towards the future—are Maya. (or maya, if you look at that literally). And these words end up governing Raj’s life as the film progresses.
10. Ae chaand zara chhup jaa (Laat Sahib, 1967): Finally, a romantic song. Not philosophical, not devotional, nothing—just loving. It’s slightly shy (the scene preceding the song is where the hero and heroine—played by Shammi Kapoor and Nutan—first declare their love for each other), and very sweet. The moon is implored to hide its face (an idea Shailendra had earlier used in Dum bhar jo udhar moonh phere); time is begged to stop (Shailendra used that idea, too, in Ruk jaa raat thehar jaa re chanda). And what we have is a magical little song that is a lovely declaration of first love.
What are your favourites, from among Shailendra’s songs?