Several weeks back, a two-day festival called Dilli ka Apna Utsav was organised in Delhi. As part of the festivities was a heritage walk led by my sister, Swapna Liddle. This walk took us to buildings and landmarks associated with the poetry spawned in Delhi: famous venues for mushairas (like the Ghaziuddin Madarsa and the Haveli Razi-un-Nissa Begum), or places which were once residences, even if only briefly, of famous poets (Ahaat Kaale Sahib, Zeenat Mahal, Ghalib’s Haveli).
What connection does all of this have to Hindi cinema? Just that it got me thinking of the links between Hindi film songs and classic poets. I can’t think of too many classic poets (except Mirza Ghalib and Meera Bai) who have been made the central characters of Hindi films, but the works of famous poets crop up every now and then in Hindi film songs. Sometimes in their entirety, and very well-known, too (as in most of the songs of the Bharat Bhushan-starrer Mirza Ghalib).
More often, though, the works of classic poets appear only in part—one verse here, another fragment of poetry there—scattered across lyrics written specifically for film songs. Often, I’ve discovered—many years after I first heard them—that a couple of lines from a well-loved and popular song are actually not the creation of the lyricist to whom they’re attributed, but have been borrowed from a classic poet.
This post, therefore, lists ten songs that are, in whole or part, written by classic poets. And, although lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Jaan Nisar Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi (and many others) have also been very well-respected poets, of verses other than those that appear in songs, I will restrict this post to only those poets who weren’t also lyricists. As always, these songs are all from pre-70s films that I’ve seen.
In no particular order:
1. Aah ko chaahiye ek umr asar hone tak (Mirza Ghalib, 1954; Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan ‘Ghalib’): Even though this post isn’t in any specific order, I had to begin with this song. Firstly, because it’s from one of the few films that’s actually based on the life of a poet. Secondly, because Mirza Ghalib—a Dilliwallah, like me—was, as he described himself—without equal (“kehte hain ke Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaan aur”). Thirdly, because Mirza Ghalib featured so many superb ghazals of Ghalib’s.
Choosing from all the wonderful Ghalib ghazals in this film was very difficult; I veered between Nuktacheen hai, gham-e-dil; Yeh na thhi hamaari qismat; and Aah ko chaahiye ik umr asar hone tak. I finally chose this one, because I love the rendition, the music, and the picturisation. Nehru is reputed to have told Suraiya, when he heard this song, that she had brought Ghalib to life. I think so, too.
2. Lagta nahin hai dil mera ujde dayaar mein (Laal Qila, 1960; Mirza Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Mohammad Bahadurshah ‘Zafar’): If one speaks of Ghalib, one should also remember his contemporary and patron, the last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadurshah ‘Zafar’. Bahadurshah ‘Zafar’, like his forebears, had been reduced to being a mere pensioner of the British, and this feeling of angst and helplessness dominates some of his best-known poems.
Laal Quila, while a fairly boring film (with only a passing nod to historicity), did have some good songs, especially ones borrowing from Zafar’s poetry. This one (written by Zafar as his own epitaph) is among the best of the lot, bemoaning the misery of an emperor looking at the ruins of an empire—and foretelling the even greater ruin that is to come. Ironically, the famous sher—Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar; dafn ke liye do ghaz zameen bhi na mili ku-e-yaar mein—is almost a prophecy; the exiled Zafar died and was buried in Rangoon rather than in his hometown of Delhi.
3. O mere shah-e-khubaan (Love in Tokyo, 1966; Momin Khan ‘Momin’): In a slight shift, a song that isn’t all from the pen of a classic poet, but which does borrow a couple of famous lines from one. If you watch the mushaira shown in Mirza Ghalib (1960), you’ll see Ghalib’s fellow poet, Momin Khan ‘Momin’ reciting one of his shers: Tum mere paas hote ho goya, koi doosra nahin hota. Legend has it that Ghalib was so entranced by this verse that he offered to exchange his entire corpus—the Diwan-e-Ghalib—in return for it.
Hasrat Jaipuri, who wrote the lyrics for this two-version (male and female) song for Love in Tokyo, balances the rest of the song beautifully with Momin’s immortal words, making this one of my favourite love songs: very, very romantic.
And, another little bit of trivia: another sher from this same ghazal—Haal-e-dil yaar ko likhoon kyunkar, haath dil se judaa nahin hota—was also used in a film song: it’s part of the qawwali Phir tumhaari yaad aayi ae sanam, from Rustom Sohrab.
4. Zindagi khwaab hai (Jaagte Raho, 1956; Kabir): Like O mere shah-e-khubaan, another instance of a song that borrows from a classic poet, then goes the way of a lyricist. Zindagi khwaab hai begins with one of Kabir’s wittiest couplets: “Rangi ko naarangi kahein, bane doodh ko khoya; chalti ko gaadi kahein, dekh Kabira roya”. Shailendra then takes up the thread, weaving a song that further expounds on the illogicality of mankind, and ends up being one of Hindi cinema’s most cynical-yet-fancy-free songs.
And, yes. Even in the picturisation, there’s a very definite nod to Kabir.
5. Raat yoon dil mein teri (Jaanwar, 1965; Faiz Ahmed Faiz): From Kabir, back to a later generation, and, like Ghalib, Zafar and Momin, an Urdu poet. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, known primarily for his revolutionary poetry (he was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement), has the occasional line of verse appearing now and then in Hindi cinema. In the song from Chiraag (1969), for example, the line Teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai was originally by Faiz.
Four years before Chiraag, however, in the Shammi Kapoor-Rajshree starrer Jaanwar, there was an entire song—almost no music, but beautifully sung by Rafi and Asha Bhonsle—which was a poem by Faiz. I love the breathtaking beauty of Raat yoon dil mein teri: it’s so gentle, so romantic, so full of love. An absolute classic.
6. Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai (Shaheed, 1965; Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’): Like Faiz, Bismil too was a revolutionary poet, though most people today know of him more for the role he played in India’s freedom movement than for his poetry.
With one exception—Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai, a motivational poem that is invariably associated with revolutionary freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad. No wonder, then, that Sarfaroshi ki tamanna has been used in patriotic songs in various films, all the way from The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) to Rang de Basanti (2006). And, in my favourite form, in Shaheed (1965). The quietly powerful tone of this rendition, sung by Rafi, Manna Dey, Rajendra Mehta and Prem Dhawan, makes for a stirring song.
7. Vande mataram (Anand Math, 1952; Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay): I can almost hear grumbles from people who aren’t Urdu- or Hindi-speaking: where is the poetry from other parts of the country? Not that it’s strange, after all, since Hindi cinema would use Hindi and Urdu as its primary language.
And, at times, Sanskrit. This song—of which the first two verses were adopted as India’s national song—was written by Bengali author and poet Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as part of his revolutionary novel, Anand Math. Set in 1771, during the Bengal famine, Anand Math was a huge success as a novel, and the song (written in Bengali and Sanskrit) was first sung (in a political context) by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896.
This version, set to music by Hemant, is a superb, stirring rendition—and goes beyond the well-known two verses that comprise the Indian national song.
8. Mohe bhool gaye saanwariya (Baiju Bawra, 1952; Meera Bai): Sadly, the only female poet in this list. But, to compensate, a poetess on whose life at least two films were based: one, a 1945 Tamil version starring MS Subbulakshmi, and a 1979 version starring Hema Malini. While the 1979 version does use several of Meera’s bhajans as songs, it’s outside the ambit of this blog as far as period is concerned—but Meera’s bhajans, or bits of them, do appear here and there.
In Mohe bhool gaye saanwariya (Baiju Bawra) for instance, where the song begins with “Jo main aisa jaanti preet kiye dukh hoye, nagar dhindora peetti preet na kariyo koye”—a couplet from Meera. This wasn’t the first time this particular piece of poetry had been used in Hindi cinema; the Shamshad Begum song Nirmohi bansiwaale (Veena, 1948) also included this in its lyrics. I have a fondness for Mohe bhool gaye saanwariya, though: Lata sings it beautifully, and the beginning—where Meera’s words are sung—gives me gooseflesh.
9. Saare jahaan se achcha (Bhai-Bahen, 1959; Mohammad Iqbal): Back to the Urdu poets, and this time with a poet—and a song—that is very well-known to most Indians. Mohammad Iqbal (also known as Allama Iqbal) is Pakistan’s national poet, but he was the one who wrote the almost ubiquitous-in-India Saare jahaan se achha Hindostan hamaara, a song sung everywhere from school assemblies to the Republic Day Parade.
Saare jahaan se achha (its formal name is Tarana-e-Hind) has more than one connection to Hindi film songs. It was parodied by Sahir Ludhianvi in his hard-hitting and cynical Cheen-o-Arab hamaara (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958), and it’s appeared every now and then in scenes and instrumental versions in films up to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) This version, however, from Bhai-Bahen, is my favourite: the lyricist (Jan Nisar Akhtar, himself a stalwart) uses the beginning of Tarana-e-Hind, gently tweaks some of the following lines, and adds some of his own—but retains the patriotic flavour of the original poem.
10. O yaar zulfon waale (Ek Musaafir Ek Haseena, 1962; Amir Khusro Dehlavi): I began with a Delhi poet, Mirza Ghalib; and I’ll end this list with another Delhi poet. Amir Khusro, who predated Ghalib by over 500 years (and whose tomb, coincidentally, is within a stone’s throw of Ghalib’s). Khusro was a prolific poet in Arabic, Persian and Hindavi; is considered the father of the qawwali; and is also believed to have been the inventor of the tabla and the sitar.
Khusro’s poetry is very much a part of Hindi film music (Zehaal-e-miskeen, from Ghulaami, 1985, draws from one of Khusro’s poems; and Kaahe ko byaahi bides—used in a song from Suhaag Raat, 1948 and sung also in Umrao Jaan, 1981—are examples). A lot of sufi music still draws from Khusro.
And there is this, a verse in a peppy song that doesn’t sound like what one associates with Khusro. When I first heard Zabaan-e-yaar-e-man Turki, I was a child and thought it was nonsense verse. It was only much later that I learnt that these two lines were actually written by Khusro, addressed to his dear friend, Nizamuddin Auliya: Zabaan-e-yaar-e-mann Turki o mann Turki na mee daaanam (“The language of my friend is Turkish, and I understand no Turkish”). It has a somewhat tenuous connection to the rest of the song (lyricist Shevan Rizvi does bring in the concept of love knowing no boundaries, but that’s about it). Still, a rather enjoyable song.