1919 was a good year for Hindi film music (though, at the time, Hindi cinema—then only six years old, since Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913—did not know it). Because this year saw the birth of several people who went on to define the music of the industry from the 1940s onwards. From singers like Shamshad Begum and Manna Dey, to music directors like Naushad and Sudhir Phadke—and three of Hindi cinema’s finest lyricists: Kaifi Azmi, Rajendra Krishan, and Majrooh Sultanpuri.
Born Asrar-ul-Hassan Khan on October 1, 1919 in Sultanpur, ‘Majrooh’ (‘wounded’) was the son of a police officer who insisted on a ‘traditional’, non-English education for his son. Majrooh studied, among other subjects, Arabic, Persian, religious affairs, and Unani medicine—and developed an interest and a talent in shayaari. The Urdu poet and lyricist Jigar Moradabadi became the young Majrooh’s ustaad or mentor, and was the one who brought his disciple to Bombay and the film industry.
Majrooh was an important leftist poet and a leading figure of the Progressive Writers’ Movement—so much so that there are several reports of his having been jailed for his views. In 1951, for instance, when Majrooh joined a protest against the incarceration of Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’ in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, he was imprisoned for a year in Bombay’s Arthur Road Jail. A little over a decade later, in 1962, when war broke out between India and China, Majrooh was one of the many communist sympathizers who was targeted and forced to go underground. Majrooh ended up getting caught and imprisoned because he came out of hiding in order to surreptitiously attend a mushaira!
But, his songs. Majrooh wrote a staggering 2000-odd songs for about 300 films. He won the Filmfare Award for Best Song once (for Chaahoonga main tujhe, from Dosti) and received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1993. In a career that stretched from Shahjehan (1946) to Kya Kehna (2000, the year he passed away), Majrooh wrote songs that ran the gamut from soulful to romantic, from devotional to philosophical—and pretty much everything in between.
Selecting just ten songs that I especially love was therefore a real challenge. But here is my list. As always, these songs are all from pre-1970s films that I’ve seen. And, also as is usual when I’m doing a song list dedicated to a lyricist, here’s where you can see transcribed versions of each song I’ve selected, along with a translation.
These songs are in no particular order.
1. Jaanewaalon zara mudke dekho zara (Dosti, 1964): Majrooh Sultanpuri won the Filmfare Award for another song from this film—Chaahoonga main tujhe shaam-savere—but for me Jaanewaalon zara is more of a favourite. A blind youth realizes that his blindness doesn’t just stop him from seeing his fellow humans, it also perhaps stops them really seeing him. Passersby regard him with pity, with trepidation, with perhaps a fear of the unknown: it is not his disability that comes between them, but their inability. His song, therefore, calls their attention to the innate oneness of all mankind: he tries to show them how they are in essence the same. Beautiful words, and so approachable: the message is a powerful one, and Majrooh’s simplicity of language and metaphor make it even more so.
2. Chhupa lo yoon dil mein pyaar mera (Mamta, 1966): The equating of love with religious fervour is nothing unusual; there are countless songs (too often, in an expression of patriarchy, sung by women) where the loved one is put up on a pedestal and ‘worshipped’ as a deity. This one is different, and while Lata and Hemant’s beautiful rendition of it counts for a lot (as, of course, does Roshan’s very subtle music), Majrooh’s lyrics never fail to give me gooseflesh.
This is an unusual love song, because the two people involved, both well past their youth and long separated by misunderstanding, find that their love is as deep as ever. And yet, because it can never be—she is technically another man’s wife—they must never speak of that love. The imagery of a sacred flame, burning and illuminating the sanctum sanctorum of a temple yet never seen abroad, is carried forward into other religious motifs: the flower, laid at the feet of the deity; the sacred ash, which is lifted and smeared on the devotee’s forehead. What I find especially endearing is that it’s not one person offering up devotion: it’s mutual, and it’s heartbreaking in its sheer depth.
3. Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan (CID, 1956): CID was the first Hindi film I remember watching, when I was about 9 years old. Later, when Doordarshan and Chitrahaar became an essential part of life, I watched this song countless times—and always with the joy that a Johnny Walker song evoked. He’s so funny.
But if you are slightly more mature than a young pre-teen, and if you’re paying even the slightest attention to the lyrics here, you’ll see just how unfunny they are. In fact, far from being the typical humorous Johnny Walker song, Ae dil hai mushkil is a cynical, philosophical look at the big, bad city of Bombay. A city which goes rolling on like a massive juggernaut, crushing the weak and helpless in its wake. A city without a heart, without a soul. Unlike Sahir Ludhianvi, who would have put this same sentiment in more searing words, Majrooh lets his inherent socialism speak in more gentle tones, but still impactful. (Edited to add: Sidharth Bhatia, author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, says that this song may have been written by Jan Nisar Akhtar).
4. Bade miyaan deewaane aise na bano (Shagird, 1967): Philosophy and love are all very well, but a good lyricist should also be one who can write for different situations. And Majrooh Sultanpuri shows his flair for the comic in this delightful song where a formerly misogynistic professor (played by IS Johar) falls head over heels in love with a beautiful but air-headed young woman who’s been made his ward. He hasn’t the slightest idea how to woo her, and help comes from an unexpected quarter: his former disciple (who, unknown to either of them, is also in love with the girl in question). And, oh, what advice is given. Do this, do that. Say this, say that. While the music and the rendition (not to mention the picturization) are excellent, Majrooh’s lyrics are superb, blending English words with Hindustani (in fact, even fairly Persianized in places), and the practical with the—in this case—absurdly poetic.
5. Yeh hai reshmi zulfon ka andhera (Mere Sanam, 1965): This was one song over which I dithered a long time. Should I put it in? Should I not? Was it a good enough showcase of Majrooh Sultanpuri’s prowess with the pen? Finally, I decided that yes, Yeh hai reshmi zulfon ka andhera deserved a place on this list, simply because it is another example of just how versatile Majrooh was. He seems to put himself into the pretty golden sandals of the seductress so well here, that you never even stop to think that the words are actually not those of a vamp intent on seducing a befuddled man. The allusions to her perfumed tresses, the night that’s passing, the one smile that she asks of him—oh, totally come-hither, even if you disregard the music, Asha’s voice, and Mumtaz.
6. Hum hain raahi pyaar ke (Nau Do Gyaarah, 1957): In some ways, this song echoes a sentiment similar to that of another song picturized on Dev Anand, in yet another Navketan film. Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya from Hum Dono has the same insouciance, the same carefree attitude of this song: of a man who goes through life, accepting whatever it throws at him, good or bad. I personally think, though, that despite the similarity in philosophy, these two songs reflect the somewhat differing perspectives of their two lyricists. Sahir’s Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya has (or am I imagining it?) a faint touch of bitterness to it, while Majrooh’s Hum hain raahi pyaar ke has—thanks to that disclaimer about being a ‘wayfarer of love’ and that last verse, which is so flirtatious—a more lighthearted feel to it. But oh, I do so like that Dhoop thhi naseeb mein toh dhoop mein liya hai dum/Chaandni mili toh hum chaandni mein so liye…!
7. Nanhi kali sone chali (Sujata, 1959): Lullabies are a dime a dozen in Hindi cinema, but not all of them are particularly memorable. For me, the very first lullaby I fell in love with was this one, and it still remains a favourite of mine. Not just because Geeta Dutt’s voice is so soothing and SD Burman’s music is so lovely (and soothing, too: he doesn’t clutter up the song with a lot of instrumentation, and lets Geeta’s voice shine): it is also because of Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics. So full of maternal affection, so brimming over with protectiveness, yet not melodramatic. This is a mother who really loves her child, that little ‘flowerbud’ who’s off to sleep, and for whose sleep the mother begs all the elements to co-operate: the breeze to gently rock her, the moonlight to sing softly, even her cradle, with its silken cord, to help her sleep. A lovely little song.
8. Aaja piya tohe pyaar doon (Bahaaron ke Sapne, 1967): One of the most wonderful songs of comfort in Hindi cinema, Aaja piya tohe pyaar doon starts off sounding as if it could be a love song. It is, too, because it shows the deep, deep love of a woman for the man she loves and whom she cannot bear to see suffering. This is not a love that talks of moonlight and flowers and of being together for many births and rebirths. Instead, it’s very down-to-earth, and the comfort it provides is the type that would make the recipient of that comfort feel stronger. Why, she asks, in the midst of all this sorrow, can she smile? Because of him, because of his love for her. It is that love that she returns to him, telling him to soldier on, because she is with him, to hold him and comfort him.
9. Tumne mujhe dekha (Teesri Manzil, 1966): A love song, and how heartfelt Majrooh makes it (of course, RD Burman’s music, Rafi’s voice, and Shammi Kapoor do justice to Tumne mujhe dekha, but one mustn’t overlook the fact that the lyrics are exceptionally good too). This comes from a man who has been on tenterhooks, aware that he has hidden a terrible—and potentially lethal—secret from the woman he loves. He confesses it all through a letter, but not realizing that foul play has happened and his beloved now hates him, thinks that she has come to his show because she knows all but forgives him. His serenade, therefore, is not just an expression of his love, but a song, too, of thanks: of gratitude. For her forgiveness, and for her having come into his life. Majrooh conjures up a beautiful contrast of ‘before’ and ‘after’: what life was like for him before she came along, and what life now is. For him, and for her. Khatm se ho gaye raaste sab yahaan.
10. Hum hain mata-e-kucha-o-bazaar ki tarah (Dastak, 1970): And to end, a somewhat special song, because this is—to my knowledge—the only one of Majrooh’s lyrics for cinema where he mentions his name in the last verse, as is traditional in Urdu poetry. The story goes that this ghazal was not originally intended for the film, but Madan Mohan (who composed the music for Dastak) had heard Majrooh recite Hum hain mata-e-kucha-o-bazaar ki tarah, and persuaded all concerned to have at least a part of it included in the film. What we get is just three short couplets or shers of what was a much longer ghazal, but it’s still a good example of very good Urdu poetry, expressing the pain and anguish of a ‘good woman’ who is constantly being leered at—just because she happens to have moved into a house formerly occupied by a prostitute. She feels like a piece of merchandise waiting in the market to be bought, and everybody looks at her with the gaze of a buyer…
Happy 100 years, Majrooh Sahib. May your words live on.