Shailendra – the lyricist and songwriter extraordinaire

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

The fifties and the sixties saw the finest hour of Urdu poetry with Sahir, Majrooh, Kaifi, Shakeel Badayuni, Rajinder Krishan, taking the film music to its zenith. Most of them came from the IPTA stable and had pronounced progressive leaning, which was reflected in their poetry of increasing disillusionment with the project of the nation state, of decadence creeping in, but also holding a note of optimism, and hoping all the while of India breaking free of its feudal shackles to emerge as a nation of reckoning, from its periodic crises. shailendra-with-nehru-ji

Hindi poetry was somehow missing, and the gap was so admirably filled by the great Shailendra, followed later by Kavi Pradeep and Neeraj. He was clearly the one of the greatest Hindi lyricists, songwriters and poets that the world of Hindi cinema had seen. His poetry, true to the local roots, had profundity as well as simplicity, creativity as well as sensitivity. Unlike some of his other IPTA fellow-poets and writers, his lyrics and songs didn’t in any way sermonise or propagate any ideology. They were just simple truths articulated without any pretensions, whatsoever.

shailendra-759Shailendra drew from the long tradition of folk poets that medieval India had like Kabir, Meera, Amir Khusro, as a biographer of Sahir once said so famously. Shailendra wrote for Raj Kapoor portraying him as the loveable tramp from the lower section of the society and who struggled against the viciously greedy big, bad world of lucre and greed. He became inseparable from Raj Kapoor all through the ‘50s and ‘60s with films like Awaara, Shri 420, Anari. It is an irony that Kapoor let him down so badly by interminably delaying the making of Teesri Kasam, a Phanishwar Renu classic, which eventually destroyed him financially, taking a toll on his health, more of when someone who had contributed so much to the making of Raj Kapoor, as the voice of the underprivileged and that of a trifle guileless and naïve man, who didn’t understand the machinations and intrigues of the corrupting influences of the world.

Shailendraji’s collaboration with SD Burman in Bandini, Anuradha and Sujata, and with the inimitable Salil Da in Madhumati led to some great musical epiphany. Simplicity was his forte to convey some of the deepest thoughts, so also the sincerity of expressions, that had a profound impact on the sensitive minds. His countless songs with great human values, timeless and eternal as they are, will linger in our collective memory for a very, very long time. Here, this song from the film Bandini, a period when we were in the last days of the British oppression, a story of a woman bound by the rigid social customs of the day, and also by love.

It’s a very touching portrayal of India of 1920’s and 1930’s, of freedom movement at its height and India trying to emerge as a modern nation, not tied to its past. It’s also a timely reminder to us not to judge events from the past, from today’s perspective, with the benefit of hindsight, and view events and happenings from an earlier period, from the standpoint and perspective of moral, cultural and social values of that era alone.

Those were different times, after all, and watching a film like this brings home a timely and welcome reminder that how far we have travelled in trying to bring a sense of equity and justice to all those who were tethered to a past, painful and seemingly hopeless to so many.

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Jagte Raho– a biting social commentary on venality and dishonesty of the urban bourgeoisie

Rupen Ghosh

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based senior GoI officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Jagte Raho (Sombhu Mitra & Amit Maitra, 1956) should rank amongst the best of not only Raj Kapoor’s performances, but also among the best of Hindi films of that era or that matter, of any era. The story set in Calcutta of those days was a biting satire and commentary on the bhadralok society of the time, of their innate prejudices against the rural migrants and mostly the unwashed masses, but one could easily transpose the theme to any other megapolis or large urban conglomerate, without ever losing the context or relevance. The film poignantly captures the fear, the pain, and the helplessness of the main protagonist, who comes to the city in search of employment and has the mortification of being taken as a thief, when all he was trying was to quench his thirst, and is hounded all over. In that one terrible night for him, when he had taken shelter in a block of flats to escape the mob, he is exposed to the vices of the city bred and of their sophisticated veneer, behind which lurks evil, of worse crimes than mere stealing which the main protagonist is accused of – deceiving, brutalising, bullying, all kinds of morally condemnable and even criminal behavior, that go on without no one knowing or caring. He finds redemption when at the strike of the dawn he takes courage and faces the crowd tormenting him. The irony comes alive when he walks past them, without ever being recognized, when the whole night they had chased and tormented him in an unending nightmare, and when he had desperately moved from one flat to the other in search of safety. Jagte_Raho_1956_film_poster

It was a standout performance and Raj Kapoor’s face and his eyes reveal his pain and his helplessness. Most of the time he is silent and brooding, speechless and powerless, unable to comprehend what had hit him. As the dawn breaks, his thirst for water, and literally for life, is quenched when he hears a beautiful song – Jago Mohan Pyaare, Jago – and finds a kind lady, Nargis, who serves him water, which is considered a lifeline. Water is a metaphor for life itself, it is like a new dawn which gives hopes to life, to another beginning after a nightmare, of hope amidst despair and gloom of the preceding dark night. The film had a great narrative and a great symbolic ending.

Raj kapoor, as Mohan in the film, is still the naïve, guileless fellow, a simpleton, unable to comprehend the intricacies of life, gets taken in by the outwardly genteel, suave and sophisticated demeanour and disposition of the city bred and their milieu, only to suffer terribly, unable to prove his innocence. On their part, the inmates of the building believe it to be their moral duty to nab the thief and hand out a summary punishment. They also cannot be faulted as they as part of the crowd are brainwashed into believing that he indeed was the thief and as more and more persons are convinced of his guilt, it becomes impossible to prove one’s innocence. But their double standards and hypocrisy gets exposed, when the poor villager is witness to their myriad vices and morally repugnant and questionably behavior; there is, of course, poignancy and irony in their indicting and implicating him.


Sombhu Mitra & Amit Maitra’s Jagte Raho was a call to our conscience and it holds a mirror to the society, that no innocent should suffer and that hypocrisy and double standards must not override what is innately truthful and pure and that behind the so-called respectable façade, lies the real faces of deception, guile, fraud, treachery, cruelty, brutality and violence. The film captures the heartlessness and apathy of the urban bourgeoisie and the sufferings which millions of rural migrants face when in search of employment they land in the big cities, only to find themselves in a disadvantaged predicament of being homeless and rootless, away from the harsh and brutal rural surroundings from which they so desperately try to escape, but have the mortification of finding life equally miserable and scarred in grim urban settings.

Shashi Kapoor

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based senior GoI officer with a keen interest in arts and literature. He pays tribute to the noted actor Shashi Kapoor who turns 75 on March 18.

Rupen Ghosh

Member of the famed Kapoor family, youngest son of legendary actor Prithviraj Kapoor and brother of Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor had a remarkable journey in both mainstream Hindi cinema and parallel cinema in half a century of his acting career. His acting in English-language films in the sixties, in collaboration with Merchant-Ivory productions – the third member of the group was the writer Ruth Praver Jabhwala – included ‘Householder’ and ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ which were not only successful, but also earned Kapoor international acclaim. Later he also acted in Bombay Talkie and The Heat and Dust, in which acted opposite his wife Jennifer Kendal.

bombaytalkie_box_3481The Householder was a delightful comedy, set in Delhi, in the lanes and narrow alleys of Daryaganj, with a stupendous view of Zeenat Mahal, the mosque built by Zeenat Begum during the Mughal times. The story was about a newly married couple – played by the dashingly glamorous man, Shashi Kapoor and Leena Naidu, a beautiful French-Indian actress – and their ever interfering mother-in-law. The film had the legendary cameraman Subrata Mitra that is still remembered for its outstanding cinematography.

Shakespeare Wallah was about a group of travelling theatre players, an idea that remarkably coincided with Shashi Kapoor, who was married to the English actress Jennifer Kendal, daughter of actors Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Kendal, whose theatre company toured India performing mainly Shakespearean classics. The story of their work and travels inspired the making of the second Merchant-Ivory production, Shakespeare Wallah. Kendal died of cancer in the eighties which shattered him.

Shashi Kapoor also starred in the iconic film Siddhartha, directed by Conrad Rooks that won critical acclaim in the seventies. The English-language film Siddhartha, based on the classic novel by Herman Hesse, set up during the time of Gautama Buddha in ancient India, was about a young man, Shashi Kapoor in the lead role, leaving his family for a contemplative life to join a group of ascetics, along with his friend. The two set out in the search of enlightenment. Then, restless, Siddhartha discards asceticism for worldly pleasures. Later on overcome by guilt and also bore and sickened by lust and greed, he moves on again and near despair, Siddhartha comes to the bank of a river where he hears a unique sound, the song of thousand voices, and where he meets a ferryman, who guides him towards his destiny, and to the ultimate meaning of existence.

While he acted in mainstream Hindi films, many of them hugely successful, Shashi Kapoor’s dedication to quality cinema and theatre remained his life-long inspiration, thanks to his wife’s commitment to English theatre, he produced critically acclaimed films such as Junoon, Kalyug, 36 Chowringhee Lane and Utsav. Junoon that means Obsession, was directed by parallel cinema’s great Shyam Benegal and won numerous awards. The film, based on a Ruskin Bond story, was set around the Sepoy Mutiny or India’s first war of Independence of 1857. The film is still remembered for its superb soundtrack, composed by Vanraj Bhatia, and cinematography by Govind Nihalani.

Suave, urbane, sophisticated, Shashi Kapoor’s extremely handsome persona created an aura around him. He may have acted in usual run-of-mill mainstream cinema, potboilers that appealed to the masses, many of them eminently forgettable, but he maintained his charm, innate decency and sophistication in most of the films he acted. Unfortunately, reduced to a wheel chair and barely able to slip a few incoherent words, he is a pale shadow of his once glamorous past. Age and time are cruel, harsh and unforgiving and spare none, not even the yesteryear cine greats.

Shashi Kapoor remains dedicated to theatre and despite being on wheel chair, never misses a play at the Prithvi Theatres, named after his father Prithviraj Kapoor. We wish him many, many years of good health and great happiness.

Abbas and Nehruvian aesthetics in Indian Cinema

On the occasion of the 98th Birth Anniversary of noted film personality Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (7 June 1914 – 1 June 1987), we pay our tribute to the filmmaker, writer and journalist. Professional journalist and occasional documentary filmmaker John Dayal has been a human rights activist since the early Seventies. He can be contacted at john.dayal@gmail.com. This article was first published in  Deccan Herald on April 3, 1987. 

John Dayal

KHWAJA Ahmed Abbas’s consciousness has never been slave to physical frailty, or to anything else. There is something typical of the man in his latest struggle for life his heart weakened in 70 years of stress, a haemorrague and a clot in the brain, emerging out of a coma with oxygen and glucose tubes maintaining the body functions, a body wracked by pain and the afflictions of age, but yet his cathartic eyes and ever so fine a mind alive and in communion with his environment, recognising friends. Possibly also recognising the foes he has battled all his life: Cant and ignorance, exploitation and crudity, injustice and all that will seek to take away from man his basic dignity and the right to be alive.

Khwaja, as he is endearingly known to his countless friends ranging from teenagers asserting their first aesthetic consciousness, through middle-aged critics and intellectual contemporaries, was writing copiously when he was all but blind with cataract, was running around trying to make a film when he was lame. These were but minor embarrassments to a man who had dared to make films when he had no money, and more, had forged channels of radical thinking and a political cinema in a hostile milieu, long before radical cinema became popular, or Government agencies were created to help innovators of film.

As he struggles for life, it is time to speak of this one man’s contribution to Indian cinema, not as obituary reference but as tribute to the living man. For Khwaja Ahmed Abbas has in 41 years of film-making been pioneer. innovator, crusader and above all, a dedicated seeker for a composite Indian aesthetics in film that would be socially relevant, be linked with India’s rich cultural heritage and the starkness of its contemporary reality, but above all reflect and resonate India’s socialistic aspirations of food and shelter and confidence for all. Without naming it such, he himself has spoken of this as Nehruvian aesthetics, inevitable in his respect and affection, of Jawaharlal Nehru.

K A Abbas

Life & experience

This Nehruvian aesthetics has been apparent in the several major interventions that Abbas has made in the history of Indian cinema, and has evolved consistently even when Abbas has become party to mainstream cinema as script-writer for men such as Raj Kapoor. Each intervention has become a landmark; a seminal contribution. And almost every intervention has given Indian cinema a major actor or image. Awara created the now legendary Raj Kapoor hobo image. Dharti Ke Lal sloganeered unity despite famine, Saat Hindustani gave Amitabh Bachchan and then Mithun Chakraborthy, Do Boond Pani a new development verite. Munna a new concept in cinema with the child, even Bobby some sort of a new romanticism, and above all, Shahar Aur Sapna (The City and the Dream) which, despite the technical limitations of its time and the honest naivete of its maker, remains one of the most worthwhile pieces of realism and social comment in Indian cinema Long before the Indian new wave, and long before NFDC.

The fundamentals of this aesthetics evolved out of Abbas’s own life and political experiences. Born op June 7, 1914 Abbas himself doubts this is his real date of birth — in historic Panipat, he was from early years privy to the ferment of the freedom movement. In his autobiography, I am not an Island Khwaja recalls an encounter he had in school with a anglophile inspector of schools. The inspector was urging the students to count the boons of the British empire. “Shafa-khaney, dak-khaney (hospitals, post offices)..,” prompted the inspector. “Qaid-khane (prisons),” shouted young Abbas. The inspector was not amused.

Aligarh Muslim University, close association with radical literatti like Sajjad Zaheer and the poets Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi, a strong anti-fascist training, and wide travels through Europe and later through China during the years when the continents were in violent ferment, honed his perceptions as a man and a ‘journalist. They also helped him formulate his ‘personal philosophy which remained strongly leftist, and an approach to literature and the still new art of cinema.

If in personal politics as reflected in his writings, he remained a strong votary of the unity of the Communist movement with the Indian national mainstream of the Congress, as a film critic for popular newspapers he identified social relevance and critical realism as the mainstays of any cinema, particularly of the cinema of an emerging tradition like India’s. Craftsmanship would have to take second place to the message and the argument and not become a vehicle for indulgence. Eventually, of course, the starkness of his films or their lack of technical finesse and technological exhibitionism was as much due to his convictions as the fact that he did not have enough money to waste on gilding the substance.

A still from Awara

His first three films either as writer or director blazoned forth his concerns. His China visit had inspired him to write about an Indian who was with Mao in the Long March. Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani was directed by V. Shantaram, who also played Dr. Kotnis in the film. Shantaram’s distinctive brand of acting and the theatrical roots of his direction may make Dr. Kotnis a stilted film in retrospect, but Khwaja’s script for the first time reflected the Indian political aspirations with rare strength and integrity an Asian solidarity in the struggle for freedom and emancipation, and secularism.

A pioneer

His Dharti Ke Lal, which he directed in 1945 at the height of the communal tension the film was released in Bombay in 1946 on the day the communal riots started in the city became a deeply moving document of its times, and is still relevant. The film won him awards and international recognition. Film critic, founder of film societies and member of the Indian People’s Theatre Movement, Abbas suddenly found himself one of the pioneers of the emerging cinema. His contemporaries and co-conspirators were Chetan Anand with Neecha Nagar, writer V.P. Sathe, and others. It took him four years to pay off of debts, pan of which he paid off by writing the last page of Blitz, the wolrd’s longest one-man column.

As he was writing his next film Anhonee, Abbas wrote a film for Raj Kapoor which would change the course of the history of Indian cinema This was Awara. Its roots were in Charlie Chaplin’s strong little misfit, but its roots were also in Nehru’s slogan of equality and’ Socialism. The poor could not just dream. They could aspire. The fairy tale of poor man in love with rich princess was reinterpreted as a socialist document.’ An inspired Raj Kapoor synthesised the Abbas script with some sterling poetry and music, and a rare lyricism. The black and white camera work would match N Sica’s in realism of ambience. The poetry would touch a common chord in differing men. Awaara Hoon became a battle cry from Trivandrum to far off Moscow and Tashkent, or for that matter, the Indian districts of London.

Aware was the point from where Raj Kapoor took off. In several ways it prophesied commercial and aesthetic success for films which were not like the costume dramas and moral plays of the times. Songs of hunger and yearning and love spoke of the undergod. For Abbas it marked a fruitful co-operation with Raj Kapoor which would help finance Abbas’s own sparse ventures. Abbas once chased this critic several times around a room, half laughing, half ‘angry, for asking him why after writing Dharti Ke Lal and Awara, he went on to write the teeny-bopper romance, Bobby. “So that I can finance Do Boond Paani and Saat Hindustani and Naxalites.”

Awara also did another thing for Indian cinema. It introduced vast international audiences to an Indian image beyond the snake-charmers and elephants, the face of universal man within an Indian idiom. An interesting exercise would be comparison with the images that Satyajit Ray presented in the Apu trilogy, stark Indian images in an international idiom. “Communicative cinema can be commercial cinema It can be successful. But non-communicative cinema cannot,” Abbas said of himself.

Khwaja carried the Awara images further in Shri 420, to some extent vestiges of the hobo were visible in the father of Bobby and in several other films. He explored it with full gusto in a film that he produced and directed himself, under the banner of Naya Sansar (The New World), working out whether environment or heritage real man. For the born socialist the deducation was never in doubt.

Abbas’s first major international controversy came with his film based on the Mulk Raj Anand story, Two leaves and a bud, on the reality of the British-owned tea gardens. The film, starring Dev Anand, Nalini Jaywant, Balraj Shahni (playing an English doctor in Abbas’s revenge for British film-makers getting English actors to caricature Indian roles), was not shown in England because the British planters launched an agitation and complained to Nehru. “I met Nehru and asked him what was the British reply when India had protested against anti-Indian American films running in England.” They wrote that England is a free country and subject to normal censorship, any picture can be shown. “Then repeat the same message to them, Nehru told the Foreign Office”, recalls Abbas.

The next film, Munna, he rates as his most satisfying. At a time when Cinematheque in Paris had thrown out a few hundred Indian prints for being nothing but songs and dances and fights, Munna was without a song to embellish or camouflage the essence of its story of a child and his mother.

Though films like Saat Hindustani, a simple film propagating patriotism and an aggressive secularism, later assumed historic relevance for the maiden appearance of a tall and scrawny youngster called Amitabh Bachchan, Abbas’s’ epochal film was Sahar Aur Sapna For really the first time a major film was being made presenting several major contemporary social crises without the sugarcoating of glamour and without the balm of cinematic fireworks. Sahar Aur Sapna was on the rural-urban conflict as much as it superficially was on the housing crisis in a megalopolis like Bombay. But more than all that it was on the struggle for survival and the strength of the basic Indian psyche in the midst of the Brutalising environment of slums. Without stars, with a simple narrative, Khwaja made a statement that Dharmarajan’s Chakra could barely repeat, despite Smita’s presence, two decades later. It could well have been a documentary as it would have been true of the life that millions in Delhi had to undergo when their slums were demolished and they were relocated during the Emergency. Sahar Aur Sapna’s thematic integrity and its acceptance scored a signal success for cinema verite, and prepared the way for the FFC-sponsored new wave.

Stickest film

In about the same way, Bombay raat ki bahon mein politically explored the new get-rich-quick ethos. Abbas rates this film highly despite its utter failure with the audience. For an introspection into the seamier side of life, the ugly face of Bombay, and into the dehumanising pace demanded in that rat race Bombay raat ki bahon mein was Abbas’s slickest film of that time.

Abbas’s film-making declined after Aasman Mahal, a film memorable for the theatrical, larger-than-life, presence of Prithviraj Kapoor as a vestige of India’s feudal past resisting logical death in modern society. Saat Hindustani and Faslaa, or Naxalites, were made in a time when modern Indian political cinema had begun to establish itself. A new language had been born, owing filial loyalty to Abbas’s own vocabulary of old. But the contrast was too much. Technical finesse was now an integral part of political statement. Abbas, innovator and brave experiment or that was, was definitely out of place. Naxalites particularly earned him opprobriums from the large number of youth who had been in the movement themselves. Abbas did not understand them, they said. Abbas was very keen to understand them, for he remains a keen student of the nuances of Indian polity. Only now he writes of them on the last page of his magazine, and not in scripts.