For a man who has earned accolades as a poet, writer, lyricist and director, his humility comes as a pleasant surprise. With over three decades of work behind him, Gulzar is easily accepted as one of the most versatile, celebrated writers of the Indian film industry. Clad in his trademark white kurta-pyjama, he settles into his office (books cover most walls, and photographs of his children adorn the rest) at his bungalow Boskyana in Bandra, for a chat about the biography. His stature and charm cannot be missed, yet he exudes warmth that is a rarity among living icons. No wonder, in the conversations that followed with biographer Nasreen Munni Kabir, his contributions in making it fun and light-hearted resonated within the room long after the
Is it that the idea of writing this book came to you because of a dream?
Nasreen Munni Kabir: Yes, I had a dream in 2010, where Sahir Ludhianvi and Shailendra told me to get together with Gulzar, to write about their work. So, I called him, half expecting that he would not come to the phone. Though I had interviewed him before, I had never called him. He soon came on the phone; I told him about the dream and requested if I could write a biography of his work.
Gulzar: She told me about the dream, and I said, ‘Yes, I remember having visited you in your dream last night. Now tell me…’ (he breaks into a laugh). I told her there are biographies on me… but she said she wanted to follow up on the dream. So, I said ‘Sure, you can get out of me whatever you can’ and she has.
In this biography, you’ve stuck to the Q&A format, even when Gulzar suggested that your personal voice should be part of it. Why?
N: I wanted to use this format, as it is the personal voice of the person. He directly talks to the reader without any interruptions from the author. The reader would like to hear him and that is why I use this format.
G: I have only seen people writing in the format where the author’s perspective and voice is part of the writing. I did tell her that as I felt observations that the author makes about the setting and the behaviour of the person could be included. But she was convinced about the format and stuck to it. It has worked.
You have mentioned in the book that this was one of the easiest conversations you have had…
G: It was most pleasant; I was totally at ease. Another important thing is that it helped me to find myself. While reading the book, I was able to realise and register a lot that happened over the years. That’s because our conversations were so spread out. We moved from one topic to another. I spoke about my birth in the middle and about my middle age earlier on. It became her problem how to shape it.
N: It was a free-flowing conversation.
G: An important aspect of such a conversation is trust. She knew that for the things she was asking I would not fib. I had that trust in her too. About certain personal matters, she has written exactly what I told her. How did I marry and why did I marry is not of public concern. That’s personal; it’s my poonji (personal possession), why do you want to rob me of that. She understood that and took care of it.
Do you believe that respect is lacking today?
G: A lot of people are interested in knowing things not because they are interested in knowing it, but because they can sell it. People have to know where is the boundary and that’s what can make a good writer. The moment they know about the experience of life that they can extract from you and share, it makes them writers. That’s what a writer does — he collects experiences. It’s how he writes poems, stories, novels, because he collects life from different places.
Do you see a vast difference in writing as happened before, and as it happens today, especially in movies, novels and other forms?
G: It has grown. It is not where it started from, and there is no need for it to remain there. Growth needs to happen, as it’s a part of evolution. The society 20-40 years back, was different. If there is a change in society, it should reflect in the writing.
In the biography, both of you have felt that today’s films do not reflect the middle-class, poverty or similar issues?
N: Mostly, films today reflect people who have made it in society. For example, I’m not convinced that anyone would want to see a film like Do Bigha Zameen, today. If you see Peepli Live, which is an important film, it shows the farmer in strife, but quickly into the film, it became about the media, about politicians; it didn’t stay with the farmer. Today, they don’t have the confidence to stick with the main story of struggle.
G: It is definitely missing. It’s missing because it’s not selling. There are only a chosen few like Vishal (Bhardwaj); his films are based on the common man. His film Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is about land grabbing. He has tried wrapping it with music and comedy so he can sell it, but it’s a grave subject matter that he has taken. Even Prakash Jha’s films take subjects from the core of Bihar and reflect the poverty of the state. Shyam Benegal’s films talk of the common man. Otherwise, it appears as if everyone seems to be making one kind of film.
Most of your films have dealt with a strong subject, whether it was Koshish or Maachis. Do these kinds of subjects interest you?
G: I made such films because it was something about life. It was about something you want to comment on, and to share. That’s why you make a film. You have to make it with conviction. But it was not just serious subjects I dealt with. If I like a joke, I would like to share that as well. I made films like Angoor too.
Was it easy to decide to stop directing after Hut Tu Tu?
G: It was easy as I realised I had so many other things to do. I get offers to direct even today. But I know it will take too much time away. I have been working with handicapped kids for the last 30 years. It started when I made Koshish. I love these kids, meeting and spending time with them; they are full of energy. When do you do this, if you only keep making films? Recently, I translated Tagore for children. No one knows Tagore’s writings for kids. They only know Geetanjali. There is so much to do beyond films…
Was it also a process of discovering Gulzar while you wrote this biography?
N: I learnt a few things from him. For one, I learnt about language because my Urdu is hopeless, and he is a poet. He also taught me a lot about discipline. He has done so much work in Hindi cinema, for 30 years. I have rarely seen people write for three to four hours a day or do their work in a disciplined manner. How many people can say that at least two of their books are released annually? Half A Rupee — his collection of short stories and Neglected poems have just been released.
Gulzar in Conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir, R495, Rupa Publications, available at leading bookstores.