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Jiya jale: Gulzar and his lyrics

Writing subtitles for Hindi film songs can lead to hilarious situations. Famously, the song from Mangal Pandey: The Rising called ‘Mangal mangal’ was translated as ‘Tuesday, Tuesday’! But imagine the chagrin of the person who has to write English subtitles of lyrics written by Gulzar. Try translating this: Gulposh kabhi itraaye kahin, mehke to nazar aa jaye kahin. Still not convinced? Try another one: Beedi jalai le jigar se piya, jigar ma badi aag hai. 

That winter morning, a day before Republic Day, a dream came true. I got to hear my favourite poet and lyricist, Gulzar, live at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He walked in, radiant in his pristine white kurta with a shawl wrapped around his shoulders. And the moment I heard his baritone, my heart skipped a beat. He spoke about his friend, the author, Krishna Sobti, who had just passed away that morning. We stood in silence in her memory. But as they say, the show must go on. The session that morning was on his craft of writing lyrics. He was in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir, who among other things also does English subtitles for Hindi films.

Writing poetry and writing lyrics are entirely different ballgames, he said. Poetry is an expression of your own thoughts. When writing lyrics, one has to consider the situation in the film, the expression of the characters, as well as their zubaan (language). And it is a process that needs to be learnt. Words which suit a poet, will not work for a rickshaw puller. He talks of his much-loved Beedi song from Omkara and his discussions with Vishal Bhardwaj while writing it. The girl on screen uses uncouth language in almost every line she speaks, and that ruggedness had to be conveyed in this song. The situation in the scene is that of a man seeing his girlfriend with another man, and jigar maa badi aag hai conveyed the jealous rage which is burning within him. He says they toyed with all possibilities: upala jalai le, angeethi jalai le and cigarette jalai le and then settled down on something like beedi which just suited the rustic landscape of the film and also would be understood by the urban viewer.

What does Urdu bring into a Hindi film song? The sounds, says Gulzar. The beauty of saying ‘zubaan’ versus ‘jubaan’. Else there is no difference, except whether you write from right to left or vice versa.

Emphasizing the need to understand the sounds and rhythm of the words and fit them into the metre of the music, he reminds us of the quaint lyrics: Chaand chura ke laya hoon, chal baithe church ke peeche. Just the addition of the word ‘church’ brought the rhythm through the alliteration. It wouldn’t be the same if the couple decided to meet in the market, under a tree or on a volleyball court, would it? It is little things like this which embellish the song.

Gulzar spoke vehemently against meaningless rhyming of lyrics (tukbandi). He said the listener or reader must be able to find layers of meaning as you scratch beneath the surface. And writing isn’t all. It is important to look back to read your work again, clean it up and decorate it with nuances. That is the beauty of poetry. Remember Ilayaraja’s Ae zindagi gale laga le? But have you noticed the addition of a little ‘hai na’ at the end which makes me smile everytime? That is the genius of Gulzar.

How many of you have understood the lyrics of the song Jiya jale from Dil se? And I’m not talking about the Malayalam bits. Did you realize that it was the girl describing her nuptial night to her friends? Jiya jale was a suhaag raat song?!!! Really! Here, hear it again and try to focus on the lyrics:

And realize how elegantly and delicately she says: “Dekhte hai tan mera, mann mein chubhti hai nazar. Hont sil jaate unke narm honton se magar“. She goes on to talk about the crushing of henna beneath her feet (“Ang ang mein jalti hai dard ki chingaariyan. Masle phoolon ki mehek mein titliyon ki kyaarian. Raat bhar bechari mehndi pisti hai pairon tale“). It is in the tradition of classical literature like that of Kalidasa, where the aesthetics are maintained. In any case, Lata Mangeshkar would have refused to sing anything vulgar or obscene.

Coming back to Chaiyya Chaiyya.What does Chaiyya mean? The word has its origins in Brajbhasha and the poetry there. Like, “Krishna kadamb ke ped ke chaiyya mein baithe hain” The shade of a tree. But for some strange reason AR Rahman with his poor understanding of the language was reminded of the chuk-chuk of a train when he heard the words, and Farah Khan got her actors to climb on top of a train. Sometimes the visualization of a song can completely overpower the meaning of the lyrics. The song was written in Sufi traditions describing the love for not just a beloved but also for the higher being. Gulposh incidentally means ‘one laden in flowers’. And so the context is: if she were to move her flower-laden body a little (that sounds so drab instead of saying angdayi), the fragrance of those flowers would spread through the place.

And if you haven’t had enough, listen to Jai ho from Slumdog Millionaire again:

Only Gulzar can describe the night sky as a zari wala neela shamiyana, a blue canopy embellished with brocade. The first time I got on a night flight years ago, I told Subodh that London looked like a shimmery golden wedding dupatta to me from the skies. To have someone use that metaphor so beautifully in a song, resonated with me.

Seeing Gulzar in person and having the opportunity to talk to him was overwhelming for a fan like me. Not everyone can play around with everyday things and create music out of them. Only he can write: din khaali khaali bartan hai and make it sound like music to our ears!


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