When Sahir Ludhianvi spotted his estranged lady love, Sudha Malhotra, at a party, emotion drove him to spontaneously vent his feelings into words: ‘Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabee ban jaaye hum dono’. The plaint was immortalized by B R Chopra in his film, Gumraah (’63).
Born Abdul Hayee, this Punjabi-Urdu poet remained a bachelor all his life. Yet he was capable of exhibiting and arousing grand passions. While studying in Lahore’s Government College, his poetry had already found many admirers. The noted poetess, Amrita Pritam, grew so besotted with Sahir’s genius that she would reverentially puff at the cigarette butts he had left behind.
For all his many infatuations, Sahir’s constant companion in life was his mother. From Lahore, they shifted to Delhi where Sahir edited many Urdu literary journals. The lure of the film industry drew Sahir to Bombay where he started out by writing out fair copies of dialogue. But his reputation as a poet had already preceded him and S D Burman used Sahir’s beguiling `Thandi hawayen’ in his Naujawan (’51). Soon the success of Baazi (’51) made Sahir a leading lyricist.
Over the next few years, Sahir worked extensively with S D Burman, crafting exquisite songs like `Jaayen toh jaayen kahan’ (Taxi Driver),’Jeevan ke safar mein’ (Munimji) and ‘Faili hui hai sapno ki baahen’ (House No 44). The critical and popular success of Pyaasa’s songs further elevated Sahir’s status.
Unfortunately, arrogance became a marked personal characteristic. Sahir’s insistence on writing the lyrics first and then having them set to music (unlike a Shailendra) was acceptable to his music directors, but his contention that he be paid Re 1 more than Lata for every song he wrote became an ego issue. S D Burman distanced himself from Sahir, so did Lata. Sahir tried promoting a new playback singer, Sudha Malhotra, whom he was also courting, but to no avail.
Disillusionment with the state of his personal life and with the country at large now became part of Sahir’s songs. Songs like ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai?’ (Pyaasa) and `Chin-o-Arab hamara, rehne ko ghar nahin hai, Hindustan hamara’ (Phir Subah Hogi) showed Sahir Ludhianvi’s immense dissatisfaction with Nehruvian politics.
Though he increasingly drowned his despair in alcohol, fortunately, he was still able to do good work through the 60s, writing for films like Hum Dono (’61), Gumraah (’63), Taj Mahal (’63), Waqt (’65) and Humraaz (’67). But the 70s saw him unwilling to match pace with the changing times and rhymes. An appreciative patron like Yash Chopra could, however, still inspire Sahir to come up with sparkling songs for Daag (’73) and Kabhi Kabhie (76).
A heart attack suffered while playing cards, snuffed out this genius in 1980. Ironically, one of Sahir’s last famous songs was the Kabhi Kabhie number, ‘Main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon’. Contrary to the emotion expressed in the song, Sahir’s best works are still aural aphrodasia, and to date, they glow with passion.