Sahir Ludhianvi – Hindi Film’s Poet Lyricist

[This post originally appeared here.]

Sahir Ludhianvi was a poet among Hindi film lyricists. Recognizing his genius, the Hindi film industry gave him the leeway not many lyricists enjoyed. Filmmakers found ways to make his lyrics work in their films instead of imposing their ideas on him. One example of his uncompromising outlook is the only song in “Dhund” (1973) he did not write. Asked by B.R. Chopra to pen raunchy lyrics, Sahir refused and music director Ravi had to step in to pen “Jubna Se Chunariya Khisak Gayi Re”. Such was his stature in the industry that when he demanded a share of royalties from his songs, the labels had to agree. He was the first Hindi film lyricist to earn royalties from his work.

Sahir Ludhianvi’s relationship with music directors was key to his work. His work thrived on his relationships and at times it suffered when his relationships soured. Almost half his films were with just three composers – Ravi (19 films), S.D. Burman (18 films) and – surprise, surprise – N. Dutta (17 films).

To commemorate this great poet/lyricist on his death anniversary on October 25, I pick his 10 best albums for 10 different composers. As we go through the list, it is interesting to see how Sahir’s poetry changed over time – from the youthful zeal to change the world to the trials and tribulations of love and ending with reflection on the life gone by.

(Disclaimer: Consider my picks keeping in mind the fact that I lack the skill/knowledge to fully appreciate Sahir’s work and that, as a listener, my focus tends to be on music more than lyrics.)

O.P. Nayyar – Naya Daur (1957)

Sahir moved from his hometown, Ludhiana, to Lahore in the 1940s. When India was partitioned, he started to feel oppressed in Pakistan’s increasingly authoritarian government. In 1948, when his writings resulted in an arrest warrant for him, he fled Pakistan. Sahir was a member of the Communist Party backed Progressive Writers’ Association and his ideology found its way in his poetry in the 1940s and 1950s. One example of this is my pick from “Naya Daur”, the rousing anthem, “Saathi Haath Badhaana”. Lyricists write songs to suit the film’s context but when their words are backed by personal conviction, the song becomes special. After a series of popular hits, O.P. Nayyar, powered by Sahir’s words, demonstrated that he could do ‘serious’ music and was rewarded with his first Filmfare Award.

S.D. Burman – Pyaasa (1957)

After a decade of lackluster films, S.D. Burman finally produced a successful score for “Baazi” (1951). It was perhaps not incidental that it was also the first time he collaborated with Sahir Ludhianvi, who recovered brilliantly after an unremarkable debut for “Azadi Ki Raah Par” (1948). Over the next six years the two artists produced some of the most memorable songs in the history of Hindi films. Some of their most successful films during this period were “Naujawan” (1951), “Jaal” (1952), “Taxi Driver” (1954), “Devdas” (1955), “House No. 44” (1955), “Munimji” (1955) and “Funtoosh” (1956). Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa” arguably represented the best of their work together. It was a travesty then, that the two artists who helped each other scale great heights in their careers, parted ways over a clash of egos in the aftermath of the film’s success. My pick from “Pyaasa” is the cry of despair – “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To Kya Hai”. S.D. Burman – very wisely – put the focus on Sahir’s poetry by using a simple melody and, barring a few flourishes, little instrumentation. Rafi exercised admirable restraint, highlighting Sahir’s words and not overpowering them. The result was a song that remains, to date, the most devastating expression of existential crisis in the annals of Hindi films.

N. Dutta – Dhool Ka Phool (1959)

Dattaram Naik, commonly credited as N. Dutta was one of the several Goan musicians who were regulars inn Bombay’s recording studios in the 1950s and 1960s. He started his career assisting S.D. Burman before going solo. His string of collaborations with Sahir Ludhianvi was perhaps a result of Dada Burman’s influence on him. Sahir’s most memorable work with N. Dutta was probably Yash Chopra’s directorial debut, “Dhool Ka Phool”. My pick from the film is Sahir’s message of placing humanity over religion – “Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega”.

Roshan – Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

Roshan and Sahir’s collaborations are so consistently good that I found this the most challenging pick. I picked “Barsaat Ki Raat” because of the film’s significance in both their careers. It was the turning point for Roshan who finally enjoyed success that had eluded him thus far. In Roshan, Sahir found a partner worthy enough to fill the void left by his falling out with S.D. Burman. My pick from the film is “Na To Karvan Ki Talash Hai”. Although inspired by the qawwali on which this song was based, (“Na To Butkade Ki Talab Mujhe”) Sahir’s poetry elevated the stature of the filmi qawwali and helped Roshan open the floodgate for qawaalis in films. In a free-flowing song of about 12 minutes, Sahir put together a uniquely Indian qawwali with equal doses of philosophy and romance. It is another song in which Sahir, with out of context but seamless references to religions and Gods, exhorts India’s pluralism.

Jaidev – Hum Dono (1961)

Sahir may have been a good luck charm for talented composers who were struggling for a break. After S.D. Burman and Roshan, it was Jaidev’s turn to finally score a hit in collaboration with Sahir. For Sahir, who hadn’t worked in a Navketan film after he fell out with their resident music director S.D. Burman, it was a homecoming of sorts. It is interesting how a quirk of fate – S.D. Burman’s temporary indisposition – led to one of the best film scores in Hindi films. Lyrically, “Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya” and “Kabhi Khud Pe Kabhi Haalat Pe” represent the best from “Hum Dono”. My pick is “Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhaata Chala Gaya” for the simple beauty with which Sahir presents a life motto all of us can relate with.

Madan Mohan – Gazal (1964)

The music of “Gazal” had a number of things going for it. The film lived up to its name with a score was replete with ghazals –  a genre Madan Mohan was particularly skilled in and a lyrical form in which Sahir was second to none. In one of the songs, “Meri Mehboob Kahin Aur Mila Kar Mujhse”, Sahir repurposed lines he had written many years ago for the poem ‘Taj Mahal’, which had won him equal measures of praise and criticism. The other high point of the film’s score was the trilogy of “Kise Pesh Karoon” songs, with varying presentation and lyrics. My pick from this trilogy is the popular, “Rang Aur Noor Ki Baarat Kise Pesh Karoon”, which rises above the rest because of Rafi’s fantastic rendition.

Ravi – Waqt (1965)

“Waqt” was a path-breaking movie for Yash Chopra. It was his first big hit and the film in which he crystallized his recipe for the multi-starrer, romantic, musical drama – something he reused successfully throughout his career. The film’s success ensured that Sahir became a steady partner of composer Ravi as well as of B.R. Films and later, Yash Raj Films. I’ve already picked Asha Bhosle’s  “Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu” in an earlier post, so for this post, my pick is the best song on mature love Hindi films have ever produced – “Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen”. For Manna Dey, who used to lose out on songs because of his ‘mature’ voice, “Ae Meri..” was perfect and one of his most memorable songs. The song, along with many others in the 1960s, showcased Sahir’s lighter, romantic side.

Laxmikant – Pyarelal – Daag (1973)

The 1970s saw Sahir in insipid form. As Sahir himself believed, it was perhaps the declining quality of Hindi film music in the 1970s that did not bring the best out of him. “Daag” was a huge musical success but far from Sahir’s best work. After a few films with Laxmikant – Pyarelal in the 1970s, Sahir preferred not working with them and in fact, actively lobbied for Khayyam when Yash Chopra was trying to work through L-Ps busy schedule for “Kabhi Kabhie” (1976). My pick from “Daag” is evergreen Kishore solo “Mere Dil Mein Aaj Kya Hai”.

R.D. Burman – Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973)

R.D. Burman did only four films with Sahir but their limited collaboration produced some excellent music. “Aa Gale Lag Jaa” was their first film together and for me, their best. For me, the film’s best song is “Wada Karo”, with some superb singing by Kishore and Lata and beautiful arrangement by Pancham – the electric guitar and the sax being the highlights. One thing I love about the song is Kishore and Lata’s awe-inspiring sense of rhythm in the mukhda – specially Lata’s exquisite spacing of “Chhuo Nahin Dekho Zara Peeche Rakho Haath”. In the music vs. lyrics debate – a recurring theme in Sahir’s career – this song, I daresay, was one instance of music winning over lyrics.

Khayyam – Kabhi Kabhie (1976)

Sahir valued erudition in his composers – specifically, their knowledge of Urdu. Many years ago, he had recommended the down-on-luck Khayyam to director Ramesh Saigal for “Phir Subha Hogi” (1958), citing, among other reasons, the fact that Khayyam had read “Crime and Punishment”, the book on which the film was based. Khayyam had taken a sabbatical from Hindi films from 1967 to 1973 and was struggling to make an impact on his return to the industry. It was in this context, that Sahir made the case for Khayyam over Laxmikant – Pyarelal for “Kabhi Kabhie”. Backed by a powerful star cast, Sahir’s poetry and his own track record, Yash Chopra finally decided that he could make the film work with a composer who didn’t have LP’s commercial bankability. “Kabhi Kabhie” went on to become a critical and commercial success winning three Filmfare Awards for its score – Khayyam for music, Sahir for lyrics and Mukesh for the title song. Powered by the impetus of “Kabhi Kabhie”, Khayyam’s second run in Hindi films was far more successful than his first. Sahir, rejuvenated by a partner he believed in, wrote some of his best lyrics in a long time. His contribution to the film went beyond his lyrics though. The film’s title was based on a poem Sahir had written a long time ago and was part of his first published work “Talkhiyan”. Sahir had originally adapted the poem for a song in a Chetan Anand film that was later abandoned. He resurrected that song for “Kabhi Kabhie” after seeking Chetan Anand’s permission. Another Sahir contribution appears to be the theory – refuted by Yash Chopra – that Amitabh Bachchan’s poet in the film was modeled on Sahir’s life and work. My pick from the film is “Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shaayar Hoon”, simply because I can’t help but wonder if the song’s lyrics were Sahir’s self-deprecatory reflection on his own legacy and place in history.


Sahir Ludhianvi reciting the original Kabhi Kabhie from Talkhiyan:

Recommended for further exploration:

  1. Akshay Manwani’s book – “Sahir Ludhianvi – The People’s Poet”
  2. Sahir Ludhianvi’s film discography
  3. A bigger list of Sahir Ludhianvi’s best songs