Akshay Manwani on Chronicling Sahir Ludhianvi


Author of Sahir Ludhianvi - The People's Poet
Akshay Manwani the author of the biography of Sahir Ludhianvi talks to Anu Reviews.

Akshay Manwani – Chronicling Sahir Ludhianvi

Tell us about your growing up. Where did you live, what did you study and what do you do for a living?

Akshay Manwani: I was born and brought up in Delhi where I did my schooling. And lived up to 1997. Thereafter, I changed cities quite a few times. Moving to Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi to pursue my graduation, post-graduation, for the initial years of my working life in the corporate world, before settling down in Mumbai in 2009.

How did you gravitate towards writing a biography of a poet and a film personality?

This was around 2008 when I was doing some freelance work for a film website while working in my father’s business in Delhi. I had to write a lot of short profiles on yesteryear Hindi cinema personalities – actors, playback singers, music directors etc.

One fine day, I was given this whole bunch of lyricists for whom I had to write profiles. While reading up on the work done by Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Rajinder Krishan, Shailendra etc. I realized that not much had been done to document the legacy of these past masters. That’s when I decided to do a biography of one of them. And because Sahir’s personal life was so interesting, so dysfunctional, his story compelled me to write about him.

Apart from lyricists, what other aspects of the Indian film industry you think needs documentation and chronicling?

I’m afraid we haven’t done much. There is a paucity of material on the pioneers of Indian cinema. Be it lyricists or cinematographers or dialogue writers or character actors. And not only do we need information, we need information that is easily accessible in the public domain. I mean imagine if you are living in Delhi or Kolkata and you have to travel regularly to Pune to access the National Film Archives. It is a real struggle. We need to create the infrastructure that is easily accessible for people interested in documenting the history of Indian cinema.

What did you find most intriguing about Sahir Ludhianvi, of all the things that you discovered about him for this book? 

One of the things that struck me the most was Sahir’s ability to step back from the very commercial medium of songwriting. And his willingness to articulate his thoughts on matters concerning society. Even though he found immense success as a lyricist, he wrote poems such as Khoon Phir Khoon Hai on Patrice Lumumba’s assassination in 1961. Then he wrote Jashn-E-Ghalib in 1969 on the occasion of Mirza Ghalib’s death centenary where he made a scathing attack on the demise of the Urdu language. There are many such examples. How many people in the public eye today, would make such political statements? In this regard, Sahir was different.

Akshay Manwani was it easier to research the film-based works of Sahir or his earlier works?

More than researching his film work or his earlier non-film poetry, reconstructing Sahir’s early life was particularly difficult. This ties in with my earlier submission that we haven’t done enough to document the lives of our cinematic personalities. I had to make quite a few visits to Ludhiana. Translate a lot of Urdu literature available on Sahir to trace his early years. However, even the books that have been written on Sahir do not contain a lot of factual information. Such as in what exact year did he go to Lahore for the first time. Or when did he publish his first anthology of poems, Talkhiyaan? Researching this part was very difficult.

What is your personal favorite lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi?

I love his songs in Pyaasa. But I think I was delighted to discover his work in Phir Subah Hogi. It’s a lesser-known film of Sahir’s when you compare it with his work in Pyaasa or Naya Daur or Hum Dono or Waqt. But the lyrics in Phir Subah Hogi are just as scathing, just as incisive. Take ‘Cheen-o-Arab humaara’ – in that one song Sahir does so much. He parodies Iqbal’s Tarana-e-Hind and Tarana-e-Mili. Indicts the long arm of the law for working only at the behest of the rich. And yet, leaves the listener with hope. Saying India will be the pride of the world some day. His work in that film is outstanding.

Do you think someone like Sahir deserves a portrayal on celluloid as well?

We should, but with the caveat that we don’t end up commercializing the story, making it more fiction than fact.

How the experience of translating some of his iconic lyrics? Akshay Manwani did you have any apprehensions as people in India know them so well and connect with them strongly?

To my mind, there were three distinct parts in writing this book. First, the research part of it. Reconstructing his early life through articles and books on him. Meeting with people from the film world and talking to them about Sahir’s work. Second, was the writing part. How do I structure the book, how well (or poorly) is it written. The third and final part was the translation of his lyrics and his non-film poetry. Because that is a significant part of the book. And it was this third and final part that was most challenging. Since it requires the person to be absolutely familiar not just with languages but with cultures, too.

That is why, I have erred on the side of caution in most of the translations, often going for the literal instead for the metaphorical. There could be criticisms on this front (and there have been). But most people have liked the translations.

While reading your book, I discovered quite a few songs of Sahir that I had loved but I did not know they were penned by him. In fact, unless one listens to Vividh Bharti, you never know the lyricist. Did you also discover some of his songs and in your conversations with other lyricists did they voice concern on their name taking a backseat in a film song?

The songwriter has always been relegated to the shadows in the hierarchy of personnel that goes into making a film song. Earlier, it was the composer and the playback singer who enjoyed primacy. With standout talents like Rafi, Kishore, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, possibly, enjoying even greater stature than most music composers. Today, the music composer is all-powerful. Even playback singers have been relegated. The reasons for the lyricist being given this secondary or tertiary treatment are many. And I have discussed a few under the Author’s Note section of my book.

Do you think writers today need a platform like Progressive Writer’s movement? A collective that lets them voice their opinion, or do you think the Internet has already democratized the world for anyone with an opinion?

While I have immense awe for the contribution of the Urdu Progressives, I don’t think we should categorize or label people. As long as someone uses art – be it literature or paintings – to highlight the problems that afflict the world, that is good. People like Sahir, to use an expression which was used in the context of Satyajit Ray’s cinema, was a ‘moment in the conscience of our songwriting.’ Branding him a progressive is inadequate.

Are you working on another book? If yes, please share the details with us. 

Yes, I have just started work on another book. But I wouldn’t like to disclose any details at the moment. The process of writing a biography is a long, painstaking one, with many associated pitfalls, which one can succumb to. There is no point in talking about something which is in the very distant future at the moment.

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