Majrooh: The poet who captured the times

Shobhit Mahajan | Updated on March 18, 2021

Songs for all: A trained Unani physician, Majrooh Sultanpuri realised fairly early that his calling was poetry

Seventy-five years after he started his career as a lyricist, Majrooh Sultanpuri continues to be feted for his remarkable versatility and craftsmanship

* In 1993, Majrooh became the first — and to date the only — lyricist to have received the Dada Saheb Phalke award

* His first love, as he always said, was Urdu poetry

* The other thing which Majrooh excelled in was changing with the times and audience tastes


Few people would have heard what can possibly be classified as the first pseudo-rap song in Hindi films. Dekhiye, sahibo, woh koi, aur thi is from the 1966 musical suspense thriller Teesri Manzil. All the other songs of this film are heard on the radio even now. All except this one. And, yet, this is an amazingly creative composition with words and phrases sung in a staccato fashion, which could easily pass for what later became the rap style.

The song, sung brilliantly by Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle and composed by RD Burman, was written by the eminently versatile Majrooh Sultanpuri. Burman was a young and unknown composer then. Majrooh of course knew him well as SD Burman’s son and assistant. After all, Majrooh had worked with SD Burman in many of Dev Anand’s films from the 1950s and the duo had given us hit songs such as Hum hain rahi pyaar ke hum se kuch na boliye and Chal ri sajni ab kya soche.

The story goes that Majrooh recommended Burman Junior to Shammi Kapoor, who was very picky about his songs. Kapoor agreed to listen to this young upstart. The first composition that Burman played was the one which ultimately became Deewana mujh sa nahin. Kapoor immediately recognised it as based on a Nepali folk song which he had heard in Darjeeling! And the rest was history — Teesri Manzil was Burman’s first major hit.

Majrooh was not a novice in the Bombay film industry. He had started his career as a lyricist with the 1946 film Shahjehan which included the pathos-ridden Jab dil hi toot gaya. Born in 1919, his real name was Asrar ul-Hassan Khan and he adopted the pen name Majrooh (wounded) when he started writing. A trained Unani physician, he realised fairly early that his calling was poetry. He moved to Bombay and, as with most artists, was drawn towards the Progressive Writers’ movement.

After coming out of prison (he had been arrested in the anti-communist crackdown in 1949), he went on to write the lyrics for many films in the 1950s. Of course, his first love, as he always said, was Urdu poetry and not writing to a tune — the way film songs were mostly composed. Soon, he was being counted among the leading lyricists of his time — right there along with Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Shakeel Badayuni and Hasrat Jaipuri.

However, what made Majrooh different was his versatility — he could compose with equal ease the soulful masterpiece Chal ri sajni as well as the playful Dekhne mein bhola hai, both from the 1960 film Bombai ka Babu. Or Main hun jhum jhum and Koi hamdam na raha, koi sahara na raha, from the 1961 comedy Jhumroo. Interestingly, unlike his contemporaries from the Progressive Writers’ movement, he rarely, if ever, wrote any explicitly political film songs though his other writings continued to be inspired by a progressive ideal.

His mastery over the ghazal form of Urdu poetry was widely acknowledged among connoisseurs of Urdu poetry. And whenever he got a chance, he wrote some of the finest ones for films, too. Kahin bekhayal ho kar for Teen Devian, Hum hai mata-e-koocha for Dastak and Bekhudi mein tum ko pukare chale gaye for Kala Pani are among the masterpieces of ghazals in Hindi film music.

The other thing which Majrooh excelled in was changing with the times and audience tastes. The ’50s, with their more serious and socially oriented films, demanded a different vocabulary than the playful and light musicals of the ’60s. And he adapted wonderfully well. Teen Devian, Teesri Manzil and Jewel Thief among many others testify to this. Nevertheless, when the situation demanded, he could come out with gems such as Chahoonga main tujhe saanjh savere in Dosti or the ever so hopeful Kahin to milegi, kabhi to milegi from Aarti.

As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s and audience tastes changed again, Majrooh was there to give them what they wanted in Yaadon ki Baraat and Hum kisise kum nahin, for instance. The song Aap ke kamre mein koi rahta hai from Yaadon ki Baaraat brought out another Majrooh forte — the weaving in of ordinary conversational language and idiom. Thus, you have the lines padaa tha table par chasma voh kis ka janaab from the song.

On everyone’s lips: A film still from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, featuring Juhi Chawla and Aamir Khan. Papa kehte hain bada naam karega from the 1988 cult film became a youth anthem of its time   -  THE HINDU


This conversational style was evident in many of his later songs. Papa kehte hain bada naam karega from the 1988 cult film Qayamat se Qayamat tak became a youth anthem of its time. Incidentally, this song was composed by the music director duo Anand-Milind, who were sons of Chitragupt, one of the finest music directors of his time and a long-time friend and collaborator of Majrooh. Chitragupt and Majrooh gave us many memorable songs such as Dil ka diya jala ke gaya and Jaag dil-e-diwana.

Majrooh, who died at the age of 81 in 2000, wrote songs for more than 250 films in his over five decade-long stint in Bollywood. Some of his songs were forgettable, but his craftsmanship was evident in all of them. It was in recognition of his contribution to the Hindi film industry that, in 1993, he became the first — and to date the only — lyricist to have received the Dada Saheb Phalke award.

Three decades after Teesri Manzil, this master craftsman gave us another unusual song where he broke all conventions. The 1996 film Khamoshi: A musical had a song where Majrooh brazenly asks: Tell me, O Khuda, ab main kya karun. Only a person of Majrooh’s confidence and capability could get away with this kind of juxtaposition. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Shobhit Mahajan is a professor of physics at Delhi University

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Published on March 18, 2021
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