Memoirs Biographies

Stirring stories from a student of life

Richa Mishra | Updated on November 12, 2021

Earthy and honest, Gulzar’s anecdotes-filled memoir bring alive people he interacted with

A lyricist, a poet and a film-maker, Gulzar is all and much more. His stories are earthy, depicting common characters, using simple language and tackling current topics. He is no different in his book ‘Actually…I Met Them’ - A Memoir.

“Do memories ever fade away? They never ‘dry up’,” writes Gulzar. True to his style, the book is down-to-earth and filled with anecdotes. Unbiased and honest, Gulzar tells us stories that draw out the personalities that Bimal Roy or Satyajit Ray or R D Burman or Kishore Kumar or Pandit Ravi Shankar, to name a few, were and how much each one of them influenced his life.

The book is in the first person and translation of the compilation of the narratives which was published as PanteBhate in Bengali.

Through this book we also learn how multi-lingual he is. “Truth be told, I am as much a Bengali as I am a Punjabi, born as I was in a Punjabi household. Tagore caught hold of me, or it was I who caught hold of him, when I was in class eight. Ever since then, I cannot say for sure if it was the Bengali language that possessed me or I was the one who was possessed by it,” he narrates in the opening chapter of the book.

In nostalgic flow, he goes on to say, “By the time I passed my tenth standard, I was acquainted with the works of Tagore, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay through their Urdu translations. Listening to my Bengali friends in school talking in Bengali further tempted me to start learning the language. And so I did. Simultaneously, my foray into literature continued as well. It was around this time that I began to wish to be a writer…”

So how did Mumbai happen? How did films happen? Was there a fan moment for Gulzar too as he creates these moments for us? Yes, the book takes us through all.

Mumbai calling

“When I was in St Stephen’s College, I was sent off to Mumbai (then Bombay) where my elder brother used to live. It was perhaps to ensure I learnt how to make a living and not waste my life away in trivialities,” he shares. Terming it as a “blessing” he states that soon after shifting to the city he joined organisations like the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association.

As he narrates his experiences with giants like Salil Chowdhury, Uttam Kumar, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Mahasweta Devi, SuchitraSen and Sharmila Tagore, he is also honest enough to highlight their minuses. Throughout the narratives what comes out most is the fact that Gulzar’s approach to life and work – remaining a student forever.

The pain of losing ‘Bimal da’ (Bimal Roy), his mentor, has been described simply but beautifully. “January 8 1966, Bimalda passed away. When I heard the news, my first thought was that the swinging blade had finally dropped. I regained my senses with the feeling of a knot of pain. I rushed to Bimalda’s house and from there to the crematorium. There, the nascent but very active bubble long hidden within my heart finally burst. With a bang, I cried and cried and then cried some more. With his passing, all the pain that I had stowed away for my father seemed to find closure. It was the day of the ritual bath of Purna Kumbh…”

He equates his experience of being with Mahasweta Devi to striking gold. This was also Gulzar’s another fan moment. According to him she was truly a heroine unlike any other.

As he narrates, “In 1968, a Dilip Kumar-Vyjayanthimala starrer film became very popular. Sunghursh. For me the experience was akin to discovering a pot of gold. I had written the dialogues for the film…I was a long-time fan of the writer, since a number of her stories had already been translated into Hindi. The original story was ‘Layli Asmaner Ayma’, which was adapted into Sunghursh. That was the first time I became closely acquainted with Mahasweta Devi. So close, in fact, that I wrote a poem inspired by one of her short stories, even though we did not meet in person much later.”

For a genius like Rahul Dev Burman he shares a fascinating personality trait. “Anger, sorrow, dejection, hurt feelings, a sharp break in creativity – where would one expect to find Pancham during such times? The Kitchen. Cooking up a new dish,” shares Gulzar.

And guess where one of his most iconic songs – Musafir hoon yaaron (I am a wanderer)… was born. Well, practically on the road. It was not for nothing that Rahul DevBurman was called crazy. As Gulzar recounts, “Pancham was set to turn composer with my film. We discussed a particular song…I gave him a few lines as the mukhra to start off with. In the night, around midnight, Pancham turned up at my apartment, car horns blaring…”

“…Come down, I have a tune in my head. Ever obedient, I promptly set out to accompany him in our night-time jaunt. He played a couple of recorded lines of music in the car’s cassette player and then turned to me. ‘Put words to this tune or I’ll lose track of it.’ Now? I replied. In this car? How does that work? ‘You must,’ he insisted…I had to relent…The jugalbandi continued from midnight till four in the morning and we ended up finishing the song. That was the first Gulzar film with music by Pancham – Parichay. The first song, MusafirHoonYaaron.”

The way Gulzar sums up Kishore Kumar - ‘A mad genuis’ - is perfect. “It would be wrong to claim that Kishoreda did not comprehend reality. Rather, our reality was not the same as his. He wanted to cast aside the former and inhabit his own reality instead. That is what we, in our ignorance, will term as madness or cunning. And in response Kishoreda will sing, Zindagi ek safar hai suhana…(life is a wondrous journey).

Though Sanjeev Kumar is part of this book, a little more on him, and most importantly about the man – Gulzar – himself, his wife Rakhee and Gulzar the father would have added more spice – or shall we say, some more Mausam, Aandhi and Namkeem. Even today, Gulzar remains a student of life.

About the Book
  • Actually… I met them: A Memoir
  • Gulzar
  • Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton
  • 176 pages; Rs 369

Check out the book on Amazon

(Richa Mishra is a senior journalist with the Hindu Business Line, handling Kolkata and Hyderabad bureaus. An energy hound, when she is not tracking news, you will find her immersed in music and sports)

Published on November 12, 2021

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