This past weekend saw the release of Bombay Velvet, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s gangster drama film set in Mumbai of the 1960s. The initial teaser in the weeks leading up to the film’s release featured Anushka Sharma crooning a new-age version of  Jaata kahaan hai deewane (Where do you go, oh crazy one), with the original song being written by the noted Urdu poet-lyricist, Majrooh Sultanpuri, for the 1956 film CID. The film was directed by Raj Khosla and starred Dev Anand, Shakila and Waheeda Rehman (her first Hindi film).

It is interesting to note that Jaata kahaan hai deewane was cleaved out of CID after the censors objected to it. Apparently the word “fiffi” in the song, which appears in the lines ‘Kuch mere dil mein fiffi, kuch tere dil mein fiffi, zamaana hain bura...’ went against the sensibilities of the censors. They thought it best to have the entire song removed from the film. It was a baffling decision because ‘fiffi’ is a nothing word, fitted in perhaps only to suite the lyrical meter of the song. In the context of the song, it only means a ‘flutter’ or to ‘skip a beat’ and so ‘My heart skips a beat, there is a flutter in your heart, it is a bad world out there’ made imminent sense.  But that was then. Wonder what those same censors would have thought of Dhadaaam dhadaam from Bombay Velvet now.

But let’s come back to Majrooh, whose 15th death anniversary is coming up on May 24. For a man, who had very strong poetic roots and was actively involved with the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu literature, Majrooh often took such grammatical and phonetic liberties to meet the demands of songwriting. For, example in an earlier Guru Dutt film, Aar-Paar (1954), Majrooh wrote, “Sunn sunn sunn sunn zaalima, pyaar humko tumse ho gaya” (Listen oh heartless one, I have fallen in love with you). This is incorrect because as the film writer, poet and lyricist, Javed Akhtar explained to me for my book, Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, ‘”When you are saying ‘sunn’, you can’t say ‘tum’. It should have been ‘tujh’ or it could have been ‘suno’. But he [Majrooh] felt that musically, ‘tujh’ will not sound good. He took liberties with grammar for the sake of better phonetics.”

Sunn Sunn Sunn Sunn Zaalima, Aar-Paar (1954).

In the same film, there is another instance of Majrooh breaking away from established rules of grammar. The film’s title song went, “Kabhi aar, kabhi paar, laga teer-e-nazar” (Sometimes here, sometimes there, your gaze pierces me like an arrow). The words “aar-paar” like the film’s title are always used in tandem, but Majrooh conveniently used them separately to come up with a very popular film song of its time.

These instances can be explained as creative liberties allowed to the lyricist and indeed there is great merit in this. In today’s times, we have seen a proliferation in songs structured around words, which don’t really exist, but the songs have gone on to become immensely popular. Songs like Ishaqzaade (Ishaqzaade/2012, lyricist Kausar Munir) or Manmarziyan (Lootera/2013, lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya) or “entriyaan” from Tuney maari entriyaan (Gunday/2014, lyricist Irshad Kamil) have come about as a spin-off on existing words or phrases or have come into play to suit the phonetic structure of the song. These words or phrases are responses to changing times and reflect the changed syntax and language sensibilities of today’s youth.

Returning to Majrooh, the bigger issue with him was also the kind of imagery that he used in some of his very famous numbers. In Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973) for instance, which was directed by writer-filmmaker, Nasir Husain, and someone with whom Majrooh forged a very successful collaboration over a dozen films, Majrooh wrote the lovely romantic number, “Chura liya hai tumney jo dil ko, nazar nahin churaana sanam” (You may have stolen my heart, but don’t play coy as well).

The song has stood the test of time, given that it continues to remain popular to this day, but the very first line sung by Mohammed Rafi for the character played by Vijay Arora goes, “Sajaoonga lutkar bhi tere badan ki daali ko.” The song, an extremely hummable melody composed by RD Burman, allows us to waft past this line, but a more careful examination reveals Majrooh’s comparison of a woman’s beauty (more specifically her body) with the branch of a tree (badan ki daali). In the very next line, he writes, “lahu jigar ka doonga haseen labon ki laali ko”, meaning ‘I will douse your beautiful lips with the blood from my heart’. It’s a very graphic description, one that Majrooh gets away with given the lilting nature of the song. The only reason one can guess Majrooh used these words – ‘daali’ and ‘laali’ – is to get the meter right.

There is also the matter of Majrooh’s longevity as a lyricist. It’s precisely because of his inclination to take these liberties that he was able to stay relevant, having made his debut in the late 1940s, even in the late ‘90s. But the moot point is whether he really changed or updated his language to reflect the changing times? Take Gulzar’s Beedhi jalai le or the title song of Omkara circa 2006 and the language of the songs all through are very much in keeping with the film’s characters and the rural hinterland setting. Gulzar’s expressions, idioms and imagery have always been pioneering in this regard.

In contrast, Majrooh’s popular songs from the late ’80s in films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) and Khamoshi (1996) are largely in the clichéd space of love, romance and longing. He uses the odd contemporary phrase or word, but none of his songs in these films can be said to consistently match the changed syntax of the ‘90s. Consequently, even Papa kehtey hain from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Yahaan ke hum sikander from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander return to the familiar terrain of “dil”, “pyaar” and “jaan” in the last verse. Majrooh was clever, inventive with his choice of words in these songs, but it’s difficult to call him pioneering with his idioms and imagery. Having played around with a word or two, which gave the song a modern-day twist, his innate quality to simplify kept him going through the latter period of his life.

Take also his most important song from these films and arguably one of Hindi cinema’s finest romantic songs in recent decades – ‘Pehla nasha’ from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. Early in the film, Anjali’s (Ayesha Jhulka) father rebukes her for being friendly with the likes of Sanjay Lal (Aamir Khan), Maqsood (Aditya Lakhia) and Ghanshu (Deven Bhojani). Not only is he upset about their good-for-nothing ways, but is also unhappy about the kind of language they use. He mockingly cites their crass language to makes his point –‘Ek zapaata doonga lukkad’ (I will give you one slap, you dimwit) and ‘Panga mat lena bhidu’ (Don’t mess with me, brother), he says.

How then is Majrooh able to embellish Pehla nasha with words like “khumaar” (a state of slight intoxication) and “Aye dil-e-beqaraar” (my impatient heart) for Sanjay Lal? Perhaps, that is why the song is passed off as a dream sequence in the film.

Majrooh was a master wordsmith. Of that there is no doubt. His very ability to understand the flexible structures of songwriting is what makes him such a good songwriter. The fact that he could write “Hum bekhudi mein tumko pukaarey chale gaye” (Kala Pani/1958) or “Jaltey hain jiske liye” (Sujata/1959) or “Teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai” (Chirag/1969) was never in doubt given his poetic lineage. But it was his willingness to bend the odd grammatical rule here and there, introduce a new word with no known etymology, keep it simple and play along with the phonetic requirements of the song is what made him special.

This is why he was able to churn out so many lighthearted, frothy and fun songs from Aye dil hai mushkil (CID) to C-A-T cat, cat maaney billi (Dilli Ka Thug/1958) to Daiya yeh main kahaan aa phansi (Caravan/1971) to Bachna ae haseeno (Hum Kisise Kum Nahin/1977) to Papa kehtey hain (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak/1988). The reason we hear words like “tramey”, “motor”, “paape bacha lo tussi”, “engineer” and “Tell me oh Khuda” in his songwriting is because of his nonconformist style.

It is precisely why Majrooh is missed!

Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperColiins India 2013). He is currently working on a book on the cinema of writer-director-producer, Nasir Husain. He tweets at @AkshayManwani