Shailendra tribute

Tribute: Shailendra was the proverbial moth who got burned too quickly

The lyricist died 49 years ago, leaving behind a legacy of exquisite songs that make you cry and think.

Hearing Shailendra’s "songs is to see his heart at work; seeing his heart at work is like seeing light pass through a prism and refracted into a rainbow of mourning colours… Here was a lyricist who sometimes groped for hope while his ‘inner eye’ perceived only despair", Ashraf Aziz waxes eloquent in his essay titled The Lyrical Romance of Suicide.

He added: "A chronological study of his songs illustrates the steadily tightening grip of hopelessness on Shailendra’s life. His vocabulary of hope-denied rang with the conviviality of his deathly thoughts. His view of the world was bleak.”

Shailendra would have been 92 on August 30. He died young, at the age of 43, in December 1966. Lesser careers in Hindi cinema have been far more feted, and it is saddening to know that with each passing year, Shailendra’s legacy dims even more before it is wiped out entirely.

But Shailendra was sui generis. There is simply no other term that describes his impact on Hindi cinema. He built his entire oeuvre over a period of only 17 years, from his first film in 1949. In that sense, he was the proverbial parvana (moth), who burned out all too quickly, but not before he singed our hearts and our minds with his songwriting.

Consider that in Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955) and Anari (1959), the three films of Raj Kapoor that possibly best encapsulate Kapoor’s man-on-the-street persona from the 1950s, Shailendra’s songs Awara Hoon, Mera Joota Hai Japaani and Sab Kuch Seekha Humney best articulate the essence of the characters played by Kapoor – more than the dialogue. At the same time, Shailendra’s lyrics conveyed such intense pain and suffering that one wonders what led him to write such cathartic lines. Sample his work in such songs as Hain Sabse Madhur Woh Geet (Patita, 1953), Duniya Na Bahe Mohe (Basant Bahar, 1956) or Din Dhal Jaaye (Guide, 1965) and even the most callous individual tears up.

Even in his lighter songs, Shailendra appeared to be in search of some kind of utopian state where he could be at peace, such as in Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi (Chori Chori, 1956).



His pleas to this end went beyond this material world as demonstrated by the line "Laut aayee sada meri, takra ke sitaaron se" from Madhumati in 1958.



Ultimately, though, it was death that he sought and death alone that brought him comfort: Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal, Gham ki Duniya se Dil Bhar Gaya (Daag, 1952). In song after song, he romanticised the idea of dying: Khud hi Mar Mitne ki Yeh Zidd Hi Humaari’ (Anari, 1959), Dost, Dost Na Raha, Zindagi Humein Tera Aitbaar na Raha (Sangam, 1964), and Aaj Phir Jeeney ki Tamanna Hai, Aaj Phir Marney ka Iraada Hai (Guide, 1965).

In Ganesh Anantharaman’s National Award-winning book Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song, eminent lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar said about Shailendra:
“In my view he was the lyricist, who understood films as a medium distinct from poetry and theatre perfectly, and adapted to it beautifully. For his ability to know the medium, understand the situation, get into the characters, and writing in a language suiting the character, he was without peer… I’d go as far as to say that among all the lyricists of Hindi cinema, only Shailendra became a part of the film medium, expertly and successfully. All others remained poets who wrote for films.”



There is sometimes a tacit suggestion that of the many great lyricists who enriched Hindi cinema with their work in the 1950s and 1960s, it was Sahir Ludhianvi alone who wrote distinctly political songs. While Sahir’s legacy cannot be disputed, Shailendra’s work is far more nuanced. In his songs, much was said subtly and without bluster.

Take for instance, Parbat kaatey, sagar baantey, lehar banaaye humney in the song Ajab Tori Duniya, Oh More Rama (Do Bigha Zameen , 1953), which is as much of an ode to the working class as Sahir’s Saathi Haath Badhana from Naya Daur (1957). Similarly, if Sahir wrote, Yeh mahlon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya to decry the materialistic aspirations of society for Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), Shailendra indulged in biting satire on the same subject with the delightful, Teri Dhoom Har Kahin in Kala Bazar (1960).

Elsewhere, his lyrics Mitey jo pyaar ke liye woh zindagi, jaley bahaar ke liye woh zindagi’ (Anari , 1959) can be deduced as a call either for communal harmony or pacifism or even martyrdom.

Shailendra’s simplistic writing gave many a song an eternal quality and left them open to all kinds of interpretations beyond the context of the film, as in the case of Apni toh har aah ek toofan hai (Kala Bazar, 1960) and Poocho na kaise maine rain bitaayee (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen , 1963). Javed Akhtar correctly said, “Shailendra comes from the tradition of Kabir, Meera, Khusro. You get that kind of simplicity of these folk poets in Shailendra’s lyrics.”

In many ways, Shailendra’s life was circumscribed by boundaries. For example, Ashraf Aziz, based on his study of over 200 of Shailendra’s songs, suggests that compared to Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Sahir, Shailendra had the most limited vocabulary, “which was recycled in his songs”. Aziz  drew up a recurring list of words/metaphors such as zameen/aasmaan; zindagi/maut; nadiya/saagar; manzil/seema from Shailendra’s songwriting and wrote, “…this limited vocabulary sustained Shailendra close to the top of his profession for about two decades. By addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, permutation and modulation, he succeeded in fashioning a torrent of melodies.”

Even with his limited grammar, finite mortality and constrained role in the triumvirate of composer, playback singer and songwriter, Shailendra put together a body of work that is exquisite, naayaab, magnifique. In his songs, we cry. We grieve. But we find enlightenment at the end of it, too.

'Tu Pyar ka Sagar Hai', Seema (1955).



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

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.