Debu [Sen, Bimal Roy’s assistant] would return home and tell me stories about Bimal Roy. Sometimes I would accompany him to the studio, to watch movies on the Moviola editing set-up. Bombay was effervescent with the name and renown of ‘the Bimal Roy’ at that time.

I had a separate personal interest in Bimal Roy’s works. Since most of his films were adaptations of Bengali literature and I was a literature nerd through and through, I had an extra measure of respect for him. One day Debu said to me, ‘Come, let me take you to him tomorrow.’ Although I was awestruck at first, on second thought I refused the offer. ‘No, I don’t want to go. I won’t be working in a film. So what’s the point in going to meet him? I am going to be a writer.’

The scolding came from the famous lyricist Shailendra. ‘What do you think? Those who work in films are all illiterate? Just because he wants to work with Bimal Roy, Jhalani (Roy’s other assistant) is learning and doing his post-graduation in Bengali. And here you are getting an offer without breaking a sweat and you’re not taking it?’

I went to meet him for an assignment to write the lyrics for one particular song that Shailendra had meant to write. Due to a fallout between the latter and S.D. Burman, that was not happening anymore; so, I was chosen instead.

And so I went. Not only was the glitz I had expected to be dazzled by on entering Roy’s luminous circle not there, but I also met such a decidedly simple and unassuming man that for a moment my heart did not know how to react. Debu said, ‘Bimalda, my friend Gulzar.’ ‘Hmm,’ came his reply. This was Bimalda’s famous ‘hmm’, the one that could be applied to any emotional moment, be it anger, love, annoyance, pain or worry. It was always by gauging the ‘hmm’ that we used to decide on our course of action or, for that matter, everything else. And wasn’t that a difficult task! But those who knew Bimalda never took very long to figure out the meanings of his ‘hmms’.

Bimal Roy (third right) and Gulzar (extreme right).

The sentence following the ‘hmm’ was in Bengali and directed at Debu. ‘Can the boy understand and write Vaishnava poetry?’ ‘Bimalda, Gulzar can understand Bengali, and he can speak as well.’ Bimalda had gone red with embarrassment. I have never been able to forget the look on his face that day. Now when I think about it, Bimalda used to get embarrassed quite often. He asked me, ‘How did you learn Bengali?’ ‘I learnt it from friends and then I read things by myself,’ I replied. ‘Can you read?’ ‘I can, I can write a bit as well.’ ‘Have you read Kabuliwalah?’ ‘Yes, I have,’ I said, ‘first in Urdu, then in English and then in Bengali.’ It was decided I was going to write the song.

One day Sachinda, Bimalda and I got together for a discussion. Bimalda was explaining – ‘So you see, the girl never leaves her house. People come to see her father, they read Vaishnava poetry at these meetings. The girl hears these songs and gets inspired.’ Suddenly, Sachinda interjected excitedly. ‘What are you saying! How will it work if the girl never leaves the house? That’s not how I have composed the music. No! You must make her go out!’

We were stunned! Sachinda was talking about the character, insisting she go out. ‘Tell her to go out.’ But Bimalda wouldn’t let her. Sachinda kept saying, ‘I’m telling you, let her go out.’ Bimalda replied, ‘What are you saying korta! To ask my character to go out?’ Sachinda seemed to finally lose his temper a little. ‘If that’s the case then you may as well ask Salil to compose the music.’ By then Bimalda was trying his best to suppress his laughter.

Paul Mahendra, one of the writers of the film, spoke up. ‘Bimalda, how is the girl supposed to sing a romantic song in front of her father?’ At once, Sachinda clapped his hands, ‘That’s it!’ He had found someone to bolster his side of the argument. So, there they were, two seniors arguing over a song sequence, almost fighting over it, while we juniors listened on. This nit-picking was something truly worth learning from. The song was Mora gora ang lei le . . . (Take away my fairness and . . .). It was written for the film Bandini and was filmed on Nutan.

Bimalda believed he was not very good when it came to directing song sequences. Consequently, he worked on every such sequence with so much attention to detail that they became exemplary. If in the middle of a song a musical arrangement was changed or a new one introduced, he would immediately say, ‘Change the shot. How can the rhythm or the instrument remain the same in the shot?’

It was in his films that soundscapes were first used. A ringing bell or a barking dog, every sound heard during a song would be captured in Bimalda’s soundscape. He was a man whose life revolved around cinema; he lived and breathed films.

Excerpted with permission from Actually ... I Met Them: A Memoir by Gulzar, Gulzar (translated from the Bengali by Maharghya Chakraborty), Penguin Random House India.