In his book of essays, The Sacred Wood, poet TS Eliot discussed the literary works of many writers and poets. In his opinion, plagiarism was permissible. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different,” Eliot wrote.

This could well be true of Gulzar, whose inspirations include 19th-century poets such as Mirza Ghalib and Mushafi. He has borrowed from their verses to pen his own poems and songs. The lyricist isn’t shy to admit it. In the book In The Company of a Poet, based on a series of conversations with author Nasreen Munni Kabir, Gulzar recounts how he wrote one of his most memorable songs in the film Mausam (1975).

‘Dil Dhoondta Hai’.

Dil Dhoondta Hai, a romantic duet sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Bhupinder Singh and composed by Madan Mohan, has its origins in a Ghalib couplet: Jee dhoondta hai phir wohee fursat ke raat din, Baithe rahain tasavvur-e-jaanaan kiye huay (The heart seeks days of leisure gone by, I sit around imagining the face of my lover).

In the song that Gulzar wrote, he simply changed the first word from Jee (heart) to Dil (heart), retaining the rest of the couplet as the first stanza. He expanded the thought into a poetic account of the lover’s feelings. “I wanted to expand on the premise of the couplet, to imagine the state of mind that seeks days gone by,” Gulzar said.

The accompanying stanzas described the lover’s yearning through the summer and winter seasons. A melancholic solo version was also recorded in Singh’s voice. The song’s popularity earned it two Filmfare nominations for music and lyrics, but the team lost out to lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and composer Khayyam for Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein, from the film Kabhi Kabhie.

Dil Dhoondta Hai was also a constant source of improvisation for its composer Madan Mohan, who set more than one tune to the song in his own voice. In this audio clip, Gulzar and singer Asha Bhonsle decode the song. One of its many tunes later provided the melody for the song Tere Liye in Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2004). What Ghalib wrote over a hundred years ago formed a long daisy chain of inspirations.

Composer Madan Mohan singing ‘Dil Dhoondta Hai’.

This wasn’t the only time Gulzar was inspired by Ghalib. He went a step further in the song Satrangi Re, (Dil Se, 1998), in which he wove Ghalib’s couplet into his lyrics, crediting the source by its name. Gulzar used Ghalib’s immortal lines on love where the great poet’s takhallus (pen name) is mentioned in the couplet: Ishq par zor nahi, hai yeh woh aatish Ghalib, ki lagaye na lagey, aur bujhaye na bane (There is no force over love, it is that triumphant fire Ghalib, it cannot be sparked off easily nor burns once extinguished).