In one of the moments in the trailer of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s character mumbles a famous line by poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang.” Rai plays an Urdu poet in the October 28 release, which perhaps explains her near indecipherable dialogue and mysterious persona.
Hindi movies often feature writers and poets who deliver nuanced dialogue and intense glances to weave angst into their narratives. Guru Dutt’s sweetly ardent and socially conscious Urdu poet Vijay in Pyaasa immortalised the archetype of an emotionally acute writer. Heartbroken Amit in Silsila, fiercely introverted Bhaskar in Anand and distraught teenager Rohan in Udaan all shimmer with emotional vulnerability.
Anupama turns this characterisation on its head by featuring a gregarious, uncomplicated poet in Ashok, but a pained and conflicted Uma as his muse. A hint of Ashok’s intensity peeks through when he sets aside a copy of his newly published book for Uma. He believes he has given a crucial part of himself to Uma through his writing.
Several Hindi films champion the idea that literary works are mirrors of their creators, exposing their personalities to observant connoisseurs. In Pyaasa, Gulabo tells Vijay with charmingly innocent conviction that she knows him because she has read his work. On the other hand, In Happy Ending, Aanchal, a cynical and commitment-phobic hit romance novelist, is amazed at her own success because she believes her books are just one shaky step above drivel.
The conflict between a writer’s personal artistic and political inclinations and commercial success has been repeatedly explored in Hindi films. Unlike Aanchal, most filmic authors are normally prone to fits of idealism, forsaking the prospect of material gain in favour of creative satisfaction. In Pyaasa, Vijay is extremely passionate but hopelessly unworldly, unable to stomach materialism. As a result, when poverty-stricken Vijay’s work finally acquires commercial value, he is shaken. Far from feeling vindicated, he finds himself disgusted with the capricious affection of his family and audiences.
In Saath Saath, Avinash is a fiercely political writer who abhors capitalism but gets sucked into the publishing business. After an internal struggle, he quits a well-paying job to work at a small newspaper that will allow him to freely express his opinion.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara features copywriter Imraan, who navigates this through this conflict with more equanimity. Imraan doesn’t reveal to his friends that he fills the pages of his private diary with poetry. He finally decides to “publish the damn things”, but doesn’t speak of quitting his job. It is ironic that although Imraan’s gravely philosophical poems are memorable, his generic Diamond Biscuit jingle, which friends recite to poke fun at him, is ridiculously unforgettable.
Imraan follows a long line of Hindi film characters who diligently pour their thoughts into a diary. Consider Shrikant’s obsessive record keeping in Astitva and Bunny’s scrapbook-like diary in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. These scribblings reap surprisingly rich dividends for some characters. In Anand and Baghban, for instance, personal diaries are published to great commercial and critical success.
In Anand, Bhaskar befriends a relentlessly cheerful cancer patient who is staring death in the face. His diary entries are brutal in their emotional honesty and it is easy to imagine them compiled into a book that could tug insistently at heartstrings and purse strings. Bagbhan, on the other hand, features a publisher who is inexplicably interested in the memoirs of Raj, who has been dramatically mistreated by his sons. In a bizarrely unconvincing turn of events, the novel is nominated for a Booker Prize.
Shabd also treats the highly coveted literary award with laughable casualness. Shaukat is a Booker Prize winning one-hit wonder, who spectacularly fails to appear erudite despite the many books laid about in his room. He is plagued with a particularly violent case of writer’s block and decides to overcome it by seeking inspiration in his wife. Shaukat asks her to engage in an idle flirtation with a charming, young co-worker. Eventually, the only accolade he seems to deserve is for inventing the most asinine cure for writer’s block in the history of authorship.
Not all filmic authors are this dire about their difficulties. In Happy Ending, Yudi gets over his extremely faux writer’s block after he gets his heart broken. Rahul’s struggle to write in Kapoor and Sons is more convincing. He is agonised and turns to his brother’s manuscript for inspiration.
But there is also a breed of authors who are absolutely untouched by the concept of creative frustration. Veer in Veer Zaara, for instance, produces an emotional poem with casual competence when he is released after 20 years of captivity. He writes with equal eloquence about the woman responsible for his release, and the one he loves.
Many filmic writers compose romantic poems inspired by the women in their lives. Consider Anwar in Mere Mehboob and Amit in Kabhie Kabhie. The course of true love is often smoothly paved with deftly packaged poetry. In Rang De Basanti, Sukhi wretchedly makes an observation about his poet friend Aslam: while he has pretty verses to smooth his way with the ladies, Sukhi is destined to perish single.
Women often function as muses, sitting prettily as men compose ode after ode to their beauty. Female authors are a rare species in Hindi cinema, and their writing often functions as an amusing little side note. Consider Rama’s feeble attempts at poetry in Sujata or Anjali’s slightly strange shaayri in Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham.
On the other hand, Muzzafar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, dwells on the eponymous character’s penchant for poetry. Nisha is a conflicted but successful writer in Akhir Kyon and Pakhi is a traumatised aspiring author in Lootera. All these women are touched with traumatic pasts and have been unlucky in love. While men write to woo their paramours, women often try to drown themselves in authorly pursuits after having loved, and lost.
However, in Wake up Sid, Aisha confesses her love for Sid in a magazine column. As Sid runs to meet Aisha after reading her work, the slightly strange column is recited as a Hindi narration in Aisha’s voice. The linguistic incongruity of that scene is instructive. Contemporary Hindi cinema has not yet found a way to make Hindi writers seem as casually cool as their English counterparts, but cannot portray English writing if it wants to be understood easily by all audiences.