In an interview with Rajya Sabha TV in 2014 about Phanishwarnath Renu, his daughter Navneeta revealed a lesser-known fact about the renowned writer. Renu had named his youngest daughter Waheeda Rehman, after the actor who played the lead in Teesri Kasam. The Hindi film from 1966 was adapted from Renu’s short story Mare Gaye Gulfam and had dialogue by the writer.
Renu had also named his granddaughters Zareena and Shabana. Navneeta speculated that had Renu not died in 1977, he would probably have sought an alliance of a Muslim boy for Waheeda to demonstrate his contempt for the divisions created by organised religion and the caste system.
Renu’s blistering prose and poetry reflected his interest in the human condition. He was born in a village near Forbesganj in Bihar. He got his pen name from the nickname given by his grandmother – “Hriniya”, or one who is born from debt, because his father needed to take a loan at the time Renu’s birth.
Before his literary career took off, Renu participated in the movement for freedom from British rule. He was incarcerated several times and subjected to torture, which took a toll on his health. During one of his prison terms, he contracted tuberculosis, which bothered him until the end. After independence, Renu joined the Socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan. He returned his Padma Shri award to protest against the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.
The hardscrabble circumstances and all-pervasive casteism that surrounded Renu during his formative years found their way into his writing. His 1954 novel Maila Anchal introduced anchalik katha, or regional storytelling modes, into mainstream Hindi literature. The highlight of the book release was Renu being feted on the back of an elephant. In 1990, Maila Anchal was adapted as an acclaimed television series for Doordarshan.
Before Maila Anchal, Renu built up a reputation as a revolutionary writer who founded the magazine Khangar Sevak (Servant of the Khangar caste). He wrote his first story Pareeksha (The Exam) while in school. During his college years in Varanasi, he wrote a long poem Awam (The People), which became an anthem for his fellow students. But his disenchantment with student politics led to the story Party Ka Bhoot (Ghost of Political Parties) in 1945.
In the late 1940s, Renu wrote two outstanding critical reports on government policies, Jai Ganga (Hail River Ganga) and Dayan Kosi (Kosi, the witch). He also wrote a number of acclaimed novels, including Parti Parikatha (Story of the Barren Soil) and Juloos (Procession), and short stories such as Panchlight (Petromax Lamp). His books were translated into Russian and his works have been taught at colleges and universities across the world. There is a famous anecdote about how the Hindi writer Ramdhari Singh Dinkar was once accosted by a pedestrian in Moscow who asked him if he knew Renu.
In 1960, the poet and lyricist Shailendra approached Renu with a proposal to adapt Renu’s short story Mare Gaye Gulfam (Doomed in Love). Shailendra shared more than a deep love for Hindi literature and poetry with Renu – he too had participated in and been jailed during the freedom movement. Shailendra had also extensively depicted the harsh life of peasants and the Bihari working class in his poems and songs. With Renu on board, Shailendra decided to produce the film that was eventually titled Teesri Kasam.
Mare Gaye Gulfam is the story of Hiraman, who transports goods in his bullock cart. Through the innocent and pure-hearted cart puller, we see the contrast between the rough life of the ordinary working-class man and the attractive and yet shallow and exploitative world of folk theatre.
The story’s setting is reminiscent of Premchand’s Namak Ka Daroga (Trader of Salt). Mare Gaye Gulfam throws up uncomfortable questions about morality and social norms as well as laments the fickleness of the heart. Hiraman’s relationship with the dancer Hirabai and his songs and internal monologues with his god compel us to re-evaluate our own journeys.
Teesri Kasam went into production in 1961. Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman played the lead roles. Basu Bhattacharya was the director, while Renu wrote the story and dialogue. The team included Nabendu Ghosh, the screenwriter of Bimal Roy’s films, cinematographer Subrata Mitra, choreographer Lacchu Maharaj and composers Shankar-Jaikishan.
Despite top-notch talent, the movie’s realistic tone and bleak ending did not go down well with Raj Kapoor’s financiers, who backed out from the project. The film was completed with great difficulty, and it reportedly took Shailendra five years to secure a theatrical release. As a result, what was arguably one of the finest literary adaptations did not get the audience it deserved.
By the time Teesri Kasam was released, both Shailendra and Renu were on the brink of financial ruin. Renu had resigned from his day job at All India Radio to concentrate on the film. The setback took its toll on Shailendra’s health too. He died on December 14, 1966, the year of the film’s release.
Teesri Kasam went on to win critical acclaim and was named Best Feature Film at the National Film Awards. The tenth-grade Hindi syllabus at Central Board of Secondary Education schools includes the chapter “Teesri Kasam Ke Shilpkar Shailendra” (Shailendra, the Architect of Teesri Kasam).
According to Hindi critic and writer Namvar Singh, Renu was the first Hindi writer to have understood camera angles, which reflected in the manner in which he wrote scenes. Renu also had a fabulous sense of music. Maila Anchal and Mare Gaye Gulfam are embellished with songs.
While Maila Anchal had songs on self-rule and freedom fighters, Mare Gaye Gulfam contained such song snippets as “Mare gaye gulfam”, “Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar” and “Sajan re jhoot mat bolo”, all of which were expanded and used in Teesri Kasam. A collection of seven stories by Renu has been fittingly published under the title Thumri.
It’s difficult to discern where Renu ends and Shailendra begins, such was their meeting of minds. Take these lyrics from the original story: “Sajan re jhoot mat bolo, khuda ke paas jana hai, nahi hathi, nahi ghoda, nahi gaadi, wahan paidal hi jana hai” (Don’t tell lies, you have to face your maker one day; no elephant, horse or cart will take you there, you will have to make the journey on foot).
Shailendra added his own thoughts to the lyrics of the film tune based on Renu’s song: “Tumhaare mahal chaubaare, yahin rah jaayenge saare, akad kis baat ki pyaare, ye sar phir bhi jhukaanaa hai” (You can’t take your fancy palaces and fancy courtyards with you, don’t be arrogant and submit yourself to your maker).
In the movie, the tunes effortlessly carried the story forward. In some places, Renu’s dialogue segued into the song, especially in the narration of the tragic legend of Mahua by Hiraman, which is interspersed with a lovely lament for star-crossed lovers written by Hasrat Jaipuri: “Duniya bananewale, kya tere mann main samayi, kaahe ko duniya banayi” (O creator, whatever possessed you to create this world?)
Renu died at the age of 56 on April 11, 1977. His thoughts on his legacy is captured in Mare Gaye Gulfam: “Chithiya ho to har koi baanche, bhaag na baanche koi, karamwa bairi ho gaye hamaar” (A letter can be shared with everyone but your destiny is your own. My deeds were my undoing).
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