Even though it's almost impossible to imagine Hindi cinema without its songs, lyricists are more often than not forgotten or relegated to the lower ends when compiling lists of all time greats. Time and again playback singers and music composers have been adorned the same larger than life status as film stars, but barring a handful such as Gulzar, and that too towards the twilight of their careers, such honorifics have eluded many deserving wordsmiths.
With such parameters, it's hardly surprising that even amongst lyricists Majrooh Sultanpuri is the fourth or fifth name after Shailendra, Sahir and perhaps Gulzar that comes to mind when thinking of the all-time great poets to grace Hindi cinema.
The fact that Majrooh's isn't the first name in any such list, ironically enough, is a testimony of just how great and silent his contribution to the universe of Hindi film music really has been.
On the face of it, there might not be much in common among K L Saigal, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and Aamir Khan, but look closely and you would notice that the greatest songs associated with them were penned by Majrooh. In 1945, Asrar-ul-Hasan Khan "Majrooh" visited what was then Bombay for a mushaira and was immediately approached by producer A R Kardar via poet "Jigar" Moradabadi, who was Majrooh's mentor, to write for films but the poet refused for he considered the business to be too lowly a profession. Had it not been for Moradabadi who pushed him to give it a shot largely for the money, Majrooh would have returned to being a hakim and practising medicine for which he had trained.
Majrooh impressed Naushad in their very first meeting by penning words to a tune that the maestro had thrown at him as a test and the result was Jab usne gesu bikhraye, badal aaye jhoom ke for Shahjehan (1946).
Badal aaya jhoom ke was Majrooh Sultanpuri's debut song from the film Shahjehan (1946)
The film's music, especially the song Gham diye mushtaqil became a rage and K L Saigal even instructed another unforgettable tune from the film, Jab dil hi toot gaya to be played at his funeral. One of the prominent members of the Progressive Writers' movement, Majrooh's leftist leanings and his anti-imperialistic poetry got him incarcerated for a brief period in the late 1940s and along with Balraj Sahani he was one of the eminent artists to be jailed by the British. Along with other progressives such as Sahir, Majrooh was a dominating name in Hindi film music and was one of the first to introduce the ghazal into film music. He worked with most of the popular music composers through the 1950s and 1960s, and was perhaps single-handedly responsible in making poetry permeate into film music without losing the essence of situation or the character that it was written for.
Majrooh's brilliance lay in the simplicity with which he chose words, for instance, the oft-repeated word for a beloved in Hindi lyrics "sanam" that literally meant "idol" was first used by Majrooh, and throughout his five-decade-long career Majrooh was unmatched when it came to writing to a pre-decided tune. Unlike Sahir, he never let the poet in him feel threatened while doing so and never did he feel lesser to music directors who attained more renown than lyricists. In fact, it was Majrooh who suggested R D Burman to Nasir Hussain for Teesri Manzil (1966) and in a roundabout manner gifted Hindi cinema with one of its best musical partnerships.
If the 1950s were a decade where Majrooh created breezy hits in Mr & Mrs 55 (1955), Aar Paar (1954) and CID (1956), his words also helped establish Dev Anand as the box-office king when it came to romance with songs in Paying Guest (1957), Kaala Pani (1958), Nau Do Gyrah (1957) and Solva Saal (1958). It around the same time that Majrooh stepped in as a substitute for Sahir, who followed Dev Anand and walked out of Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), and wrote the lyrics for what would become Shammi Kapoor's breakthrough film.
Nearly a decade later, Majrooh would once again give Shammi Kapoor some of his greatest songs in Vijay Anand's Teesri Manzil whose soundtrack included Aaja raja main pear tera (Asha Bhosle, Mohammad Rafi) and O haseena zulfonwali (Asha Bhonsle, Mohammad Rafi) and this time around too it was Dev Anand who walked out of the film before Shammi stepped in. In the 1970s, Majrooh hit a purple patch with Dastak (1970), Caravan (1971), Pakeezah (1972), Do Chor (1972), Abhimaan (1973), Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973) and Hum Kisise Se Kum Naheen (1977), the film that gave Rishi Kapoor a major image makeover and was a super hit during the height of the Amitabh Bachchan phase.
Majrooh's success continued well within the 1980s and he became one of the first from his generation to cut across and become a part of the new Bollywood. One of the few lyricists to have worked with not one, but two father-son composers in S D and RD Burman as well as Chitragupt and Anand-Milind, Majrooh's collaboration with Anand-Milind in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) ushered in a new phase in Hindi film music. Majrooh's lyrics blended beautifully with Anand-Milind's uncharacteristically western style arrangement and even after three decades songs like Papa kehte hai (Udit Narayan), Aye mere humsafar (Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan), Akele hai (Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan) and Gazab ka hai din (Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan) still standout. Majrooh went on to collaborate with his old friend producer Nasir Hussain and son Mansoor Khan again for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) and wrote one of his later gems Pehla nasha (Sadhana Sargam, Udit Narayan), for then up and coming music composer duo Jatin-Lalit.
Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and the author of Rajneeti (Penguin-Random House, 2019), the first biography of Rajnath Singh. He is the author of the bestselling Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins,
2014), The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema (HarperCollins, 2016) and Pink- The Inside Story (HarperCollins, 2017).