Padma Shri awardee Rajinder Singh Bedi lived many lives - as a student and postmaster in Lahore, a prominent progressive writer of modern Urdu fiction, a venerated screenwriter for popular Hindi films, a film producer and director and a winner of both the Sahitya Akademi as well as the Filmfare awards. An award-winning writer, he is considered an architect of contemporary Urdu writing along with leading lights such as Munshi Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto. His contribution to Urdu fiction makes him a pivotal force within modern Indian literature. A venerated screenwriter, he penned popular Hindi films such as Madhumati (1958), Mere Sanam (1965), Mere Humdam Mere Dost (1968), Dastak (1970), and Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986), as well as the dialogue for Bari Behen (1949), Devdas (1955), Anuradha (1960), Anupama (1966), Satyakam (1969), and Abhimaan (1973), among others. He also directed Dastak, Phagun (1973), Nawab Sahib (1978), and Aankhin Dekhi (1978), as well as produced Garam Coat (1955), Rungoli (1962), Dastak and Phagun. Considered one of the leading 20th century progressive writers of Urdu fiction, he is known for his 'disturbing' Partition tales. His short stories ‘Garam Coat’, ‘Lajwanti’, ‘Apne Dukh Mujhe De Do’, and ‘Rahman ke Joote’, dissect human emotions with grim precision as he navigates the everyday lives of men and women, exposing social inequities and economic problems. He received the Filmfare Award for Best Story for Garam Coat, his second Filmfare for writing dialogues for Madhumati, and his third for Satyakam. His literary awards include the Sahitya Akademi Award Urdu for Ek Chadar Maili Si in 1965, and the Ghalib Award in 1978 for Urdu Drama. He had been honoured with the Padma Shri in 1972.
Born in Sialkot, Punjab, 1 September 1915, he was the son of Sewa Dei and Hira Singh, the postmaster of Sadar Bazar Post Office, Lahore. After receiving his early education at a school in Lahore Cantonment from where he passed the fourth class, he enrolled in the SBBS Khalsa School, from where he passed the matriculation examination in the First Division in 1931. Post-matriculation, he went to DAV College, Lahore, but by the time he reached Intermediate, his mother, a TB patient, had died. After his mother's death, his father resigned from his job and in 1933, Bedi left college and joined the post office. He faced intolerable suffering and privation in life with the deaths of his dearest ones and due to poverty.
He was married in 1934 at the age of 19. He had started writing from his time at Khalsa, and also wrote for radio during his post office job.
His second collection of stories, ‘Grahan’, was published in 1942, followed by his third collection, ‘Kokh Jalli’ in 1949. His stories mirrored the subtle reflection of human personality, also exposing the individual and society. Intricate relationships and the mysterious fabrics of human personality were also meaningfully and eloquently revealed, painting an imaginative picture of life incorporating humour, and a curiosity of thought. His writings were imbued with a strange spiritualism, employing metaphor and mythological concepts.
The year 1946 saw Bedi’s first collection of short stories, ‘Dana-o-Dam’ being published. As his stature grew in literary circles, he later became honorary editor of the prominent literary magazine Adab-e-Latif published from Lahore. In 1943, he resigned from the post office. Two years later, he began writing plays for Lahore Radio. From 1943 to 1944, he worked as a scriptwriter at Lahore Radio Station, on a salary of Rs 150. When he was sent to the radio station of NWFP for war broadcasts, his salary rose to Rs 500. However, the job did not work out and he went on to set up Sangam Publishing House in 1946. During Partition, he had to leave Lahore. Staying in Ropar and Shimla for a few days, he later met Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah who appointed him as director of the Jammu radio station. After this failed to work, he moved to Bombay. Here, he met producer D D Kashyap, who had already heard of him, and was acquainted with his writings. He was hired by Kashyap for Rs 1000 per month, and also had the liberty to work outside of Kashyap’s production house. Bedi penned two films for Kashyap - Bari Behen and Aaram (1951), and also wrote Daag (1952) outside of it. Bari Behen was a family drama directed by D D Kashyap, starring Suraiya, Rehman Khan and Ulhas. Aaram, also directed by D D Kashyap, starred Dev Anand, Madhubala, Prem Nath and Talat Mahmood. While the film was not a major commercial success, it earned positive reviews from critics Daag, for which he penned the dialogue, was a romance drama directed by Amiya Chakrabarty, starring Dilip Kumar, Nimmi, and Usha Kiran.
He would go on to pen Rail Ka Dibba (1953), a heart-warming tale of good-samaritanism revolving around a poor but large-hearted young man who gives shelter to three helpless, forlorn people in his home--an abandoned railway coach. However, tensions arise in the group when he marries one of the inmates, a destitute young girl, whom one of the other inmates also loves. The group breaks up and the coach is abandoned. Time passes, fortunes turn, and penitence brings the group back together. Directed by Prem Narayan Arora, the film starred Madhubala, Shammi Kapoor, and Sajjan.
In 1954, he collaborated with Amar Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Geeta Bali and others to create a new company called Cine Cooperative. In 1955, it produced its first film, Garam Coat. Based on Bedi's short story Garam Coat, the film starred Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy, and was directed by Aman Kumar. The story was set against the economic turmoil of post-Partition North India, which also experienced a collapse in human values, fractured social fabric and growing cynicism towards the state. However, beyond that, the story of the film diverges from the original; Bedi took the story to a completely different development and also gave it an optimistic ending, unlike the original, where the protagonist turns into a ghost.
Based on the Sharat Chandra Chaterjee novel, he wrote the Bimal Roy-directed Devdas (1955). Starring Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen, and Vyjayanthimala, the film told the tale of the scion of a wealthy landowner family who turns to alcohol and self-pity and slowly self-destructs after class differences force him to break off his relationship with his childhood sweetheart.
He penned the dialogue for the Hrishikesh Mukherjee directorial Anupama (1966), starring Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore. The plot revolved around Mohan Sharma (Tarun Bose), a workaholic whose life changes dramatically after his wife dies giving birth to their daughter Uma (Sharmila Tagore). He despises the daughter by day, and adores her when drunk at night. Uma's life gets better as she comes of age and has a relationship with a sensitive poet, Ashok (Dharmendra), who slowly brings her out of her shell.
He made his directorial debut with the drama film Dastak, which he also wrote. It presents an expanded version of his own radio play, Naql-e-Makaani (Moving to a New House), first performed on All India Radio, Lahore in 1944. Upon release, the film established him as an important force in Indian parallel cinema. Known for its unusual story line set in a red light area, it revolved around a newlywed couple, Hamid (Sanjeev Kumar) and Salma (Rehana Sultan), who unwittingly rent a flat, and thus begins their daily turmoil at the knocks (dastak) on their door. The previous occupant of the apartment was Shamshad Begum (Shakeela), a mujrewali (nautch girl). Filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukjherjee said of Dastak, “Rajinder Singh Bedi was an extraordinarily gifted writer. Indeed, I feel privileged that I could edit his maiden venture as writer-director Dastak in stark B&W starring Sanjeev Kumar and Rehana Sultan. Rehana won the 'Urvashi' award then the term for the National Award for Best Actress and I won the coveted Filmfare award for my first love - editing!” Dastak was featured in Avijit Ghosh's book, 40 Retakes: Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed.
His novella Ek Chadar Maili Si was made into a film in Pakistan - Mutthi Bhar Chawal (1978) and later in India, as Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986). Directed by Sukhwant Dhadda, it told the tale of Rani, a loving wife, who lives a peaceful life with her husband Trilok, a horse carriage driver. However, Rani's life takes a new turn when Trilok is killed. The film starred Hema Malini, Rishi Kapoor, and Poonam Dhillon.
Bedi’s personal life was not smooth. Married to Satwant Kaur, he reportedly had a rocky marriage. His son Narender Singh Bedi, a producer and director in the film industry, died in 1982. His wife passed away shortly after. Bedi's final days were spent in heartache. He suffered a stroke in 1982 and was later diagnosed with cancer.
Rajinder Singh Bedi passed away on 11 November 1984 in Mumbai. Among the many messages of condolences received, the one from General Zia-ul Haq, President of Pakistan, stated that his death was not only a loss to India but also to Pakistan. The Russian embassy sent a person to offer condolences. In his memory, the government of Punjab instituted the Rajinder Singh Bedi Award in the field of Urdu Literature. A crossing in King's Circle, Bombay (Mumbai) was named after him as Rajinder Singh Bedi Chowk.