Birthday love: The life & times of Gulzar


18th August 2020 marks the 86th birthday of veteran Bollywood lyricist and director, Gulzar. To mark the occasion, takes a look back at the life of the legend.

Ask most millennials and generation Zs about Sampooran Singh Kalra and they would most likely return a quizzical look to you – or even scurry for their smartphones to Google who he was – before realising Sampooran Singh Kalra is the birth name of Gulzar, the legendary lyricist, poet, director and winner of five National Film Awards, 21 Filmfare Awards, one Academy Award (Oscar) and one Grammy award in a distinguished career spanning six decades.

Born in 1934, Gulzar was only a teenager when partition permanently uprooted him from his native village of Dina in Punjab’s Jhelum district. He ended up in Bombay where he worked in a garage, repairing and painting cars. Despite an unsupportive family and financial restraints, Gulzar yearned to make a name for himself as a poet. It is said that Gulzar entered the world of Bollywood by fluke after a quarrel between arguably the finest music director (S D Burman) and finest lyricist (Shailendra) that Bollywood has ever seen forced Burman to look for an alternative lyricist for Bimal Roy’s film ‘Bandini’ (1963). Thus Gulzar got his chance to write his blockbuster song Mora Gora Ang Lai Le filmed on Nutan, and the rest as they say, is history.

Gulzar went on to write lyrics for ‘Aashirwad’ (1968), ‘Khamoshi’ (1969) and ‘Guddi’ (1971) which included the song Humko Man Ki Shakti Dena – a prayer that is still sung today in many schools across India.

Apart from S D Burman, Gulzar has had a successful partnership with almost all top music directors from the industry including R D Burman, Shankar Jaikishan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Madan Mohan, Rajesh Roshan and more recently Vishal Bhardwaj, AR Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Pritam. His collaboration with Rahman on Hollywood film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2007) earnt them the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Jai Ho at the 81st Academy Awards.

Gulzar, over the years, has also donned the hat of a filmmaker, directing his first film ‘Mere Apne’ in 1971. As a director, Gulzar often told stories of human relationships entangled in social issues. His film ‘Mausam’ (1975) pictured a story of a father who tries to improve the life of his prostitute daughter. Another film ‘Libaas’ (1988) was the story of an extra-marital affair of an urban couple, whilst the super-hit film ‘Maachis’ (1996) portrayed the circumstances surrounding the rise of insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s.

Actors like Jeetendra (‘Parichay’ {1972}), Vinod Khanna (‘Achanak’ {1972}) and Hema Malini (‘Meera’ {1979}) worked with Gulzar to gain respectability as artists and delivered some of their best and most introspective work in these films.

Now aged 86, Gulzar is still writing lyrics to songs and scripting screenplays for films, often directed by his daughter Meghna Gulzar (Chhapaak {2020}). It may well be that the name Sampooran Singh Kalra will be lost, but his golden pen will guarantee the name Gulzar lives on for eons.

– Written by Kirat Raj Singh

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