Good poetry never dies, with the passage of time it illuminates the lives of more and more people. This is certainly true of the lyrics and poems of Shailendra. Although known as the lyricist who wrote the songs of such all-time great films as Do Bigha Zaminand Boot Polish,Bandiniand Awara, Anuradha and Anari, Guide and Teesri Kasam, with the passage of time there has been more understanding of him as essentially a philosopher-poet with an unmatched capacity to tell the big truths of life in the simplest yet very moving words.
Even more recent is the recognition of his Dalit identity. Before he started writing songs for films, Shailendra was known mainly for his songs on working class struggles which were widely sung at such gatherings at that time, as indeed they are now, more than six decades later. Despite this background his Dalit identity remained largely unknown till very recently when some of his family members decided to assert this identity more publicly.
This raises a question why the Dalit identity of the lyricist who wrote the biggest hit songs for over two decades was kept under wraps for so long. Was this done deliberately by the commercial film industry under the belief that his status as arguably the most talented and admired lyricist of his time would have less acceptance because of the hidden bias against accepting a Dalit at the top of the literary world?
In his heyday, Shailendra shared the high seat of top lyricists of Hindi films with such luminaries as Sahir Ludhianvi and Shakeel Badayuni. It was indeed the golden age of Hindi film songs with a galaxy of highly talented lyricists. However, while some of these lyricists had come to the industry with an already well-established reputation as Hindi and Urdu poets, Shailendra entered the formidable industry with the baggage of just a few songs sung often by striking workers at mill gates. Yet from day one he was a hit, with his first songs making it to the top of the musical charts.
Very soon songs written by him were being hummed all over India and even abroad. For nearly 17 years Shailendra was able to maintain this following of music-lovers with one great song after another. From his beginning with two songs in Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949) till his death in 1966 at the young age of 43 he wrote about 250 songs almost all of which won the acclaim of people as well as critics.
His rapport with Raj Kapoor was of course the stuff of which legends are made. Shailendra teamed up best with top composers like Shankar Jaikishan, Salil Chaudhri and S.D. Burman to create some of the most memorable songs of Hindi cinema, songs such as Awara Hoon (Awara), Mera Joota Hai Japani (Shri 420), Sab Kuch Seekha Hamne (Anari), Kaise Din Beete (Anuradha), Naa Mein Dhan Chahoon (Kala Bazaar), Kya Se Kya Ho Gaya (Guide) and Tu Chale Kaun Se Desh (Boot Polish).
However, he will be remembered most as a philosopher-poet because of immortal songs like Sajan Re Jhooth Mat Bolo (Teesri Kasam), Kisi ki Muskrahto (Anari), Wahan Kaun Hai Tera (Guide) and Mere Saajan Hain Us Paar (Bandini). Songs such as these by Shailendra tell the big truths of life in simple words and metaphors. This is one part of the reason for their great and enduring appeal.
The other part is the unparalleled ability of Shailendra to be relevant to specific film situations and characters while writing lines which appeal to us as eternal truths. For example, Mere Sajan Hain Us Paar is so specific to the situation faced by Nutan in Bandini and yet it occurs instinctively to us in the context of any situation of eternal love.
The song Wahan Kaun Hai Tera is an apt description of the predicament of Dev Anand when he is released from prison in Guide and yet this song becomes a metaphor for any tiresome, difficult and uncertain life. Dost Dost Naa Raha (Sangam) is another example of a song written for a specific situation that links effortlessly to tragic aspects of life and love.
With fun and frolic the song Dil Kaa Haal Sune Dilwala (Shri 420) caters to the situation in the film, while making nuanced references to deeper truths and injustices. Such seamless travel over such a wide ground in a four-minute song is a rare achievement.
With such great success behind him, why did Shailendra have to die a shattered man at the young age of 43? With much lesser success and even lesser talent, others had managed to build empires in the film industry. The full story of this has not been told yet, but the Dalit identity aspect as also the working class affiliations which we emphasised at the outset may provide some clue to understanding why and how someone with such dazzling success in the film industry never got fully assimilated in it.
What we know for certain is that he came to the industry with a debt. Despite all his dazzling successes, he died too in debt, incurred in making his first and last film, Teesri Kasam. This film has been called poetry on celluloid, and rightly so. This film won the National Award for best film, but Shailendra died before he could hear about this.
Some of the most poignant moments in the last days of his life were spent in the company of Phanishwar Nath Renu, the great Hindi writer on whose story Maare Gaye Gulfaam the film Teesri Kasam was based. As many persons betrayed their trust, these two highly sensitive souls were left alone to fight the battle for giving the finishing touches to Teesri Kasam. The film was finally completed, but in the process its maker died.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.