One of the most iconic filmmakers and film lyricists of the sub-continent, Sampooran Singh Kalra aka Gulzar was born in Dina in pre-Partition Punjab and has an undying love for Urdu and its script.
He calls Pakistan, his vatan and India, his desh. Eos managed to talk to the notoriously interview-shy writer by phone.
Q. You write in Urdu and, if one may say so, you also think in Urdu, although your mother tongue is Punjabi. How come this strong affinity with Urdu?
My mother tongue is Punjabi, but my first language is Urdu, which was the case with the people in undivided Punjab. I used to write in Urdu on the takhti (wooden board) in Dina and on shifting to Delhi shortly before Partition, I opted for Urdu at the Delhi United Christian School.
Q. How come your accent and pronunciation is that of a UP or Dilliwala and not of a person from Punjab?
I learned the language in school from a Maulvi Sahib. I can recall his name… Mujeebur Rahman. I don’t know where he was from; all I remember is that Urdu was his mother tongue.
Q. You are also very much at ease with Bengali. Is it because of your long association with eminent Bengalis such as Bimal Roy,SD Burman,and,of course,your wife Rakhee?
Not only that. I was an ardent reader of Bengali literature. In my teens I used to borrow novels of Ibn-i-Safi BA as he was called and used to finish a volume or two in one night. The man who ran the “4 annas a month” library felt cheated. So, one evening he lent me what he thought was a dry book. It was a volume of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and I just fell in love with them. That was the beginning of my fascination with Bengali language and literature.
Q. Is it true that K Asif, the man who made the film Mughal-i-Azam, was taken aback when he heard you speak fluent Punjabi because he thought you were a Bengali?
It is very much true. Because of my pseudonym Gulzar, which is how I am known, some people think I am a Muslim. Q But Meena Kumari, with whom you shared a love for Urdu,taught you to fast during Ramazan and you also offered fateha at Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s grave, as well as at Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum on your one and only trip to Karachi…You are quite a behroopia (imposter). (Laughs)That’s quite unfair a title.
Q. Back to Bengali. Are your translations of Tagore, Sarath Chandar and others faithful translations,or they are what one may call transcreations?
Let me put it like this: I think translations should convey the feelings expressed in the original work. This is what I have believed in and practised.
Q. You made outstanding films and wrote the scripts of some extraordinary films made by others. Now, for more than a decade, you have dissociated yourself with feature films, except for writing occasional songs. Why?
My first love is literature. I have so much simmering in my mind both in the field of poetry and fiction and, with time running out, I have to be selective.
Q. Barring Saifuddin Saif’s 1959 film Kartar Singh, based on Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s immortal short story Parmeshwar Singh, we in Pakistan have very few films related to the earth-shattering events of Partition. What’s the scene in India?
No different. One would say that Garam Hawa is the only film worth mentioning in this context. I feel strongly that the governments of both countries have discouraged the making of films on this subject on the pretext that ill-feelings will be recreated.
Q. You returned to your native town of Dina near Jhelum after 70 years. Why so late?
I had an image of the town and the lane where my house was located and, of course, of the house itself. That was embedded in my mind and I thought that the image I had treasured for decades would be tarnished.
Q. Did that happen?
There were mixed feelings. I was mobbed by people. They were sincere and, I should say, hospitable. But I would have preferred to be alone. I met a few old people. A tenant of a house that my father owned thought I was there to collect the monthly rent. He took out Rs 5 and said that he wouldn’t be able to pay the arrears.
Q. You first came to Pakistan to see the eminent poet and fiction writer Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi in 2006 when he was on his deathbed. What was your association with him?
He was my mentor, my benefactor. I used to call him Baba. He published my poems in his prestigious magazine Funoon. My first collection to be published in the script that I wrote in – that is Urdu – was published by his daughter Mansoora under his guidance. Before that the collections had appeared only in Devnagri script.
Q. One last question: why didn’t you attend the Academy Awards function to collect your Oscar trophy for your award-winning song from Slumdog Millionaire?
Because I didn’t have a black coat (laughs). On a serious note, I may tell you that the timings didn’t suit me. I had earlier commitments to fulfil.