Neeraj, poet and lyricist

An unsung genius

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Gopaldas Neeraj. Photo: Nand Kumar/PTI

“Khilte hain gul yahan” (Sharmeelee).

“Ei bhai zara dekh ke chalo” (Mera Naam Joker).

Lyricist Gopaldas Neeraj was essentially a poet whose words built bridges between Hindi and Urdu to resonate with the common man.

EVERY legend of the Hindi film industry has a story to share, a story that outlives the doyens. The lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, who penned “C-A-T cat, cat maane billi” and “Inhi logon ne le lina dupatta mera” with equal felicity, once revealed that he wrote “Boojh mera kya naam re, nadi kinare gaon re” for Guru Dutt’s CID imagining his own village and his own courtyard. That was the reason behind the fetching familiarity of the song. Gulzar was once advised against reciting his own song in front of the director Bimal Roy by the music director S.D. Burman. Gulzar did not heed Burman’s advice, and the song “Mora gora ang lai le” went on to become a chartbuster. Shakeel Badayuni would not have penned “Chaudhvin ka chand ho” had he not attended a mushaira (poetry recital) with the director Guru Dutt and the music director Ravi; Ravi came back humming the first part of the opening couplet, which Shakeel ably completed. To this day, the song is sung as an ode to a woman’s peerless beauty. 

Similarly, the lyricist Gopaldas Neeraj, who recently breathed his last at the age of 93, would have remained an unsung genius but for a three-page song he penned for the director Mohan Segal’s Kanyadaan. The song was “Likhe jo khhat tujhe”, and he confessed many years later that he had written it imagining his beloved. Many letters he wrote in real life remained unposted, while parts of some found their way into the songs he wrote for Hindi films, such as “O meri Sharmilee” and “Khilte hain gul yahan” for Sharmeelee and the soft, soothing “Jeevan ki bagiya mehkegi” for Tere Mere Sapne, a Dev Anand-Mumtaz starrer. Incidentally, Dev Anand deserves more than a passing mention in Neeraj’s journey in the Hindi film industry. It is said that Dev Anand heard Neeraj at a mushaira and invited him to Bombay (now Mumbai), where he assured him of a break. Dev Anand kept his word, and when Neeraj arrived in Bombay, he bagged Prem Pujari, produced by Dev Anand himself. 

Yet it was a trial by fire for Neeraj. S.D. Burman gave him a difficult brief to tackle. He asked Neeraj to compose a song about a man who has a way with women, a Casanova of sorts who is found out by his partner. The next day, Neeraj came back to the music director with “Rangeela re tere rang mein ranga hai”. One look at the lyrics, and Burman was won over. It was with this song that Neeraj’s career in the Hindi film industry took off, although he had composed songs earlier, with limited success. Prem Pujari was to have at least two other hugely popular songs, “Shokhiyon mein ghola jaye” and “Phoolon ke rang se”. Neeraj came to have an abiding passport with posterity, despite the fact that Prem Pujari was a commercial failure. 

Incidentally, commercial failure was also the fate of the biggest film Neeraj worked for, Mera Naam Joker, a Raj Kapoor masterstroke that won retrospective acclaim but little appreciation at the box office when it was released in 1970. But not many have forgotten Neeraj’s “Ei bhai zara dekh ke chalo”, a song whose words resonated with the common man.

Earthy simplicity

Despite the commercial failures of Prem Pujari and Mera Naam Joker, Neeraj proved to the industry that here was a man who used chaste and popular Hindi in his verse when Urdu poetry was very much the flavour of the time. He brought with him an earthy simplicity not burdened by ideology and stayed on to carve out a niche for himself. Never more than an unsung genius, he started as a Hindi poet from the small town of Etawah in Uttar Pradesh and ended his career as a poet in Aligarh, his Hindi film innings a dalliance that got him some recognition and some money and widened his fan base. If his poetry had made him the darling of connoisseurs in live poetic soirees, his lyrics in cinema made him a fine alternative to the likes of Sahir Ludhianvi and Shakeel Badayuni. Neeraj’s poetry had elements of Ludhianvi’s progressive poetry as well as Shakeel’s romanticism.

Yet Neeraj did not start off as a lyricist. He was an academic and a Hindi poet, a regular at kavi sammelans (poetic symposia). He was happy regaling the audiences in Aligarh, but he was meant for a bigger stage. He had a socially alive conscience which expressed itself with the R. Chandra film Nai Umar ki Nai Fasal, which was released on the first day of 1966. The film’s failure at the box office proved to be a precursor of things to come in Neeraj’s career. 

However, the success of the lyrics “Kaarvaan guzar gaya, ghubaar dekhte rahe” also proved that Neeraj’s fate never depended on the success or failure of the film. He worked in his own zone. He worked by his own rules. His success was his, as were his failures. Today nobody remembers R. Chandra. Only the diehard remember Nai Umar ki Nai Fasal. Neeraj, too, has breathed his last. Yet, Neeraj lives on through his songs which covered quite a trajectory, from the sociorealism of the mid 1960s and early 1970s to the inanities of the mid 1970s such as “Dheere se jaana khatiyan mein o khatmal” (Chhupa Rustam) to love-soaked ditties such as “Aaj madhosh hua jaye re” and “Khilte hain gul yahan”. 

With such a rich collection, one would expect the lyricist to be the talk of the town. Neeraj somehow never managed to be at the right place at the right time. When he got into the Raj Kapoor camp, Raj Kapoor’s best days were behind him, and the commercial debacle of Mera Naam Joker set him back irretrievably. When Neeraj began to work with Dev Anand regularly, the songs continued to score with the masses, but not the films. The days of Guide and Jewel Thief were past. And when Neeraj did dumb down for the industry, first with “Tick tick chalti jaye” (Kal Aaj aur Kal) and then the “Khatmal” song, the industry started getting dumber. He stood tall, reaching out to his fans with songs such as “Aadmi ho aadmi se pyar karta hun”. In the 1980s, Neeraj spent more time away from the chaos of the Hindi film industry, then going through its poetically most challenged phase. 

When the industry rediscovered melody in the 1990s, he came up with “Yeh teri ankhen jhuki jhuki” for Fareb. The song worked; the film did not. That summed up Neeraj’s career in Hindi cinema. He was always better than his films, which was both a compliment and a travesty. His poetry moved the classes and the masses alike. His words built bridges between Hindi and Urdu. His soft-spoken, low-key ways were in contrast to the image-driven and publicity-hungry ways of the Hindi film industry. Not surprisingly, he refused to accept the Yuva Bharati Puraskar, when he was asked to explain why the prize should be given to him. He had too much pride, too much self-respect to fall for such crumbs. The accolades kept coming in even after Neeraj had moved away from the film industry. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Bhushan in 2007. All those beautiful love letters that the unassuming professor from Etawah wrote may well be the window to his head, his heart, his world.

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