The Art of Urdu in Hindi Films: Losing A Poetic Legacy

Jan Nisar Akhtar and Sahir Ludhianvi
Legendary Bollywood lyricists Jan Nisar Akhtar (far left) and Sahir Ludhianvi (left center) enjoy a birthday celebration.

The language of Hindi films has evolved since the first talkie Alam Ara in 1931, based on a Parsi play.  The Golden Age of Hindi cinema that blossomed with the studio era of the 1950s and ebbed by the late 1970s is one of India’s greatest artistic achievements. During that time, Hindi films could hardly be called Hindi films. Rather, Hindustani, a mixture of Urdu and Hindi, was the lingua franca of the silver-screen—a reflection of a country unified by a fascinatingly diverse heritage with linguistic influences from Sanskrit, Farsi, Bengali, Arabic, Panjabi, and a myriad of others.

To anyone unfamiliar with the distinction between Urdu and Hindi—there are no hard and fast rules. What many call Hindi, others would call Urdu, but most everyone can appreciate their structural and grammatical similarity. Any attempt to divide them is based on the root origins of the vocabulary intermingled with what is generally a highly homologous syntax. “Urdu” vocabulary tends to draw upon words of Farsi or occasionally Arabic and Turkish origin and “Hindi” vocabulary is generally derived from Sanskrit or regional dialects. But don’t be fooled into thinking any word “belongs” to another language (or those of a particular religion)—Hindustani may vary speaker to speaker, community to community, but the language is all-encompassing.

Veteran Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi (left) with his daughter actress Shabhana Azmi (center), who married contemporary lyricist Javed Akhtar, and wife Shaukat Azmi (right).
Veteran Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi (left) with his daughter actress Shabhana Azmi (center), who married contemporary lyricist Javed Akhtar, and wife Shaukat Azmi (right).

The impact of Urdu in the Indian mainstream can be no better summed up by the famous words of our freedom struggle: “Inquilaab zindabaad!” or “Sarfaroshii kii tamanna ab hamaare dil mei.N hai.” Controversial arguments have been made relating the decline in popularity to links with Pakistan, which adopted Urdu as its official language. Yet in Hindi films for decades, the legacy of Urdu poetry continued to flourish in India as the pinnacle of culture and expression.

Indeed, despite enormous gaps in literacy across the country, some of the most popular songs of that era amazingly contain the most complex Urdu-based vocabulary. Perhaps one reason is that the Hindi film song-writers themselves were trained in the art of Urdu poetry. Many of the finest and most successful poets of Hindi film: Sahir Ludhianvi, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Gulzar, Hasrat Jaipuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, and Majrooh Sultanpuri to name but a few, began their careers in Urdu mushairaas, or poetic symposiums.

Gulzar lyricist
Record-breaking winner of 11 Filmfare awards for best lyrics, poet Gulzar (right) stands with actor Amitabh Bacchan (left) for whom he wrote hits from the dialogue of Anand (1971) to the modern dance number “Kajra Re” from Bunty Aur Babli (2006)

It would seem more than mere coincidence that these artists came to dominate film lyrics. Like many arenas, the Bombay film industry was an old boy network: Sahir Ludhianvi for example was close friends with Jan Nisar Akhtar, who became in-laws with Kaifi Azmi, who was a prominent member of the pre-partition Progressive Writer’s Movement with Majrooh Sultanpuri. And the music directors who often hand-picked their lyricists and made recommendations to film producers were also steeped in similar artistic traditions. Veteran composer Naushad grew up in the heart of Lucknowi culture, and Madan Mohan spent his childhood in the Middle East, eventually getting his break by joining the All India Radio in Lucknow. Yet connections in the film industry account for only part of its success—audiences had to maintain demand as well.

From the epic qawwali “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” from Barsaat Ki Raat (1961), the lilting ode, “Aap Ki Nazron Mein Samjha” from Anpadh 1962), to the playful duet “Deewana Hua Badal” from Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), Urdu in films was remarkably accessible—holding a place for any viewer in every genre. True, it is unlikely the entire audience understood each word in those songs. However, in this manner, film and music could be educational for those who did not–a unique way of preserving the culture they reflected back on. As parallel cinema diva Shabana Azmi aptly quipped,

“If you compare today’s songs with the songs of the 1960s and 1970s, then definitely today’s songs are according to the demand. But if you see, Hindi films used to protect the Urdu language as they used it, but it is slowly dying and I feel bad for it.”

The same extended to the dialogues of films themselves–and I don’t refer only to genre films like Pakeezah (1971) or Mughal-e-Azam (1961). Pure Urdu was ubiquitous in classic Hindi cinema, wafting equally through the sets of an urban crime drama and meandering through a village epic. The importance and sheer beauty of Urdu poetry in dialogues is highlighted in one of the most famous film speech’s of yesteryear. The stirring climax of Daag (1973) culminates in a speech given by Rajesh Khanna’s character for an award bestowed to him by his community. Notice how in this and so many other scripts, Urdu is an inextricable poetic catalyst for the Hindi speech:

Rajesh Khanna’s Speech from Daag (1973):

Aap.
Aap kya jaane mujhko samajhte hai.N kyaa?
Mai.N to kuch bhi nahii.N

“You.
I do not know what you make of me
For I am nothing

Is qadar pyaar itnii baDe bheed ka mai.N rakhuu.Ngaa kya?
Is qadar pyaar rakhne ke qaabil nahii.N
Mera dil, merii jaan…
Mujhko itni mohabbat na do, dosto.
Soch lo dosto…
Is qadar pyaar kaise sambhaaluu.Ngaa mai.N?
Mai.N to kuch bhi nahii.N

How can I carry such love from so great a crowd?
I am not worthy of such great love
My heart, my life…
Do not give me so much love, my friends
Think instead.
How will I bear such great love?
For I am nothing.

Pyaar.
Pyaar ek shakhs ko agar mil sake to badii cheez hai zindagi ke liye
Aadmi ko magar yeh bhi milta nahii.n
Yeh bhi milta nahii.n
Mujhko itni mohabbat milii aap se,
Mujhko itni mohabbat milii aap se…
Yeh mera haq nahii.N, merii taqdiir hai.
Mai.N zamaane ki nazro.N mei.N kuch bhi na thaa.
Merii ankho.N mei.N ab tak woh tasveer hai

Love.
If a man can receive love, it is a great thing in life
Yet many men do not even receive this
They do not even receive this
I have received so much love from you,
I have received so much love from you
This is not my right, it is my fate
I was once nothing in the eyes of the world
And in my eyes, that image remains

Izzate.N, shauharate.N, chaahate.N, ulfate.N, koi cheez duniya mei.N rehtii nahii.N
Aaj mai.N huu.N jahaa.N, kal koi aur thaa.
Yeh bhi ek daur hai, woh bhi ek daur thaa…

Respect, fame, desire, love, nothing remains in the world permanently
Today where I am, yesterday there was someone else
This is one generation, that was another generation…

Aaj itni mohabbat na do dosto.
Ki mere kal kii khatir ka kuch bhi rahe
Aaj ka pyaar thoDa bacha kar rakho
Aaj ka pyaar thoDa bacha kar rakho, mere kal ke liye

Today do not give me so much love, my friends
So that there may be some left for me tomorrow
Today, save some of that love
Today save some of that love for my days ahead

Kal.
Kal jo gumnaam hai
Kal jo sunsaan hai
Kal jo anjaan hai
Kal jo viiraan hai

Tomorrow.
Tomorrow which is anonymous
Tomorrow which is silent
Tomorrow which is unknown
Tomorrow which may be barren

Main to kuch bhi nahii.N huu.N
Mai.N to kuch bhi nahii.n”

I am nothing at all
I am nothing at all.”

With every thoughtfully chosen word, the pervasive Urdu “qaaf” is pronounced as delicately as the gentle “khe,” and the lines are delivered with the poetic overtures of a song lyric. These dialogues were written with poetry in mind, and indeed many song lyricists eventually took to writing entire film scripts (the script of Daag was written by immortal Urdu poet Akhtar ul Iman of Waqt and Gumraah fame).

Immortal lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri (right) with music director R.D. Burman and film director Nasir Hussain at a 1983 recording session.
Famed lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri (right) with music director R.D. Burman (center) and film director Nasir Hussain (left) at a 1983 recording session.

It would be impossible to summarize the incredible work of these poets in one post (hence why we’ve devoted much of our blog to it!). A small sampling of Filmfare award-winning lyrics are below:

“Chaudhvin ka chaand ho, ya aftaab ho? Jo bhi ho tum khudaa ki qasam laa-jawaab ho…” –Shakeel Badayuni (Chaudhvin Ka Chand 1961)

“Chaahuu.Ngaa mai.N tujhe saa.Nj saveN.re. Phir bhi kabhi ab naam ko tere awaaz mai.N na doo.Ngaa…”--Majrooh Sultanpuri (Dosti 1965)

“Bahaaro.N phool barsaao, meraa mehboob aayaa hai. Hawaao.N raagini gaao, meraa mehboob aaya hai…”--Hasrat Jaipuri (Suraj 1967)

“Kabhi kabhi mere dil mei.N khayaal aataa hai ki jaise tujhko baanaayaa gaya hai mere liye…” –Sahir Ludhianvi (Kabhi Kabhi 1977)

“Aanewaalaa pal jaanewaalaa hai. Ho sake to is mei.N zindagii biTaado pal jo yeh jaanewalaa hai…” — Gulzar (Gol Maal 1980)

I was fortunate to have the chance to learn to read and write in Urdu from my grandparents who moved to New Delhi after the partition of Punjab. But this opportunity is so rare that I found after my grandfather passed away, I know few people to whom I can still write in Nasta’liq. Urdu is a language of romance—more beautiful than French and Italian, and more intricate than superficial political divides. The legacy of Urdu will continue to add to the allure and nostalgia of old films for generations to come. For the loss of Urdu is more than the mere loss of vocabulary. Without Urdu in Hindi films, we have lost our own andaaz–the manner with which we once communicated our thoughts and feelings, our decorum, and a rich, meaningful ornamentation in expressing ourselves that can never be replaced.

-Mrs. 55

Phool Ahista Phenko Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

Mumtaz is at her sassy finest on screen during this blazing duet from Prem Kahani (1975)

Our next translation comes from Prem Kahani (1975), a hit film set during the peak of India’s struggle for freedom from British rule that stars Mumtaz, Rajesh Khanna, and Shashi Kapoor in  another take on the archetypal Bollywood love triangle. Rajesh Khanna plays the role of an apolitical poet with aspirations of teaching literature who becomes involved in a revolutionary freedom fighter movement to avenge his brother’s murder during a peace protest. He engages in a passionate romance with Mumtaz; however, when she boldly asks to marry him, he turns her down. The reason? Knowing the risks that he will face as a revolutionary, he does not want Mumtaz to be subjected to the cruelties of becoming widowed. Deeply hurt by this rejection,  Mumtaz agrees to marry the man of her father’s choosing. In the mean time, Rajesh kills his brother’s murderer and becomes a fugitive highly sought after by the police. One day, while visiting his sister-in-law’s house, he is shot by police who arrive to search the premises. In order to recover from his wound, Rajesh flees to seek refuge at his best friend Shashi Kapoor’s place. When Rajesh arrives, he finds that it is the day of Shashi’s wedding! Rajesh meets the new bride, and — you guessed it — it is none other than Mumtaz.

In this context, the meaning of the lyrics in “phuul aahistaa phe.nko” come truly alive. The tension at home between Mumtaz and Rajesh Khanna is painfully palpable, and in the midst of this mess, the clueless Shashi calls for the start of an informal mushaira (poetry recital).  If you’re interested in the poetry preceding this song, you can listen to the back-and-forth of the witty retorts between Rajesh and Mumtaz at this link here.  The poetry leads seamlessly into the introduction of this memorable Lata-Mukesh duet, which was composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal and penned by Anand Bakshi. This gem is a perfect example of how songs in Bollywood films can be used  to express emotions that cannot be described as gracefully with dialogue alone.

Through these lyrics, Rajesh takes the opportunity to express his sorrow for letting Mumtaz go and playing with her heart. Mumtaz, with some sassy lines of her own, chides Rajesh for the way that he treated her. In order to fully understand these lyrics, it is important note that the thematic message of this song revolves around a key metaphor: the roses discussed here represent womankind. Like flowers, Indian women must grapple with a delicate and fragile fate as they endure the pain inflicted by the thorns of society’s constraining norms.  Thus, when Rajesh claims in the mukhDaa that roses must be plucked gently (phuul aahistaa phe.nko, phuul baDe naazuk hote hai.n), Mumtaz sarcastically questions the sincerity of his politesse during her antara (baDii khuubsuurat shikaayat hai yah, magar sochiye kyaa sharafat hai yah?). In her heart, she wishes Rajesh had not been overly concerned with her well-being so that their marriage could have occurred (in spite of her prospects of becoming widowed).  By channeling her emotions into anger, Mumtaz now hopes that the same kind of pain will ultimately afflict Rajesh so that he can understand the heartbreak she was forced to endure because of his decisions (jo rulaate hai.n logo.n ko ek din khud bhii rote hai.n).

As you can tell, this song is power-packed with emotional intensity and some beautifully crafted poetry–I highly recommend a listen if you have not received the opportunity to hear it yet. Follow along with our translation and glossary below, and as always, remember to send in your requests to themrandmrs55@gmail.com!

–Mr.55
Rajesh Khanna recites poetry that expresses deep regret for letting his beloved Mumtaz slip away in Prem Kahani (1975)

Phool Ahista Phenko: Lyrics and Translation

kahaa aap kaa yah bajaa hii sahii
What you have said is entirely correct: 
ki ham beqadar, bevafaa hii sahii
I am insensitive and unfaithful. 
bade shauq se jaaiye chhoD kar
With pleasure, you may leave me and go away.
magar sahan-e-gulshan se yuu.n toD kar
But, from the rose garden,

phuul aahistaa phe.nko, phuul baDe naazuk hote hai.n
Gently pluck the roses, for they are very delicate. 
vaise bhii to ye badqismatnok pe kaa.nto.n kii sote hai.n
Indeed, these ill-fated flowers must reside on the tips of thorns.

baDii khuubsuurat shikaayat hai yah
You have expressed quite a lovely grievance,
magar sochiye, kyaa sharaafat hai yah?
but please consider whether it is mere politesse.
jo auro.n kaa dil toDte rahte hai.n
Those who continue to break others’ hearts 
lage choT unko to yah kahte hai.n ki
say this when they become hurt themselves: 
phuul aahistaa phe.nko, phuul baDe naazuk hote hai.n
Gently pluck the roses, for they are very delicate. 
jo rulaate hai.n logo.n ko ek din khud bhii rote hai.n
Those who make others cry shed their own tears one day.

kisii shauk ko baagh kii sair me.n
During a stroll in the garden,
jo lag jaaye kaa.nTaa koii pair me.n
when a thorn pierces your foot,
khafaa husn phuulo.n se ho kis liye?
why do you become angry with the roses, oh beautiful one?
ye maasuum hai.n, bekhataa is liye
They are innocent and faultless.
phuul aahistaa phe.nko, phuul baDe naazuk hote hai.n
Gently pluck the roses, for they are delicate.
ye kare.nge kaise ghaayal? ye to khud ghaayal hote hai.n 

How can they hurt others? They are wounded themselves.

gulo.n ke baDe aap hamdard hai.n
You are quite sympathetic to the beauty of these roses.
bhalaa kyo.n na ho? aap bhii mard hai.n
And why not? You are also a man!
hazaaro.n savaalo.n kaa hai ek javaab
A thousand questions have this one answer.
fareb-e-nazar yah na ho, ai janaab
My dear, don’t let your eyes deceive you.
phuul aahistaa phe.nko, phuul baDe naazuk hote hai.n

Gently pluck the roses, for they are delicate.
sab jise kahte hai.n shabnam, phuul ke aa.nsuu hote hai.n
What people call dew drops are, in fact, the tears shed by roses

*Female lines sung by Lata Mangeshkar are denoted in red. Male lines sung by Mukesh are denoted in black.

Glossary

bajaa: correct; beqadar: insensitive; bevafaa: unfaithful; shauq se: with pleasure; sahan: courtyard; gulshan: rose garden; phe.nknaa: to pluck, throw; aahistaa: slowly, gently; naazuk: delicate; badqismat: ill-fated; nok: tip; shikaayat; grievance; sharaafat: politesse, decency; choT: injury, wound; shauk: thorn; baagh: garden; sair: promenade, stroll; khafaa: angry; maasuum: innocent; bekhataa: faultless; gul: rose; hamdard: sympathetic; fareb-e-nazar: delusion of sight; shabnam: dew drops.  

The handsome yet clueless Shashi Kapoor is unaware of the tumultuous history between his wife Mumtaz and best friend Rajesh Khanna in Prem Kahani (1975).