During a recent movie-nerd conversation, I realised that my engagement with Hindi-film songs had always mostly been at the level of music and rhythm – rather than the lyrics, which were dimly or subconsciously registered but rarely thought about, unless someone pointed out a specific clever line or imagery. Perhaps this is a kink of the brain, or perhaps it comes from growing up in the 1980s when too many mainstream songs seemed built around lazy permutations of “jaane jaana” and “deewaangi”. At any rate, this has been a gap in my education as a professional critic.
It also means my perspective while reading Rajiv Vijayakar’s new book Main Shayar Toh Nahin was that of a layperson, and from this perspective the book worked well. Despite his obvious passion for his subject, Vijayakar doesn’t talk down to the reader or take our knowledge for granted. Early on, for instance, he provides clear explanations of things that might seem very basic to the music buff, such as the mukhda and antara, complete with helpful examples from famous songs.
Among the things covered here are the back-stories of major writers such as Majrooh Sultanpuri, Anand Bakshi, Shailendra, and Gulzar, how they became part of this or that filmmaking crew, their individual sensibilities and temperaments, the compromises some of them made over time. Vijayakar looks at lyrical trends over the decades as well as types of films and directors – how did the musical sensibility of a Raj Kapoor differ from that of Manoj Kumar? And he quotes the poet Neeraj as saying that lyricists are greater than poets because while the latter can afford to cater only to their own creative inclinations, the lyricist must work as part of a team, keeping the film’s tone and the projected audience in mind – even as he maintains his own creative integrity.
The canvas is a very large one – Hindi-film lyrics and lyricists from the 1930s to the present day – and the book does sometimes struggle with this. In the section about specific writers, there is a long chapter, “The Dream Merchants”, about 18 major lyricists, followed by a shorter one titled “They Also Mattered” – and then the section trails away into a bare-bones, Wikipedia-like listing of “other significant names” and “rare talents”. But taken as a whole, this is not the impersonal book I had feared it would be from a cursory glance at the contents. Though he has a journalistic sensibility and includes many quotes from old and new interviews, Vijayakar allows himself a voice, airs his views on the better or lesser work of his subjects, shares anecdotes such as how, after listening to a song from an early 1970s film as a child, he found he had memorized the lyrics of both antaras. (“Great lyrics are remembered without any conscious effort in that direction.”) He shows the egalitarianism of the true buff, writing with equal enthusiasm about the high-minded soft-socialist songs of the 1950s – when nation-building was a major concern – and about more contemporary wordplay in genre films like Go Goa Gone.
Main Shayar Toh Nahin isn’t a book you will read for the quality of the writing, or for a cleanly structured approach: it makes random leaps, there are patches of repetition. But by the time I reached the last page, I felt better-educated about a subject that had been something of a mystery to me.