Remembering Sahir Ludhianvi on his birth centenary: The man who chose to challenge

The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Sahir Ludhianvi’s writing is his progressive writing, his socialist spirit and of course his romantic shayari.

This year Sahir sahab’s birth centenary and International Women’s Day come together on the eighth of March, and today my thoughts turn towards his advocacy for women’s rights, through popular film music.

The general drift of classical Urdu poetry dictated that a man’s feelings about a woman take centre stage. The poet would praise his beloved’s beauty, chide her ‘bewafayi’ and romanticise their relationship. But Sahir’s narrative of relationships was often equal, where the lover and beloved conversed (through lyric) on equal terms. And sometimes one even saw the ‘nazaara’ through the woman’s eyes of the ‘female gaze’.

One of my favourites and a great case in point is a famous romantic duet from the film Naya Daur (1957) starring Vyjayanthimala and Dilip Kumar. It is very unlikely for a woman to assert her desire, saying ‘ude jab jab zulfen teri kuwaariyon ka dil machle’ (when your hair flies, the heart of young women flutter). For a woman to praise a man’s beauty, to romanticise him, or even see him as an object of desire was almost impossible, because love was more often about power play. And in this game women had no stakes. Sahir challenged this skewed gender equation.

In the film Chitralekha (1964), starring Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar, he makes a woman fearlessly question social norms. In ‘sansar se bhage phirte ho, bhagwaan ko tum kyaa paaoge’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar, the female protagonist calls out the hypocrisy of the big shots of society, patriarchy, and even religious communities

In this non-romantic mode, Sahir didn’t use poetic metaphors to hide the scars of social evils. In the 1958 film Sadhna, starring Vyjanthimala and Sunil Dutt, Sahir advocates for exploited women in the very stirring song Aurat Ne Janam Diya Mardon Ko, sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Citing iconic women who figure through history, he urges a society that is majorly run by men to respect women and to be their equal, or suffer anarchy.

20 years later, in the song Tu mere saath rahega munne from Yash Chopra’s Trishul, he hits the emotional nail loud and hard. For a mother to say “Main tujhe dudh na bakshoogi tujhe yaad rahe” is strikingly selfish, even crudely put (Sahir received a lot of criticism for the same). But, Sahir was not looking to prettify the wronged woman’s anger, even if she was a mother. So, he didn’t. 

Sahir Ludhianvi may not have given his songs feminist voices often enough, but when he did, these voices were loud, proud and challenging. And his songs on equality for women, from more than 50 years ago, would fit right into this year’s International Women’s Day theme — #ChooseToChallenge.

(Kausar Munir is one of the most popular screen-writers and lyricists working in the hindi film industry today. The poetess behind the beautifully-penned songs of Ishaqzaade, Meri Pyaari Bindu, Dear Zindagi, and more recently, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, she started her writing career in television with Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin.)

As told to Ahana Datta Chaudhury

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