The Man, the Master, the Legend: Majrooh Sultanpuri

Dadasaheb Phalke laureate Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote lyrics from 1946 to 2000. Photo: Publicity Photo

On May 24, 2000, lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, a genius who shaped Hindi film songs right from his 1946 debut in Shahjehan to his last films in the 1990s, passed away. Whether it was Jab dil hi toot gaya from that film, Papa kehte hain from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT) or Aaj main oopar from Khamoshi—The Musical, Majrooh remained relevant to the end—and is so even now, 23 years on.

Here is a quick recap of 23 facts that show what Majrooh was.

Aamir Khan in the cult song Pehla nasha from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. Photo: Video Grab
  1. An ex-Unani practitioner from his hometown Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Majrooh Sultanpuri’s real name was Asrar-ul-Hasan Khan.
  2. He got his first assignment by competing with other poets for writing to a situation in A.R. Kardar’s Shahjehan and winning. The song was Kar lijiye chalkar mere jaanat ke nazarein.
  3. The late K.L. Saigal had expressed a wish that Majrooh’s Jab dil hi toot gaya from that film be played on Saigal’s last journey.
  4. Fearless and fiery, Majrooh was jailed in the early 1950s for his anti-Nehru writings. Among his supporters was Raj Kapoor, who had been impressed by him. As Majrooh had a family to support but immense self-respect, Raj visited him in jail and asked him to write a song on a situation—what made God create the world. The poet wrote, Duniya bananewale kyat ere man mein samayi / Kaahe ko duniya banayi and Raj paid him Rs. 1000 when the topmost lyricists got Rs. 500! The mukhda was used by Raj in 1966 for Teesri Kasam, with Hasrat Jaipuri completing the lyrics!
  5. Majrooh was responsible for enhancing the film song with many new terms—among them were dilbar, sanam and jaaneman, which have been used countless times by everyone.
  6. A favorite word for him was diya or lamp and its Urdu counterpart, chirag. This became a recurring motif in many of his songs, like Dil ka diya jalaake gaya (Akash Deep) and Chirag dil ka jalao (Chirag), the words coming in also in so many antaras (inner verses) of his songs.
  7. Despite winning the highest awards in both lyrics (the Dadasaheb Phalke in 1994) and poetry (Iqbal Sammaan in 1992), he wryly commented to me, “I could neither be a complete lyricist nor poet!”
  8. 1200-plus songs in over 250 films in a span of 55 years saw Majrooh working with the cream of filmmakers from Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor and B.R. Chopra to Rajkumar Santoshi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Mansoor Khan. Filmmaker Nasir Husain (Aamir Khan’s uncle) stuck to Majrooh after their first film, Tumsa Nahin Dekha in 1957 to his last directorial, Zabardast (1985) and production (Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992).
  9. His last releases were Mere Biwi Ka Jawab Nahin and Ek Se Badh Kar Ek in 2004, in which he did not write all songs.
  10. He was amazingly in sync with times and themes. Though a Leftist, unlike many poets in cinema, he never let his ideology color his work, and the song situation remained paramount.
  11. When he wrote the youth anthem that catapulted Aamir Khan to fame—Papa kehte hain (QSQT), he was 69! And Asha Bhosle agreed to do Leslie Lewis’ pop album Jaanam Samjha Karo only if Majrooh wrote the songs. Its endemically popular title-track was written in 1997 when Majrooh was 78!
  12. When V. Shantaram made Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli (1971), India’s first film album in Stereophonic Sound, Lata Mangeshkar suggested Majrooh’s name for the lyrics of the musical. And Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Majrooh created the hit song Kajraa lagaake after leading lady Sandhya had composed the dance first.
  13. He resonated perfectly with composers from Naushad from the 1940s to S.D. Burman, Roshan, O.P. Nayyar, Chitragupta, R.D. Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan, Anand-Milind and Jatin-Lalit.
  14. In my first interview with A.R. Rahman (Pukar, One Two Ka Four), Rahman told me that he missed “the life-changing lyrics of (Anand Bakshi and) Majrooh.”
  15. Majrooh also proved lucky for multiple composers. Whether it was the breakthrough films of O.P. Nayyar (Aar Paar), Laxmikant-Pyarelal (Dosti), R.D. Burman (Teesri Manzil) and Anand-Milind (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak) or debuts of Rajesh Roshan (Kunwara Baap) and Jatin-Lalit (Yaara Dildaara and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander), Majrooh was the common point.
  16. Majrooh had a lull from the 1980s to the mid-1990s despite winners like Ladies Tailor, Kudrat, Khud-daar, Haathkadi and even QSQT, but after Khamoshi (1996), he signed 15 films!
  17. Though Naushad’s son married Majrooh’s daughter, the composer stopped working with him after the 1949 Andaz as he was a devout Muslim and the poet had joined a Communist organization, and Naushad thought he had turned atheist. They came together two decades later with memorable results in Saathi.
  18. But Majrooh candidly admitted to learning a lot under Naushad. “He taught me that two or three songs could be written to a metre, but only one will have the perfect phonetics. And contrary to what he claimed, he often gave me the tune first!”
  19. Bluntly honest to the core, he also said that S.D. Burman and he developed a special kind of question-answer duet like Aankhon mein kya ji (Nau Do Gyarah), Chhod do aanchal zaman kya kahega (Paying Guest) and Haal kaisa hai janaab ka (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi). “But Dada could not understand formats like the ghazal, and my Kahin bekhayal hokar (Teen Devian) was actually ghost-composed by his assistant, Jaidev,” he revealed.
  20. He admitted to lowering his “literary standards in songs” for O.P. Nayyar because of his stress on rhythm. He added, “R.D. Burman was very scared of my poetry, though his compositions had a lot of scope for it!”
  21. Majrooh called Jal Bin… and Mamta his best work, and stated that those films’ composers, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Roshan, never made him change a word of his poetry to suit a tune in any film they did together.
  22. The lyricist never believed in a generation gap and would ask young composers and singers whether they were comfortable with what he had written. Sonu Nigam was shocked when he offered to change a line if he was uncomfortable singing it.
  23. In an ocean of cult classics and chartbusters, a limited cluster of Majrooh evergreens will include Ae dil hai muskhil (CID), Ab kya misaal doon (Aarti), Baar baar dekho (China Town), Jaag dil-e-diwana (Oonche Log), Chahoonga main tujhe (Dosti), O mere sona re sona re (Teesri Manzil), Dil vil pyar vaar (Shagird), Yeh dil na hota bechara (Jewel Thief), Sa re ga ma pa (Abhinetri), Inhi logon ne (Pakeezah), O mere dil ke chain (Mere Jeevan Saathi), Mungda  (Inkaar), Pehla nasha (Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander) and hundreds more. And to think, his pen-name ‘Majrooh’ meant ‘The wounded soul’!


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