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Gulzar, Sukrita Paul Kumar

Gulzar : Guftagu with Sukrita Paul Kumar

Gulzar, a poet and writer of rare talent and sensitivity, is also a prominent personality of Indian Cinema, acknowledged as one of the most creative directors and lyricists of our times. He was awarded the prestigious ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’ in 2003 for his collection of short stories Dhuaan
Gulzar has been honoured with ‘Life Time Achievement Award’ for his contribution to Hindi Cinema in 2002 and with ‘Padma Bhushan’ in 2004. He is the only Indian so far to have bagged the prestigious Oscar Award for lyrics for the song ‘Jai Ho’ in the film Slumdog Millionaire. More details on him are available in his profile.

Here, Sukrita Paul Kumar engages him in a guftagu, an informal chat. 

Sukrita: In the past, Gulzar sab, we have recorded conversations on different subjects, such as your experience of Partition 1947 and how that got into your short stories and poetry; we have talked on gender in films; also, on the relationship of Hindi and Urdu or then, on oral traditions and cultures of India. Let us talk about some other issues today.

Something that has always intrigued me about your creativity, is your ability to move from one medium to another with such ease - at least it so appears to us, the readers of your work. Whether it is from films to songs, to your poetry, your fiction, or then, even your translations, the shift from one medium to another, seems to happen smoothly, without much deliberation. It would be interesting to know what you have to say about your own creative process and the ease or say, the difficulty of moving from one form to another!

Gulzar: No, it is not all that simple. It is not so easy either. Most certainly, one has to prepare or gear one’s self specifically for a particular medium/form, although at times, the shift may come also as a sheer relief…You see, the mental state keeps changing constantly… A rather tedious monotony of a form begins to set in if you have been continuously working in a particular medium for long, and to get rid of that monotony…while you are in such a state, you might hit upon a poem, may be yours …Pavanji’s or something else which may be interesting, I promptly get ready to get into translation. And in this very way, when I decided to read Tagore in Bangla, I got caught up in translating him. 

As for writing a film script, that is a long process and happens over a long period of time …it comes off and on, keeps churning in the mind that is constantly engaged in working out how an idea can be visually represented. In this, the written word is merely jotting down what you may have visualized…there is less writing here, well in a way there is a lot of writing but all of it has to visually come alive. In fact, even thinking has to be all visual! How the scene may progress is what one is gripped with and that has to be jotted down then. The process is distinctly different from other kinds of writing. We call this ‘screenplay writing’ but this writing is actually more of picturising… 

I have now more or less moved away from directing films but then, I am more into theatre these days. I have tasted the wonderful joy of its live experience. In theatre, if one has to climb a mountain and say, get into a camp, one knows that there is no mountain there, there is no camp …

Sukrita: …it is in fact more than just visualizing…one has to create the experience of the mountain when it is not there!

Gulzar: Yes…in a film one actually goes to the mountain and enters the camp but in theatre…while one has to create the experience of it …the actual mountain cannot be presented on the stage; no such set can be created! As I work with Saleem Arif who is a thorough professional and is trained at NSD from where he is also a gold medalist … he manages to express a lot through gesture, he may also use narration, but he is very good at creating body language: he’d present a shivering character and there would be a change in the style of his walking, his gait and somehow he would manage to create the feel of mountain climbing. The temperature on the stage is the same as it is for the audience but he has to create the feel of cold through body language. In theatre what is in the centre is body language! Combination of characters, their compositions and the entry and exit of each character on the stage has to be carefully designed and worked out.

Sukrita: Indeed the movement of each character on the stage must also be meticulously co-ordinated with the dialogues …

Gulzar: Yes, each movement of the character needs to be focused upon, of which the entry and exit are very crucial. This is more peculiar to theatre than a film. Actually if you indulge in all these mediums, you taste the specific beautiful features of each medium…it’s like if you start enjoying the taste of fish, you will want to have more of it at different times, wouldn’t you? 

Sukrita: Till one has not tasted it, one doesn’t know those features! But after savouring the taste of it, I guess, one may want to indulge more and more into it…

Gulzar: But let me also add…there is also a need to save one’s self from getting into a medium one is not able to handle! For instance, I am very clear I do not want to eat “baingon” (brinjal) after having tasted it … I realized I can’t handle that taste!

Sukrita: You talked about film-scripting and then theatre, the primary use of the visual in one and the use of body language in theatre. What when you write fiction? Don’t all these features enter into that as well? The visual, the use of gesture etc too are quite a part of writing fiction…

Gulzar: Yes they are, most definitely. Specially, in fiction, the movements of the characters cross through the mind, their body language too makes its impact somewhere, but what is primary in fiction is language, the expression in words of what may have passed through the mind. But when one writes a poem, and we both share that, do you realize how you see colours? They actually appear in front of you. Strangely, that doesn’t happen when you write fiction. While writing fiction, you seem to be concentrating on the flow of the theme, the plot, some suspense and the movement of the characters, some drama……

Sukrita: …and also perhaps on sequencing incidents…what happens next, what follows what etc.? The focus is different…

Gulzar: The concerns are: What should be the flow of action and what has to be revealed when? Poetry is, all in all, a “feel”, an essence of which one wishes to give expression to. The poet sees the trembling dew on the leaves of grass and while he notices the shine, he is not seeing it as an effect of the sun rays…there is no thought element in this…this is a feel.

If you are not in the mood to write a poem at that time and if someone like you were to have a ready canvas in front of you …you will start mixing the green colour and pick up the paint brushes…

Sukrita: And sometimes as you may be seeing the colours, and are ready to paint, you may want to express it all in words… they begin to flow out of you into a poem…

Gulzar: Absolutely! The fact is that the two mediums are in touch with each other, they merge into each other…Those trembling leaves of grass that become the subject of your painting or a poem, also have a rhythm right there, demonstrated through their trembling…dha dhoom, da dhoom…di da…dha dhooom…as you see them tremble, a tarana begins to play itself in your mind…and so there you are…

Sukrita: you are then in contact with yet another medium, music…!

Gulzar: Yes and then it is a matter of choice…yours may be that of words, someone else’s music! Let me give you an example: “Chaand chura ke laya hoon, chal baithe church ke peechhe” when you say this, notice how the sound of “ch” runs through this line…this is how you travel from music back into words, you hear the sounds and in that, the choice of words will matter, the choice of the instruments, of the vocal, the sounds etc…

Sukrita: So then, what we are talking about is also the inevitable dialogue of one medium with another. What we are aware of then is that when boundaries of form or the medium are imposed on creative expression, we actually create a lot of constrictions on expression.

Gulzar: That is why I say, no matter what the medium may be, the source is in that same creativity. You have to exercise your choices: what medium, what tools etc.

Sukrita: Or how the medium may have chosen you! ?

Gulzar: No, the choice is one’s own. Lets not philosophize this…you make your own choice consciously. You pick up a tool or a medium because you have worked with it, you have developed the skills involved. You can create music only when you know how you can synchronize your swaras with those of the harmonium or the tanpura. Without learning you cannot develop your creativity…

Sukrita: Have you ever had the experience of sitting down to write a poem and ending up writing a story instead…the poem becomes a story?

Gulzar: well, no …accidentally? No! Many people tell me that they sat down to doing shairi but the poem became something else, a story. I think that is not true for me at all. It may be that since you have the skill for it, you may start to work in a different medium. With me, I have always said, I don’t allow the poem to go away from me. I write what I want to. Nothing comes up as a fluke and nothing is accidental. I do not allow the poem to run wild. 

Sukrita: To continue in the same vein and lead you further into this question…has it ever happened that once you are engaged with something, say as in the case of the feel of the trembling leaves of grass… some characters may emerge on the scene and you feel they too need to be accommodated in your expression. Poetry may not be able to contain them. And you do have the skills of writing fiction!

Gulzar: Once I wrote a poem and felt that the poem was not complete, or rather, I felt that I had not been able to give a full expression to what I wanted to say. This was therefore followed by a short story. After writing the poem I felt I had not been able to open up some crucial layers of the experience I was trying to express in the poem. I had to search for another medium then. The medium didn’t come after me…how should I say it? The search for an appropriate medium is always my own…

Sukrita: When we say “the medium comes after you”, this is merely a manner of speaking…in effect the idea is to connect the expression of an experience with an appropriate medium! 

Gulzar: Well, it is only a poetic way of saying “The character chose me”; in reality who chooses? One can say poetically “the character got after me and I had to write about him then” but that is not true…the truth is that you have seen a character, in reality or imagination, you get obsessed with it and then you choose to write about it…

Sukrita: Let’s talk about you as a translator now. It is often said that what is faithful is not beautiful. I can vouch for the fact that this is not true when it comes to your translation! Since my own poems have been translated by you, I have the first hand experience of this …even if you were to look at the translation line by line, faithfulness can just not be questioned, and yet the translation is beautiful. This magic of translation is amazing… how do you manage to achieve this? How conscious are you of the process you follow? While you are translating, do you constantly remain conscious of the original poem? With some translators, the original poem is something like a trigger. It triggers the translator’s imagination, maybe into a totally different domain…and the translation becomes a totally different poem! But with you, one sees both, the faithful as well as the beautiful!

Gulzar: I differ with you on this. When you say the translation “becomes another poem” or the original “triggers off the translator’s imagination…”…I don’t see it that way at all. See, when I sit down to translate your poem, I engage with what has sunk into me or what I have liked. So I have to be aware and totally conscious: was this what I had liked? If I have gone astray, I’ll have to discard that, no matter how good it may sound…I’ll have to come back on the track, to the poem I had started to translate. So I’ll not allow the “trigger off”. 

We do the same in films too…however beautiful the shots may be, they will have to be discarded if not relevant. Some people may indulge and put them in but I am clear that one must remain honest to the original script. The extra shots will have to be cut, however beautiful they may be. For this, one has to be one’s own critic. You, too, must be doing that. If the lines take you away from what you set out to do, you’ll have to edit them. I don’t contribute to the idea that the act of translation can or may be allowed to take you away from the original. In my own writing too, if I feel that I have not been able to convey what I had actually ‘felt’, I remain clear that I do not want to go on writing that piece. I could do another piece then. The primary focus should not be lost. 

This is exactly what I follow even in my translations. What is beautiful or faithful…seems so because I hold on to the basic focus. I don’t even want to use the word “faithful”…I’d rather say – the beauty of what had seemed beautiful, must be kept closely in mind in translation! The expression, the language of course changes…but I don’t want to miss out on any line because the poem is, after all, not mine. There is a lot of effort that goes into trying to transfer what I have liked in a poem to another language with the same measure of beauty as in the original. It’s not just a mere change of language…also, it’s not just transferring meanings! It is the effort to create the same beauty. Forgive me for saying here that I did not see this in some of the earlier translations of your own poems. 

Sukrita: It is the impact too that needs to be recreated and experienced…

Gulzar: A poem in itself is not just a thought or mere words; while thought can be carried in an article…a poem carries a “feel”, that is why it has rhythm, that is why it has a rhyme and that is why there is a specific choice of words. It is not a good translation if it does not carry the same sound, the same images … In your poems, I could see Hindustani culture lurking through the lines of your poems written in English. My effort was to capture that shadow and bring it to the fore in Hindustani language. I said to myself - let the English language recede and let the shadow I see in these poems be foregrounded in my translations. 

Sukrita: So there was obviously some conscious thinking and deliberation that went into it. A lot of people talk about how you have captured the “feel” of each of the poems…

You also talked of how the very act of writing a poem is in a way the capturing of the “feel” that the poet experiences inwardly. In a way then, even creative writing is an act of translation! Creativity and translation meet at some point!

You are, Gulzar sab, well versed in several languages and have been exposed to Urdu poetry, world poetry, Bengali poetry…here’s a cliché question: Which are the poets who have stayed in your mind? The creativity of such poets will inevitably be connected with your own creativity. 

Gulzar: The “Ibtidah” (Beginning) of the series I made on Ghalib has the following lines : “Ballimaran ke mohallon ki vo pechida daleelon ki si galiyan”…Tell me, don’t those galiyan in Ballimaran really look like “pecheeda dalilein”? But you know this has come straight from T S Eliot; says he: “The streets that run like a tedious argument”. Now, that “tedious argument” is so beautiful…I thought it would be best to borrow these lines from him and apply them to Ballimaran. I always acknowledge this debt. Such beautiful lines and so appropriately for the streets of Ballimaran!! Using those lines, is like paying a tribute to another poet.

Sukrita: What a wonderful borrowing and then a fine application! I am sure T S Eliot would have been most happy to lend you those lines for such an apt use! This is also a carrying forward of sorts…

Gulzar: This is how my contact with this poet started. Eliot’s powerful use of imagery baffled me when I started reading him. And then, came other poets. Jibanananda Das for example, If I have ever felt the terror of another poet, it’s him. I am scared of even touching his poems. I want Hindustani readers to get to know him and I’ll try at some point to translate him. I hope I am able to take on those poems. He’s one of the most difficult poets to translate because he uses such intricate imagery. There is imagery, music, sound, words, vision and indeed, meaning…

Sukrita: and all this in such a condensed form…

Gulzar: Yes, I am probably not yet capable enough to handle all of that! Very early I had started to translate yet another very powerful poet…Subhas Mukhopadhyay, from Bengali. At that time I used to be scared of even trying Tagore. Subhash Mukhopadhyay, a contemporary poet, was my favourite…a poet with a highly modern sensibility, a very good poet. And then, there’s Joy Goswami, also a very good contemporary poet…I want to translate so that I can share these poets and their poems with you people. Not so much to take from them, but to share! Later, I mustered courage to translate Tagore ... First, I saw his own translation. After I read him in Bangla, I felt he had played foul with us in his own translations. They were not beautiful as in the original at all. How come he took a corner, when it was a straight goal?! He played foul! He took a penalty corner on his own and made a goal, didn’t he? I had to attempt translating him ... And Tagore has written so beautifully for children. These poems have a great appeal for the children in any part of the country, not just for those in Bengal.

Sukrita: Are you translating them into Hindustani?

Gulzar: Yes, I am translating from “Shishu” and from “The Gardner” too”.

Sukrita: We wait for these translations anxiously…

Gulzar: And what more can I tell you about Bengal! The romance of Bengal is amazing. I have tasted it and enjoyed it all! 

But yes, I have also translated from Marathi. I have translated Kusumagraj and a bit of Vinda Karandikar…After living in Maharashtra for so long, I am so intimate with this land and culture. Even though I was born in the Punjab and know Bulle Shah, Waris Shah and others, and have the enjoyed the rich legacy of their culture, I am very familiar with Maharashtra and Marathi, the atmosphere here…I have breathed the salt in this air…And I have translated from Marathi. And then, I did your poems, one by one, if only to foreground the Hindustani culture! 

Pavanji had translated my poems into English. When I made him share his writing with me in Neemrana, I discovered the beauty of the verses he had written on Yudhishter and Draupadi. Of course, I had earlier read bits of Mahabharata (Acharya Chakravarty’s version). But here was a fascinating analysis of Yudhishter and Draupadi; I was taken in by how the author had got into the psyche of these characters. I started its translation. When I finished the work and met him next, I read out some of the translated verses to him, he sat listening for a while, quite oblivious of the fact that the original were his. When he recognized his own verses in another avatar, he stood up baffled, excited and unable to contain it all!

Sukrita: I totally identify with that excitement because I went through the same experience of wonderment when you first read out your translation of my poems to me over the phone…

Gulzar: The beauty of the translation lies in the fact that the experience of the original travels affectionately into another language and in that way it goes to sit snugly into the lap of the other culture!

Sukrita: Thank you very much, Gulzar sab for this Guftagu, a valuable sharing of your reflections on the creating process, both in your original writing as well as in the act of translation.

15th December 2011



Gulzar : Guftagu with Sukrita Paul Kumar
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Atreya Sarma U : ‘The Battle of Palnad’
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Anish Krishnan Nayar : Poems of Irom Sharmila
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Minu Mehta : Public Choices & Private Voices
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Pramod K Das & Narayan Jena : ‘The Poetics of History'
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Ambika Ananth – Editorial Comment
Krishna Chakravarthy
Zinia Mitra
Jairaj Padmanabhan
Sandip Sahoo
Sasnarine Persaud
Shobhana Kumar

Gautam Maitra : ‘Varsha’s Encounter ...’
Kanakasabapathi K S : ‘Dora’
Shaily Sahay : ‘Roodrabhisheka’
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