Dil Dhoondhta Hai : Gulzar, the Humanist Poet, and his Women of Strength

Gulzar was a toddler of one when his mother, Sujaan Kaur, passed away. As there were no photographs of the lady to fall back upon, he does not even know what she looked like. That unseen face of a woman who brought him into the world is, in a very crucial way, probably the reason why the busy poet-filmmaker has never forgotten that otherwise little known, nondescript village which now lies on the Pakistani side of India’s northwestern border. It is a village that, in his mind, is associated with the mother whose visage he does not remember. So he clings on to whatever is remotely reminiscent of that tiny hamlet of his childhood.


His friends and associates often allude to his feminine disposition: it enables him to see relationships invariably from the standpoint of women. For a boy who attained manhood without the benison of maternal love, the feminist slant of his work is almost a dire necessity, an act of coming to terms with a chasm that has existed in the very center of his life ever since he can remember.

– Excerpts from ECHOES and ELOQUENCES, The Life and Cinema of Gulzar – By Saibal Chatterjee

I quote this as I sit down to write about the humanist poet who possibly has the best understanding of human relationships of all filmmakers of our times, an incredible feminine gaze to layer that up further, that has consistently been masterfully portrayed on the screen through his cinema; and we can somewhat trace back the genesis of the same to the above. There is an undeniably strong feminine perspective resonating in almost every film of Gulzar, while the women in Gulzar’s cinema are the most real women you can touch and feel – they are flawed, they are tormented, they have their own whims and complexes, their strength is awespiring, they endure, they grow with time, and they also push us to peep into and make friends with our own hidden faltering selves. There is enough and more to recall and celebrate when we think of the strongest female characters that Gulzar has created on screen; and we perennially feel awed by his sensibilities, empathy and humanism reflecting through them.

The best place to start exploring the theme should of course be Ijaazat, a film tremendously close to my heart, a film that gives us two fiery women in Sudha and Maya, both diametrically opposite, both flawed, but both amazingly human through their strength, spirit and sensitivity. The magic of Ijaazat lies in the fact that a complex web of relationships is unraveled to the viewer in a very practical, matter of fact approach, free of moral prejudice, without taking any sides of right or wrong, without being judgmental of any of the protagonists and the decisions they take!

At the heart of the story lies the extremely lovable, delicate, eccentric and elusive Maya (true to her name); who represents the ultimate free spirit that life can be! She is all about heart, her exuberance is infectious, and one can’t help but fall in love with her! She is in constant struggle with herself as the man who was her life has now married someone else, her childhood scars come back and haunt her, but she does not give up on her dignity for a moment even when she tries to put an end to her excruciating pain away from Mahendar. Her moistened but glittering sad eyes have their own story to tell, her regard for Sudha is deeply endearing as she knows Sudha is everything that she is not, she is an open book who invites us to find her geela mann jo shayad bistar ke paas pada hain, and her innocent and clear heart embraces her plea for that lambi saans that she wants to hold on to for staying afloat. She wants to live, and her charm works its way to trigger empathy and compassion in every soul around her, even Sudha, as she laments to Mahendar saying ‘Yun bhi toh din raat Maya hamare saath reh rahi hain. Saamaan bhi reh jaata toh kya ho jaata?

In many ways Sudha is an alter ego to Maya, and her dignified grace and brooding silence has its own appeal. Sudha is all about what truth and right should be, and yet she is endearingly human and poignantly graceful even as she struggles to make peace with a spouse who has his heart somewhere else! The conformist in Sudha, the decision maker in Sudha is so much in contrast to everything that even Mahendar is, that we know that she completes him in ways that possibly even she does not see and realize but he does. Hence it is not hard to relate to why Mahendar would find himself devastated when she leaves him even when he would never have been hers completely otherwise! And yet Sudha is weirdly human and flawed in her upright self respect, her conservative boundaries and her repentance when she gets to know how Mahendar’s life was shattered after she left. There is tremendous restraint and admiration even in that guilt that finds an outlet through Sudha’s vulnerable self in her moment of truth, and Gulzar morphs that weakness to a strength with his poetic treatment of the pain. With all this and more, Ijaazat becomes truly lyrical in spirit and extremely real in character, and Maya and Sudha become our friends for a lifetime.

Then there are the three firebrand sisters from Namkeen and their senile Amma who would stand like a mountain protecting her daughters from the sharp claws of the pouncing surroundings. The eldest daughter, rightfully named Nimki sees life pass through, as she continues playing the anchor matriarch of the broken home, with all the maturity and poise that life demands, and is not willing to take the offer to start a new life, leaving her loved ones to die behind. Her sense of responsibility and her accountability towards her family weighs down far more heavily on her than her allure for life. The lovely and sweet Mitthu has lost her voice to the atrocities of life, but finds her lyrical expressions through her poetry and her dreams. Unfortunate that she isn’t able to cope up with the heartbreak of unreciprocated emotions since her emotional attachment quotient is the strongest of all the sisters, but she is always the one from whom Nimki derives her strength till the time she is around. And then there is the youngest and spunky Chinki, who is the tangy flavor of the household and is desperately looking to life, for herself, for her sisters, and is not willing to perish decaying in the ecosystem that is getting her sisters. Her spunk was the unspoken charm of the household, and her going away in a way takes away that ray of positivity from that home as well. These women are all cornered and beaten down by staunch patriarchy of the society, but they show extreme poise and resilience as they deal with their unhinged sorrow and their attachment for the only man in their life who treats them with care and compassion, emotions they have not known their entire life. But sadly even he leaves them behind at one point fading away to yaadon pe basar karte hain, and nothing remains the same again. Namkeen is that underrated masterpiece of Gulzar that is infused with the most delectable flavors of life, and it derives all its brilliance through four of the most interesting women characters that Gulzar ever wrote. But the film has unfortunately been neglected and forgotten by the society at large, just like the fate of those fiery women within it.

Gulzar’s feminist gaze finds a unique home again in Mausam as he builds up the characters of Chanda and especially of Kajli. A woman who was forced into prostitution as the man who loved her mother Chanda never returned to her and that unbound grief eventually took her life. It is an experience watching what unfolds on screen as the man finally returns after many years in search of Chanda to only meet Kajli who is by then a mirror image of Chanda, but their journey begins with the most awkward pretext of him being a customer for her services at that point. It is a fascinating way forward from that point on as to how that relationship and Kajli’s individualism transforms and metamorphoses to something so delicate and pristine, how her gaze changes for the man who was everything for her mother, and unless the filmmaker has the ability to go deep into the woman’s mind space, he couldn’t have so flawlessly expressed the understated reactions and humane struggles that even the repenting old man goes through during his own journey of rediscovering himself through his fursat ke raat din.

The amazing thing about Gulzar is that he doesn’t perfectly portray these complex feminine emotions just through his flesh and blood characters only. He goes beyond the realms of the real in the forgotten classic Lekin where he infuses Rewa with abundant grace and elegance even in her melancholy while maintaining the ethereal aura around the spiritual her. Lekin takes us to a world of surreal realism, where a man constantly meets a woman who is supposed to have perished long ago, but is possibly trapped in time and her loner soul is still seeking closures in her life and she is craving for at least her shadow to be by her side and be the companion of her grief and laments mere saath aaye na meri parchhai re. Rewa’s sorrow is muted and haunting at the same time, and the poetic charm of her piercing eyes work their way into the souls of the wandering man and us the viewers. So strong is Rewa’s impact in the life of this man and in the film that we constantly feel her haunting presence as viewers even when she is not on the screen. Rewa and the film have got Gulzar’s charm distinctly written all over them, as the mystical, traumatized and deeply sensitive world beautifully comes to life through the engaging storytelling and matured lens of Gulzar Saab.

As we move from this surreal world to some of the darkest bylanes of Gulzar’s cinema thriving in a rotting political ecosystem, we find some extremely strong women anchoring those narratives as well. In Aandhi, Gulzar embarks on a journey of an estranged couple (Aarti and JK) who meet after years and some nostalgic old memories are rekindled (it can be seen as a potential foreplay to the Ijaazat context from years later, although the source inspirations of the two films are very very different). But Aarti is no ordinary woman. Her simmering political ambitions are not in sync with the conservative middle class values of her husband, and hence life pulls them apart. Yet it is the strength of their characters that their strong foundation of love and admiration for each other stays intact as they regret the absence of the other in their lives, knowing fully well that separation was the only way forward for them to maintain their sanctity and peace. Gulzar’s humanist approach elevates their flawed selves above moral judgement and we shed a tear or two along with them as they seek the comfort of their companionship to feel their aankhon me aansuon ki nami.

We meet another pillar of strength years later in Veeran of Maachis seeded in a highly political world, who has been hardened beyond imagination by the atrocities of time, but who still has a tender and sensitive core desperately trying to release her unbound grief through khare paani re, longing to go back to the peaceful comforts of her home far away from the bloody terrains of hatred and terror life has thrown her into. The price that she is willing to pay to seek justice and closures for the violent devastations of her life is relatable to what we also see in Panna in Hu Tu Tu. Panna’s struggle is possibly a tad more traumatic as her fight is up against the system she has grown up in and the central adversary she is fighting against is her own mother Malti, who is super strong in her own right but whose political ambitions have completely clouded her judgement of the right and the wrong. She wants to prick her mother and the system where it hurts the most, in the hope that it would be a good enough blow to cause real impact and trigger a meaningful change, but the pragmatic filmmaker in Gulzar also leaves us with the brooding realistic message that it may take many Veerans and Pannas to perish in their righteousness before the wheels of justice begin to turn. Nevertheless, our heart goes out to both of them and their powerful endurance to seek the right continues to echo in the dark times we live in.

As it does for the amazing women we meet and understand in a set of three films that are often remembered together possibly because of the uncanny casting of the same leading man against type in all three of them. I am talking about Parichay, Khushboo and Kinara. Rama in Parichay is not the central character of the film, but as the eldest sister of a family of orphaned children who are trying to find semblance in their grandfather’s home who is in a way responsible for their agony, Rama brings in a heartfelt vulnerability and a poised maturity to her character at the same time. A dha ni si didi, who needs to be the mother, there is a tentativeness in her and her sense of responsibility at times guards her free-spiritedness. We relate to it even more strongly with Aarti in Kinara, the woman tormented by a series of incidents that have taken her eyesight and her partner away from her life. The dignity with which she navigates through her inner and outer darkness trying to find closures by publishing his unfulfilled dream, at times even takes her away from her own realization of how her heart has unknowingly opened up to a new wave of empathy and compassion in her life. Gulzar makes us see through this conflict seamlessly because he understands the complexities of the woman’s heart with that much depth. As he expresses the same through ab ke baras toh barsengi ankhiyaan, we hear the echoes of a wailing twin soul shedding her emotions in do nainon me aansoon bhare hain from Khushboo. Kusum in Khushboo symbolizes all things strength and honor, as she struggles through her loneliness and scars from the past, while also craving to fill the void of motherhood in her life. The inaccessibility of Brindaban strengthens her love for him, and his seemingly silent apathy also adds resolute to it so as to not compromise on her spine of steel. Her stiffling trauma drown her in pain, but there is a lovely understated class even in that sorrow. Kusum would be one the most layered female characters from the cinematic world of Gulzar, whose complexity we respect and whose silent strength we admire and root for.

For every Kusum who lives in the world of Gulzar, there is also an Anandi from Mere Apne who embodies warmth and endearment like no one else and does not shy away from showering her unadulterated affection on anyone, even if they are some of the misguided youth of the neighborhood who have turned into self proclaimed goons. Anandi’s motherly warmth and infectious empathy makes them find their goodness within and of the world around them but it is a heavy price to pay. And then there is the other mother in Aarti from Koshish whose struggles are very different from Anandi but who is possibly the most moving portrayal of motherhood in her own right. What Aarti and Hari go through together to keep alive the cheers of hope in their muted silent worlds is an unforgettable experience even for the viewers, and that is again because the maverick filmmaker has it in him to completely internalize the pain and trauma of a helpless mother and then express the same through her poised elegance and unbound silent strength. In Meera, this strength finds its expressions through the unabashed spiritual submission of Meera for her Gopal while never compromising on her dignity and her worldly responsibilities. This is a quest for freedom of the highest kind for a wandering strong soul in search of her ultimate truth.

Achanak, Kitaab and Angoor may be exceptions of Gulzar’s filmography that way, when we try to see them through the lens of the feminine gaze, possibly because the central themes of these films are mostly devoid of the sombre relationship drama aspect that almost all his other films have. They are all wonderful films by themselves, they do have some interesting female characters as well, just that they are more interested in exploring a different world of emotions and central characters, and do not focus intentionally at looking at the world from their women’s point of view. But what we miss in these films is more than made up for if we start exploring the huge block of cinema that Gulzar did not direct but wrote the story, screenplay or dialogues for. There is a quintessential Gulzarish touch of familiar everyday women of Gulzar in many of these films, whether it would be Guddi, Khamoshi, Griha Pravesh or Baseraa and a rich collection of many other films where Gulzar gave his writing inputs. Then there are the hundreds of songs that Gulzar has written and the emotional depth of those songs and their humanist commentary is another ocean by itself. But that world of Gulzar demands a whole new detailed write-up on its own because it is a significantly large space to explore, so may be we could park it for another day.

We do regret for a few ‘not haves’ in Gulzar’s world of cinema though. It really feels like a loss that the best storyteller of our times had to shelve the much retold Devdas after filming it for a few reels. We know that the story in Gulzar’s Devdas would have been told from Paro’s and Chandramukhi’s point of view, the stronger characters of the source material anyway, who grow up further through all the turbulences they face while Devdas refuses to do so. It would have been a refreshingly different and a much needed nuanced take on the epic novel, which hasn’t otherwise left a strong footprint back from any of its other on screen adaptations.

And then there is Libaas for which we continue for wait eternally. Hopefully there would be a day when we can fully experience Gulzar’s vision and delve deeper into the mind-space of Seema and understand the dark complex layers of her solitude and longing as she finds herself broken and divided between the worlds of Sudhir and TK, an experience we are waiting to overwhelm us for close to 35 years now and can literally relate to the beats of saalon se raat leke chale in this period of unending wait.

Dear Gulzar Saab – Thank you for your cinema, and all the humanism that your stories and your women of strength embody. Thank you for delayering their most complex emotions and adding such lyrical elegance to their simmering silences, that it even helps us to look at our own worlds in a different light at times. Zindagi tere gham ne humein rishtein naye samjhaye – as you say. There is a sense of completeness that your cinema provides, covering up our voids, caressing our scars, and embracing our melancholy with a magical touch of realism, compassion and empathy. That is the power of your cinema. That is the power of your humanism. A fire that will never extinguish in this lifetime.

Katra katra milti hai… Katra katra jeene do… Zindagi hai… Behno do…..Pyaasi hoon main pyaasi rehne do………

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Copyright ©2021 Jayashree Chakravarti. This article cannot be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL can be used instead.

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