The title of Pankaj Butalia’s documentary on poet, writer and film lyricist Nida Fazli is taken from a line from a song in the movie Silsila. “Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum” (where has our journey brought us), written by Javed Akhtar, are the opening words of a popular romantic track featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in passionate embrace, but in Butalia’s documentary, the phrase refers to Fazli’s journey from Gwalior, where he was born, to Mumbai, where he now lives.
Produced by the Films Division, Yeh Kahaan Aa Gaye Hum? begins with Fazli visiting Gwalior. “A place waits for the person who leaves only for a few days, but when the person doesn’t come back, then the town itself goes off to some other place, and when the person returns, by then it is normally so late that his town cannot be found within his own town,” the 76 -year-old poet says from the inside of an Ambassador on a rain-swept day as he tries to locate the house where he spent his childhood.
The 52-minute documentary traces the concerns articulated in this poetic rumination on where a poet really belongs. The themes covered include Fazli’s involvement with the Progressive Writers’ Group, his decision to stay on in India while his family migrated to Pakistan after the Partition, his thoughts on the communalisation and decline of Urdu, his decision to express his thoughts in unvarnished language, and his Leftist politics.
“I was interested in the connections Nida Fazli makes between life and politics,” said Butalia, the director of such documentaries as Moksha, Textures of Loss and A Landscape of Neglect. “I tried to see from his earlier work what could be in sync with my own way of thinking such as the stuff about the small town and the big city, and the Partition.”
There was no scope to talk about Fazli’s involvement with the movie business for the same reason that deters several documentary filmmakers from excavating the history of Indian cinema. It costs money and time to source the relevant clips or songs from movies because of copyright rules. A performance of one of Fazli’s poems by Jagjit Singh wafts in the background only because it was sung at a public concert, Butalia said. “The music company Saregama wants Rs 10 lakh for a 30 second clip, and our budget was Rs 12 lakh,” Butalia pointed out. “Trying to negotiate with the industry would have taken me into complicated territory.”
The absence of Fazli’s film work hardly affects the outcome of the documentary, since there are other issues to discuss. Fazli comes across as a thoughtful figure from whose tongue poetry, his own as well as of Ghalib’s and Mir’s, rolls off as easily as everyday speech. Fazli’s ability to burst into poetry is a typical feature of the Urdu poets of his generation, Butalia said. “The poets have this capacity since they come from an oral tradition. They have everything by heart.”
Butalia met Fazli for the first time only a few years ago, when the poet was in Delhi at a function involving his friend Salman Akhtar, the psychoanalyst and brother of poet Javed Akhtar. Several conversations ensued over the telephone before Fazli agreed to be filmed for the documentary. Once he got going, the flow of anecdotes barely stopped, Butalia said. “I could have gone on for two hours.”
The filmmaker confessed to being no expert on Urdu poetry, but what drew him to Fazli’s work is the “simplicity and directness”. Butalia said. “What I like about his poetry is its accessibility,” he said. “It’s not steeped in the classic Persian idiom. His concerns are more modernist and about his daily life and class.”
Through Fazli, Butalia also managed to fleetingly explore the history of the Progressive Writers movement (a comprehensive documentary on this phase of Indian culture is begging to be made). “The generation of progressive writers were very impressive, their ideas determined their lifestyle,” Butalia observed. “You might disagree with their ideas about the Left, but they chased ideas rather than money.” Butalia sees parallels between the progressive and the state most independent documentary filmmakers are in. “The circumstances are such that we work with little money, and therefore able to do what we want with integrity,” he said.
Nandini Ramnath, “Documentary on poet and lyricist Nida Fazli examines loss, belonging and the state of Urdu,” in Scroll, May 5, 2015. Accessed on May 5, 2015, at: http://scroll.in/article/724960/documentary-on-poet-and-lyricist-nida-fazli-examines-loss-belonging-and-the-state-of-urdu
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