Rahi Masoom Raza, the Scholar Who Strayed Into Bollywood

'Scene: 75', one of the lesser known works by the man behind the dialogues in B.R. Chopra’s television series 'Mahabharat', was released recently.

I met Rahi Masoom Raza in 1972. It had been a few years since he had joined Hindi cinema but had not seen major success in films. He had been asked to write the dialogues for Dilip Kumar starrer Sagina (directed by Tapan Sinha). At one point, the producer, J.K. Kapur, asked me if I would be willing to write the remaining dialogues for the film. I said yes and went to meet Dilip saab. After a couple of meetings, I realised that he wanted to replace Raza saab because he was not willing to listen to his diktats. I politely declined.

A few weeks later, I met Raza saab and mentioned the incident to him. He merely smiled. I had till then read only one of his novels – Topi Shukla – and had been very impressed. A year later, my friend Gogi Anand was directing Darling Darling, and had selected a screenplay by Gulshan Nanda. His first choice for the dialogues was Gulzar who declined as he was busy. He then picked Raza saab (I am not sure whether he wrote the dialogues of the film or not). He came over to Navketan office and that was where I had my first substantial discussion with him.

One of Raza saab’s lesser known works – Scene: 75 (Harper Perennial India) – has been recently released. Translator Poonam Saxena has done a fine job by capturing the finer nuances, which are an important part of Rahi saab’s work.

Rahi Masoom Raza was born on August 1, 1927, in Gangauli village in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh. He went to Aligarh Muslim University from where he obtained his doctorate in Hindi literature. He later taught there and was very popular among his students. His novels include Adha Gaon, Dil Ek Sada Kaghaz, Topi Shukla, Oos Ki Boond, among others. Raza saab also wrote Chhote Aadmi ki Badi Kahani, a story of the 1965 war hero Abdul Hamid, which the then home minister Y.B. Chavan got disseminated widely, on radio, school text books etc., to counter the rising anti-Muslim sentiment. Several anthologies of his poetry were also published.

Rahi Masoom Raza
Scene: 75
Harper Perennial India (December 20, 2017)

Raza saab had an impressive personality. He always wore a crisp white kurta, Aligarhi pyjamas and a waistcoat. There was something scholarly in his bearing, and tehzeeb (civility) dripped from his words. He chewed paan always, and was a charming conversationalist. I still was not fully aware of his stature in contemporary Hindi/Urdu literature. It was the Urdu poet and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri who told me how important Raza saab was in literary circles.

In 1974, he wrote the dialogues for the hit Pathar Aur Payal, but it was after the release of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili that the industry sat up and took notice. He then developed a close working relationship with Hrishida and Raj Khosla, and went on to work in several films with them. He also worked with Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai and even wrote potboilers like Disco Dancer, Judaai and Anokha Rasta. Yet he always kept a low profile, letting his work speak for itself. He is remembered today mainly for his dialogues for B.R. Chopra’s television series Mahabharat.

A few years later, Javed Akhtar told me about how he revered Rahi Masoom Raza as one of the few intellectuals and scholars working in Hindi cinema. I read his poetry over the years, which, to say the least, is quite extraordinary. He wrote lyrics for only one film, Alaap, and I think he should have written much more.

His novels were centred around simple, ordinary folk and the problems faced by them. Most of them were about the socio-political situation in eastern Uttar Pradesh. He tackled a variety of subjects, ranging from corrupt politicians and the Ganga Jamni tehzeeb of Uttar Pradesh. Most of all, he understood the milieu he wrote about. The surrounding turbulence and the erosion of traditional values of the cow belt upset him.

Although many Urdu writers from Uttar Pradesh like Jigar Moradabadi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar and Shakeel Badayuni had a grasp over Hindi and the colloquial word (which is Javed Akhtar’s strength as a writer too), Raza saab was a master at it. He is among the few writers who were scholars in Hindi but wrote in Urdu (Nida Fazli and Irshad Kamil are two others). Unlike many of his predecessors, he was not a part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement; he comes across as a humanist in his writings.

A still from B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharat. Credit: YouTube

Raza saab had come to Bombay in the 1970s to try his hand at writing films. He went on to write screenplays and dialogues for over 200 films. He won many awards and became one of the best-paid writers. However, he remained an outsider in the film industry and it was apparent that he did not enjoy what he was doing (except for a few films). A true intellectual and scholar, he was too tall a personality for most of the people he worked with.

Raza saab had a passion for Awadhi food and chess, and could often be seen engrossed in a game with filmmaker Raj Khosla. Khosla had started work on a film based on a story and screenplay called Nawab Aur Shabab for which Rahi saab was writing the dialogues. This mega project with Dev Anand, Sunil Dutt, Sanjeev Kumar and Zeenat Aman brought all of us together. The script was written over several sessions. Unfortunately, it got stalled after a couple of shoots.

Once, when he was writing the dialogues for a film for which I wrote the lyrics, he liked a particular song sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey and he called me to compliment me. That’s one accolade I still treasure.

Scene: 75, which is often autobiographical, tells the story of a writer in Bollywood in a sarcastic and biting manner. The novel highlights the state of the Hindi film industry in the 1970s and is told from the perspective of writers. This was the time when a bunch of street-smart writers came to the fore, scripting inane, lost and found, melodramatic masala films. The really talented writers (except a few like Salim Javed and a few others) took a back seat.

Ali Amjad, the protagonist in Scene: 75, is a misfit in this chaotic environment and his interaction with various characters brings out the frustration which Raza saab himself must have felt in his early days in Mumbai. Some typical Bombay locations like the proverbial ‘Aunty Ka Adda‘ (Speakeasy joint), a well-known guesthouse in Bandra, which was home to many struggling people, are easily identifiable. Life in a middle-class housing society is also graphically captured. It’s an engrossing read and is as insightful as his other novels.

Poonam Saxena has managed to retain the flavour of the original text (including some verses), which is not an easy task as the idiom of Hindustani is quite different from English. She must be complimented for taking Raza’s work to a wider audience. She had earlier translated Dharmveer Bharti’s Gunahon Ka Devta (Chander and Sudha) into English. I hope she continues to do similar translations of other masters.

Raza saab died in 1992 and never got his due. Those who knew him or are familiar with his work surely understand his significance. He was a scholar who had strayed into Bollywood.

Amit Khanna is a writer, filmmaker, poet and media guru.