When Shailendra died by suicide on 14th December 1966, veteran actor Raj Kapoor was celebrating his 42nd birthday. Shailendra and Raj Kapoor were considered as inseparable as songs penned by Shailendra (and sung by Mukesh) became an indispensable part of the latter’s personality. The songs written by him carried a humanitarian touch.
The legendary lyricist was born on 30th August 1923 in Rawalpindi (Now in Pakistan) into a Dalit family of Bihari descent. His father was a contractor attached to the Army, but his ill-health led to the poor financial condition of the family. He later shifted to Mathura and grew up there.
When the country was in the throes of Partition in 1947, he wrote "Jalta hai Punjab", a poem which not only earned him literary acclaim but also catapulted him into the world of Cinema. Raj Kapoor attended an IPTA function where he heard Shailendra reciting the famous poem (Kapoor was making his directorial debut) and found the lines of the poem quite relevant for his film, which was titled "AAG" (1948). Raj offered an impressive Rs 500 for the film to Shailendra, which he refused, but Shailendra wrote two songs for "Barsaat" (1949), resulting in a long association between the two. Shailendra went on to pen several memorable songs for Raj Kapoor, whether it was "Awara Hoon," the title song of "Aawara" (1951), "Mera Joota hai Japani" from "Shri 420" (1955), or "Pyaar hua ikrar hua" from the same film.
The struggle for livelihood brought Shailendra to Mumbai, where he worked as a welding apprentice in the Central Railways. In Mumbai, he came in contact with a theatre group IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), also known as the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). While being employed at the Indian Railways, Shailendra witnessed the challenges faced by the laborers. His association with IPTA also contributed to his communist leaning.
The poet poignantly expressed the pangs of hunger convulsing the majority of Indians in "Ujala" (1959): ‘Chulha hai thanda bada aur pet mein aag hai, Garma garam roti kitna hasi khwab hai’ (The hearth is cold and my stomach rages with hunger/To dream of piping hot bread is so beautiful). The slogan coined by him “Har zor-zulm kee takkar mein, hartal hamara nara hai” (Strike is our weapon against every atrocity, every excess) continues to be the template slogan for agitations across the country.
Shailendra was an atheist whose songs carried the anguish of humanity. "Kisi ki muskurahton pe ho nisar" from the movie "Anari" (1959) extols the spirit of compassion and selfless living. The title song of the movie "Hum Hain Anari" captures the self-defeating innocence of the protagonist.
In 2016, his son Dinesh Shankar Shailendra released a book "Andar Ki Aag" (The Fire Within). The book was a compilation of previously unpublished works of the great lyricist. The preface of the book reveals his real name as Shankar Das Rao and contains references to his Dalit background and the caste slurs he faced in his life. A hockey lover in childhood, he had to give up the sport after he heard words like "Ab yeh log bhi Hockey khelenge" (Now these people will also play Hockey).
Shailendra had been the top lyricist of his time; the songs written by him were hummed by the masses not only in India but also in countries like Russia. More than a decade after contributing as a songwriter, he decided to produce a film. The film "Teesri Kasam," starring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman in lead roles and helmed by Basu Bhattacharya, had melodious songs written by Shailendra, such as "Sajan ji jhooth mat bolo," "Taal mile nadi ke jal se," and "Duniya Banane wale kya tere man mein samaai." It was an ambitious project, and Shailendra borrowed a lot of money from his friends. However, the film proved to be a fiasco and flopped at the box office.
Shailendra was pushed from the heights of being a popular lyricist to an unsuccessful producer. Heaped with debt, he could not overcome the loss and committed suicide on 14th December 1966. Raj Kapoor, who would have celebrated his birthday that day, was shocked. (Tumhe aaj hi jaana tha) "You had to go this day," said Raj Kapoor on his death. Kapoor was smitten with grief for a couple of days after his death. However, the film was recognized widely after his death and won the National Film Award for the year. The film recovered money posthumously and is regarded as a classic even today.