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Gradually, Bawra spent more time off his railway job, writing new lyrics and doing the rounds of production houses. "In '61, the Railways sent me a cheque of Rs 450 as my Provident Fund. I was attending office only five days in a month. After that I never went back there," he informs. But those were the days when the industry was choc-a-bloc with celebrity lyricists like Rajendra Kishen, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Indeevar and Shailendra, and in such a scenario a greenhorn like Bawra was literally feeling lost.
"I had no writing work for the next three years, I made ends meet playing bit roles in films. Right from my first film as a lyricist, I was fated to face the camera. Ravindra Dave, the maker of Satta Bazar told me that he would use my songs only on the condition that I played the comedian in the film. I did so reluctantly," says Bawra. Soon he was playing several small roles. He also played the pivotal part of the villain in the first Punjabi film in colour Shashi Punnu, a film that won Punjab it's very first National Award. "Shot in the golden sand dunes of Jaisalmer, the film was a roaring hit," he says emphatically.
Acting always helped him survive rough weather even after his marriage to his Sindhi neighbour Anju - his acting fees kept the home fires burning.
But the lyricist in him was not to be undermined, and he kept rearing his poetic head time and again. In '67 old buddy Manoj Kumar used his fabled patriotic song, 'Mere desh ki dharti...', which became an instant hit and also lifted several awards much to the distress of arch- rival Anand Bakshi. Film lore has it that Bakshi placed an embargo on Bawra preventing R D Burman from working with Bawra. But as Bawra's luck would have it Randhir Kapoor had taken a great liking for Bawra's meaningful verses from his film Haath Ki Safai. "Dabboo recommended me to Pancham (R.D.) for his film Khalifa. But Pancham was reluctant to take me on. He worked in a manner that you had to write lyrics as per his tune, to the metre of his notations. Pancham gave me such a mismatched mukhda and antara metre that I should have thrown my hands up in despair, but with God's grace I was able to accomplish this impossible task set before me. Next day when Ashaji was rehearsing, she called Pancham and fired him for the disarranged mukhda-antara and then he admitted to her that he was trying hard to shake me off his back. Ashaji admonished him for compromising on good music and made him rework the antara," he remembers the not-so-great beginning of their hit pairing. Pancham summoned Bawra that night, gave him the right metre and made him rewrite the verses. "Had he called me 10 minutes later, I wouldn't have been able to write because at 8.30 sharp I pick up my whisky peg and then I don't touch my pen! Pancham said cheers to that and brought out pegs of whisky," Bawra recalls fondly.
Commanding his price with pride
The winning twosome scored great hits together and in the days to come they became inseparable. Bawra wrote 69 songs for Kalyanji-Anandji as compared to 150 for R D Burman. "Ramesh Behl of Rose Movies, Rakesh Roshan, Randhir Kapoor and Pancham were my friends from the film industry. Irrespective of hits and flops, we ate, drank, sang and made merry," he discloses.
"What made our pair click was the fact that we had a great tuning. I knew that flowery language wouldn't work with Pancham, I had to write simple, direct, free flowing verses for him. Like 'Humne tumko dekha, tumne humko dekha...' from Khel Khel Mein, which was such a big hit," he reasons.
With several hits - Rafoo Chakkar, Haath Ki Safai, Yeh Vaada Raha, Sanam Teri Kasam, Agar Tum Na Hote and Satte Pe Satta, Bawra commanded the highest billing in his day. "I never compromised on my price because God was kind to me. I had the luck and lesser responsibilities as I have no children to fend for," he concludes.
Morning walk, radio and south Indian TV channels
Pancham celebrated each and every birthday of his in the lyrical company of Bawra. "From '74 to '93, we had a birthday bash for him on June 27," sighs Bawra. He continued coining verses for Rajesh Roshan in Duniya Meri Jeb Mein and Nishan and then for Anu Malik, but somehow the "tuning" was never quite right.
These days Bawra leads a disciplined life - he is up by 5.30 am, an hour-long morning walk and then to pooja, tuning into Worldspace Music's Farishta channel that plays songs from the '40s till '80s and no further. "Guess what I like to watch on the television? I only watch South Indian music channels in the mute mode! I don't want to listen to today's lyrics and spoil my mood," he says with a shrug.
Yet, please don't think the Lord of the lyrics has taken voluntary retirement, he's just written a mujra for Alisha Chinnai's latest album and the lyrics of Uttam Singh's 'Suit Boot Mein Aaya Kanhayya...'. "The philosophy of my life has been to be happy and contented, those who are not happy making Rs 5000 will not be happy making Rs 5 crores either. I have a neat apartment in Mumbai's best location and I can afford to serve Black Label today - truly God has been kind to me," he surmises poetically.