July 15, 2020 10:48:21 pm
In actor Seema Pahwa’s upcoming directorial debut, Ramprasad ki Tehrvi, a soft piano riff leads one into a tender and reflective melody – Arre re, aaj ye bulaava aaya re… Arre re, tann se hai chhoota saaya re, Kahan ye dagar chali hai koi jaane na/ Raahi ab ye raah pakad chala hi chale. Penned by 32-year-old Neeraj Pandey, the composition by Sagar Desai is dedicated to someone catching the last train to the coast. It’s gentle, haunting and goes with the ruminative lyrics that just hang in the air, as if constructing a web of calm melancholy. Three other songs, very different from this and each other, are also deliberations on the subject of life and death. Ramprasad ki Tehrvi —starring Naseeruddin Shah, Konkana Sen Sharma, Vinay Pathak and Supriya Pathak, among others — was screened at MAMI (Mumbai International Film Festival) last year, and is likely to see a digital release soon.
More recently, Pandey’s work in filmmaker Hardik Mehta’s Kamyaab, the Sanjay Mishra-starrer that was a tribute to the abandoned memory of character artistes of Hindi cinema, drew attention. Pandey was working with Culture Machine, a Mumbai based digital media company, in 2017, when he was called in by Manish Mundhra’s Drishyam Productions for a project. On a visit to their office, he bumped into Mehta, whom he had met once at the screening of the former’s National Award-winning film, Ahmedabad Ma Famous. Mehta told him that his upcoming film was Kamyaab, being produced by Drishyam. “Hardik told me that he was planning to approach Varun Grover for the lyrics, but if he was busy, he’d consider me,” says Pandey. Grover could not come on board. Pandey bagged the project. “The film for which I had gone to Drishyam didn’t work out, but this did, and it left me strangely thrilled and nervous,” says Pandey.
His brief was clear yet abstract – the writing was to be succinct, experimental and a tribute to character artistes, the forgotten fragments of Hindi cinema. Yesteryear actor Sudhir, remembered most for Satte pe Satta (1982), had inspired Sudheer for Mehta and the tribute needed to be sensitive yet fun. The result of 20 days of hard work was Tim tim tim sung by Bappi Lahiri – a defining piece shedding light on the career graph of a character artiste who wants to work in his final film (his 500th) to find the elusive feeling of success. Sadiyon se chalte kahaani ke qisse hai, hum har qisse ke hisse hain… writes Pandey. He also wrote Ummeedon ke paon bhari hain and Sikandar. The latter has been sung by veteran singer Hariharan with lyrics such as Zindagi ki gaddari se, kai sikandar haare hain. It’s easy to hear the sadness in the poetry that’s composed by Rachita Arora. Yet there is a sense of pragmatism to the whole piece. “When I came to Bombay, I didn’t even know the difference between poetry and a song. To me, it’s always been the same. Which is why the songs in Kamyaab are very poetry inclined. In fact, I preferred to write the poetry first, but in the industry, the tunes are created first. In all this while, I have realised that the latter does work better. A song is music first. That hooks you in. Then come the lyrics. Sometimes we may sing the wrong lyrics, but we generally do not sing the wrong tune,” he says.
Pandey was born in a village called Naya Bhojpur in Buxor, Bihar, and grew up in Bhabua where his father, a civil servant, was posted. He started writing young. Growing up in the one-of-a-kind socio-political systems of Bihar, he wrote a poem called Rajneeti when he was 13. “I was always artistically inclined. I would do art and craft, mimicry, acting and write poems. I didn’t want to be an engineer because there were many in the family as well as society. So I decided to do fashion design,” says Pandey. But he didn’t have enough money to pay the fee. Also, Pandey’s mother wanted him to join the Air Force as she came from the same background. So, Pandey moved to Patna to prepare for the competitive exams and join the Air Force. But he joined IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) instead. A bout of jaundice brought him back to Bhabua. He then decided to have a career in gaming and animation and spent seven years in Delhi and Bengaluru creating art for Playstation and XBox games. A trip to Bihar and Pandey came across his diaries with poems in them. “I wondered that I missed this guy. Writing began from there,” says Pandey, who went back to Bengaluru and participated in a slew of open mics through which he came across people from the industry. He was also published in an anthology which featured poets from Bengaluru.
In 2014, Pandey moved to Mumbai after Varun Grover told him that it will work in his favour. He landed his first project within a month — an opportunity to write the screenplay and dialogue for a small film called Sameer. For the next year, there was nothing and Pandey was broke. “I borrowed money from friends and survived,” says Pandey. In 2016, one of his poems, Dear Bhavana, which was “written in frustration because of the socio-political environment in the nation”, was recited by Swanand Kirkire online. It was widely shared and Pandey got some attention. The reason was that Pandey was finding his metaphors from life but without using the cliched words. “If it’s a piece about love, I am not going to write words like ishq, mohabbat, pyaar. I’ll try to find other ways around it and I believe that’s the beauty of it. It will allow people to fit their own reality into it,” says Pandey. He then wrote the dialogues for Prashant Nair’s Tryst with Destiny, which won the award for ‘Best Screenplay in an International Narrative Feature Film’ at Tribeca Film Festival 2020. He also co-wrote the recent Vir Das starrer dark comedy Hasmukh, which is currently streaming on Netflix. As of now, he is writing the script for a relationship drama.
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