They have written some of the most memorable musical hits of recent times. Lyricists Raj Shekhar, Varun Grover, Manoj Muntashir and Ravinder Randhawa on their struggle in Bollywood, the creative process and why mercantilism is killing song writing
Tell us a bit about your journeys as songwriters?
Raj: As a child, I used to write poems but never ones that rhymed. I did my MA in Hindi literature and was involved with theatre in Delhi. In Mumbai, I worked in television for a while. Then Tanu Weds Manu happened in a curious way. The film’s writer, Himanshu Sharma, is my college friend. He told me they needed some dummy lyrics as they were meeting composers. I met director Aanand L Rai and he told me to write the lines for what later became Manu bhaiya because he said he was unable to explain the situation to anyone else. Then Rangrez happened. Aanand liked it and said he’d use it and then I did the other songs.
Varun: I used to write stories and plays in college. My long-term plan was always to write for films, so I left my software job in Pune and came to Mumbai in 2004. I joined an ad agency as a copywriter but that agency folded in three months. I had no work for nine months. To survive, I ghostwrote for a few shows on television until The Great Indian Comedy Show turned up, which changed my life. My big songwriting break came when I met Anurag (Kashyap). I had written a poem which Anurag had liked, and he said he’d use it in No Smoking, but he didn’t. But he called me for That Girl In Yellow Boots, which was my first film as a lyricist. Then Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2 happened.
Ravinder: I’m a reluctant writer. Mujhe bahut mehnat karni padti hai (I have to work hard). I used to do tukbandi and write bhajans. When I came to Mumbai, I became an assistant director. My job was to stand with a big umbrella outside the heroine’s vanity van. I couldn’t take it anymore and quit. I decided to try and see if I could write. I wrote the dialogues of a comedy on Kashmir, titled Paradise on Earth. The director asked me if I would write the songs also. I needed the money, so I agreed. The film never released. I co- wrote Aarakshan with Anjum Rajabali and Prakash Jha. Then I got a call to write songs for Filmistaan.
Manoj: I think poets are born, and not cultivated. Shayari kissi bhi shayar ki taaqat nahin, kamzori hoti hai (Poetry is not a poet’s strength, rather, it’s his weakness). I call it a weakness, because it makes you helpless. You know that you can do nothing else but write. I’m a lyricist because of Sahir (Ludhianvi) saab. I was on my way to Allahabad when my train stopped at Pratapgarh. I bought his book of poems Talkhiyan and started reading it. By the time I reached Allahabad, I had become a shayar. I came to Mumbai to write songs, but to survive, I started writing for TV. I’ve been writing for KBC since the beginning and I’ve also written for India’s Got Talent, Indian Idol Junior, and Boogie Woogie. TV ne mujhe khudaari di hai (TV has given me self-esteem). Because I write for TV, I now own a BMW 5 series. I can choose my work. I believe that woh har art jo chulhe ki aag ban jaati hai, woh raakh ban jaati hai (I believe any art which is used to earn a living, burns itself out). In 2005, I wrote the songs for You, Bomzi and Me, but the film was a washout. Then I wrote the songs for Do Dooni Chaar. I wrote for nine films before Galliyaan happened.
Describe your processes — do the words come first or the imagery? Do you hit an emotion and then go looking for words?
Raj: Main badi hi gaflat mein rehta hoon (I am always confused). While writing Rangrez, I remembered my college days. There used to be a lane where dupattas were sold. Girls used to come and buy chunnis and they would tell the rangrez, ki bhaiyya, yeh iss colour mein rang dena (They would tell the dyer to dye the dupatta in a particular shade), and they would go to eat chaat. I always marvelled at the faith they had in the rangrez that he would do the job right. Usually, the thought comes first, then the words.
Varun: Sometimes, it’s a word, sometimes, an image and sometimes, it’s a zid. I was adamant that I would use the word ‘chhi chha ledar’ in a song in Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW). But I prefer writing to a tune. I take the tune and hear it on loop for two to three days, till the time it feels that I have been listening to it from birth. I have to become familiar with it as if it was Ramaiyya Vastawaiyya. Then I get the visuals. I have a diary which contains my poems that I have been writing since my college days. Those poems are a pool of words for me. I had written a poem Dhaage, where threads were used as a metaphor for a relationship. It was the inspiration for Moh moh. So, I guess, the process of writing a song is kuch kuch (some parts) formula and kuch kuch inspiration.
Manoj: Galliyan wasn’t written for Ek Villain. The words came to me when I was taking a morning walk. (Music director) Ankit Tiwari called me and I mentioned the words to him; he said he wants to compose it. In 18 minutes, he had composed it on the phone itself. He took the song to (director) Mohit Suri who loved it. When I didn’t have work, I had the luxury and freedom to think for hours for the perfect word, but now, when I’m doing 15 films, my process has changed. I try not to write Sunny Sunny kind of words. After all, uss mein kya waqt barbaad karna jo waqt ke saath mit jaaye (Why waste time on something with a short shelf life)?
Ravinder: Main gaane nahin likhta hoon. I write about the story in a song. The process differs with every script and situation.
What pressures do songwriters deal with? Is it a struggle to fit words to meter, to come up with hooklines?
Ravinder: It’s very tough. It’s an unnatural process to fit your thoughts to demands.
Varun: But hooklines have always been there. Ramaiyya Vastavaiyya kya tha? That was also a hookline.
Manoj: It’s not easy to write a good song with the restrictions put on you by the producer, the director, the music director and the politicians.
Raj: That’s the fight that gaane mein jo rahi sahi kavita hai usse main bacha loon. If we listen to what producers demand of us, then we won’t be able to write. The things they say, ‘We don’t want a poetry-heavy song, Gulzar mat ban jaana bhaiyya…’ They say this as if it’s something bad.
Varun: Maybe, what they mean is that they want a hit, but it shouldn’t be complicated; maybe, they don’t have the confidence that we can do it.
Ravinder: Yes, the instruction is always seedha saadha likhiye. I wrote the word ‘fitrat’ in a song and they said nobody understands the word. When I wrote Lambi qataren kheechenge, they said it is too complicated.
Raj: The problem is that we don’t want to pause and think about what is working. In our industry, beat and dancewaali cheezen sab ko chahiye (Everyone wants something with rhythm). Till date, I don’t know what they mean when they say, ‘Touch karta hai yeh gaana, aise hi likhiye.’
Varun: Basically everybody wants a Hookah bar.
Raj : Ek khaas tarah ki aawaz gum hoti jaa rahi hai (A certain kind of voice is fading out)… Like Pablo Neruda… You don’t realise when he begins to talk about the land while talking about love. Or the way Faiz and Sahir used to write. Nowadays, we keep writing similar stuff. I have a big issue with the word ‘sufi’. Nobody knows what sufi rock is.
Manoj: For them, sufi means ‘maula’. I feel we never did justice to it. If we did, we could have gone beyond ‘Maula mere maula’. Ultimately, words are not so important. What is important is to convey what I want to say.
What are your views about music today? Why don’t our songs live long anymore?
Ravinder: Because nowadays there are too many gimmicks. Today’s writers and composers don’t have creative freedom. Sangeet mein jo bazaar ghusa hua hai woh kaam bigaad raha hai (The demands of the market are ruining music). That said, small towns are keeping music alive.
Raj: They listen to it so often, it becomes a part of them. I recently went to Patna for a talent contest and almost 80 per cent of the contestants sang ‘Sun raha hai na tu (Aashiqui2)’.
Manoj: If you go to a paan shop, people are still listening to Kumar Sanu and Anu Malik. That’s because they created simple songs. Now, we are complicating music. For instance, ‘Kabhi kabhi Aditi’ is a hit song, but it doesn’t touch anyone’s heart. What is a song after all? It’s just a tune and a few words. Why complicate a simple formula?
Varun: I don’t think today’s music is complicated. We still have classy lyricists like Gulzarsaab and Irshad Kamil, and then we have those who write ‘Sunny Sunny’ or ‘Hookah bar’. Today, writers don’t use words like ‘dil’, ‘jigar’, ‘jaanam’, because they have become clichéd. Today, the challenge is to find new idioms in song writing. Earlier, if a convict was in jail he would sing ‘kiska rasta dekhe…’ Now, he’d sing, ‘Bhoos ke dher mein’. We are trying to be more realistic. Ultimately, we have to write a song for the character and the world he inhabits.
Ever had to fight for your words?
Manoj: In Galliyan, everyone had a problem with the word ‘madeena’, but I was adamant. They said, instead of ‘mandir aur madeena’, make it ‘sahil aur safeena’, but fortunately, director Mohit Suri went with the original thought.
Ravinder: In Bol, I had to change the word ‘jhanda’ to ‘sarhad’ because the singer Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan felt the word would get him into trouble. We made the line, ‘sarhad ne kita sanu kharch fazool.’
Manoj: It’s not essential that everyone understands every word. Majrooh (Sultanpuri) saab would say that songs should entertain and educate at the same time.
Varun: Yes. For instance, I love the song from Jumbish, Dheere dheere shaam aa rahi hai. It has a phrase: ‘aauratein hatheliyon se chand bun rahi hain…dudh ki katoriyon se surajon ki aatmaayen math rahi hain’. I might not get the meaning, but I love it because it has so many magical words.
Raj: In Rangrez, only one word was changed. It was ek boond haqeeqi daal koi, mera saaton samundar jaaye. Aanand felt the word ‘haqeeqi’ wouldn’t be easy to understand, so it was replaced by ‘ishqiya’.
Tell me about your influences and inspirations. Which song would you like to listen to if it was your last song?
Manoj: Sahirsaab, Majroohsaab and Anand Bakshisaab are big influences. Baaki sab shayar the, lekin yeh bol likhte the (The rest of them were poets, these people wrote lyrics). Only Anand Bakshi can write ‘Woh jab yaad aaye bahut yaad aaye’.
Raj: Majroohsaab. Before dying if I could listen to one song, it would be Chhupa lo yun dil mein from Mamta. I admire Tulsidas for his revolutionary decision to write in Awadhi. I’m also inspired by Kabir, Nirala and Gulzarsaab. Gulzarsaab gave a new muhawara (direction) to my life. Only he can write ‘aankhon ki mehakti khushboo’. Just like Dharamveer Bharti wrote ‘inhi firozi hoton par barbaad meri zindagi’, because, at the peak of his romance, he saw his lover’s lips as firozi.
Ravinder: Sahirsaab stands tallest for me and then Majroohsaab. I also admire the mix of romance and social reflection in the poetry of Faizsaab. But my favourite would be Sahir’s ‘Chalo ek baar phir se’ for the complexity of relationships and the sheer dignified way of addressing a
Varun: I admire Shailendrasaab for his simplicity and depth. He never used difficult Hindi words. I wouldn’t mind listening to his ‘Apni kahani chhod ja’ from Do Bigha Zameen as my last song.
For better, for verse
Kitne Dafa Dil ne Kaha (Tanu Weds Manu)
Jiya ho Bihar ka Lala
O Womaniya (Gangs of Wasseypur)
Moh Moh (Dum Laga Ke Haisha)