As a child growing up in Madhepura and then Bhagalpur in Bihar, Raj Shekhar thrived in a literary ambience. “Ghar mein hamesha kitabein thi. (There were always books in the house.) My grandfather’s elder brother — we lived in a joint family — was a Hindi teacher, and he would recite the work of these giants of Hindi literature, Jai Shankar Prasad, Nirala and Mahadevi Varma. Even my father, a farmer — he grows wheat and rice — was very involved in literature,” says Shekhar, 37. But he was the only one who felt the urge to write — poems and stories.
The flavours of that childhood creeps into Shekhar’s lyrics. Here he is, using an evocative concoction of spices in one of the most popular songs of 2011: Manu Bhaiyya in Tanu Weds Manu.
“Ambiya elaichi dalchini aur kesar/ Sukhayegi Tanu Karol Bagh ke chhat par/ Phir poshta pisega / Kalounji kutegi / Martbaan se afwaah uthegi.” The film, a rom-com set in Kanpur became a runaway hit, in some part because of its music and its songs, especially Rangrez mere and Kitne dafe. A new song he has written, Jaane de, sung by Atif Aslam, for the movie, Qarib Qarib Singlle, is playing on loop again. The song is about a love that might have been. But instead of mourning a loss, it urges you to let go.
From a child interested in literature to a lyricist whose work evokes the lost ways of a small-town life was not a single straight line. One detour took Shekhar to a coaching centre for engineering students in Patna. “I attended classes for a year. But within the first 10 days, it became clear that this is not for me,” he says.
So, Shekhar headed to Delhi University, and enrolled in Kirori Mal College (KMC) for a Bachelor’s in Hindi. “I remember I was on the Magadh Express, nervous. It was a feeling of heading into the unknown. I had a Walkman with me, a second-hand one. I would usually listen to Gulzar sahab’s songs but on that trip, I listened to English songs. One was Everything I do (Bryan Adams) and another was a track by Michael Learns to Rock. I thought I was too cool,” says Shekhar.
But he struggled with English, like countless others at DU. “Even my Hindi was not pure. I would say ‘sh’ instead of ‘sa’, and would place the nukhta (the sign that differentiates the ‘ja’ sound from ‘za’) wherever I thought. Also, being a Bihari in Delhi University in 1999 was not easy. The word itself was used as an abuse,” he says.
What opened doors for him was joining Players, the drama society of the college. “Kewal Arora, the teacher in-charge, told us, ‘This is not an acting school. This is just to enable you to voice the questions in your mind.’ KMC changed my worldview. My ideas about gender, society, the conflict in my mind, all got addressed through Players,” says Shekhar, who acted in and directed quite a few plays.
After his MA, he did a short stint at a leading news channel as a writer. “That’s where I learnt MS Word and how control was so important”.
Mumbai beckoned soon, as his friends — Himanshu Sharma (script writer of Tanu Weds Manu 1 and 2, Raanjhanaa) Ali Abbas Zaffar (director of Sultan and Mere Brother ki Dulhan) and Zeeshan Ayyub (actor from Raaes and Tubelight) — made a beeline for the entertainment industry. “I hated the city on my first visit.” He returned to Delhi with the idea of pursuing an MPhil in Hindi. But he was back in Mumbai in 2010, determined to rough it out.
“I started as an assistant director with Aanand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu. I was so bad with logistics that I would get screamed at a lot. I was an accidental lyricist,” he says. It started when he was making a list of probable lyricists for the film. Gulzar was on top of the wishlist followed by Irshad Kamil. Sharma, the writer of the film, suggested that he be the dummy lyricist — a stand-in writer who helps the music director till the real lyricist is finalised. “I wrote Mann Bhaiya and Rangrez that very day. When we narrated the songs to Aanand, he got very emotional and said that he would keep these songs in the film. And that was that,” says Shekhar.
Getting that first break was easy in hindsight. His struggle began after. “The radio stations loved the songs, and so did the masses. But, somehow, that did not generate the kind of work for me as it should have,” says Shekhar. A period of relative obscurity followed, though Shekhar kept writing. Many films did not see the light of the day. Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) brought him back to the top of the charts with hits like Ghaani baavri and Move on.
Meanwhile, Shekhar had started Majnu Ka Tila, a poetry initiative where he sings, recites and reads his creations to an audience. He has travelled with it to many literary festivals around the country. One of his poems, Arab Sagar Ke Aas Paas, is regularly requested. It touches upon the current debate of “who is the outsider?” “I believe that everyone is political, and those who say they are not, they are lying or they don’t understand what they are saying. Every big lyricist, every big singer will bring his/her personal politics into his art,” says Shekhar, who is greatly inspired by Shailendra and Gulzar.
The next year has multiple releases lined up for him, starting with Aanand L Rai’s Nimmo, a film set in a town in Madhya Pradesh about an eight-year-old boy who is in love with an older girl. “Looks like things are looking up. But if not, jaane de,” he says, with a shrug.