Words are serious business for Irshad Kamil, the lyricist who famously wrote about how they come in the way of what he wants to say (Jo bhi main kehna chahun, barbaad karen alfaaz mere). In Bollywood’s defiantly un-literary soundscape, littered with Hookah bars and Chikni Chamelis, Kamil is a rare new-old voice, whose exquisite wordplay compels us to pause and listen. In this interview, he speaks about his songwriting process, Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, his take on modern love, and being AR Rahman’s dialect coach. Excerpts:
In the Highway song, Patakha guddi, you have used three languages in one line: Tu toh pak rab ka baanka bachcha raaj dulaara, tu hi. This leads me to ask you, what is your style?
Mera jo bantar aur buntar hai (the making and weaving of my poetry) is a reflection of me as a person. My expression is a mix of my zubaan, my philosophy and Sufism. Urdu is in my blood, Punjabi is my mother tongue (having being born in Malerkotra, Punjab), while I’ve done my PhD in Hindi. When I write, all three languages amalgamate. Patakha guddi is a song about a free spirit—it’s that moment when a girl shackled by social taboos is breaking away and enjoying her freedom. The song is a salute to the spirit of every girl—any girl who breaks free of social restrictions is a patakha guddi. Jab uski saari gaanthe khul jaati hai na, toh ek ladki udna shuru kar deti hai. (When all the knots that tie her down are undone, she learns to fly).
When you describe women, you tend to use expressions like Nachdi phirun, tapdi phirun (Katiya karun, Rockstar) or Kood phaand ke, chakk chakaudde jaave (Patakha guddi). Is that a poet’s wish or his observation?
A poet is a social scientist and an observer. That’s how I wish a woman should be. Her aspirations, her dreams, uski aankhon ki chamak issliye hai (the gleam in her eyes is) because she is special but society doesn’t let her be. Why do we call women the second sex? She’s complete on her own. Our lives will be much better if we let our girls dream and be free.
Tell me about how you write. Do the words come first or is it the imagery? Do you hit an emotion and then look for the words?
Every composition has a mizaaj (temperament), words are the pehchaan (identity) of that composition. As a writer, I think within the periphery of the situation. For instance in Patakha guddi, karaare shabdon ki zaroorat thi (fiery words were needed). I go with the narration of the film, its landscape and try to define the character. Once you are able to do that, people are able to connect emotionally to the words. That’s how songs become chants. Like Sadda haq did.
Tell me the story behind Highway’s Sooha saha, which means red rabbit in Punjabi. I have never seen a red rabbit.
I had to write a lullaby that a mother is singing to her six-month-old baby. Jab maa apne bachche se laad karti hai, toh woh kya bolti hai? Tu mera laal hai, mera kabootar hai, meri billi hai. (What does a doting mother call her child? My darling, my pigeon, my cat.) What she means is that you are so soft, so pretty. The ultimate softness is in a khargosh ka bachcha so she’s saying sooha saha amma ka.. (Mamma’s red rabbit) I wanted to create a child’s world, a Disneyland, a dreamland where there are red rabbits. I must confess that when he read it, Imtiaz (Ali) wasn’t too sure and asked me, ‘What does it mean?’ But AR Rahman sir said, ‘Whatever it means, let’s keep it because it sounds so good.’
Do you write every day? On paper or on the computer?
I write every day. If I’m not doing my ‘homework’, which is what my family calls my lyric writing, then I write for myself. Writing every day is like riyaaz, so that I am in the habit of thinking something new every day. The first thought that I get is always on paper. I use a computer only when I have to email lyrics to others. Mitti ki khushboo toh kaagaz aur kalam se hi aati hai. (It’s only on pen and paper that you can find the fragrance of the earth.)
Are there any words that you have vowed never to use in a song?
I don’t think I’ve ever used the word jigar. But it’s not always up to the lyric writer. Sometimes, while narrating a situation, the director also suggests a thought. He might say,
‘I want a deewana type of a word.’ Even if I try and come up with a different word, he will still want deewana. As a songwriter, in the hierarchy, I’m at a level where I have to follow orders.
Has there been an instance when you’ve had to fight for your words?
So many times. I fought for Main rang sharbaton ka, tu meethe ghaat ka paani (Phata Poster Nikhla Hero). (Music composer) Pritam supported me on this one. I remember in Yeh dooriyan (Love Aaj Kal), till the last minute Imtiaz (Ali) wanted me to change the line Bas faasla rahe.. ban ke kasak jo kahe. I said I couldn’t change my thought, because then I’ll have to rethink the whole song. I persisted and he agreed. Of course, you can only fight with people who respect and know your work.
Tell me about your influences—Rumi could be heard in Rockstar, Amir Khusro in Raanjhanaa’s Tu mun shudi. Highway’s Tu kuja is Persian.
Yes, Tu kuja is Persian. I try to explain the meaning in the song itself. So it’s Tu kuja, main kuja/Tu kahan, main kahan. As for my influences, there are many, from Amir Khusro to Rumi, Bulleh Shah to Shah Hussain and Saltan Bahu, but I’ve never read them with the intention to use them in a song. I also read Hindi writer Rajesh Joshi, and the poets Asad Zaidi, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, Shiv Kumar Batalvi and Rasool Hamza. Ab kaun sa aadmi mere andar se kab bolne lagta hai mujhe bhi pata nahin chalta. (Now, even I don’t know when one of them will speak from within me.)
There is a strong vein of spirituality in many of your songs. What part does spirituality play in your creation?
It’s a part of me. It’s always unintentional — the song ends up in a spiritual zone whenever I’m writing. Even when I’m writing romantic songs like Tum se hi (Jab We Met) or Tum tak (Raanjhanaa), route wahi lag jaata hai. I don’t want songs to be only about superficial love. Jo cheez aapko sukoon deti hai uss mein kahin naa kahin khuda ka hissa hota hai. (The thing which gives you peace has a piece of god in it.)
But then you also write Tune maari entriyaan (Gunday)?
(Laughs) Yes. You know, sometime back Javed (Akhtar) saab called me and said I had really surprised him with Tu mere agal bagal hai (Phata Poster Nikhla Hero). He said, ‘Now I think you have become the perfect lyricist, if you can write Nadaan parindey ghar aa jaa and this too.’
But the recurrent theme in your poetry is about finding oneself. Your angst is existential.
Absolutely. I believe ki hamari life ki jo journey hai woh sirf apne aap ko paane ki koshish hai (Life is about finding oneself). There are so many moments in life when you stop and ask yourself: hum paana kya chahte hain (What do we want?) That’s why in Kun faya kun I wrote: Ho mujhko bhi deedar mera.. If I find myself, then I’ve found everything.
What’s your take on modern love and relationships?
I feel we have limited the definition of love, particularly in urban areas. Earlier, what was ‘Love is God’ has become ‘I’m God’. All the clichéd love statements popularised by greeting card companies have become the benchmark for the current generation. A gift for someone you love — what does it even mean? Youngsters are fed these commercial ideas of love which they go around chasing. If you truly are in love, then you have to find it on your own. Pyaar ek struggle ka naam hai. Love is a long wait. But nowadays, bodily love overpowers every other love because we are not connected to ourselves. We seem to define sex as love. Love starts from the point where you don’t need anything from your partner. Tera naa hona jaane kyun hona hi hai.
Which song took you the longest time to write?
Rockstar’s Hawa hawa. It took me 10 days.
And which was the quickest?
Tum ho (Rockstar, Mohit Chauhan version) took just five minutes. I just scribbled the lines, Imtiaz read it and the first draft
If you could go back in time and meet any of our past lyricists, who would they be?
I want to listen in on a discussion between Sahir Ludhianvi and Anand Bakshi saab. I wish they could meet and somehow I could be a tea boy when they are talking. Bakshi saab aasan lafzon mein bada falsafa de dete hain (Bakshi saab uses simple words to convey deep philosophy). As for Sahir saab, unhone toh zindagi ki philosophy ke maayne hi badal diye hain.. zindagi ko aise samjha hai ki bakhiya udhedh di hain (he has unspooled all the conventional philosophies of life). Who else could have written these lines? Afsaana jisse anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin/Usse ek khoobsurat mod de kar chhodna achha (Gumraah).
You frequently and successfully collaborate with Pritam and AR Rahman. But they are as different as can be.
My comfort zone is with Pritam because I know we are going into the set pattern of mukhda-antara. With Rahman sir, I’m always on my toes, I’m more creatively alive and always ready for the unexpected. Do you know Tu mun shudi was initially a 18-minute-long composition? I wrote the lyrics for that. Then director Aanand L Rai and I sat together and identified the
portions we wanted for the film and then I stitched it together with words. Rahman sir flows with the mood of the situation and the character and he just creates. That’s why Imtiaz says he [Rahman] understands the film more than us.
For the version of Patakha guddi which he has sung, did you coach AR Rahman on his Punjabi pronunciation and diction?
Imtiaz asked him to sing and he agreed. I was made in-charge of his Punjabi dialect. I would send him voice memos of each word, stressing on the way the words sound, like gillori, lattha, lahori etc, and then he would practice it.