reviews and essays

Something to Sing About

The life and lyrics of Irshad Kamil

By AKSHAY MANWANI | 1 September 2013

NOTHING ESTABLISHES THE CIRCUMSTANCES of young and dreamy Janardhan Jakhar in Imtiaz Ali’s musical drama Rockstar (2011) better than the constant barbs of his Haryanvi joint family. Twenty minutes into the movie, he is berated by his older brothers for forgetting to complete a domestic errand. The youngest member of a hierarchical family, the guitar-clutching, Jim Morrison-worshipping Jakhar has no option but to shut up and suffer the daily humiliation. Angst builds up inside him as his family keeps dismissing his dreams; “Kaunsi duniya mein hai tu?” (Which world are you in?) his brothers jeer.

Few people could identify more with Jakhar’s character than the film’s lyricist Irshad Kamil. Having grown up as the youngest of seven children in a conventional middle-class family, the artistically inclined Kamil faced his share of dismissals. “Ghar mein aap ho, sabse chotey ho. Saarey bade kaam kar rahe hain, padhai-vadhai kar rahe hain aur aapko samajh mein nahin aa raha hai ki aapko karna kya hai uss age mein” (You are the youngest in the house. Everyone is working, studying and you aren’t able to understand what it is that you want to do at that age), Kamil told me when I met him in July. “Arrey tu karta kya rehta hai? Aise hi ghoomta rehta hai. Chal mera scooter saaf kar de. Accha ji. Kisi ka scooter saaf kar diya. Tu kya kar raha hai? Kidhar ghoom raha hai? Chal meri shirt press karke lekar aa” (What are you up to? You don’t do anything. Go clean my scooter. Ok. What are you doing? Where are you going? Go get my shirt ironed), he said, recalling the attitudes of those around him. “Aap thhe woh Janardhan Jakhar” (I was that Janardhan Jakhar), he said with great earnestness.

It was predominantly Kamil’s deep identification with the film’s lead character that made his lyrics for Rockstar, from the spiritual ‘Kun faya kun’ to the feisty ‘Sadda haq’ to the angst-filled ‘Jo bhi main kehna chaahoon’, his most accomplished work for Hindi films to date. “It [Irshad’s work] appealed without appealing to the lowest common denominator. Rockstar was the hallmark of great art,” said music director Vishal Dadlani. The Indian Express termed the film’s soundtrack “a milestone for Bollywood”.

In a career spanning a little more than a decade, Kamil, whom Rockstar’s music composer AR Rahman describes as an “understated individual”, has displayed his formidable writing skills several times over. After an impressive start in Chameli (2004), Kamil has written the lyrics for a range of films—Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009), Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahaani (2009), Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai (2010), Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011), Mausam (2011) and Cocktail (2012)—some of which are among the most popular movie albums of the last decade. His latest film, Raanjhanaa (2013), was the ‘Top Album’ on iTunes India a week into its release, with a review in The Times of India commenting, “if Rahman’s music is the language of this film, it would be quite short on a vocabulary without Irshad Kamil’s beautiful lyrics.”

The Hindi film industry, where a movie’s music often predetermines its fortunes at the box office, has expressed its appreciation for Kamil’s craft in no uncertain terms. Filmfare has honoured him with its best lyricist award twice in the past four years—for ‘Aaj din chadheya’ from Love Aaj Kal in 2010 and for ‘Nadaan parindey’ from Rockstar in 2012. Other milestones include three Global Indian Music Academy Awards—two for Best Lyricist and one for Best Film Song—one International Indian Film Award, one Nokia Screen Award, one Apsara Award and six Mirchi Music Awards. In a work sphere torn by rivalry, Kamil’s peers acknowledge his uniqueness, with lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya describing his work to me as, “rooted in poetry and eloquent writing. Yet, the simplicity of his thought comes across. That is something I find amazing.”

Kamil’s success is particularly remarkable given that in Hindi films, the lyricist has always been secondary to the playback singer and the music director. The relative strength of India’s oral tradition over its written one is perhaps one reason for this longstanding bias, as also the fact that, in a country where even dialects change every few hundred miles, melodies tend to travel farther than words. Ever since Wazir Mohammed Khan sang ‘De de khuda ke naam pe pyaare’ in Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara (1931), India’s first sound film, the nature of the Hindi film song has evolved continuously, and considerably. The earliest film songs—those made until the late 1940s—were used as an extension of speech, and, to fit in with the cinematic themes of the era (mythological, historical, social reformist), were written in Sanskritised Hindi. It wasn’t until the early 1950s, with our cinema turning its attention to more modern themes, including matters concerning the independent nation state, that the film song came into its own, becoming a cultural product received and remembered independently. The period between the early 1950s and the late 1960s became the golden era of the Hindi film song, with some of the subcontinent’s best poets, such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra and Kaifi Azmi, many of them members of the Left-oriented Progressive Writers’ Movement, giving it a decisive literary turn.

For this brief period in the history of Hindi cinema, a song was equally associated with the writer, and the lyricist considered as important to a film as the filmmaker himself. It is hard to imagine Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) enjoying the same legacy without Ludhianvi’s incisive poetry or Raj Kapoor’s “loveable tramp” persona in Awaara (1951) and Shri 420 (1955) appearing half as endearing without Shailendra’s contribution. However, the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan as the ‘Angry Young Man’ in the 1970s dramatically shifted the course of Hindi film narrative. Centred on action and vendetta, the films of this era, which stretched well into the 1990s, had little scope for intellectual poetry. The phenomenon of the single-screen audience and the demand for instant gratification hastened the decline of the Hindi film song. Music directors began to put beat before melody, and words became increasingly irrelevant.

It is only in the past decade or so that the film song has seen a revival of sorts, with considerable help from a fresh wave of filmmakers who encourage more ambitious songwriting. With the emergence of the multiplex audience and the wider reach allowed by the internet, a diverse bunch of passionate writers are giving exciting new meanings to the Hindi film song. Today, not only are older lyricists such as Gulzar and Javed Akhtar still active, they are joined by people from a variety of backgrounds and persuasions, including women writers such as Anvita Dutt Guptan and Kausar Munir, theatre veterans like Piyush Mishra and Swanand Kirkire, and advertising professionals like Prasoon Joshi. “The age-old saying that this industry has place and space for everybody has truly manifested itself in today’s times,” said Bhattacharya, who came to Mumbai to become a playback singer. As much as Kamil is an important part of this development, the quality of his craft—his impeccable command over language, facility with poetic technique and grasp of human emotions—places him in a league of his own. And while much of his genius can be attributed to hard work, Kamil owes a great deal of it to his life’s circumstances.

IRSHAD KAMIL WAS BORN MOHAMMED IRSHAD IN 1971, as the youngest of seven children to Mohammed Saddique and Begum Iqbal Bano, in Malerkotla, a city located in Sangrur district in Punjab with a religiously diverse population. They were, as he puts it, “a very middle-class family.” His father, “the only earning member in the family”, worked in the chemistry department at the Government College and, according to Kamil, subscribed to the notion that, “the children have to finish their education, then take up a job, then get married, then have their own children, then have their children educated” and so on, following a well-defined life path. All of Kamil’s siblings lived out their lives as Mohammed Saddique wished. “There was no drastic deviation,” said Kamil of his brothers and sisters, no one who “wanted to play the taanpura or yearned to become Milkha Singh.”

Kamil, however, was interested in art: reading, writing, acting, poetry. He remembers his language teacher, “Santosh aunty”, at the Sanatan Dharam Prem Pracharak (SDPP) high school, complimenting him on his essay writing skills. “Perhaps she liked the imagery in my writing,” he said.

To respect his father’s wish, Kamil enrolled himself at the Government College to study science. “Maybe because my father was trying to live his dreams through us, that is why all his children had to take science after tenth,” he said. Parminder Kumar, Kamil’s classmate in his first year in college, told me that “at that time, it was normal for parents to think that only science could give their children more opportunities.”

But Kamil had no aptitude for science. He flunked his physics and math papers in the first year and was compelled to take “casual admission”—which allowed him to continue with college on the condition that he clear his supplementary papers—to the second year (“pre-engineering”) BSc Class. “When the time came for my pre-engineering exams in February, I and a few other friends decided to go to Shimla.” The idea, as Kamil now remembers, was to have a short break before the examinations began in April. “My mother even gave me 500 rupees, a lot of money back then,” he said.

The friends enjoyed their jaunt to the hilt, but when the time came to return, Kamil told the rest of the group to head back without him. He wanted to stay another day, he said. They gave in to his request. “I stayed on for one more day,” Kamil said. “Then, another day. Then, another day. I finally stayed on until September.”

The seven or eight months he spent in Shimla in 1985 were a turning point for Kamil. For the first time in his life, he was free to respond to his creative urges. He started with theatre, joining prominent theatre companies like Himachal Theatre, with which he did Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala, and United Theatres—run by the Dean bothers, Claudius and Ambrose—where he did a play on the Indo-China war of 1962, called Sahil. “This phase helped me experience life up-close,” he said. “It opened my mind. I got to know what I wanted to do with my life after graduation.”

Kumar suggested to me that Kamil stayed on in Shimla as an indirect way of telling his family of his dislike for the path they had chosen for him. “The generation we belonged to, we could not tell our parents directly what we wished to do,” Kumar said. “It was only later, when they suspected that he was not coming back for a reason, that he told them he wanted to come back and study Hindi literature. They had no option but to agree.”

Kamil returned to the Government College in 1986, but decided to pursue a BA in Hindi and Geography, now sure that “art is my line and I have to get into a field related to art.” What had earlier been casual encounters with theatre, poetry or debating now transformed into a serious commitment to craft. According to his friend Tejwant Kittu, who joined Government College in 1986, this “new” Kamil slowly acquired the reputation of being a sensitive poet. Kittu liked to compose music, and collaborated with Kamil on the latter’s first official song. “It was a Punjabi song, ‘Yaada chad gayee hain pyaar di nishaani tu (Your memory is a token of our love)’. We would get a terrific response whenever we performed the song. It gave us confidence,” said Kittu, today a popular Punjabi music composer who works in Ludhiana and London.

It was during this period of self discovery that Kamil, then still known as Mohammed Irshad, decided to resolve another thing that had irked him since he was a child: his name. “I was so annoyed with my mother,” he said. Begum Iqbal Bano had picked up the name from the popular song-on-request radio programme Aap Ki Farmaish. It sounded incomplete to him. “‘What is this Irshad? Who is this Irshad?’ I would think,” he said. He wanted a weightier name, “like A-M-I-T-A-B-H B-A-C-H-C-H-A-N”. So he pored over a dictionary with his mother to look for an appropriate word to complete his name, and discovered ‘Kamil’, which means ‘complete’. Since Irshad translated to ‘permission’, ‘Irshad Kamil’ stood for “ek poori ijaazat” (a complete permission). The adoption of ‘Kamil’ made him very happy, he said, since the word served well to complete any name. “My wife’s name is Tasveer, so Tasveer Kamil means ‘the complete picture’, adhoori nahin (not the incomplete one). My son’s name is Kamraan. Kamraan means ‘achiever’, so he is ‘the complete achiever’, not in-between.”

Soon after, Kamil moved to Chandigarh to get an MA in Hindi literature from Punjab University, where he immersed himself in his artistic pursuits. “My poems started getting published regularly in various publications,” he said. Kamil was also frequently noticed for his theatre work, such as his performance in Hayavadana, the iconic play by Girish Karnad, as part of Abhinet, one of Chandigarh’s amateur theatre groups. Going on to pursue a PhD in contemporary Hindi poetry, Kamil met Zulfiqar Khan, who worked in the theatre department at the Punjab University, and agreed to write songs for a play Khan was directing for underprivileged children, titled Raja Aur Kisaan. “He wrote the songs very quickly, while sitting among the children. I don’t know how he did it, but he did,” Khan told me over the phone from Chandigarh. Kamil also wrote a number of plays—such as Jaanwar Hota Aadmi, Jeetega Bhai Jeetega, Baat Pate Ki—for Khan’s theatre company, Theatre Age, which worked with street children. At the peak of their creative association, Khan directed Kamil in the noted Hindi literary figure Asghar Wajahat’s Partition drama Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, O Jamyai Nai, where Kamil played one of the principal characters, the poet Nasir Qazmi. “That role really got me noticed all around Chandigarh,” Kamil said.

Although he was involved in both theatre and writing during this time, his heart was set upon the latter. “When you are in the field of art, you can act, direct, write—write poetry or a play or even a story, but you know where your real strengths lie,” he told me. “I knew I have to come to Mumbai. I knew I want to become a lyricist.” He asked his PhD guide to help him finish his doctorate at the earliest, and with minimal fuss, because “Mujhe life mein bahut bade bade kaam karne hain. Yeh PhD main teacher-veacher ban-ney ke liye nahin kar raha hoon” (I am going to do great things ahead in life. I’m not doing my PhD because I want to become a teacher). When friends questioned him about his chances of making it in Mumbai, he would say, “Mere paas maal hi kuch aur hai” (I have something very special). Yet, he resisted packing his bags for Mumbai because he “didn’t want to come to Mumbai as a struggler.”

Kamil wanted to be financially secure before showing up in Mumbai. In 1996, he joined The Tribune in Chandigarh, and spent the next two years translating stringers’ reports from Punjabi to English and editing advertisements for all editions of the publication. He then moved on to a reporting position at the Indian Express group’s Hindi paper Jansatta, where he wrote on education and entertainment. Since the Indian Express was a national newspaper with a multi-city operation, Kamil began to feel hopeful about a future in Mumbai. “I thought, working for Indian Express, I will get a transfer to Mumbai. I won’t have to struggle since I would be earning aur saath mein apni struggle bhi karengey (I can look to explore opportunities for myself).”

“He would often say, ‘Yeh toh aise hi hai. Yeh nahin hai mera (I am just killing time. This is not why I am here.),’” Rathi Menon, a colleague of Kamil’s during his Express stint, told me over the phone from Pune. But it was easier said than done. Kamil was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his job, primarily because he found himself having to write about people with mediocre talent. “‘Hum log bhi na kis kis ke barey me likh rahe hain?’ (What kind of people are we writing about?) he would say,” Menon said. It was perhaps this sense of disillusionment that led Kamil to quit Indian Express within six months, that too abruptly. “I was coming back from office after submitting my DC— double column—report, when I asked myself, ‘Irshad Kamil, when you were growing up, did you want to become Kuldip Nayar or Khushwant Singh?’ The answer that came from within me was a clear ‘No’.” The next day Kamil handed in his resignation. “It was like, where did Irshad vanish?” said Menon, who, like everyone else in the office, was stunned by his impulsive decision.

After quitting journalism for good, Kamil embarked on a phase that he described it to me as “dashtnawardi” and “ghumakkadi”, or living like a vagabond. Without a place of his own, he spent the nights at a private telephone exchange in Chandigarh owned by one of his brothers. “There would be nobody at the exchange at night,” he said. “I would sleep in one of the rooms which had an air conditioner to keep the machines cool. I had a mattress, about 20-25 books and a few spare clothes to make myself comfortable.”

To fulfill his occasional need for money, Kamil started writing songs for local Punjabi musicians. “Someone would pay me hundred rupees for a song, someone two hundred, someone five hundred. Sometimes I wrote for free,” he said. For pop and bhangra artist Surjit Khan, he wrote lyrics for the song ‘O vee puchdee rahi, te main bhi dassda reha,’ and for ghazal singer and composer Vinod Sehgal, he wrote ‘Tera charkha tutey’, a number the artist would perform for Doordarshan Jalandhar on New Year’s eve celebrations in the late 1990s.

When I asked Sehgal, who was also one of the playback singers on ‘Chhod aaye hum woh galiyaan’ from Maachis (1996), how much he paid Kamil for his songs back then, Sehgal first laughed and then said, “Not a single penny, kuch nahin (nothing). Paise writer ko yahaan kya, Bombay mein bhi kahaan milte hain jab tak naam nahin ho jaaye uska (Forget here, writers don’t get paid even in Mumbai until they make a name for themselves).”

Kamil was still living in penury, but word about his work started to spread. Sehgal remembers him becoming known in ghazal circles in Punjab. “There was a freshness in his language. His choice of words, the breadth of his vocabulary was outstanding,” Sehgal said.

In December 2000, Kamil left for Delhi with R9,000 that he had saved from a film assignment for the Punjab Public Health Department, on the invitation of an actor friend who lived there and who had promised to help him with his move to Mumbai. However, Kamil arrived in Delhi to find that his friend had abandoned him. With nowhere to go now, Kamil spent a few nights at a camp for Tibetan refugees near Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate ISBT area. “The cost per night was hundred rupees for a tent,” he said. He was also spending his limited savings on food and other basic requirements. “In a few days, I spent two-three thousand rupees,” he added. Kamil couldn’t gather the will to just leave for Mumbai with the remainder of the money. “For a boy from Malerkotla, the myth of Mumbai was too big,” he said. “I needed someone to come along with me the first time. After that I would handle it.”

It was at this point that Kamil sought out Tejwant Kittu, his old friend from college who was now working in Mumbai as a music composer. Kittu agreed to host Kamil, who ended up staying with his friend for a month, but couldn’t get anywhere near the film industry. “I didn’t meet anyone. You cannot become a lyricist in Mumbai in such a short time,” said Kamil. Having spent his last rupee, Kamil returned to Chandigarh in January 2001. “Kittu even financed my return ticket,” he said.

Kamil would go back to Mumbai shortly after, as a result of a rather unexpected sequence of events. In February 2001, filmmaker Lekh Tandon, director of Professor (1962), Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968) and Agar Tum Na Hote (1983), landed in Chandigarh to shoot his teleserial Kahan Se Kahan Tak. Tandon was looking for a new writer to work on the series. “Somebody suggested my name and I started writing dialogues for his serial.” While he was writing the script for Kahan Se Kahan Tak, Tandon invited him to Mumbai with a paid ticket. So, two months after he had left Mumbai in utter resignation, he was there again, and with a full-time job. Careful about his future this time, Kamil built on the start he got in the world of television. He went on to work on Kartavya for Zee TV, Choti Maa… Ek Anokha Bandhan for UTV, and Dhadkan for Sony Television. “I settled myself. The money started coming in.”

In 2002, when Kamil had gotten used to a life as a television writer, a common acquaintance introduced him to music director Sandesh Shandilya. Shandilya, who had composed some of the songs in the filmmaker Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), was working on the music of writer-director Imtiaz Ali’s first film, Socha Na Thaa (2005). “When he met me for the first time, he recited some of his poetry to me,” Shandilya told me. “He gave me the impression that he was a poet and I felt ki ek achcha shaayar hamaari industry ko mil gaya (that finally a good poet has arrived in our industry).” Impressed with what he had heard, Shandilya took Kamil to meet Ali, and introduced him to the filmmaker, not as lyricist but a poet.

Kamil recited for Ali the same ghazal he had earlier shared with Shandilya, ‘Kuch na huey toh na sahi’ (It doesn’t matter if you do not become something), which would eventually become the popular ‘Na Sahi’ in Socha Na Thaa. But it was a different movie that would launch Kamil into Bollywood. While Socha Na Thaa was under production, Shandilya asked Kamil to write songs for another film he was working on; it was titled Chameli and had the reigning star Kareena Kapoor playing the central character of a feisty prostitute. While the movie opened to mixed reviews, its songs—such as the passionate ‘Sajna ve sajna’ and the mischievous ‘Bhaage re mann kahin’—blazed through the music charts. Kamil hasn’t looked back since.

THESE DAYS, Kamil lives in Oshiwara in Mumbai’s Andheri West, adjacent to the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Millat Nagar. His ninth-storey rented apartment is also a part of a Muslim-dominated housing society. Kamil told me that the reason he lived in this flat was the view it allowed of the Oshiwara Creek, visible in its entire, verdant splendour from the room he writes in. “This view is important to me,” he said. Along the left wall of the room are a large bookshelf and an antique wooden two-seater, above which hangs a large portrait of Kamil’s mother, Begum Iqbal Bano, who died in 2010. In the right corner of the room is Kamil’s work desk, comprising a desktop and a printer. A chest of drawers stands next to the desk, and on top of it stand Kamil’s many glittering trophies, with a special place in the front reserved for a small rectangular plaque, his “most valued possession”. Presented to Kamil by “Rahman sir” after the release of Rockstar, it reads: “Dear Irshad, As I celebrate 20 years of my music, I realize that you’ve been an integral part of the journey and it wouldn’t have been the same without you.”

Courteous to a fault, Kamil speaks in thoughtfully framed sentences, often mixing prose and poetry. When I first explained to him the purpose of my visit, expressing the need to meet more than once, he allowed himself a slight smile and responded with the following couplet from one of his ghazals:

Udtee huyee nigaah se bhala kya jaan sakogey
Ibaarat hain zindagi, hum akhbaar nahin hain

(There is not much you will discover with a casual glance
A life is too vast, don’t confine it to a newspaper’s headlines)

Those who work with Kamil credit his felicity with language as the reason for his steady success since Chameli. “His command over Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi makes him unique. He is able to flow between languages effortlessly,” said Vishal Dadlani, who along with co-composer Shekhar Ravjiani, worked with Kamil in Shabd (2005) and Karam (2005). Kamil attributes his linguistic proficiency to his early years in Malerkotla. “Wahaan ke culture mein thoda Urdu hai, thodi Punjabi hai aur thoda sangeet hai” (In the culture there, there is a bit of Urdu, a bit of Punjabi and a bit of music).

The exposure to Malerkotla’s syncretic culture, and the years spent in a neighbourhood populated by dehaadi mazdoors (daily wage labourers), rangrez (dyers), rajmistri (masons) and carpenters, helped Kamil learn a language “which was very different from what you learn in school.” He refers to songs like ‘Aahoon aahoon’ from Love Aaj Kal, ‘Mauja hi mauja’ from Jab We Met and ‘Koshampa’ from Subhash Ghai’s upcoming Kaanchi as examples of this earthy influence. “I myself didn’t realise how the ambience of Malerkotla seeped through within me,” he said, before quoting lines from another of his ghazals to further explain himself:

Phool sa taaron sa koi humsafar mat dhoondhiye
Patharon se hi nibhaiye, dil jigar mat dhoondhiye
Main sakoon ki qaan, mera shor se kya vaasta
Mere andar gaon hain, hazrat shehar mat dhoondhiye

(Don’t look for a companion so beautiful as a flower or the stars
Be happy with stones, don’t look for fancier attachments
I am a well of calm, what do I have to do with noise
A village resides within me, o sire, you won’t find the city in here)

Another early influence on his writing was a ghazal program called ‘Aabshaar’ on All India Radio, to which he was exposed when he was around 13 years old. Two of his older brothers were at an age when “chaje-chaje waala prem chal raha hai” (romance blossomed from terrace to terrace) and used to listen to the show, “jismein badi husn aur ishq ki baatein hoti thee” (whose themes were love and romance). It was through this program that Kamil was introduced to the work of Urdu poet Bashir Badr and prominent singers like Mehdi Hassan, Pankaj Udhas, Chandan Das, Rajendra and Nina Mehta. “Although I was still to enter my teens fully, my condition was like a passive smoker’s. I was influenced,” he said. Aabshaar taught Kamil the value of brevity in poetry. The lesson is visible in several of his film songs, in lines such as ‘Meri bebasi ka bayaan hai, bas chal raha na iss ghadi’ (It is a sign of my helplessness that time simply passes by) from Rockstar’s ‘Aur ho’ or ‘Hum dhoondhe kahin, kuch aisa jo khoya hi nahin’ (Let’s look for something that we haven’t lost) from the song ‘Choomantar’ in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, where Kamil is able to articulate the most intricate thoughts in the most precise verse.

Love remains the dominant theme in Kamil’s songwriting. Be it ‘Mann ke matt pe mat chaliyo’ from Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh (2010) or ‘Rabba main toh mar gaya oye’ from Pankaj Kapoor’s directorial debut Mausam or ‘Kaisa yeh ishq hai’ from the Imran Khan-Katrina Kaif starrer Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Kamil manages to evoke fresh feeling for the oldest emotion in cinema.

In his songs of love and longing, the recurring motif is that of the beloved as the centre of the lover’s universe. Whether it is ‘Tumse hi’ (Jab We Met) or ‘Tumhi ho bandhu’ (Cocktail) or ‘Tum tak’ (Raanjhanaa), the admirer’s selfless devotion dominates his or her every other instinct. Of a similar nature are the passionate strains of ‘Kaun tere bin mera’ (Who do I have besides you?) from Raanjhanaa’s title track, ‘Teri ibaadat ho gayee Allah maaf kare’ (May Allah forgive me, but I have worshipped you) from ‘Allah Maaf Kare’ in Desi Boyz (2011) and ‘Tujhe dekha toh khila hoon, teri chaahat mein dhula hoon’ (Your sight cheers me up, I have bathed in your love) from ‘Bheegi si, bhaagi si’ in Rajneeti (2010). “The person you love, you want to see that person much larger than yourself, at least in your imagination,” said Kamil. “You take any of my romantic songs, they translate to my romance with Him,” he added in the same breath, looking at the heavens.

Kamil also indulges in word play, the most recent example of which is ‘Banarasiya’ from Raanjhanaa. On a first hearing, the opening line seems to be made up of two words, ‘Banarasiya, Banarasiya’, suggesting that the song is an ode to the city of Banaras. But Kamil’s line actually comprises three distinct words: ‘Banarasiya bana rasiya’, meaning ‘The inhabitant of Banaras has become a romantic’. “I always try to write lines with multiple meaning,” Kamil said. He referred to a line from the song ‘Tera mera pyaar’ in Action Replayy (2010): ‘Ab teri soch mein rehta hoon main.’ “This line appears very simple, but it is not that simple,” he said. “On the face of it, it appears to mean ‘I only think about you’, but the same line also suggests, ‘I live in your thoughts’.” Aanand L Rai, the director of Raanjhanaa, an intense romantic drama involving obsession and self-destruction set in a small town, said Kamil’s work came with an element of surprise. “He has so much inside, ki kabhi yeh woh waala darwaaza khol deta hai, kabhi yeh waala darwaaza khol deta hai. Aapko lagta hai ki yeh iss darwaaze se nikal ke aayengey, yeh doosre raste se aa jaate hain (that sometimes he opens that door and at other times, this door. You think he will emerge from this door, but he will come via an entirely different route).”

KAMIL’S MOST SIGNIFICANT ASSOCIATION in his relatively short film career has been with Imtiaz Ali. The rapport was established in their very first meeting over a common love for poetry. “Because I myself am interested in poetry, we started talking about Urdu poetry,” Ali said of their first meeting. “We just had this very happy session.” It is this understanding that has led to Kamil contributing a number of intricately crafted songs to Ali’s every subsequent project—Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal and Rockstar. “Ali appreciates lines nobody else will appreciate,” Kamil said.

There isn’t a better example of this working relationship than Rockstar. “Words destroy what I have to say,” was the brief Ali offered Kamil during their initial meetings in 2010 for a song that brings out the dilemma of his hopeless protagonist. Kamil responded with lines from a ghazal of his:

Tum jaate ho, soch bhi meri saath saath chal deti hai
Mere andar baitha main tab aur koi ho jaata hai
Daur-e-jawaani mein hi ibaadat shiddat se ho sakti hai
Haan yeh baat alag hai ki rab aur koi ho jaata hai
In lafzon ke maayne Kamil jaaney kaun badalta hai
Main kehta hoon kuch, aur matlab aur koi ho jaata hai

(When you leave, my senses also take my leave to follow you
The person sitting within me then turns into someone else
It is only in one’s youth that one may worship with utmost passion
It is a different matter though that the Almighty is someone else then
I don’t know, Kamil, who it is that changes the meaning of these words
I say one thing but it takes on a meaning entirely different)

Kamil suggested the last two lines for the particular song. But Ali, as Kamil now recalled, didn’t accept these lines because his troubled rocker Jordan, previously Janardan Jakhar, wasn’t supposed to have this kind of sophistication. “He was not a poet,” Kamil said to me about Ali’s lead character. To make it sound like something that could come from Jordan, Kamil toned down the original and proposed “Seedhe baat kartey hain” (Let’s talk in a direct manner), which, after a few more rounds of discussion, led to the memorable ‘Jo bhi main kehna chaahoon barbaad kare alfaaz mere’ in the movie.

Kamil considers lyrics an integral part of a film’s narrative. “The lyricist is not part of the music,” he said. “He is part of the storytelling.” It is not unusual for him to use references from the real world to bring out the nuances of a character or situation in the film. ‘Sadda haq’, a politically charged number that Jordan performs before a surging crowd at the height of his artistic angst, was, for example, the slogan used by students in Kamil’s college in Punjab to protest against the administration’s arbitrary announcement of exams. “It’s a common phrase for protest that has been used in Punjab over a number of years,” he added. “‘Sadda haq’was a major hit song and ‘Kun faya kun’ was a major hit song, but that’s not the point of the soundtrack,” said Vishal Dadlani. “The point of the soundtrack was to make a statement.”

Kamil’s own view of his work in Rockstar corresponds to the perceptions of observers. “Whatever I was writing before Rockstar, it was total commerce, with a tinge of literature,” Kamil said. “Rockstar is pure literature, with a tinge of commerce.” To illustrate his statement, Kamil brought up the words ‘Banu Raavan, jiyoon mar marke’ (I become Raavan by continuing to live each time I die) in the song ‘Phir se udd chala’ in Rockstar. The line, Kamil said, was a metaphor for Janardhan Jakhar, who, like the demon Raavan from the Ramayana, dies a number of times and yet goes on with his life. “He dies the first time when his family suspects him for stealing money from his own house,” Kamil said. “Then he dies another time when they don’t allow him back in the house. The third time he dies is when the girl he is trying to woo gets married off to someone else. That is why I used the Raavan simile.”

It is significant that even in the playful ‘Katiya karoon’, which is partly shot in a seedy disco, Kamil slipped in a subtle metaphor. “What was the heroine saying? Saari raate katiya karoon or I will spin your cotton all night long, which meant I will be at your services all night. This is how I want to write an item song.”

Kamil said Rockstar helped him reconnect with the poet inside him. He identified with the protagonist’s painful journey of self-discovery. “Uss Janardhan Jakhar ko main jaanta hoon. Woh Janardhan Jakhar thoda sa kahin mere andar thaa” (I know that Janardhan Jakhar. I could relate to him at some level). Ali sees Kamil’s connection with his hero in similar terms, “For him to understand where Jordan was coming from was not only simple, but extremely thrilling.” AR Rahman, who thinks of Kamil as a determined artist, wrote to me about their collaboration in Rockstar: “I really felt that he had so much within him waiting to explode and that showed.”

For Kamil, searching within himself is integral to his craft. “The important thing to understand here is who you are finally starts getting reflected in what you do,” Ali said about Kamil’s approach to his work. Kamil’s inexhaustible understanding of love is, in Ali’s view, a function of the writer’s inherent romantic disposition. “Irshad has had many romantic situations in his life, and when I say romance, it is not necessarily to do with courting a girl and having an affair. Taking a scooter and going from Chandigarh to Shimla, staying over there in the cold, staying in a small room for no reason, spending the night at an odd place. He just looks at life romantically,” said Ali.

The episode that Ali refers to happened when Kamil got an advance of a thousand rupees for the short film he made for Punjab’s public health department. He responded to the windfall by picking up a friend and riding off to Shimla on a Vespa Scooter, crashing a wedding, sleeping under blankets meant for the baraatis, waking up early in the morning, and dashing back to Chandigarh. When I asked him what his motivation was for such impulsive behaviour, Kamil responded, “Kabhi apne aap pe bhi apni chala leni chahiye,” referring to another line from his song ‘Choomantar’—sometimes we must just do what we keep wishing to do. “Romance is when you follow your emotions,” he said.

Kamil refers to his earlier poems and ghazals as “raw material”. “It may not lead to the final song with the same emotion, the same depth, but it becomes a kind of stepping stone,” he said. He showed me notebook upon notebook of his “homework” for films like Rockstar and Raanjhanaa, in which he had gone through several iterations of each song before settling on the versions that reached viewers and listeners across the country. “He told me one thing. ‘If you don’t like something, mujhe maaf mat karna (don’t forgive me). Don’t let it go. Let me know,’” Aanand L Rai said of Kamil’s working method. The only way Kamil could produce his best, he said, was when challenged by the filmmaker. “Apne paas kaunsi kami hai kisi cheez ki, aur likh lenge” (There is no dearth of talent. I can always write more)”.

Today, ten years after Kamil got his first Bollywood assignment, he is working with nearly every major filmmaker or composer in the industry. Among his upcoming projects are Yash Raj Films’ Gunday with music director Sohail Sen; Farah Khan’s Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Happy New Year with Vishal-Shekhar; and the Hindi remake of AR Murugadoss’ Thupakki as well as Rajkumar Santoshi’s Phata Poster Nikla Hero with composer Pritam. Also in the pipeline is his next film with Ali and AR Rahman, Highway. “I am really happy where I am today, but I am not satisfied. There is so much left within me,” he said. He summed up his unfinished journey in Hindi cinema with a couplet he read somewhere a long time ago:

Apni apni raah pe chal raha hai har bashr
Kaun kisko kya kahe kaun kis manzil pe hai

(Every individual is charting his own path
Who knows yet where it is that one has reached?)

Akshay Manwaniquit the corporate world and ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to Business Standard, Man’s World and, among other publications. His book on the poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi will be published by HarperCollins in 2013. Akshay lives with his wife and daughter in Mumbai.


88 thoughts on “Something to Sing About”

Completely made my day.. What a towering, understated artist…. revisiting many songs and seeing them in new light now…..
I would like to congratulate you Akshay, for the care and love with which this article has been written.

He still lives in a rented apartment?
How much money do Bollywood lyricists make- its a shame such talented artistes are not recompensed more. Rockstar is still in the top 50 in the Indian iTunes store more than 2 years after its release. Do lyricists not get royalties? Hope they do.

excellent writer excellent person ,belong to malerkotla small town ,taken the education from govt college malerkotla.
ashok bhandari 094177773324

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