Poets are purists. You would never have met one without a pen and a dog-eared notebook in hand, not until you meet Kausar Munir.
She’s one of Bollywood’s rare female lyricists and when an idea strikes her, she flicks out her mobile phone and types spontaneously. Her wit and satire go beyond Hindi, English and Urdu. I got chatting with Kausar about her thoughts, craft and what it takes to swing between item numbers and feminist anthems, especially in a Bollywood scenario, where stars, singers and music composers call the shots.
You might recognise her more by the super hits she’s penned over the years- Falak Tak Chal (Tashan, 2008), Mashallah (Ek Tha Tiger, 2012), Love You Zindagi (Dear Zindagi, 2016), Pareshaan (Ishaqzaade, 2012), Bhar Do Jholi (Bajrangi Bhaijaan, 2015), Main Kaun Hoon (Secret Superstar, 2017), Aaj Se Teri (Padman, 2018) and many many more.
Munir started out by writing dialogues for the popular TV soap Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin (2003-2006) and has since written dialogues (also additional dialogues) and screenplay for films like Begum Jaan (2017), Phantom (2015) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). In this interview, she also shares fond memories of working with the late Sridevi, on her Hindi diction for Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish (2012).
Q: From all the super hits you’ve penned for mainstream Bollywood, my favourite is Secret Superstar. Which one is yours?
I can’t really say, but I have a soft corner for Ishaqzaade (2012), because it was my first film. Falak Tak (Tashan, 2008) was just one song and it got me lot of freedom to do my thing and it was also very widely appreciated. A lot of other stuff, which wasn’t really heard, was in not-so-successful films like Phantom (2015). Nachda was one such song and I feel that it was a really superior number, but nobody remembers it.
Q: What kind of brief did you have for Dear Zindagi and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, two films which are very different from each other, talking about two characters which are very different from each other?
Strangely, you’ve picked two films on which I was also a part of the writing team. So it was much easier for me. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), I was part of most of the dialogues. In Dear Zindagi, my credit appears in the writing team, because I was also involved as a sounding board with Gauri Shinde, who wrote and directed the film. So there I was also a part of the characterisation from the very beginning of the film. In fact, Tu Jo Mila, one of my favourite songs from Bajrangi, was written to the edit and the melody. I also had to keep in mind all those points in the film where it could be used. This is not how it’s usually done, but because I was a part of the film, this was what we did.
Q: So, did your profession find you then? Tell me about your journey.
I really never thought of being a lyricist, at all. I was always fond of poetry since I was a kid. People are poetic minded or not, and they get poetry or not, but it’s difficult to cultivate it. You can study it, but you can’t always intuitively understand a poet’s metaphor, it’s not every person’s cup of tea. But I was fond of it as a kid. Whether it was my schooling and subsequently my graduation in English Literature from St. Xavier’s College... I was always fond of poetry and also old films songs. I would listen to them on the radio. I remember I had a notebook and if I liked any song, I used to just write down the lyrics of that song. I used to just write a few lines here and there, just for my own sake more then anything else. I never had any intention of getting published and certainly not of getting into writing films songs. In fact, my work life started with researching for documentary films and television. I started writing for television, for Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin. The guy heading the writing team was Vijay Krishna Acharya, ‘Victor’ as we used to call him. So when he was making his first film Tashan, he knew of my interest in poetry, and one day he was making us listen to his songs. I had some suggestions, to which he asked if I would like to try my hand at writing lyrics. I said okay and that ended up being Falak Tak Chal. Then few years later in fact, I got a call from Yashraj and they just wanted to try me out for what became Ishaqzaade. It was after Ishaqzaade in 2012, that I started doing lyrics.
A song is not purely about inspiration. It’s about the brief, the character, the script, the director, the music composer and the melody, that you have to write to exactly. So that is a completely different ball game. It’s a very technical and creative skill. Mostly, I write to a particular melody. I think only twice I have written without a melody - Mana Ke Hum Yaar Nahi and Pareshaan.
Q: Did you also have to keep in mind the persona of Salman Khan and Alia Bhatt while writing songs for Dear Zindagi and Bajrangi Bhaijaan?
Sometimes yes, but largely, I am a bit of stickler for the director’s brief and vision. But yes, I did keep in mind that it was Salman Khan. But it also depends... for example, if it is a song that introduces Salman Khan, maybe it needs a different language. But honestly, it’s never been a major consideration. It is always the character I keep in mind actually.
Q: Which songs have been difficult for you to write?
Generally speaking, I think I speak for most of my colleagues when I say that party songs, item songs, shaadi songs, are very difficult to write. I really admire people like Kumar, Mayur Puri and Amitabh Bhattacharya, who do those so well. I have written very few. To write these with a certain darja, is not at all easy.
For example, Tu Hi Hai from Dear Zindagi, I was reluctant about presenting it to Amit ji (Amit Trivedi), because I thought it was far too in your face, as far as the lyrics were concerned, you know. But they all said to me “No, it’s the introduction of Ali Zafar’s character. He could be singing anything.” Amit ji said “What’s wrong with you? This is so lovely!” So everyone was very happy. On the contrary I had a difficult time writing Love You Zindagi, because it was so simple and that made it very difficult. Because you have to kind of really break it down to something that will work universally. So in that album, that was the most difficult song for me to write. I think I did three or four very different versions before I finally came to this one.
I think people don’t realise that it is easy to write difficult poetic stuff. If you are a lyric writer or a poet, that comes naturally to you. But it is really difficult to write the simple stuff.
Q: You wrote a raunchy number for Tevar (2015), that a female singer even refused to sing it. What does it take for you to write such an item number?
But that singer actually didn’t get that it wasn’t raunchy at all! In fact, it was a very nice number, in which it had a sawal jawab thing, where the woman is telling the man that “why should I sing and dance, unless you appreciate my independence and talent to do it”. That was the gist of the song. I maybe sounding like a stuck record but these are not things that we are writing for ourselves. Bidi Jalaile is also an item number, and Fevicol is also an item number. But both where written specifically for particular films, for particular situations. That’s how they were crafted. So you have to be versatile otherwise you can only write romantic songs or whatever it is that you write. Yes, I have written Mai Tera Hero also, and Secret Superstar and Mardaani, because that’s what those films and characters required.
See, I think in any writing, originality and inventiveness work. It will get appreciated if it conveys the feeling aptly, and if it doesn’t sound fake. That is why Gulzar saab is so widely appreciated, because he says things which sound usual or obvious, but he does it in a way that they justify a poetic idea, and not just for the sake of being different. So whatever you do, should have an emotional resonance and should not misuse the rules of the language of poetry.
Q: Does the fact that you’re a female writer work to your advantage or disadvantage in the film industry?
As far as I remember, my acceptance or rejection has been purely on the basis of my merit. I never felt as if I am at an advantage or a disadvantage as a writer in this industry. Generally as a woman of course we face many many difficulties, when it comes to household and children, but that is society at large, not this particular job or this particular industry. And here I only speak for myself.
Q: You mentioned, a lyricist is a technician. Can you explain?
Actually a lyricist is an artist and and a technician, both. Sadly, here we are judged because writing is an art. But, you are writing to a very specific brief, straight jacketed in twenty four other boundaries. A poet is free to do whatever he/she wants. That’s why I laugh! People who come from high literary backgrounds, they come and say, “what do we shayars do?” Don’t you know what we do? It’s very difficult to take the briefs of six different people and write something to a deadline and a melody, then sit in that studio and get every syllable right. How do you keep the poetry alive in all of that? It’s very technical and you have to make sure that you don’t lose your voice. So it’s both an art and a craft.
Q: What do you have to say to those who believe that music and melody today hardly match up to the seventies and the golden era of Hindi film music?
It annoys me! Back then, only 500 songs were made and now 5000 songs are being made. Even if 1000 out of those are good, you’ll only hear the top 50 that the radio channels play. Who is making these lists? Earlier, there was one film which used to play for twenty five weeks and be a silver jubilee and become that super hit cassette. So there are a lot of things that are lost today.
The time you are talking about, they used to have kavi sammelans in colleges. Now we have rave parties! So the music will reflect the language and the culture of the times we live in. But I think in the last ten years, you’ve had Rehman, Amit Trivedi... who have done wonderful work. I think Rockstar (2011) is a once in a lifetime album, in terms of the music. But yes, one can’t fight nostalgia. In fact the music of the eighties and nineties was very bad. Compared to that, I think the quality of music has improved. A lot of the musicians today come from very literate backgrounds and they know what they are talking about.
Q: Do you believe that lyrics play second fiddle to the melody?
Yes. Because even if you forget the lyrics you’ll always remember the melody. Human beings are wired to responding to the melody first. Also historically, language came later. In the hierarchy of things as well, the composer is more important. Even in terms of the compensation, a lyricist would get 10% if at all, not even 20%, just 10-15% of what the composer gets.
Q: To end our conversation, you worked with Sridevi on the sets of English Vinglish. What was that like?
Yes, I was a dialogue coach and at the end of it we became friends. She was someone who didn’t get close to people so easily. But if she trusted you and gave you that privilege, then it’s wonderful. We ended up being friends and she was very warm, very lovely, very caring, very humbled, very down to earth. I don’t want to go much into the details but yes, I was honoured that she trusted me enough to let me be her friend, which she did very rarely.
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