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Film lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya: ‘If we write what we find in everyday usage, that creates a connection’

The song writer discusses his approach, his take on censorship, and the role of the Hindi film song in contemporary cinema.

Amitabh Bhattacharya came to Mumbai in 1999 to be a playback singer. But his professional career took a dramatic detour when the songs written by him for Aamir (2008) and Dev.D (2009) garnered critical and popular acclaim. Since then, Bhattacharya has emerged as one of the preeminent lyricists of our times, with his work in films such as Udaan (2010), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Agneepath (2012), Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), Lootera (2013) and Chennai Express (2013) having been appreciated all around. His latest hit Gerua from Dilwale (2015) sits pretty at the top of the charts. The recognition that has come the 39-year-old lyricist’s way is remarkable for someone whose family has no connection with songwriting. Bhattacharya’s father is a retired government employee while his mother is a housewife. The only remote link to his trade that he can think of is that his paternal great-grandfather, who used to compose songs and set them to his own words.

But Bhattacharya’s great-grandfather, too, did this purely as a hobby since, professionally, he was a jailor. “Interestingly, he was a jailor in the British times, toh woh angrezon ke zamaane ke jailor thay,” Bhattacharya told me, quoting the popular line from the movie Sholay when I met him for a conversation at a composer’s studio in Mumbai’s Juhu suburb.

You didn’t set out specifically to become a lyricist, but now that it has happened, what do you do to enhance your vocabulary or your metaphors?

Forget background in lyric-writing. Normally, someone who writes lyrics may keep a diary where he writes some kind of poetry. I had never written anything before coming to Mumbai. I had read some Hindi poetry in school, that was my only connection with Hindi literature. I don’t consciously do any homework to enhance my vocabulary. Also, I am not a very sustained or avid reader. As far as my information is concerned, my source is media in general, the people we meet.

I only write to melodies. I have never written anything for myself. Tunes inspire me – the composers who are doing good work, or the interesting projects, which have interesting characters, which give me the feeling that there can be good songs.

I grew up in Lucknow. I have heard the right lehja (diction, pronunciation). I have lived 15-16 years in Mumbai and so my language may have got slightly corrupted, but I have heard the right Hindi dialect. Also, being an aspiring singer, I have only heard film songs. The yesteryear film songs are a library by themselves, a kind of source material. So lehja, usage, metaphors, idioms, they are all within me. When I get the right tune, the right project, the right characters, they all find their way into my songwriting.

There is a discernible contemporary flavor to your songwriting, be it ‘Chai mein dooba biscuit ho gaya’ or ‘Khooni Monday kyun aaya khoon choos ne’ or ‘Dil hua Milkha, badi tez bhaagey re’ from your latest hit ‘Manma emotion jaagey’. Does this come from observation of daily language?

Again, this happens unknowingly. Over the years, I have realised that I have a knack for something that is phonetically interesting. In a particular tune, a certain chand (metre), there may be a word or phrase that may be very catchy to listen to. Like [starts singing] ‘Oh meri jaan, oh meri jaan, mere ko majnu bana kar, kahaan chal di, kahaan chal di, pyaar ki pungi baja kar…’ that pungi has a sound that I can hear in my head.

What we find in everyday usage, what we speak, if that comes in the song, I feel that creates a connection. For example, ‘Chai mein dooba biscuit ho gaya’ is not owing to its phonetic usage, but the fact that it actually happened. When I was working on ‘Ainvayee Ainvayee Lut Gaya’ [Band Baaja Baaraat, 2010] with Salim-Sulaiman, a couple of weeks before that we were working on ‘Bari Barsi Khatan Gaya Si’. I was at their studio. There was a tea break and biscuits had been served. I thought that this habit of dipping biscuits in tea, as far as I know, is a rather British thing. ‘Where else does one do this? Do only Indians do this?’ They also didn’t know but said that yes, this is a very Indian thing. That stayed on in my head. And so when I was writing this song, I don’t know why, but I thought “chai mein dooba hua biscuit.” Every Indian from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, or Indians anywhere in the world, can relate to this.

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Would it be fair therefore to suggest that you follow more in the lineage of Anand Bakshi, whose lyrics were almost conversational, rather than in the footsteps of songwriters like Sahir Ludhianvi, who championed high Urdu poetry in the use of his lyrics?

Absolutely. I won’t deny that because Sahir sa’ab was a poet. Majrooh [Sultanpuri] sa’ab is a poet. They were among the established Urdu poets. They were known across the world as poets. I am not a poet. My source material is everyday, conversational grammar, bol-chaal ki bhaasha.

Even Bakshi sa’ab, as far as I know, used to write poems. Somebody told me that he had once interviewed Bakshi sa’ab and he told Bakshi sa’ab that everyone else before you was a poet, but you use the common man’s language. Bakshi sa’ab told this man, that this is not true. He made this person listen to some of his poetry, which was amazing.

Bakshi sa’ab is a legend. I feel embarrassed that my name is taken with him.

But the period that Sahir belonged to or, for that matter, the songwriter Shailendra, the 1950s and 1960s, is often considered the golden period of songs and songwriting in general in Hindi cinema. Do you sometimes feel the burden that those songwriters passed on to successive generations of lyricists?

Why do people judge our work? I agree that there were great songs in the past, but still. It took me some time to actually realise how simple and great those songs really were. And particularly in the work of Sahir and Shailendra, a sentence in Hindi, a piece of songwriting can say something really big. Like ‘Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam’ [Hum Dono,1961], I think the second verse from that song is, “O saarey jag ke rakhwaaley, nirbal ko bal dene waaley, balwaano ko de de gyaan.” Now if you look at the song, when this part is sung, the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings are shown. So simply said, but yet such a profound thought. That if the Almighty, who nourishes the weak, could only show some sense to the mighty, all our problems, which exist even today, will disappear.

So I won’t say it’s a burden. As far as the space that I have shared with my other contemporaries, yes this criticism does come along. That ‘Yeh Raatein, Yeh Mausam’ [Dilli Ka Thug, 1958] is such a great song and that I write, ‘Ainvayee Ainvayee, Ainvayee Lut Gaya’. But that is a separate, detailed debate.

When Amit Trivedi and me worked on Bombay Velvet [2015], director Anurag Kashyap consciously briefed me that, ‘Amitabh, our music is jazz, which is not a common man’s medium. You will have to write your songs in a language that can be instantly identified with. I want songs from Sahir sa’ab’s, Shailendra sa’ab’s and Bakshi sa’ab era of songwriting.’ So if you look at my songwriting in Bombay Velvet and the rest of my songwriting, I have somehow tried, I don’t think I have succeeded, to capture the essence with “Mohabbat buri bimari, lagi tujhey toh teri zimmedaari“ — this is the song’s mukhda. Simple and sweet.

We sit and create a song here in the studio. It is lauded for its singing, the composition, the writing. But when the same song is played in faraway Lucknow or Kanpur on the radio at a local tea stall, does it strike a chord with the listener, that is what the writer must pay attention to.

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Songwriting must take cognisance of the screenplay, the syntax used by the characters. At the same time, there may be a certain metaphor or idiom that the songwriter uses that may be alien to the character, but is necessary to bring out the poetic flavor of the song. A good example of this is Aga Bai from Aiyyaa (2012) where Rani Mukerji’s character uses words like hirni and sandhali, which she may not necessarily use as part of her character’s syntax in the film. How do you explain such creative liberties?

For the very first time somebody has asked me this question.

As far as creative liberty is concerned, it totally depends on the team with which you are working. Since you mentioned Aiyyaa, Sachin Kundalkar, the director, gave us full freedom. He used to say, “Amit, Amitabh tum humaarey sher ho (you are my strength).” But that liberty doesn’t always come, especially when you are working on a more mainstream, more commercial, bigger film, with a bigger canvas. Then it becomes more difficult. There are more filters there, more limitations.

The good thing about songwriting today is that they match the character’s syntax. In yesteryear cinema, very often, a thug from the streets, he picks up a fight in Bambaiyya bhaasha but when he breaks into a song, he mouths poetry.

There is one situation where you write songs as per the character, according to the moment he is placed in, according to his lingo. Then there is another particular situation where you can take liberties because that situation is like that. For example, in Band Baaja Baaraat, ”Ainvayee, ainvayee, ainvayee” comes from the language used by Shruti’s and Bittoo’s characters. It is the language used in Delhi’s streets. But in that same film there is a song, Adha Ishq or rather Mitra, which is the most under noticed song from the film. Mitra is very dear to me. I sang that song. Now I have taken liberties there because they don’t lip [sync] that song. It’s a dream sequence. In a dream sequence, when it’s a third person’s perspective of the situation, then it can be your voice as well. It can be the audience’s language. There you don’t need to worry about the character’s lingo. There you can use Rumi’s poetry as well.

In Dilwale’s Manma Emotion Jaage, the line “Dil hua Milkha” has been taken from the character’s behaviour in the film whereas, perhaps, Gerua, may not be the character’s language. But that is a dream sequence. You are among the glaciers in Iceland and so you can take that liberty and use the word gerua irrespective of whether the character has heard that word or not.

Tell us also about grammatical liberties a songwriter can take. For instance, Majrooh Sultanpuri used ‘Kabhi aar, kabhi paar’ whereas most literary critics point out that Aar paar, like the title of Guru Dutt’s 1954 film, can only be used in tandem. You use mannmarziyaan, which isn’t really a word. In ‘Tuney Maarey Entriyaan’, Irshad Kamil uses entriyaan, warrantiyaan, guarantiyaan – all for phonetic purposes.

Yes, there is mannmarzi, but no mannmarziyaan. Now as long as it isn’t grammatically incorrect, then it’s fine. According to me, this trend started from Mohabbatein [2000]. That is the first time I heard mohabbatein. It is only after mohabbatein, words like shaaraatein or shikaayatein or sifaarishein came into being.

For the yesteryear songwriters, this was probably wrong language and so they didn’t use it. But my own view is that if from a particular usage it isn’t grammatically wrong, yet it pushes the vocabulary envelope, then it doesn’t really matter.

Is there a particular kind of soundtrack that you like writing for – like say a Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani or a Dilwale, which has fun songs, or a Lootera or Udaan, where you work is so poetic.

Yes, I love writing albums, which have that entire spectrum, the entire range of moods. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani was one such album. If it has a ‘Budtameez Dil’ or a ‘Balam Pichkaari’, then it has an ‘Ilaahi’ or a ‘Kabira’ as well. Agneepath was another such album. Lootera is a very sophisticated album. The most commercial song in that is, ‘Sawaar Loon’, which itself is like a SD Burman-Neeraj song from the 1950s. I’m very proud of Lootera. People prefer Udaan more, and Udaan too is very dear to me, but I, at times, feel Lootera has more colour. Lootera has more to offer in terms of poetry.

Given a choice now, I select a project which offers me Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’s range or Agneepath’s range. I feel interested in that. Agent Vinod [2012] was another such album. You have a ‘Raabta’ and a ‘Pungi’ in the same album.

One of the somewhat troubling trends in songwriting today is that very often two or three lyricists may work on the same film. Isn’t it necessary that one songwriter alone should be familiar with the film’s plotline, the screenplay, the characters who he is penning songs for?

In our line of work this is something that I face everyday, in almost every project. I am one of the few people who believes that the medium we work for, which is Hindi cinema, for each album, there must be one single composer and one single lyricist. When we refer to films like Hum Dono, Kaagaz Ke Phool or Pyaasa or Amar Prem, we know those songs are written by Bakshi sa’ab or Sahir sa’ab. I believe 25-30 years from now, when someone looks back, they would probably identify me with an Agneepath or a Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani or a Lootera because that is entirely my flavour. I have created the entire mood for the songs in these films. The same has been done by the composer, Pritam in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani or by Ajay-Atul in Agneepath.

Right now the trend of multiple composers and lyricists is very prevalent. Consciously people are adapting to it and I have been fighting against it for the last three or four years that “I want to write the entire film, I want to write the entire film.”

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What about the commercial pressures of songwriting? You have composers who are interested only in the ‘hook line’ or producers who want the album to jump off the shelves, irrespective of the lyrical content. How detrimental can these commercial pressures be to songwriting? Does something good also come out of it?

Absolutely, something good also comes out of it. Detrimental because there is something that goes on while the songs are being made. The pressure to produce a hit can emanate from a piece of songwriting, a song or even a voice, which is really great but gets filtered in the process of making it because a group of people don’t have the vision to foresee that this can be a good song. But the brighter side of commercial pressures is that, say, you are a producer or a director or a composer. You have given me a melody, I write a song on this melody and bring it back to you. You say, “Amitabh, this is slightly lacking in something.”

I always used to think that my first draft itself was the best, but when it eventually came out, it worked, not because it became popular, it really worked with the film, it connected with the audiences, then I recognised that there is a brighter side to it, too. When someone compels you to push the envelope, it’s only then that you will do so.

But having said that, there is something about today’s times... Sometimes, it almost becomes like a task, like we sit down to engineer a song. You can’t sit down to make a hit song. You can sit down to make music. Music can become a hit.

I believe the best music, the best cinema, the best art in the world happened. Nobody sat down to make it like that.

What you are also saying is that you are also becoming a victim of the success that has followed you in the last three or four years.

Absolutely. But somewhere we too, are responsible for it. In one film, one team collaborated to produce work which was very successful, was well appreciated and well recognised. The same team coming together again creates pressure by itself. I know today that when Pritam, I and Ayan Mukerji, like I don’t know whether hundred percent that’s going to happen, but if we come together for the next film, the first question in our minds will be what will be the ‘Budtameez Dil’ of that film? Now the question is why should there be a ‘Budtameez Dil’ for this new film? Similarly, Agneepath was a very successful soundtrack. Two or three songs from that film like ‘Chikni Chameli’, ‘Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin’ became really popular. The film also did well. Now the same team, Karan Malhotra, Ajay-Atul and I came together for Brothers [2015]. We worked with as much dedication and sincerity, but when the songs came out the first audience reaction that we got was it lacks the Agneepath touch.

With reference to the influence of Hindi songs on popular culture, you once said in another interview a few years ago that ‘Primary censorship lies at home’. The question is that in the larger interest, shouldn’t the songwriter himself practice a certain self-censorship?

I have done a few songs, I’m sure I won’t need to tell you, which people have found objectionable because of a certain line in the song. Many times, you write a certain thing and then you feel that, no, let’s not include this and present it in this way. But the rest of the people around you like that [the original bit] a lot. ‘No, no, we won’t let you change this,’ they say. They retain that and that thing becomes public.

Now as far as censorship is concerned, I have also come to realise that it is an artiste’s responsibility, especially the writers because they are writing the language. The composers are composing. The singers are singing. The artiste who is writing the content, it is indeed his responsibility, that when he writes the song he must think that tomorrow this song will be in the public domain. Suppose a line like, ‘Bangle ke peeche hai taala, ghusoo kahaan se main saala… Mazey udaati hai meri mohabbat ke booch maar ke’. Now I realised this myself, that if a five-year-old sings ‘booch maar ke’, it will not look good. But one learns from experience.

Now when I write something quirky, the moment that it comes to the point that it can be objectionable, that if someone sings it or listen to it, or that it forms a particular image in impressionable minds, I do think twice about writing it. But also having said that, sometimes there is a word or a line or a phrase in a song, that is very essential for that song, very essential for that film, very essential for that character. Then one has to take a decision.

Would ‘Bhaag DK Bose’ from Delhi Belly (2011) be an example of such a song?

DK Bose is very smart word play. ‘Bhaag DK Bose’ till date is one of the most interesting songs that have happened in the most interesting films that has happened. I totally stand by it. At the end of the day, censorship has its place, responsibility has its place, but humour, quirk, wordplay, tongue-in-cheek all of them have their own place. We can’t suddenly become vanilla in life.

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I want to ask you about the future of the Hindi film song. A lot of contemporary directors are almost embarrassed by song sequences and in an effort to introduce a more realistic element either use songs minimally or don’t use them at all. Is there a possibility that 30 years from now, we won’t have the Hindi film song at all?

Might be. There is a possibility. Fortunately, there is still a division. There is this group of young filmmakers who still want songs to be part of their narrative. Like Ayan Mukerji. Karan Malhotra, Agneepath’s director, belongs to the school of thought that my song should appear this way in my film. Even Imtiaz Ali really celebrates his songs very well on screen. And before anyone else, there is Anurag Kashyap. He manages to integrate songs somehow into his films.

But I get your question. The characters of yesteryear cinema breaking into song, the entire song being part of the film’s run-time, these are disappearing. The filmmakers alone aren’t to blame for this. Films have become shorter in length. A film album has five-six songs. Now how do you integrate five-six songs in a two-hour or a two-hour, fifteen-minute film? This happens with all my songs. That a really good song has been written, but in the film the second verse has been cut out. This is happening in every film. I don’t know. Maybe thirty years from now, the OST format will come into play, where the soundtrack and the film will have their own separate, distinct place.

Independent non-Bollywood music seems to be on the rise now. This comes in from the West where musicians have their own unique identity. If films need songs, they take it in the OST format. Perhaps, that trend will come here too.

Tell me an underappreciated song of yours, a really good line that you wrote but went completely unnoticed?

It may not be the right example, but my National Award-winning song ‘Isi Baat Pe’ [I Am, 2011], nobody knows of that song. Basically, the story is that the character played by Nandita Das, a woman who decides to leave her boyfriend or her husband, I don’t remember now, decides to have a child. It was about artificial insemination. So hence the thought that “Agar zindagi ho khud mein kahin, Phir kyun rahe kisi ki kami, Bojh ban ke rahe kyun subah kisi raat pe, Aa badal dalein rasme sabhi isi baat pe,” that let’s set a new trend. Why not? So the antara, “‘Maanga nahin hai kabhi aasmaan, Haan magar ik jharoka khula toh rakho, Jeet dum tod dena kahin kisi maat pe, Haan badal daalein rasme sabhi isi baat pe,” is quite a simple, clean thought, but nobody knows about the song.

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