Kausar Munir made her mark in Hindi cinema with her wonderful songwriting for Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade (2012). Born and raised in Mumbai, Munir studied English literature at St Xavier’s College. Her paternal grandmother is the Urdu literary writer Salma Siddiqui, and Munir has experienced the world of the Urdu Progressive Writers from close quarters. She is currently writing the screenplay and dialogue for Begum Jaan, an adaptation of Srijit Mukherji’s Bengali film Rajkahini (2015), which features Vidya Balan in the title role. Besides writing the lyrics for a host of upcoming films, including Akshay Roy’s Meri Pyaari Bindu, and the films of Faisal and Gauri Shinde, Munir has recently forayed into non-film poetry. Her collection of poems, Yeh Kavita Abhi Shuru Nahin Huyee, for the arts collective Kommune and It Takes Two, which she wrote for the Zeal For Unity initiative that promotes Indo-Pak peace, have both received critical acclaim. Munir considers herself fortunate to be able to write across these varied formats and hates being bracketed by any one of them.
Your writing has a contemporary urban flavor and can be charmingly old-world in its grammar. It has the best of both worlds. Is that how you look at your own songwriting?
Yes, I suppose so. That’s my personality. I am from a convent school. I am from St Xavier’s. I have lived all my life in Mumbai. I have never been away from this city even for a month or two at most. Having said that, yes, I enjoy Urdu poetry. I come from a family which has that Urdu literature background. I enjoy traditional culture. I suppose those varied personality traits that I have naturally and organically lend to the songs.
Your recent poem, ‘Yeh Kavita Abhi Shuru Nahin Huyee,’ is such a wonderful mélange of cultural idioms and languages – Marathi, English, Hindi, Urdu. Can you tell us about what went into writing this poem?
I’ve never consciously worked towards anything. I’ve always been interested in reading and writing-related activities, but I just trapezed into songwriting. And it was not that I found this new voice that you are talking about, this kaleidoscopic voice and started writing. No, in fact the opposite happened. For the forum Kommune, run by Roshan Abbas, Gaurav Kapur and Ankur Tewari, I wrote something else initially, a poem called Sach Hai, just to be a part of that evening. And then I realised, “Oh, this is something I can do.” This is a new voice for me. And so I have been continuing whenever I get the time.
This is my non-film voice, which allows me to break out of that lyrical structure and metre. Of course, this is not just a poetic thought, but a poetic form also. I’m enjoying this freedom of writing in this free-flowing verse. It’s the format that takes me everywhere. I can use English, Hindi, mixed metaphors, whatever.
Could you specifically tell us about ‘It Takes Two’, the poem you wrote for the Zeal For Unity initiative. You have articulated the feelings of citizens in both countries so well.
The germ for that was a sher by Jigar Moradabadi, which I remember my maternal grandfather reciting. And although it’s a love verse, my naana used it in the context of India-Pakistan relations. That sher was, “Dono hain pareshaan mohabbat ke asar se/Yeh zulm hua hai na idhar se na udhar se.” The poem that I wrote, It Takes Two, is not exactly the same, but it’s about both sides and both parties and both being victims rather than one being the victim and the other the perpetrator.
This was a wonderful initiative, where 12 filmmakers, six from each country have made films. When Shailja Kejriwal, who is the project head, asked me to do this poem, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t even ask her how much, what, where. I just wrote it.
It was also interesting that although the whole poem is in Hindustani, the landing line or the hook of it is “It takes two,” which means it takes two to make something or break something. Also, my larger involvement with this project is that one of the directors is Tigmanshu Dhulia. I have written his film, Baarish Aur Chowmein.
Could you tell us something about Baarish Aur Chowmein?
Although the theme is broadly about unity and Indo-Pak, it was not that you had to do something for India and Pakistan. You could explore the themes of love, friendship and unity in any which way you want. This story is set in a modern-day, low-income group Mumbai colony. It’s a love story between a Hindu-Marathi girl and a UP Muslim boy and it’s called Baarish Aur Chowmein. In a way, the title suggests the two personalities and the differences between them. What’s lovely about this film is that it talks about these big things – differences in religion, in class, state, language – things that the city of Mumbai faces very deeply. But it’s done with a lightness of touch. It’s done in a way that perhaps all of us talk about it on a daily basis, but it doesn’t become an issue that gets out of hand.
To return to the subject of songwriting, is there sometimes monotony involved in writing lyrics for the same clichéd song situations? How do you get past it?
Those are the most difficult because every film will have a love song even if it’s not a love story. Every film will have a song which reflects on the vagaries of life. It’s far more challenging to do things which are oft-done or which are so-called clichés. There is a love song, but then you have to find a new idiom for it. You have to make it like a “take-notice” song otherwise, it will be one of the many, many songs, which come and go.
In fact, the most difficult thing for me to do are those party songs, those dance numbers and those upbeat, club, disco songs. It’s become a thing to laugh at Honey Singh and Badshah, but they are getting the numbers. They are making the money. I take that to be a challenge. That’s where I struggle. I don’t look down upon it. In fact, I find it to be a bit of a failing in me because if you are in this business, you should be able to do every kind of song that is offered.
A song must pass through several people and several iterations before it is recorded. But how does the edit process for your non-film poetry work?
I don’t know. At the risk of sounding too much of an artist, that happens in a far easier manner because you have the freedom. There are no restrictions. You can go wherever you want. You can use any thought or idiom. You can express yourself in any which way that you want. There was someone who had done an interview with me soon after Ishaqzaade. They had called me the reluctant lyricist because I was still not ready to jump onto that road. Now I find myself being in the role of a reluctant poet because, fine, I have now accepted somewhat that I am a lyricist. I write songs for films. But now I am discovering this poetic side, which goes beyond lyrics. I’m really enjoying it. It’s easier.
So you are doing songwriting, dialogue-writing and screenplay writing concurrently. Is it difficult to shift from one form to the other?
Honestly, it’s the life that I have chosen. Nobody is forcing you to do everything. Yes, I feel blessed that I can do it. That’s why also things come to me, because I am able to write in these different formats under the umbrella of writing. I am able to move between languages and thoughts that are attached to those languages.
But yes, I’ve come to realise now that perhaps I need a better plan or more discipline or more organisation if I have to continue. Like my husband says, “Woh hard disk full ho jaata hai,” so I have to give it some space. I’ve just discovered this whole world that is available to me. I need to tide over this period where I have already taken on assignments and I have committed to certain deliveries. Then in the next six months or so, I need to sit down. Luckily I am in that position where I can say, “Okay, what is it that I enjoy the most?” Then spend most of my energy on that.
Do you like being bracketed solely as a lyricist or a dialogue-writer or a screenplay writer? How do you introduce yourself?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t like to be bracketed, in life or in anything else. If I were to be only doing songs, I would get bored. So I need the dialogue-writing. If I was only doing screenwriting, I would get bored. We are so fluid as human beings. Every day changes. If I meet somebody new from a different country and they ask me, what do you do, I take a beat before I can answer that question. To date I have not been able to say writer or lyricist. I say, I write.
To give you a very interesting anecdote, I met Shekhar Kapur [the filmmaker] at Yash Raj Films last year. It was that polite moment where you are in the elevator and he smiled at me. He doesn’t know me. I know of him, but I don’t know him. He said, “So, what do you do?” And the same thing happened to me. I took an awkward pause and said, “I write.” So he had this charming smile on his face and he said, “What? Letters?” And I smiled and said, “Yes, and sometimes diaries.”
Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins India 2013). He is currently working on a book on the cinema of writer-director-producer Nasir Husain. He tweets at @AkshayManwani.