Kausar Munir: ‘I don’t like to be bracketed, in life or in anything else’

The acclaimed lyricist, poet and screenplay writer speaks about moving between forms.

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.

‘Yeh Kavita Abhi Shuru Nahin Huyee’.

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.

‘It Takes Two’.

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.

‘Tu Jo Mila’ from ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’.

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.

‘Dil Ki Toh Lag Gayee’ from ‘Nautanki Saala’.

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.”

‘Pareshaan’ from ‘Ishaqzaade’.

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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.