Varun Grover interview: ‘The lack of respect for writers stays with you, but also fuels you’

The lyricist, screenwriter and comedian talks about negotiating the ways of the Hindi film industry and the importance of poetry and protest to his craft.

Varun Grover won the National Film Award in 2016 for Best Lyrics for his song Moh moh ke dhaagey from Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015). Grover is also the writer of the critically acclaimed Masaan (2015), which won director Neeraj Ghaywan the National Film Award for Best Debut Film. Grover wrote Masaan’s songs, including the much-feted Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai. Before that, it was his work as lyricist on Gangs of Wasseypur that made people takes note of the young songwriter. But songwriting is only one part of Grover’s creative skillset. He used to work as one of the writers on The Great Indian Comedy Show between 2005 and 2007 and is currently part of Aisi Taisi Democracy, the comic troupe that features Rahul Ram and Sanjay Rajoura. Aisi Taisi Democracy is a forum for Grover to articulate his politics, something that he finds necessary to do irrespective of the medium with which he is associated .

The films for which you’ve been recognised as a lyricist, be it ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ or ‘Masaan’ or ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, are essentially about non-metropolitan places, small-town India. You seem to have been bracketed as a lyricist who can only write songs only for such kind of films. How do you react to such comments?
I understood this right at the very beginning that people love this kind of bracketing. When Wasseypur released, I was hoping that if one song works, then life will turn out for the better. But three or four of Wasseypur’s songs, Womaniya and Jiya ho Bihar, became popular. The film also did well so the songs got a bigger boost, but despite that I didn’t get any more work. I didn’t get any signals from within the industry that I was going to get more work. Then I realised that people are bracketing me as somebody who can write only this kind of a film, this kind of lingo. Their impression was, “He doesn’t know any other language. He is born there only – Bihar or Jharkhand – and he can only write like this.” And this is exactly what happened. I got offers for a couple of Bhojpuri films, but not a single offer for a Hindi film. So that is what happens here very quickly, that if someone has done certain kind of work, then people don’t want to think beyond that or apply any more effort. And this is despite the fact that I’m a Punjabi. Instead, the question being asked was how is someone who is Punjabi, writing Bhojpuri songs.

This bracketing is quite strong and will take some time to break. I have managed to break out of it to some extent with Dum Laga Ke Haisha because before that people, and even friends, used to say I cannot write a love song. When I wrote that, they said I can’t write an item song, but then Jabra [Fan, 2016] happened. So let’s see.

‘Jiya Tu Bihar Ke Lala’ from ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’.

You referenced Dushyant Kumar’s poem ‘Tu kisi rail se guzarti hai’ for the song in ‘Masaan’. How important is it for a songwriter to be familiar with poetry or poetic traditions?
I think it is very, very important. Not because it will help you someday but because of two things. Firstly, any writer or poet’s job is to show the world something that they have not seen before, or to show them something that they have seen already in a new way. If you don’t know what has been said previously, there is a chance that you may repeat it. Then you are wasting your own time, someone else’s time and the opportunity that you have been given.

Secondly, there is no better “gym” [training ground] for a writer than reading. Of course, you write and you learn, but you read and you learn a lot [more]. When you read a lot, you reach a stage where you are brimming with ideas internally to such an extent that you have no option but to write. So to read that kind of literature enhances your worldview, helps you realise that “Yes, this too is possible”. This is our learning process right from childhood. When a child sees other people walking, only then does he attempt to walk. He copies them. Imitation is a very ingrained process of creativity. You start with imitating. You get a reference point.

‘Tu kisi rail’ from ‘Masaan’.

In a recent piece you wrote, you said you feel like an outsider to some aspects of Mumbai. Tell me how do you handle the various dichotomies within the industry itself – the divide between the producer-technician, between the Anglophone film family insider and a first-generation, outsider such as yourself?
It’s difficult but enjoyable as well because it’s human tendency to root for the underdog. And when you know you are the underdog then, perhaps, you do better work. There is less pressure, too, because when you achieve something, it’s more than what people expect. Being an outsider or an underdog you are not even supposed to belong here. You are constantly made to feel that.

And being a writer, it’s even more so. Even now, if I speak of the present, as compared to a rank newcomer, I have achieved something. I have some songs. I have some films. But even now, if I go for an award function, you will see that technicians and writers are made to sit right at the back, way behind. If you have come with your wife or partner, they may also make you sit separately on two different seats. This treatment is very visible.

And being an outsider and being a writer, it’s a double whammy. At the same award function, you may see a star, who is no longer a star, but he will still be given top billing while some top writer, and I’m not saying that I am one, who has won every possible award that year, doesn’t get the same level of respect. That feeling stays with you, but it also fuels you because it angers you.

You have a fairly active presence on Twitter. How do you look at your involvement with that medium?
Twitter is very important to me because I find it very important to express myself. It’s one medium where there is no loss. In all other mediums – whether it is film or poetry – you sometimes have to say things in a roundabout way, particularly in films. The song that I wish to write, but which ultimately gets recorded, very often, there is a big difference in that. Twitter, therefore, is a medium for clear communication.

Secondly, for me, it is very good writing practice. I believe in writing a lot and that one must write through the day. Twitter is a place where I have set a lot of challenges for myself – that I won’t make grammatical errors, won’t use short spellings, will use full sentences and will say what I want to say, clearly. Every tweet is a writing challenge for me. At times, I spend a couple of hours to frame a particular tweet. If I see that it is 20 characters over the limit, then it is a challenge. I’m playing a game with myself.

As part of your stand-up comedy routines, whether it is through Aisi Taisi Democracy or your other shows, are you looking to push the boundaries of what is acceptable humour, or do you draw a line somewhere thinking that what you say may be taken as offensive?
Definitely, I am attempting, in my own way, and also through Aisi Taisi Democracy, that even if we cannot change norms, at least we can get people to start questioning. In our society, when things get uncomfortable, we find an easy way to reject it. We label it. This is our way.

It’s like when someone says “Hindustan”. Now Hindustan consists of both good and bad people. But if you reject Hindustan, that all Indians are like this, which is what foreign nationals sometimes do, this is how racism works. I don’t want any labels attached to what I or we are doing and we still do our comedy.

For example, this has happened with AIB [All India Bakchod]. Though they are trying very consciously to break out of that label, but it has now stuck that “Woh gaaliyaan detey hain (they use abusive language).” While you were enjoying what they were doing, you played along, but the moment you didn’t like something they did, you put a label to reject them. We are trying to stay clear of such labels. We don’t want to be called “leftists” or “rightists” or have any other label attached to us. That’s why my idea on the show [Aisi Taisi Democracy] and my idea on Twitter or politics is “equal opportunity offender” in a way.

‘Aisi Taisi Democracy’.

So is it fair to say that you are someone who wants to put his politics out there?
Yes, I would say I am a political artist. I want to be somebody who is known to have a political voice and is very aware that being political is cool. It is not something that only the “losers” or uncouth people do. In today’s day, this may have reduced to a great extent, but there was a time when people from IPTA [Indian People’s Theatre Association] or the PWA [Progressive Writers’ Association] came and worked in the industry. The number of such people has gone down.

I’m not only doing it because it is necessary, but because it happens naturally. A lot of people want to be political. They have a political voice, but [remain silent] because they want to remain in the industry or because they assume that if they say something they may offend someone or that people may start avoiding them, that assumption itself is inherently flawed. I cannot change that mindset by myself but I would like to change it to the best of my efforts. I am cracking jokes about [Narendra] Modi-ji and Rahul Gandhi, too, and I’m still not facing any backlash in my social life or in my career. This is something that has been established earlier also. People like Sahir Ludhianvi or Javed Akhtar or Shabana Azmi, who have always been vocal, have not been ostracised by society.

Everyone has a political view, but people are scared of speaking up. And we have seen the repercussions of not speaking up in the case of Udta Punjab [2016]. And again because there was Shahid [Kapoor], there was Aalia [Bhatt], there were big stars involved, Ekta Kapoor’s production house was involved, that’s why so many people came out and spoke up. Had it been a small film, people wouldn’t have come out. But it’s good they came out because now it sets a precedent that we stood up to Pahlaj Nihalani and so ten other films in future may benefit, which is a great thing.

Have you seen audiences evolve in terms of how they used to receive humour in the years since you were working on ‘The Great Indian Comedy Show’ and now? Are they more insular now or have they become more receptive?
I would say accepting only because it will be difficult for any society to become more insular, especially a society like ours where things are largely free-flowing. Yes, there may be some efforts at controlling but because things are free-flowing, extremists are scared about how can someone abuse so openly or whatever happened with AIB for that matter. There is the backlash, but that backlash comes as an afterthought. Even if I wanted to do another AIB roast-like show, there may be trouble, perhaps, post the show, but there won’t be a problem before the show itself. People have become more open because there are more kinds of humour available. Publicly you may say you don’t like it and that you don’t watch it, but when the same thing comes on your WhatsApp, you will have a good laugh. You may not show it to your child, but even your child is consuming the same kind of humour and is thinking, I won’t show it to my father.

A Varun Grover skit on Bollywood.

Looking at films like ‘Masaan’ and ‘Sairat’, which are cast in small-town India, or ‘Thithi’, which is a slice of rural life, we don’t see those kind of narratives in commercial mainstream Hindi cinema anymore. Why do you think this is happening?
This is my theory and maybe it’s too much of a broad brushstroke, but for the last 8-10 years, the mainstream is running on the orders of the “MBA” brigade. Even Sudhir Mishra [filmmaker] said this in the documentary on Indian Ocean, Leaving Home [2010],that the MBAs or the corporate brigade eliminate things that they don’t understand. It’s not like that that issue is attacking them in any way, but because you don’t understand it, you want to eliminate it. They only want to present that picture, which they understand because they are working on charts and surveys, which tells them that this is what works and this is what will sell.

People are scared to experiment. Look at the music videos of the 1990s. They were far more experimental. They used to show a lot more beyond song sequences in Hindi cinema. They were breaking rules and formats. Today’s music videos are of a far inferior quality than the ones that came out in the ’90s. Because today even music videos are being controlled by the MBAs and in their minds they have a clear definition of what works. The reason Phantom [Films] is able to make an Udta Punjab or Masaan is because the same creative people are producers, too. They are putting in the money and green-lighting the projects, too.

But at the same time, because of this MBA culture, there is that flip side that by chance if a Masaan works or a Bheja Fry [2007] works, or an Ankhon Dekhi [2014] works, which were made on budgets of 1.5 crore or two crore, then this enters their mind – “Ok, so let’s do smaller films which cost only a few crores.”

Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins India 2013). His next book on the cinema of writer-director-producer, Nasir Husain, will be published by HarperCollins Publishers India in October 2016. He tweets at @AkshayManwani.

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