Meet the National award winning lyricist of I AM
For a long time, Amitabh Bhattacharya, 35, couldn't believe he had won the 59 National Award for Best Lyrics for the number, Agar Zindagi, from Onir's I Am. Goggle-eyed, he kept confirming and reconfirming with friends and finally, when he was certain that he had indeed been conferred the top prize, he felt "thrilled to bits, as if kuch bohut bada ho gaya hai." Growing up, Amitabh had never wanted to be a writer and that's why his success as a lyricist has surprised him in many ways. Scorned by purists for his street lingo phrases, Amitabh first burst upon the scene with Dev.D's Emosanal Atyachar and later, went on to pen such hits as Naav and Aazaadiyan in Udaan, Ainvayi Ainvayi in Band Baaja Baaraat, Aali Re in No One Killed Jessica and Bhaag DK Bose in Delhi Belly. Taking a coffee break, Amitabh talks about his influences and breaking new grounds:
How did you react when you heard about the National Award?
I was, in fact, having my morning cup of tea when a close friend called me, "Hey, have you won the National Award, kya?" I said I don't know and I forgot about it. Then, I received a message from BBC Delhi and they wanted to talk to me. It was an exciting feeling inside me but until I was sure I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was getting so many calls that I decided I must speak to Onir who, in turn, confirmed that I have won the National Award. Another friend, a filmmaker called Brahmanand who I had been in touch with over a project, gave me the final confirmation. Suddenly, it hit me. I was speechless. I immediately called my mom, dad and sister. My mom didn't know whether to laugh and cheer or cry – so, her reaction was expressed in mixed feelings. Dad was euphoric and he felt really proud.
Image: A scene from I AM. Inset: Amitabh Bhattacharya
'I am an accidental writer'
At one point, you wanted to get into medicine and, even toyed with the idea of doing a hotel management course. Is the recognition reassuring?
Very much. I am an accidental writer; I keep telling everyone ki main dhunon pe bol bithate bithate writer ban gaya (that I became a writer by arranging tunes). I never kept a diary and I hadn't written until I landed in Mumbai. I came here to be a singer. In fact, by the time I was in 12th in college in Lucknow I had got involved with music, occasionally working in orchestra and creating jingles for local radio.
I was selected at the Institute of Hotel Management, Bhubaneswar but my parents sensed that I would be lost there and they supported my decision to pursue arts. They knew my heart lay in music although my father worked at Central Ground Water Board, a Government of India undertaking and would have liked me to study further and get a good job. I am saying all this just to tell you that I was inherently never a writer.
In what ways did your upbringing in the Hindi-Urdu heartland of Lucknow help?
Tremendously, I would say. I grew up speaking good and clean Hindi. So, the upbringing was an education in itself. I always try to recreate in my songs the way people speak in North India. If you are from Allahabad, Meerut or Lucknow, you understand the sound and speech of Hindi very well although you may not know the grammar equally well. I think in Hindi and write my songs in Hindi.
Do you keep an eye on the trend when you write?
Most often, I am given a tune and I have to base my lyrics on that. Also, on situations. Yet, there is great creativity involved in writing.
Image: A scene from Delhi Belly
'I came to Mumbai to become a singer'
Would you agree that your songs become a rage, especially among youth, because of your heavy usage of street lingo?
A song wouldn't work only because it is filled with street lingo. Of course, there are hooks and smart words. I have also been blamed for corrupting the language of songs. But I have said it time and again that I am not like Javed Akhtar saab and Gulzar saab who are poets and men of literature.
I have always believed that I have a style of my own and I work very much within that style. Sometimes I do think about this situation and I realise I may not be able to write poetry. That's why I call myself a lyricist.
Purists and poets look down upon your work; for instance, Javed Akhtar is on record to say that new-age lyricists are a bad influence on public taste. How do you react?
Yes, I have heard some people, including Javed saab, expressing concern over my work. I respect his opinion totally – unki rai sar aakhon par hai. All I would say in my defence is that it's not fair to pick few of my phrases, like Bhaag DK Bose and say that my whole body of work is like that.
I have nothing but great respect for Javed saab. Maybe whatever songs of mine he has heard so far has not pleased him. In fact, I wish someday he gets the time to listen to my work in Aamir, Udaan, and I Am and he might think differently of me; hopefully, a little highly. If you ask me, this is, actually, a non-issue for me. I fell in love with Javed saab's poetry in Silsila and I think his repertoire is vast and diverse. I am too small in front of him.
Similarly, Gulzar saab; we have grown up not only hearing his songs but also watching his movies which I think were excellent. His command over Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and even Bengali is amazing. I have learnt so much from them and have applied it to my own work.
Image: A scene from Dev D
'I am consciously doing fewer films'
Of late, you have taken up too much work. Do you fear that the quality of your lines might take a dip?
Yes, that fear is always there. I did indeed accept more work than I could do and there was a time when my quality went down drastically because of that. Now, I am consciously doing fewer films. The best way to do is take your time and give full attention to what you have on hand.
Finally, tell us your five best lyrics of all time?
The title song of Kaminey by Gulzar saab and sung by Vishal Bhardwaj. The genius of Gulzar saab lies in his ability to see things differently. You must have heard thousands of songs in which the poet is complaining about life. Here, Gulzar saab offers a totally unexpected perspective of life. Then, Rehna Tu by Prasoon Joshi because of its beautiful melody and simple poetry. Javed saab's Yeh Kahan Aa Gaye Hum which is one of the best love songs of all time. Anand Bakshi's Kucch Toh Log Kahenge which, to my mind, makes use of effective phrasing. Lastly, Pardesi from Dev.D (written by Shellee) for its clever Haryanvi expressions. I wish I had written that song.
And five worst lyrics of all time?Let's not run people's work down but there was a phase in the 1990s when songs hit an all-time low and some of the worst music was assuming chartbuster proportions.
Image: A scene from Band Baaja Baraat