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'I don't want to be Anand Bakshi'

By Aseem Chhabra/
Last updated on: February 26, 2015 23:59 IST
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'Anu Malik has great respect for lyrics and lyrics writers. He has worked with big important people through the '80s and the '90s -- everyone from Gulzar and Majrooh Sultanpuri. He treated me with great respect.'

'I don't think the AIB controversy will affect any comedian who can think right and straight, who is clear about his comedy and politics.'

Aseem Chhabra/ speaks to an unusual talent -- Varun Grover: Lyricist. Stand-up comedian. Screenplay writer.

Varun Grover is slowly becoming the go-to-guy for indie filmmakers who are looking for fresh lyrics for their films.

Starting with Anurag Kashyap's That Girl With Yellow Boots and Gangs of Wasseypur, Grover has written lyrics for Ankhon Dekhi and now for Sharat Katariya's new film Dum Laga Ke Haisha.

Image: Bhumi Pednekar and Ayushmann Khurrana in Dum Laga Ke Haisha

At 35, Grover also has a career in stand-up comedy. He is featured in a new documentary by Jaideep Varma about stand-up comedy in India called I'm Offended. In addition, he is also busy writing scripts.

Aseem Chhabra spoke to Grover on Skype about working with Anu Malik on Dum Laga Ke Haisha and all his other projects.

Varun, I have been listening to the songs of Dum Lage Ke Haisha. I especially like Moh Moh Ke Dhage and Tu. Tell me, how did you get this project?

I am getting my film work from my previous films. First of all, I wrote for That Girl in Yellow Boots. There was a song I wrote for that film which Anurag liked a lot, but he couldn't use it there.

So when I asked Anurag to give me chance to write songs for Gangs of Wasseypur, he took that original song -- Bhoos Ke Dher Main Rai Ka Dana, which plays in the jail sequence.

Where would you have used that song in Yellow Boots?

I hadn't finished the song, but it is about search. And Yellow Boots is about a girl searching for her father.

Rajat Kapoor saw Wasseypur and he loved the film and the songs. He called me to write songs for Ankhon Dekhi. Sharat is a long time associate of Rajat. Sharat saw Ankhon Dekhi and asked me to write for Dum Laga Kar Haisha.

Tell me about the song Dard Karara in Dum Laga Ke? The film and the song has a '90s mood.

The film is set in the '90s, and the protagonist, played by Ayushman Khurana, is a Kumar Sanu fan. He works in a cassette shop selling film music, plus he also makes mixed tapes.

We wanted a typical, authentic, '90s song and that's why Anu Malik was brought on board. It would feature Kumar Sanu and Sadhna Sargam.

There wasn't space in the film for a song like this since it is very realistically shot. Its style is more current. Then we thought the song could be used in a dream sequence or the end credits. It will go in the end credits, but it's also used in the film in a way.

When you say that it is a '90s kind of song, how do you differentiate between those songs and what is being written for current films?

There are a couple of differences. The '90s music and lyrics were about simplicity. That's why those songs are still popular in small towns all over North India.

I went to Kolkata last year and they still listen to Kumar Sanu and Anu Malik's songs, such as Chura Ke Dil Mera.

Now there are two types of lyrics -- one is like what I wrote for Wasseypur. They are not frivolous lyrics, but are only slightly complicated. Just like Emotional Atyachar written by Amitabh Bhattacharya for Dev D.

They are not trashy lyrics and it will take you some time to understand them. And then there are the other extreme songs -- sung by Honey Singh or item numbers like Fevicol Se.

They used real instruments in the '90s. Now everything is done with software on computers. For this song -- Dard Karara -- we brought all the old musicians back.

People who actually played background music. They were surprised to see we were composing songs in this old manner. They hardly get any work with the advent of new technology.

Varun Grover with the Nooran sisters and Anu Malik

Varun Grover with the Nooran sisters and Anu Malik

What was it like collaborating with Anu Malik?

Oh, it was great fun. Until now I have only worked with music directors who were on their first or second film.

This was the first time I was working with somebody who had an entire career behind him. He has been working since before I was born.

I was initially nervous, because I am used to working with people I can relate to on equal terms. Over a period of time I realised he is much more evolved, he was okay if Sharat or producer Maneesh Sharma didn't like a tune he had composed.

He worked with a passion as if it was his first film.

Anu Malik has great respect for lyrics and lyrics writers. He has worked with big important people through the '80s and the '90s -- everyone from Gulzar and Majrooh Sultanpuri. He treated me with great respect.

How did the process work with Anu Malik? Did you write your lyrics first or he gave your tunes and you worked around them.

Mostly, he gave me the tunes and I wrote on the tunes.

How difficult is that as compared to when you worked on Wasseypur or Ankhon Dekhi?

It was a 50:50 situation. For Wasseypur in some cases there was poetry I had written and Sneha Khanwalkar composed music to it.

In Ankhon Dekhi in a couple of cases I was given the tunes and I wrote my lyrics after that.

What were the other songs you wrote for Wasseypur?

Oh Womaniya, Jiya Tu Bihar Ke Lala, Hunter, Kala Rey and a couple of others.

When did you start writing lyrics for films?

I first wrote a song for No Smoking. That was the first time I met Anurag. At that time he was blogging for Passion for Cinema. And he would write daily updates on No Smoking. Reading that blog I got an idea for a song.

You were already in Mumbai?

Yes, I had been here for two years.

So through the blog Anurag was easy to reach. I was in Delhi when I got a call from him. He asked me to come and meet him. He liked the song I wrote and he was going to give it to Vishal Bhardwaj (the composer of No Smoking).

Later I think there was an issue where the music company had a contract that Gulzarsaab would write all the songs. So my song did not make it in the film.

Anurag did promise that he would give me another chance for his next film. After that he made Hanuman and then Dev D which had songs by Amitabh Bhattacharya. When he made Yellow Boots I asked if I could write songs for that film.

So I worked on two songs -- one was used for Yellow Boots and the other became part of Wasseypur.

Sadhana Sargam, Varun Grover and Kumar Sanu

Sadhana Sargam, Varun Grover and Kumar Sanu

Were you writing songs and poetry in college?

I was interested in writing since childhood. But at that time I was working mostly on short stories. In college at BHU (Banares Hindu University) I started writing plays. I was heavily influenced by Bollywood.

I wrote three plays that had eight to ten songs with full melodrama and emotions. We performed in college and took one play to the National Youth Festival.

It gave me the confidence that I could someday move to Mumbai and become a writer.

And you were studying engineering at that time.


Where did you grow up in India?

We lived in Himachal, Dehra Dun and then Lucknow.

What were doing before you wrote for No Smoking? I am trying to understand the life of a writer.

I was writing for stand-up comedy shows for television. I was not performing. I wrote for the Great Indian Comedy Show and then for Oye! It's Friday! -- a show with Farhan Akhtar. I also worked on Ranvir, Vinay Aur Kaun and other shows until 2009.

When did you start your own stand-up comedy act?

That was out of frustration. Farhan Akhtar was getting paid Rs 45 lakhs (Rs 4.5 million) for reading my scripts from a teleprompter. And he was not doing a good job at stand-up comedy.

I thought if someone had to do bad stand-up comedy reading my lines, then it might as well be me.

At the same time stand-up comedy nights started in Mumbai. I won the very first competition that was held at Blue Frog (a well-known Mumbai lounge). I had a two minutes slot and those two minutes changed the course of my career.

After that I gained confidence and started doing more gigs. I now do shows as a professional, though I don't know what being a professional stand-up comedian means.

And your main source of income is stand-up comedy?

I think it is equally divided between writing lyrics, stand-up comedy and also writing screenplays.

Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh

Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh on AIB Roast

What are your thoughts about the AIB controversy and how has that affected your stand-up act? Are you being more careful with the cases being filed against the AIB comedians and the celebrities?

No, no, I don't think it will affect other comedians. People who are already scared, they may become a bit more careful.

I don't think it will affect any comedian who can think right and straight, who is clear about his comedy and politics.

It's just one of those things that blew out of proportion, not because of comedy, but because of the association with celebrities, and it was put online. But I don't do that. My comedy is not available online.

Most of us are standalone comedians with not a huge following. And we do not do any racy stuff. We are not friends with celebrities who we can invite to our shows.

Tell me about your screenplay writing experience. I know you had a project that was going through the NFDC labs. What is the status of that films?

I think I will start making that film later this year.

You are planning to direct it? What's it called?

Yes, I am going to direct it. It's called Maa Bhagwatiya IIT Coaching.

The other film that I had written is Masaan -- Neeraj Ghaywan's film. That has been shot and they are in the midst of post-production.

Any more lyrics you have written?

I have written for Masaan and another film called Zubaan. Then I have a song in NH10.

,strong>I had joked on Twitter, but it's almost true that you have become the Anand Bakshi of this generation.

(Laughs.) No, I don't know and right now I am not doing that much work. I don't want to be Anand Bakshi. I don't want to work on too many projects.

I am more interested when there are full scripts and the lyrics writer is asked to write songs based on the ideas of the script.

I think 10 years down the line I would want to have worked on a list of films that I would myself enjoy watching.

You worked on Ankhon Dekhi. It is such a special film.

I think that is Rajat Kapoor's best film.

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Aseem Chhabra/ in Mumbai