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Amitabh Bhattacharya: The everyman lyricist

Amitabh Bhattacharya talks about being a full-time songwriter and how he's always looking to simplify

Amitabh Bhattacharya. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Amitabh Bhattacharya. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In the last month, there’s been an explosion of jokes and memes about demonetization. Two of these were built around popular Hindi film songs. One imagines the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes singing “Accha chalta hoon, duaaon mein yaad rakhna", the opening lines from Channa Mereya, a bittersweet number from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The other recalls an item number from Agneepath, Chikni Chameli, a line from which accompanied an image of Katrina Kaif with a bundle of old notes: “Note hazaaro ke khulla chhutta karane aayi".

These memes say as much about Amitabh Bhattacharya’s range as they do about the recall value of his lyrics. In seven years, the lyricist has achieved what few are able to: written lines that have gone on to have lives of their own.

Bhattacharya is a full-time lyricist. Unlike Irshad Kamil, he doesn’t write poetry. Neither is he like Kausar Munir, who in addition to writing lyrics also contributes to screenplays and writes dialogue, or Swanand Kirkire, who acts in films and plays. “I’m not a poet," Bhattacharya says. “I haven’t written a single line of diary in my life. I do a very specialized job. Give me a situation, a melody, and I will write you a song."

Once in a while, he doesn’t even need a melody. Haanikaarak Bapu, a song from the forthcoming Dangal, is a rare instance of lyrics preceding music. The film’s producer and lead actor, Aamir Khan, had taken Bhattacharya and composer Pritam to his bungalow in Panchgani. One of the songs they were working on had two village girls complaining about their tyrannical father. “We tried a lot of ideas," Bhattacharya says. “Phas gaye re bapu, Hitler bapu, Bapu Mogambo, Hunter wala baapu. After lunch, I went for a smoke in the garden. My eyes fell on the cigarette packet; injurious to health, sehat ke liye haanikaarak bapu."

A still from the forthcoming film ‘Dangal’

Bhattacharya has always been the most accessible of lyricists, but of late, he is trying to write even more simply. He wasn’t happy when he first wrote the Ae Dil Hai Mushkil title track. He thought it was too predictable: a shaamil rhymed with a kaabil followed by a manzil. But Pritam and Karan Johar liked it. The song brought him the most overwhelming feedback of his life. “I got messages from all over: school friends, childhood teachers, a watchman. A little bit of predictability also works. Why not have a song jo baccha baccha gaata hai (that every child sings)?"

Ironically, he had this realization while working on an album that had some of his riskiest, best writing, and was his biggest commercial failure. On the 15-track Bombay Velvet, Bhattacharya and composer Amit Trivedi had the difficult task of bringing jazz to the mainstream Hindi film audience. The two-year-long process changed his approach to lyric-writing. “The brief was to follow the clean-Hindi writing style of Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra and Anand Bakshi, so that we can make it easy for the audience. I did exactly that. But I don’t think people got it at all," he says.

Bhattacharya has an ability to fit lyrics to tunes, to render the words “singable". Take Dhaakad from Dangal, where words are stretched to their Haryanvi pronunciation, so that “cyclone" becomes “cyca-lone". He also works closely with the singers to make sure words are pronounced as they should be. “His lyrics are hand-in-glove with the music," says Trivedi, whose partnership with Bhattacharya began in 2009 with Dev.D, the first film either of them worked on. “He has an immaculate sense of metre and rhyme because he’s a good singer himself. He brings a musician’s knowledge to his work."

Trivedi and other composers such as Pritam and Clinton Cerejo, who are his collaborators today, have known Bhattacharya from the time he was a struggling playback singer. He came to the city in 1999 from Lucknow, where he’d sung in local orchestras. In Mumbai, he sang scratch versions and wrote dummy lyrics in order to survive. Now, when he looks back, he finds his singing ambitions naïve. “I had this idea of going to Bombay to struggle, wait outside studios to get a break. Luckily, I got a reality check pretty early. I’m a far better lyricist and a very limited singer," he says. He still sings occasionally. But he holds the song’s interest over anything else, particularly the voice casting. “I still tell Vishal-Shekhar that for Tera Rastaa Chhodoon Na in Chennai Express, they should have chosen Arijit Singh and not me to sing."

Vikramaditya Motwane, whose Udaan and Lootera represent some of Bhattacharya’s finest work, spoke admiringly of the lyricist’s ability to grasp the spirit of a film. “Once he reads the script and has a talk for 5-10 minutes, he gets the space and tone of the lyrics bang on in the first go. He’s saying so much with his lyrics that I don’t have to oversell them with my visuals." Bhattacharya agrees that this is a strength. “Ninety per cent of the time, the way I visualize the movie is the way it turns out eventually," he says.

Bhattacharya grew up obsessed with Hindi film music, in a Bengali middle-class family in Lucknow in the 1980s. One can see the influence of old Hindi film lyrics on a lot of his work. Although The Break Up Song and Haanikaarak Bapu are staggeringly different, he wrote both to the poetic metre of Saiyan Jhoothon Ka Bada Sartaj Nikla from Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957). Haanikaarak’s introductory lines also pay homage to Ludhianvi’s Gairo Pe Karam Apno Pe Sitam. About Channa Mereya, he says: “The opening lines are a bit of the Gulzar school of writing. There is more drama in the antara and last stanza—a bit of Bakshi."

There’s something middle class about Bhattacharya’s choice of words: Baasi and jeevit are unlikely words for The Break Up Song, set in a silent disco in London. “I try to insert these words whenever I get the chance," he says. He feels that some of these obvious, everyday Hindi words are on the verge of extinction—that what passes for Hindi in today’s conversational lingo is actually more of Urdu and less of unadulterated Hindi. “We say, ‘mujhe is cheez ki zaroorat hai,’ and not ‘is vastu ki avashyakta,’’’ he says. He mentions an interview of Gulzar’s, where the poet speaks about Chhappa Chhappa Charkha Chale, a track from his 1996 film Maachis. Gulzar said he had retained words like chimta and charkha in the song in the hope that, a hundred years later, a listener would want to know what they stood for. Bhattacharya echoes this, saying, “I hope that when someone listens to D.K. Bose after 30 years, she would ask, what is keval and jhaag?"

Bhattacharya, who turned 40 recently, is an introvert who prefers to stay away from the limelight—his stage fright is a problem he could never overcome as a singer. He hasn’t hired a PR agency, nor is he on Twitter, sharing shayari every day. He says he doesn’t want people on the streets to recognize him, but when he goes to an award function or a song launch, he’d like security to let him pass the way they do a singer or composer. Lyricists don’t get concert gigs or reality shows to judge. Many have suggested that he sing his own songs and start doing live shows, but he finds this a greedy, attention-seeking idea.

Instead, he says, he‘s been speaking with Kamil, Kirkire and Munir about a live act that will focus on the craft of lyric writing. But before that, there are basic things to sort out: like the issue of proper credit on YouTube and music-streaming websites such as Saavn and Gaana. Lyricist names are routinely left out of song promos (Dangal is an exception), which Bhattacharya finds unacceptable. “There is this notion that writers are a jealous, frustrated lot," he says. “It’s common sense that the composer’s name should be followed by the lyricist’s and then the singer’s. I’m asking for my rightful place."

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