It was back in 2012 when I met living legend Gulzar for his take on the wide-ranging conversation book, In the Company of a Poet, and what follows is his ideas about the art and craft of writing lyrics for Hindi film songs that still hold good. Excerpts:

Q What draws you to write lyrics for a film? Is it the script, the director or composer?

It&’s always the script. I must know what I’m getting into. Many films have been offered to me recently, including something on the Babari Masjid and Godhra. If I feel the film will stir up communal conflict or discord, I stay away. If it promotes communal harmony, which, for me, is beyond religion, I am happy to work on it because the film&’s premise is in line with my beliefs.

I am not interested in sex-oriented or violent films. A love story or a social subject with a sense of aesthetics appeals to me. I have played it safe and it has saved me many times.

Q What sort of compromises do you need to make when writing lyrics?

I call them constraints rather than compromises. When I write a poem, I do not have to worry about using a higher Urdu vocabulary because I know the reader knows Urdu well. In film lyrics, I avoid Persianised words because they are not widely understood.

Lyrics are not read but heard and seen in a film. If you’re reading a poem, you can underline a word you don’t understand, but when you see the song on the screen or hear it playing, there is nothing you can do.

Of course, if you have the album you can replay the song if the words aren’t clear to you. But, basically, the Indian film song is a cinema experience and its aim is to appeal to the largest possible audience. Therefore, I am obliged to use a kind of middle-of-the-road language.

Q How do you go about writing a song?

I usually write words on the metre of the tune. It could be the other way round, and the composer will write the tune based on my words and metre. The context in which the song appears in the story is of key importance. Does the song enhance the story in some way? Does it add another dimension to the screen character? The lyrics should match the vocabulary a character uses in dialogue. 

If the hero is an Urdu speaker, you can’t introduce Sanskritised Hindi into the lyrics.

I wrote a song in Satya, a gangster film, for a character who is violent, a man who listens to no one and shoots people who contradict him or come in his way. He decides to sing a song when he is drunk. The gangster cannot sing a Ghalib ghazal like Dil-e-naadaan, tujhe hua kya hai (O innocent heart, what has come over you?). How can he express sentiments like that? So what will he sing? Goli maar bheje mein, bheja shor karta hai (Shoot a bullet through my head. My head is full of turmoil).

So here the song aims to give us an insight into the psychology of the character and tells us something about the way he thinks.

Q Indian cinema has always had songs since the coming of sound in 1931. What do you think attracts people to a song? Is it the words or the tune?

The tune. That&’s what stays in your mind. When the tune starts galloping, you need reins to hold on to it. The words become useful there. They are the reins that allow you to ride the horse. I believe words should amaze or amuse. Only then will the listener want to understand the meaning of the song.

Q Does the location of the song have an effect on the vocabulary of the lyrics?

It doesn’t affect the vocabulary but the imagery. If a song is filmed indoors, you cannot describe a cascading waterfall. And if the song is filmed in the valleys of Kashmir or Scotland, the imagery cannot describe the desert of Rajasthan.

You also have to provide images that match the time of day when the song appears in the film. If the song is shot in sunlight, using the imagery of the moon will clearly not work at all.

Q I find many of your songs have an element of storytelling. Is it because you are first and foremost a writer?

I think it is because I directed films. Problems arise when lyricists don’t participate in the process of the film, and they must. Lyrics are a part of the film text. But some lyricists are known to only ask questions like, “Do you need a duet? A solo? Is it an indoor or an outdoor song?” That&’s hardly enough, is it?

I don’t want to sound as if I am pointing fingers, but it is important to participate in the whole process, otherwise all the songs will sound the same, even if different characters are to sing them.

I have always believed that Shailendra was the best lyricist of Hindi cinema. I know he was actively involved in the films he worked on and knew filmmaking very well. He shaped his songs to suit the characters and, through his lyrics, added other dimensions to the story. This would not have been possible without his complete understanding of the characters, the screenplay&’s subtext, the scenes and locations. 

Q Do you feel the older generation of lyricists had to change their writing style as time passed?

Majrooh Sultanpuri is a good example. You can hear a poet&’s imagination coming through his choice of words in the song Gham diye mustaqil kitna naazuk hai dil ye na jaana, haaye haaye ye zaalim zamaana. (The cruel world inflicted repeated blows on my fragile heart). This wonderful song sung beautifully by KL Saigal is from the 1946 film Shahjehan. To think that Majrooh Saaheb could use a word like mustaqil (everlasting) in the first film song he wrote!

He also knew how to adapt to the changing trends in cinema language and with equal confidence could write, “C A T cat maane billi” for Dilli ka Thug (1958).

Q Can you give me an example of changing expressions in your songs?

Take the lines in “Kajrare” from Bunty aur Babli by Shaad Ali. Twenty years ago people would not express their thoughts in this way:

Aankhen bhi kamaal karti hain Personal se sawaal karti hain (Eyes like yours do amazing things Asking such personal questions). When we initially discussed “Kajrare”, we thought the song could be filmed in a dhaba where long distance trucks halt. That is why the opening couplet has lines in the style of the inscriptions painted on the back of lorries. The police officer, Dashrath Singh, played by Amitabh, is waiting in the dhaba to arrest the thieves, Bunty and Babli. Dashrath Singh, who has never seen Bunty, is busy talking to a man and does not realise the man is none other than Bunty himself.

When Aishwarya Rai agreed to make a guest appearance and perform the song, the location of the dhaba was changed. She was fantastic and the song was a great hit.

Q The standard practice in most Indian films has been to have at least five songs. So the situations in which they appear have become predictable. How do you avoid writing formulaic songs for formulaic situations?

I try and adopt an unusual approach. In the 1981 film Naram Garam, I wrote the song “Mere chehre mein chhupa hai meri ma ka chehra” (My mother&’s face is hidden in my face). We have many songs describing a girl&’s face — her beautiful eyes or her flowing hair. But the heroine does not usually sing about how much she resembles her mother. In this story, she happens to be talking about her mother who has died. So this gave a new twist to a formulaic song and situation. One can always try and avoid predictable lyrics.

Q Some of your lyrics also sound like conversations…

TS Eliot once said the best form of poetry, especially when talking of blank verse, is when it reaches the level of conversation and talks to you. I like songs that say something in a natural way and express feelings effortlessly.

Q Do you like writing songs that are used in the background rather than lip-sync songs?

I am reminded of an unusual situation. Anurag Kashyap sent me the script of his No Smoking. I read it but did not understand the story. So Anurag came to see me with Vishal Bhardwaj, who was composing the music and producing the film. I told them I didn’t understand the script, but nevertheless wrote a couplet for a scene in which the hero of the film is hallucinating. I read the lines to Anurag and he said it was just the kind of song that he wanted.

Anurag insisted I write at least one song for his film based on the couplet I had read to him. He told me that he intended to use all the songs in the background. So I agreed to write all the songs after seeing the final edit of the film.

Excerpted with permission from In the company of a poet, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Rupa Publications.