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“My friends call me a Blackberry shaayar!â€â€”Neelesh Misra
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Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai (Jism), Maine Dil Se Kahaa (Rog), Aasmaan Odh Kar (13B), Gulon Mein (Sikandar), Kyaa Mujhe Pyaar Hai (Woh Lamhe), Lamha Lamha (Gangster)…these are just a sampling of the very beautiful songs journalist, author, screenplay writer, photographer and lyricist Neelesh Misra has penned down for Bollywood. Enjoy this candid and in-depth interview in which he covers a wide array of topics including multitasking, how he’s in Bollywood because of a song rejected by Jagjit Singh, his experiences in working with various music directors, his favorite songs, his approach to writing lyrics, changes he’d like to see in the industry, his upcoming projects, and more!

First of all thanks for doing the interview!

You are welcome. Thanks for your patience!

No problem! Journalist, author, screenplay writer, actor, photographer, and lyricist! You certainly enjoy multitasking! However, do you regret missing out on opportunities to write lyrics sometimes due to your job as a journalist? For example, you missed out on Heyy Babyy since you couldn't be in Mumbai for 12 days.

I certainly live many lives and I feel privileged that I have all these opportunities. Ever since I was growing up in Nainital, I wanted to be ten things or more—wanted to act, and write books, and sing playback, and be an advertising name it. I am fortunate that at some level I was able to live out some of those, or several of those dreams. But at the end, I had to restrict my greed! I had to limit my choices. So I decided to be a journalist, write songs and books, and if I could, do other things.

Like you said, and you have done your research very meticulously, I did have to give up writing lyrics for Heyy Babyy because I had just quit the Associated Press in 2006 after working out of its South Asia bureau for some nine years, and I couldn't have asked my new employer Hindustan Times for so many days off! So, I had to sadly say no to the film. This has frequently happened on other assignments as well, because I do not want to compromise at all on my work as a journalist. I love being a journalist and want to be good at my work. When I wear my other hat, I want to be great at writing lyrics and books and scripts too! It is an eternal greed. I thrive on it.

I am proud to inform you that I take my journalism very seriously. Last year I won the K C International journalism award for our series The New Muslim, an honor we shared with Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. And just recently I won the Ramnath Goenka Award for a series I had done on insurgency called India Besieged, which is also the subject of my next book for HarperCollins. This is not to sound vain, but I am telling you more to reassure myself that I am still as passionate and sincere about my journalism as I always was.

Does that mean that you plan on juggling your career as a journalist with being a lyricist and screenplay writer? Or do you envision a future in which you can devote yourself entirely to the arts?

To be honest, no, I am fortunate that my day job doesn’t seem like a job to be at all. I love it. I travel to all parts of India, to remote areas, writing stories that reflect the changing faces of this amazing nation. And it reflects and spills over into my work as a lyrics writer or scriptwriter or in my books. So it’s a complex interwoven life between my two faces and I don't want to give it up. I want to remain an outsider in Bollywood. I write songs for Bollywood while traveling in insurgency areas, or on long drives on other journalism assignments, while driving to work, in the shower... my friends call me a Blackberry shaayar!

I remember reading that you used to live in Nainital and sent Jagjit Singh lyrics which he never used…Has Jagjit Singh contacted you since then, now that you are “officially” a lyricist and have written some amazing songs? And, what made you take the initiative to reach out to Jagjit Singh first instead of others?

Glad you find them nice. Well I actually met him some months ago at the Lucknow airport and told him I was in Bollywood because he rejected my song! He seemed puzzled, but took it well. Like millions of Indian youth of my time, I grew up on Jagjit Singh's music. We sang Baat Niklegi and Aahista Aahista and all the other brilliant ghazals and nazms he offered to his listeners. Sadly he has not been singing sparkling lyrics in recent years and that is something many of us diehard Jagjit Singh fans feel sad about. But anyway, he was the first choice for me at the time —to me the greatest honor could have been if he had sung my song! So I pompously sent it to him. Of course he never wrote back. I am not sure if he even got it, if it even got past his secretary.

Any plans of writing for him in the near future?

I would love to, if he would like me to!

I certainly hope he does! Anyway, tell us a bit about the first time you wrote lyrics for a film. It must have been an exciting moment!

My first formal sitting for a song was for Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai in Jism. I had never written songs like this before—there was Mahesh Bhatt, the music director M.M.Kreem, his assistants, Pooja Bhatt (the producer), and the director. And Kreem Saab couldn't understand Hindi! So Mahesh Bhatt stood in the middle of the room and briefed us both, pretending to be Bipasha Basu! Kreem Saab and I both got it—and then I wrote the words in a taxi the next morning while on my way to the next sitting and he transcribed the words in Telugu...I don’t think any lyricist could have asked for a better debut than Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai. It became the biggest hit of the year and is still popular. I couldn't have asked for more. Only one wish—if the royalty system in India worked, I could have paid off my house loans!

That's true. Lyricists aren't given royalties. Are there any other changes you'd like to see taking place in the music industry?

To begin with, more respect for writers. This is a business that cribs all the time that it is short of writers, but when it has them, it just doesn't care for them. And that utter lack of respect shows at every level—from the advances writers get, to how their payments are staggered, to the non-existent royalties system, to the fact that even radio and TV stations do not give them credit when they play our songs...It’s just so unfair. I mean, we know of Gulzar Saab and Javed Saab because All India Radio told us they write the songs they did, right? Will the next generation know what Prasoon and Swanand and all the others among my hugely talented colleagues as well as the legends of this generation and before us? I don't think so.

That's very true. Writers seem to be ignored and mistreated, which is quite tragic. Which is why I make it a point to pay special attention to them in my reviews.

That’s really sweet of you. May your tribe increase.

Thanks. I hope so, too. But, do you think that writers and lyricists should work on marketing themselves aggressively?

Well, some do. Others are silly romantics who only know to write. Professional hazards! I personally am kind of low profile. A lot of producers and directors don't even know that I have written the songs I have written!

As you mentioned earlier, you do work from Delhi and sometimes submit stuff from your blackberry. Do you think in the near future we will see opportunities for lyricists based outside of India who just submit stuff via email?

Well, Bollywood is evolving and I don't think that distance is such an issue any more. I am a perfect example. I have done four projects with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy without a single music sitting. No sittings with Pritam at all so far. And just a few with Vishal-Shekhar. I get sound files e-mailed to me with melodies, I e-mail back lyrics or even send them via text messages. I strongly believe that geography should never be an enemy of creativity and I try to show by example. I can write from anywhere.

Text messaging lyrics?! Now, that's innovative! By the way, speaking of Pritam, has there ever been any hesitation to work with him since he carries a reputation of being heavily influenced by other songs?

Yes I am aware of that criticism. But I would like to tell you that at the core of his work, he is a hugely talented composer.

Like you’ve mentioned, you've worked with a bunch of music directors, including M.M. Kreem, Pritam and the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio…What are some things you’ve observed about the way different MDs work?

You are right, all music composers have different styles, and it requires a different vibe with all. I recently worked with Anand Raj Anand, for example, and truly enjoyed it. He was cracking jokes all the time. I had told him I have written many of my song in Mumbai's taxis and auto-rickshaws—he said he was planning to buy an auto-rickshaw for our next film together and keep it in the studio! Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are great fun, easygoing, so are Vishal-Shekhar. You know the greatest thing about the people I work with is that even if there was no Bollywood, I could have been friends with them.

There is also amazing young talent coming up. I worked recently, for example, with the very talented singer Akriti Kakar on an album that she is doing as a protégé of Shankar Mahadevan. And I discovered she is a fantastic composer! She ended up composing several songs I wrote. And she is, hold your breath, just 22. So it’s fantastic, the range of people I am working with.

You once mentioned in an interview that you don't like writing item numbers, so how’d you end up writing "Oh Sexy Mama" for 13B?

It’s true. I used to cringe at the mention of them. But then came a song called Kajra re—And, Gulzar Saab, one of my most favorite writers, showed us how an "item song" could still be fun and not frivolous and even poetic—like Beedi in Omkara. My first item number was Baalam Tera Nakhra in Big Brother. I am so embarrassed about it that I normally don't even tell people about it! But if you see in O Sexy Mama, I have tried to have "shararat-plus-poetry" Like the first antara opens with: "Thodi thodi khushiyan faqeer ko bhi de/Kyun nahin aate aaj kal chhat pe?"

The word “sexy” ended up being replaced with “crazy.” Yet, the word “sexy” has been used in many songs in the past such as in Crazy Kiya Re (Dhoom 2) and Sajnaa Anadi Beyimaan (Race).

You know this whole "sexy" controversy was an utter waste of everyone's time. I do wish the Censor Board had devoted its time to something more meaningful—like cracking down on the stereotypes about ethnic or regional identities, or the disabled, or lewd dialogues, or excessive violence...To crack down on "sexy" is just ridiculous…I mean, that’s the whole morphing of language, it evolves—what was offensive in one culture ten years ago might not be so ten years later. The world moves on. The Censor Board lags behind!

How do you decide to take on a project, whether it be writing lyrics or a screenplay? And, when you are asked to write lyrics, do you read the entire screenplay? Or, does the screenwriter and/or director give you a brief about what the overall gist of the lyrics should be?

Well, I think I need to be respected as a co-worker most of all. Thankfully I haven’t had to write to a bad tune until now, so in the end it boils down to my comfort level with the director and the music composer I guess. Sometimes I read the script. But on most occasions, I take a detailed briefing, with a narration of scenes, character sketches, the language and nuances we are looking at, etc.

Jism, Gangster, Woh Lamhe, Jannat, Holiday, Krishna Cottage, Johnny Gaddaar, Rog,'ve penned down some very memorable lyrics in a short amount of time...Which song are you the most proud of so far?

Maine Dil Se Kaha in Rog. I also liked the two songs I wrote in Sikandar as a tribute to the legendary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his iconic ghazal "Gulon Mein Rang Bhare."

I am very excited about the range of work I am doing this year. In my next film Tera Kya Hoga Johnnyby Sudhir Mishra, I have written Punjabi lyrics in collaboration with Akriti Kakar. Then there is Bollywood mass music in Anees Bazmi's It’s My Life, and Anurag Basu’s Kites with Hrithik Roshan, and Sanjay Gadhvi's Seven Days in Paris starring Imran Khan and Katrina, among other films.

Do you have pre-written lyrics that you use ever?

Yes, in several films, including It’s My Life with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Puraani Jeans with Vishal Shekhar, and Deewana Must Die with Anand Raj Anand. I wrote lyrics that were later composed, which is the way it should be done and that is a change I am beginning to see in Bollywood, though gradually.

Are there any other songs/ghazals you would love to adapt? For example, as you mentioned, Gulon Mein is inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Gulon Mein Rang Bhare.

Yes...the nazm Baat Niklegi to Phir Door Talak Jaegi, sung so beautifully by Jagjit Singh, written by Kafeel Azer.

Do you monitor music reviews to see audience reactions to your work?

I sometimes do. Reviewers have mostly been very kind to me, and the worst I got was that something I wrote was "all right." So I am hoping the next time the same reviewer will find my net song "great"! As for audience reaction, it’s so humbling and heartening to hear people singing one's songs on the road or listening to them as they drive or living with them for a few moments as they go about their everyday lives. I see these beautiful images and just smile to myself, soaking in such moments.

What is your take on the current state of lyrics in Hindi film music, for example, the use of English, Spanish, French and Arabic words?

To each his own really. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. This is all part of the great war to cut through the clutter, the chorus of hundreds of songs, and be heard. So people use different sounds, words, phrases, abuses—anything!

What's the best song you've recently heard in terms of lyrics and which one is the worst?

I think Prasoon Joshi's work in Dilli 6 was some of the best I have heard in recent times. For the worst, we shall talk after the interview!

Okay. What are some of your favorite music genres?

I want to be able to write across genres. I want to be able to write a bhajan and a qawali with the same effortless ease as a ghazal or a racier number or a children’s song. That is one thing I admire about the great masters like Gulzar Saab and Javed Saab.

Have you ever felt disappointed about how a music director ends up composing a song—in other words, have you ever been through a situation when you were really happy about the lyrics you wrote but then when you heard the way the music director composed the song you were disappointed? Or, were you disappointed the way a song was picturized?

Well, sometimes songs are faded out halfway or are picturized only partially on screen and the rest is only on the CD. That is often a compulsion for the director but leaves writers disappointed. But some songs fight back against that destiny—Maine Dil Se Kaha (Rog) was supposed to be only on CDs, not in the film—but, ended up being the theme song that came several times, it worked so well for the character!

How long you normally spend on writing down lyrics for a project?

Normally an hour for a song, or less if I can get dedicated time.

What is your all time favorite song? Gulzar Saab’s Dil Dhoondta Hai Phir Wohi—It captures something eternal, a universal angst.

Are there any singers you would really like to hear singing your lyrics? Are there any music directors you would like to work with?

Yes, singers like Sonu Niigaam, Vishal Dadlani and Shankar among males, and Shreya Ghoshal, who has sung many of my songs, and Akriti Kakar among females. Among music directors, I am truly waiting for my turn to work with Rahman, like every other lyrics writer who hasn’t had that honor!

What are some lines from existing songs, which you will never be able to forget?

Dil Dhoondta Hai Phir Wohi, Baawra Man Dekhne Chala Ek Sapna, and Main Kabhi Batlata Nahin, Par Andhere Se Darta Hoon Main Maa.

Have you ever caught phrases from existing songs sinking into your work?

I hope not!...But Sikandar has Gulon Mein Rang Bhare which is a tribute to Faiz in an old tradition of Urdu poetry, and another upcoming film will have a line from a famous song but that is because the script is leading up to it.

Do you pay close attention to the lyrics being penned down by other lyricists these days?

Not often because I travel a lot and don’t listen to the radio that much, but often a beautiful line drifting in from somewhere close by does jump out of the song and surprise me. There is so much great writing these days. The golden age of great Bollywood writing is set to return.

Really? Yet most people find it hard to even list 10 quality OSTs for 2009 and it is already April.

The best songs are not always in the most marketed films. Like I saw this stunning film called Dasvidanya on a flight yesterday and it had a brilliant song written by Kailash Kher...Awara Raahi Gumshuda.

Yes, that is an awesome song! How important is it for you to write lyrics, which follow a certain structure? Or, do you like freestyle writing/poetry?

I normally get bound by structure but I do want to improvise, and I am hoping that as I elbow out a space for myself in Bollywood, I will also get more opportunities and independence for innovation.

Going back to 13B, since the film was released in both Hindi and in Tamil, did you have to do any translation for the lyrics?

No, but I had to make changes in the meter at some places in keeping with the Tamil lyrics.

What advice do you have for aspiring lyricists? Do you think it is really hard for people to get a break as a lyricist? For example, there aren't even any National Poetry Competitions for poets in India...

I would love it if there were reality shows for lyricists! There is a great shortage of writers in Bollywood but at the same time an ocean of people waiting to get in with huge talent. I am hoping these two images will be reconciled sometime. But it is certainly hard for most people to get in. If my first song wasn't such a big hit, for example, I am not sure if I would have gotten this far…

Tell us a bit about your upcoming projects. Also, could you tell us about Alibaug? How hard was it to work on the screenplay since you're based in Delhi?

I worked on the screenplay with my co-writer Neelima Pandey, who is also based in Delhi. So there was a good comfort level. I am looking forward to the film being released this year. I have also written two films, one set against the Naxalite movement and based on my travels through insurgency heartlands, and the other is a screenplay adaptation of my third book, Once Upon a Timezone, a romantic comedy. I am looking for the right director right now.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?

Well, I am excited about the kind of films I am doing this year, and I am hoping they also like my work. I will try to do some of the same things I have done so far and play on my strengths, but also try out new things. I hope you all like those songs.

I'm sure we all will enjoy the songs! It was really nice to interview you, Neelesh! This must be the most in-depth interview of you so far.

Yes, very well researched. I am very impressed!

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