Sahil Sultanpuri arrived in Mumbai from a small village in Uttar Pradesh to work in films. He did not have any specific goals but he believed his ability to write will help him get some job in the industry. Two years later, in 1999, he landed his first important project and since then, he has been working in the industry as a lyricist. After going through years of struggle, it is his time to shine now. ‘Akhiyaan Milavanga’, the song he wrote for ‘Commando 3’, became extremely popular as soon as it was launched and it continues to make waves months after it released. In this interview, the lyricist talks about his long and eventful journey in the Hindi film industry, passion for writing, collaborating with composer Mannan Shaah, how the success of ‘Akhiyaan Milavanga’ proved to be a turning point for him, and more.
You came to Mumbai to work in films in 1997. It has been a long journey.
Yes, I have spent years in this city and in this industry. Back then, there was no internet or mobile phones. Getting work or even just reaching out to people was far more difficult than it is today. There were only landline phones. If you had to call somebody, you had to do that before 9 o’clock in the morning as after that people would go out of their homes for work. That was a different era altogether.
When did you start writing?
I have been writing ever since I was a child. I got the opportunity to perform in kavi sammelans, mushairas and other platforms. I grew up in Jagdishpura, a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Because of living there, I managed to get a good hold over Awadhi and all the other languages that were being spoken there.
What are the qualities, you think, a lyricist needs to have?
Lyrics and poetry are two different things. One mostly learns about the nuances of poetry from a senior poet. You spend time with them and learn. But, life teaches you several important lessons for free. My ustad ji was my teacher in school. His name was Pawan Sultanpuri. We used to recite poetry in front of him and learn from him. A teacher can show you the way but you have to hone your skills yourself. No matter which craft you are pursuing, practice is the most important thing. The more you practice, the better you get at your craft.
How much did education help you shape up as a person?
I came from a simple background. I come from a family of farmers. My father was a pakhavaj player but I mostly grew up at my maternal grandfather’s place. I learnt everything from the people I met there and the things I experienced there. I did not finish my graduation. When I was in the first year of college, I felt I should do something different. That is when I decided to come to Mumbai to become a lyricist.
How were the initial days in Mumbai like?
There were people from my village who were living here. I lived with them for a while. Some of them were also trying their luck in films, like me. Because of them, I got a roof over my head during my early days in the city.
Which was your first professional assignment?
In 1999, I did an album with T-Series called ‘Jeetenge Hum Hindustani’. It was my first major assignment in Mumbai. I had a music director friend who gave me the number of Ajit Kohli from T-Series and asked him to meet the company’s office. He asked me if I can write a song on tune. There was a lot of craze around the 1999 World Cup at that time. He told me the song had to be aired the next day, so they had to get it recorded that day itself. He gave me the tune on a cassette. I wrote the song in a couple of minutes. He then asked me to sing it. I told him that I do not sing well. He told me that even if I sing out of tune, I must sing so that he could get an idea whether the lines I had written fit into the tune or not.
You have had an association with composer Ismail Darbar.
Yes, I had worked with him on a couple of projects including an unreleased single which we had worked very hard on and wish it had come out. I worked with his brother Yasin Darbar and cousin Iqbal Darbar on the film ‘Kudiyon Ka Hai Zamaana’. I had written the title song and another song called ‘Kamrein Mein Aaja’.
Would you like to write a film someday?
I had written the dialogues for a film called ‘Mohabbat Zindabad’ several years back. If I get the opportunity to write the screenplay or dialogues of a film again, I might take it up.
Out of all the songs you have written till date, is there any particular song which is close to your heart?
I had written a qawalli called “Husn Wale Farebi” for the film ‘Saat Uchakkey’ which was produced by Neeraj Pandey. I had hoped for it to reach out to a large number of people but it was not promoted much.
Which are the lyricists whose work you have admired?
I have always been a big admirer of Gulzar sahab, Javed Akhtar sahab, Majrooh Sultanpuri sahab and Anand Bakshi sahab. Among the contemporary writers, I really like Irshad Kamil.
‘Akhiyaan Milavanga’ has several lines written in Punjabi. You hail from Uttar Pradesh. How did you learn to speak Punjabi?
I believe language, art and virtues can be picked up from anywhere. I have a lot of Punjabi friends, so I picked up the language from them. The Punjabi words that I have used in ‘Akhiyaan Milavanga’ are not very heavy.
How was the experience of working with composer Mannan Shaah on this song?
Mostly, a big film like ‘Commando 3’ is offered to a popular or well-established lyricist. I have done a lot of work but it is not the kind of film I would have expected to be offered to me. I met Mannan ji through a common friend. We met a couple of months before we started working on this film. He is somebody who has a good understanding of poetry and lyrics. He is a highly talented composer and has a vast amount of knowledge.
You had to struggle for a very long time. Was there a time when the thought of leaving the industry come to you?
No, I never thought about it. I faced a lot of hurdles but God gave me the strength to overcome them. Also, I feel if you work at something for years and then, suddenly leave it to pursue something else, you have to start from scratch. So, it is better to stick to one thing, no matter how difficult things might get.
It has been a few months since ‘Akhiyaan Milavanga’ released and it continues to be very popular. Do you see the song as a turning point in your life?
Definitely! ‘Ankhiyaan Milavanga’ has given a new direction to my life. A lot of people, who had not heard about me, know my name now. I have earned a lot of love, respect and blessings because of this song.
Which are the composers you would like to work with? Do you have a favourite?
I would like to work with all the composers in the industry (smiles). I find Pritam’s music to be very soulful. It would be a huge honour to collaborate with him on something someday.
Despite going through a lot of struggle, you have a lot of gratitude and no remorse in your heart. That is a highly admirable quality.
Every experience, be it good or bad, teaches us a lot about life and helps us in our growth as an individual. I am grateful about everything life has taught me. I hope to do the kind of work that is remembered for a long time.