From Shankar – Jaikishan to Vishal and Shekhar, Dev Kohli worked with different generations of composers in a career that spanned from 1969 to 2013. His popular song “Geet Gaata Hoon Main” featured in the Rajkumar – Hema Malini starrer ‘Lal Patthar’ (1971). It was his second film as a lyricist. He had to wait for another eighteen years for ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ which proved to be his major break as a lyricist. After that, he delivered countless hits in the 90s and till mid 2000s for films like ‘Khiladi’, ‘Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman’, ‘Baazigar’, ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’, ‘International Khiladi’, ‘Kaante’ and ‘Musafir’, among others. Many of his songs (“Chalti Hai Kya 9 Se 12”, “Oonchi Hai Building 2.0” – ‘Judwaa 2’, “Aate Jaate Hanste Gaate” – ‘Golmaal Again’, “O Saki Saki” – ‘Batla House’) have got recreated in the recent past and used in popular films.
In this interview, he speaks about his long and illustrious journey as a lyricist, working with leading composers from different generations, moving from Rawalpindi to Delhi during the partition, formative years in Dehradun, turning to spirituality and more.
You were born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and spent your childhood in Dehradun.
Yes, I was born on 2 November 1942. We came to Delhi in 1948 and then, shifted to Dehradun in 1949. I have very little memories of the India-Pakistan partition as I was very young then.
When you were in Dehradun, there was a 15-16 year old teenager who lived in your neighbourhood who inspired you to write poetry.
Yes, he was not a poet but would recite poetry written by famous poets. I was around ten years old then. Unki badaulat pehli baar maine zindagi mein ek she’r suna (Because of him, I heard a couplet for the first time in my life). Soon, I got drawn to the world of poetry and felt this was something I could do myself. After a couple of years, I started writing poetry seriously.
Most men in your family worked for the Indian Army. How many siblings did you have?
I had five siblings. Only one of my younger sisters and younger brother is alive. We stay in touch and speak to each other quite often.
Tell us something about your educational background.
I did most of my education in Dehradun. I took up science initially. In the first year itself, I realized it was very tough (laughs). I sold all my books and got admission in the arts stream. I studied in Shri Guru Nanak Dev Maharaj Inter College.
You had said in an old interview that you had an ustad sahab or guru in Dehradun whom you learnt the finer nuances of poetry from. When you turned 22, he encouraged you to go to Mumbai.
Yes, he was a poet. I used to call him ustad sahab. It has been around sixty years since I met him, so I do not remember his name. I used to recite my poetry to him, He used to be very appreciative towards my work and tell me, “tum itni chhoti si umar mein aise she’r kaise keh lete ho” (how do you manage to recite such wonderful couplets at this young age?). He knew I wanted to be a lyricist. When he felt I was ready, he asked me to go to Mumbai (then Bombay) and asked me to try my luck there. I did not really get to spend a lot of time with him and never underwent any kind of preparation to become a writer or lyricist. Nature taught me everything.
Which language or script did you write poetry and lyrics in?
I used to write in Devnagri script. I am well-versed in Punjabi but know very little of Urdu. When partition happened and I was in primary school, we used to be taught Urdu. I learnt only as much Urdu as I was taught in class one.
How was life in Dehradun like?
We had a restaurant in Dehradun. My father used to run it. He passed away at a very young age in the year 1960. I was very fond of watching films. I used to play billiards and was very good at it. In the year 1958, I had won the Junior Billiard Championship.
Do you remember the year when you moved to Mumbai?
Yes, I came to Mumbai in 1964. I was 22 then. There was a hotel called Evergreen in the Khar suburb in Mumbai. I lived there for around two years. So many people from the industry like S.D Burman, Sahir Ludhianvi and Iftekhar had lived in that hotel. Music director G.S Kohli lived in a building closer to that hotel. I would go to his flat and recite my nazms and she’r to him. One day, he wrote a mukhda which went something like “Khushi se jaan le lo jee, imaan le lo jee”, Those were dummy words. He asked me to write a few antaras. I wrote something on the spot. When I went back, he had written almost the entire song himself. He did not like one particular line and asked me to rewrite it. I had a very minor contribution to the lyrics of that song but he was kind enough to give me credit for it. I asked him not to pay me but he gave me 500 rupees which was a huge amount then. I even asked him not to give me credit but he said “mehnat to ki hai tune, tera naam toh aana chahiye” (you have worked hard on the song, so you must be credited for it). The song was used in a small film called ‘Gunda’. I was credited for the song “Khushi Se Jaan Le Lo Ji”. It was the first film in which I was credited as a lyricist.
Though your song “Geet Gaata Hoon Main” from Lal Patthar became a huge hit, you had to wait for another eighteen years for ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’. You wrote the songs “Aate Jaate Hanste Gaate”, “Kabootar Ja Ja Ja”, “Aaja Shaam Hone Aayee”, “Maine Pyar Kiya” and “Kahe Toh Se Sajna”. The film changed the course of your career. Was it difficult to struggle for such a long period of time?
My family used to help me out with finances. They used to send me money and because of them, I never had to struggle financially. Technically, ‘Lal Patthar’ was my second film after ‘Gunda’. The film released in 1972 and I wrote the song “Geet Gaata Hoon Main” a year before that. I used to go to meet Shankar-Jaikishan at their studio. Both Shankar ji and Jaikishan ji were very cheerful. They were also perfectionists. They used to call me ‘sardar sahab’. When I recited my poetry to them the first time, they said, “sardar ji, aap mein toh badi fire hai, kitna achcha likhte hain aap. Aap ka kaam yahaan zaroor banega” (Sardar ji, you have a lot of fire within you. You write so well. Things will definitely work out for you here). Though “Geet Gaata Hoon Main” became a huge hit, I did not get a lot of opportunities after that. Yes, once in a while, a song of mine would release but most of them went unnoticed. That struggle period proved to be a huge learning experience for me. Kudrat ne mujhe woh cheez sikhaani thi jo mere andar nahin thi (Nature had to teach me all that I did not know). I realized a lot of things about life. I read Bhagavad Gita and I was mesmerized by it. I had read so many books but had not read anything like that. It changed my life completely. I turned to spirituality and it changed me as a person. After ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ there was never a dearth of work. I was able to buy a flat, a car and a lot more things with the money I earned by the grace of God. I had a very memorable journey in the Hindi film industry. Lord Krishna gave me more than I could have asked for.
You worked with almost every major music director in the 90s.
Yes, I was fortunate to be offered work by all the big music directors in the 90s.
Let’s talk about some of them. You had a very long and fruitful association with Anu Malik.
Yes, the first song I wrote for him was ‘Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein’ from ‘Baazigar’ (1993) which became a huge hit. I remember he won a Filmfare Award for the film. He used to call me often to write songs. He used to praise me a lot among his peers, particularly about my ability to write songs very fast. He is a very lively person. He used to compose the mukhda in 2-3 minutes. Many a times, he would write some very good lines himself for the mukhda and then, ask me develop it further. Working with him was an absolutely joyous experience. Sometime back, Anu sahab asked me to write for him again. He said, “Kohli sahab, ghar aa jaaya kijiye. Saath baith kar gaane banaayenge” (Kohli sahab, come to my place. We will make songs together.) I had to say no to him because I have stopped writing songs.
You last wrote songs for the Kangana Ranaut starrer ‘Rajjo’ which had music by Uttam Singh.
Yes, Uttam ji has been a dear friend. He is one of my oldest friends from the industry. When I was struggling as a lyricist, he was working as a music arranger. One day, he came home and asked me to write some songs for this film. I had retired from writing songs in 2007 but I could not say no to him then.
Are you open to writing songs now?
No, my mind is far away from these things now. Most of my time is spent doing meditation and praying to God.
You worked with Anand Raaj Anand on many films. A couple of those films like ‘Kaante’ and ‘Humko Tumse Pyaar Hai’ had very good music. Some of your last work was with him too.
Yes, I worked with him extensively from 2000-2007. He used to write some of his songs himself and understood poetry well. Many of the songs we did together became huge hits.
Who are the other composers or people from the film industry you enjoyed working with?
There are so many of them. I had a good experience working with most people from the industry. Dilip Sen – Sameer Sen have always treated me with a lot of respect. Even now when I stumble upon them, they treat me with a lot of love. It was wonderful working with Jatin-Lalit. Their compositions had a lot of depth. Rajesh Roshan sahab, I remember, would have a smile on his face all the time. I worked with composers like Pritam when they were just starting out. He had a very fresh approach to composing music. I wrote for him in films like ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena’. Sonu Nigam is one of the best singers I have worked with. He would tell me, “Kohli sahab, kamaal hain aap, kahaan se yeh sab shabd dhoondh kar late hain aap” (Kohli sahab, you are wonderful! Where do you find such new and unique words from?). “Woh jhuk ke namashkaar karte the aur main unhein gale laga liya karta tha” (he used to bow down and greet me with a namaste and I would hug him). I liked using new words or words that had not been used in any song ever. Writing a phrase like “tan tana tan tan tan taara, chalti hai kya nau se baarah” (‘Judwaa’) was very unique then. I used to follow the script and have never written a song without any logic. I worked with filmmaker Sanjay Gupta on many films. He was a very musical filmmaker and was always clear about what he wanted. That is the reason most of his films had such memorable music.
Apart from ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, which proved to be a landmark film in your career, you worked with Rajshri Productions on many other films like ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’, ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ and ‘Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon’. How was the experience of working with them?
It was a wonderful experience. They are very sober people. I remember they worked with music director Ravindra Jain on many films. After that, they collaborated with Raamlaxman on ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’. That is when I joined them. I worked with Raamlaxman on ‘Hum Apke Hain Koun…!’ and ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ and then, with Anu sahab on ‘Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon’.
You also worked with younger composers like Vishal-Shekhar. You collaborated with them on films like ‘Musafir’, ‘Karam’ and ‘Taxi No. 9211’.
Yes, their style was very different from other composers. They were young and their music was very youthful and modern. While working with them, I also got inspired to write lines that would resonate with a younger audience.
You said you used to write songs very fast. A lot of lyricists prefer to spend a lot of time while working on a song. You never did that?
No, I would always write the song in the studio itself. I would never take a tune home to write the verses. I have written most of my songs at one go. In fact, by the time I went back home, I would forget what I had written just a couple of hours ago.
You have written so many memorable songs. Can you name three songs which are the closest to your heart?
Yes. “Geet Gaata Hoon Main” from ‘Lal Patthar’, “Maye Ni Maye” from ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’ and “Aate Jaate” from ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ are the ones that are closest to my heart.
Many of your songs have been recreated in the recent past. What do you think about this trend?
I left writing songs and being a part of the industry a long time back, so I do not really have an opinion on anything. Sometimes, people call me and tell me that a song of mine has been remixed and is playing on TV. If my song has inspired someone to remix it, then I can only be grateful about it.
How do you plan to take this spiritual journey ahead?
There is no end to this path of spirituality. Even when my soul leaves my body, I will continue to follow this path. I am writing a book on my journey in spirituality. I am still writing it.
You are a devotee of Lord Krishna.
Yes, I am his devotee. Everything that I have received in this life is because of him.
What are the qualities a lyricist needs to have?
The most important quality is that he should be able to write a song on any situation and subject.
How do you want to be remembered?
I have never thought about it. I have stayed away from materialistic things for a long time. If I could tell one thing to this generation, I would tell them that they must do anything they wish to but with a sense of honesty.
Is there any lyricist whose work you have liked in the recent past?
I have a television set at home but I barely turn it on. I do not know the names of the new lyricists. I have always been an admirer of Sahir sahab and Shailendra sahab.
You talked about loneliness when we were speaking a while back. Why did you never think of getting married or having a family?
I got drawn to spirituality at a very early age. Jab main solah baras ka thha, meri hi umra ki ek mohtarma ko dekha aur laga ki unhein kaafi samay se jaanta hoon (when I was 16, I saw a girl who was of a similar age as me and felt I have known her from a long time). I realized this feeling is called love. After that, I never really fell in love with any woman.
The The Indian Performing Right Society Ltd (IPRS) recently carried out a campaign called ‘Credit De Do Yaar’. Most music streaming websites or apps do not mention the lyricist’s name in the credits. What are your thoughts on this?
Every individual should be credited for the effort and hard work he puts into doing something. I do not know much about the campaign but a lyricist not getting credit for his songs in very unfair. When I was writing, the name of the lyricist would be clearly mentioned on the sleeve or cover of the LP record, CD or cassette. So, there would be no such problem then.