If one had to describe Amitabh S Verma in one word, it would be multi-faceted. Most people who follow Hindi cinema know him as a lyricist but the man has dabbled into a variety of other things like singing, editing, screenplay and dialogue writing. As a lyricist, Amitabh has written the songs for films like ‘My Brother…Nikhil’, ‘Ankahee’, ‘Bas Ek Pal’, ‘Lamhaa’, ‘I Am’, ‘All Is Well’ and ‘PK’, among others.
Recently, he added another feather to his hat by directing the Shreyas Talpade – Bidita Bag starrer ‘Teen Do Paanch’ which recently premiered on the streaming platform Disney + Hotstar and was received very well by the audience. The film also marked Amitabh’s debut as a film composer.
In this elaborate interview, he talks about his eventful journey in the Hindi film industry, memorable songs as a lyricist, studying editing at Film and Television Institute of India, long-term association with Anu Malik and Pritam, taking the plunge as a director and more.
You had a very interesting career trajectory. You got into Film and Television Institute of India, did a course in editing and ended up pursuing a career as a lyricist.
As a child, I was very good at studies but was not sure about what I would like to be when I grow up. I was studying in the very reputed Hindu College in Delhi University. When I was in Delhi University, most of my friends were preparing for civil services. After finishing my graduation, I got into Delhi School of Economics. While doing this course, I realised this was not my cup of tea. I decided to apply for FTII. My friends were laughing at me and telling me that I could go to America after this and I should not waste my time in some film institute. I was, however, determined to study cinema.
Were you a film buff since childhood?
Yes, I was always a film buff. Actually, I was more involved in music. I was a very popular singer in my school and college. I was also an active participant in the yearly shows that used to be conducted in Hindu College. I used to sing a lot of Kishore Kumar and Jagjit Singh songs in these functions. I am from Bihar. I studied there till junior college. I grew up in different towns as my father was in a transferable job. I studied in 6-7 different schools in Bihar. Then, I studied in BN College, Patna. After that, I came to study in Delhi University. Twenty-five years ago, it was very rare for somebody from Bihar to get into films. My mother, however, was always very supportive of my decision to pursue a career in films. She used to tell me, “do whatever you want to do but take proper training in that field.” Back then, there were only two institutes offering courses on cinema. FTII was the most prominent one and then, there was Jamia which had a few courses on filmmaking. I remember IIMC was just one year old then. I applied for IIMC and FTII. I couldn’t get through IIMC and was very disappointed. Luckily, I got into FTII. I purposely chose editing as I always believed that editing and camera are two of the most important elements in filmmaking. Initially, I wanted to study cinematography but at that time, you needed to study science in 12th standard to be able to be eligible for that course. I was an arts student. I was a little confused between opting for film direction and editing. I finally chose editing as I always believed editing to be the backbone of filmmaking.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Khamoshi – The Musical’ was the first film you worked on after finishing your course at FTII. How was that experience?
Yes, the unit of ‘Khamoshi – The Musical’ largely comprised of students from FTII. All the department heads and assistants working on the film were from FTII. I got to work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali and learnt a lot while working on that film. After finishing my work on ‘Khamoshi’, I had to come to Delhi for a year. There was a family crisis and someone was in the hospital. I was not working during this period. After a while, I went to Mumbai and started working with Onir. He was largely working as an editor back then. He never called me an assistant and always addressed me as an associate. He used to give a lot of respect to everyone who worked with him. We have learnt editing on Steenbeck which was an analogue editing machine. Digital was very new then. I started learning how to use video machines. At that time, Onir wanted to produce a music album. He knew I had written some songs in FTII, so he asked me to work on the album as a lyricist. The music album was called ‘Aarya’. it was with four new singers. The third album that both of us worked together on was very special as it was with Bhupen Hazarika. Bhupen da liked my writing and that was a huge thing for me. That was the last private album recorded by Bhupen da and was called The Complete Bhupen Hazarika.
There is an interesting story behind you got into lyric writing. Music director Pritam Chakraborty, who was your classmate in FTII, asked you to write lyrics for a couple of tunes he had composed. By then, you had never read or written poetry.
Yes, that’s right. I had never read or written poetry till then but I knew hundreds of songs by heart. I had a fair idea of things like ‘meter’, ‘scanning’ etcetera that are associated with lyric writing. My Hindi was pretty good as I was from Bihar. I was quite surprised when I wrote a song for the first time. During my FTII days, I ended up writing and singing a lot of songs. After coming out of the institute, I forgot all about it and went on a different path. As we discussed earlier, I started assisting Bhansali on ‘Khamoshi The Musical’. Pritam went to Mumbai and started meeting directors with the songs we had created while we were in the film institute.
The Hansal Mehta directed ‘Chhal’ was your first film as a lyricist. How did you get the opportunity to write the songs for this film?
Pritam had gone to meet Hansal and played out some of his songs to him. One of the songs which Hansal liked was written by me. When Hansal asked him as to who was the lyricist, Pritam told him about me. Hansal knew me already as I had assisted the editor who had cut the promo for his first film ‘Jayate’. I got a call from Hansal’s assistant who said, “Hansal is making a film and he will meet you.” I thought he was calling me for some editing related work. When I met him, he told me that he would want me to write some songs for his film. I was very happy as the music was being done by Viju Shah whom I was a huge fan of. He said we will work on one song and if things go well, I will write the entire album. The first song we recorded was ‘Chup Chaap Karti Hain Baatein’. Hansal and Viju bhai loved the song and I ended up writing all the songs for the film.
Were you also working as an editor during this time?
I worked as an editor or a couple of years after ‘Khamoshi The Musical’. I edited ads, corporate films and television serials but didn’t get the kind of work I was looking for. Once I started getting work as a writer regularly, I stopped doing editing jobs. I remember I was working on a serial as an editor and the producer did not pay me for my work on as many as ten episodes. I started working in Zee TV in the programming department as an executive producer. I worked there for three years. ‘Chhal’ happened during this period. The day ‘Chhal’ released, I resigned from Zee TV. After that, I never did a full-time job and worked on a variety of projects in different capacities.
My favourite song written by you is ‘Le Chale’ from ‘My Brother…Nikhil’. It’s perhaps one of the most soothing songs to have come out of Hindi cinema.
Yes, it’s one of my favourite songs too. Even Sunidhi Chauhan, who had sung one of the three versions of the song, mentioned it as one of her favourite songs. Vivek Philip was the composer of the song. He was my batchmate and was studying sound engineering there. The difficult part about the song I had to write three versions of it. All the three songs come at different points in the film. When the Shaan sung version was recorded, suddenly Onir came and said, “we need one more antara for the song”. Sanjay Suri, who was the co-producer on the film, suggested we sit with Shaan and write one more song. Thankfully, Shaan was not in a hurry and I got adequate time to write another antara. I also did the dialogues for the film. At the premiere of ‘My Brother Nikhil’, a lot of people from the industry came up to me and said they loved the song.
“Jannat thi apni sarzameen, sufi humko kehte sabhi, ab toh koi mujrim, koi aatanki keh raha…..”- you wrote these poignant lines for the song ‘Main Kaun Hoon’ from Rahul Dholakia’s ‘Lamhaa’. How was the process of working on this song?
A couple of years back, I was making a documentary in Kashmir. It was about a tribe in Gurez, a valley located around Kashmir. We had a guide to show us around. He told me, “I have a seen a film on Kashmir called ‘Lamhaa’ and I love the song ‘Main Kaun Hoon’ from it”. When I told him, I have written the song, he was very happy and showed me the playlist on his phone which had that song. I was well-versed with the Kashmir situation, so it was not very difficult me to write the song. Before ‘Lamhaa’, Rahul Dholakia had made ‘Parzania’ which was also based on a very delicate subject. He is a very sensitive filmmaker and always handles the subject he takes up with a lot of maturity. I have had a long-standing association with Mithoon. I had written the first ever original song he had composed for a film. It was the title track of ‘Bas Ek Pal’.
Pritam Chakraborty was your classmate in the Film and Television Institute of India. You have written a bunch of popular songs for him including ‘Jal Jal Ke Dhuaan’ (‘Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena’), ‘Ek Pal Ke Liye’ (‘Ankahee’) and ‘Alvida’ (‘Life In A Metro’).
Pritam is responsible for me becoming a lyricist. ‘Alvida’ was made ten years before it was used in ‘Life In A Metro’. We were working on the first album we were doing. Charudutt Acharya, who is an accomplished writer and filmmaker, was our batchmate in FTII. We used to live in a flat which was owned by Charu. He came to the studio. One fine day, Charu asked me, ‘what is the meaning of Alvida?”. I told him it means ‘the final goodbye’. He asked Pritam and me to make a song out of it. Pritam composed the tune and I wrote the lyrics. The song was supposed to be used in ‘Munnabhai MBBS’ when Jeet and Pritam were doing the film. The song was supposed to be used when Munna (Sanjay Dutt) is thrown out of the college. Anurag Basu had heard the song as he was close to Pritam. When he was making ‘Life In A Metro’, he decided to use this song. Anurag wanted some changes in the lyrics but Pritam was against it. Finally, the song was used in the film without changing a single word.
A while back, you wrote the poignant ‘Tanha Tanha’ for the film ‘Yours Truly’. The emotions in the song came out beautifully through your lyrics.
Yes, the song was used effectively to convey the feelings of the character played by Soni Razdan. When I was in college, I was a part of a choir by the legendary music director Salil Choudhary. At that time, his son Sanjoy Chowdhury and Debojyoti Mishra used to assist him. ‘Tanha Tanha’ was composed by Debojyoti. The song was recorded in Kolkata and I wrote the lines in Mumbai. When we worked on the song, I reminded Debojyoti about our association during our college days. With this film, I got to work with him after more than 20 years.
One of your most popular songs has been ‘Love Is A Waste Of Time’ from PK.
People mostly know me for the romantic or sober songs that I have written. However, I have also written quirky songs like ‘Maa Ka Phone’ (‘Khoobsurat’) and ‘Talli’ (‘Ugly Aur Pagli’). ‘Love Is A Waste Of Time’, too, had quirky lyrics. I wrote many versions of the song and it went through many changes. The film was already being shot at that time. Since Raju (Rajkumar Hirani) was constantly shooting, he wouldn’t have a lot of time to sit us. However, he was very particular about how he wanted the song to be like. Out of the 5-6 versions, he picked different lines and used them in the final version.
Anu Malik is, perhaps, the senior most composer you have worked with.
Yes! I have done five films with Anu ji. ‘Ugly Aur Pagli’ was the first film I worked with him on. He is the only composer today who composes and does music sittings on a harmonium. That is incredible! With Anu ji, I would get to see the process of a song being made for the scratch. His first film came when I was in school and he is still working. He is one of the passionate composers I have come across.
You have written so many memorable songs but as a lyricist, do you think your volume of work should have been higher?
I guess that’s because I have always been too shy to ask for work. I never went to anyone for work. Whatever work I have done, came to me. Writing was not the only thing I have been doing. I have made many short films and documentaries, corporate films and TV commercials. I have written screenplays and dialogues for films. Writing is not the only thing I do. I have actually been busy all the time with different projects.
Last year, you made an official debut as a singer with the single ‘Awalla’. You composed two songs for your film ‘Teen Do Paanch’. Do you plan to sing and compose more often in the future?
Most of the things in my life have happened by accident. I have learnt Hindustani classical music as a child. There is a different struggle to become a singer. I never really tried to become a playback singer. Now, it’s easier to make and release a song. My wife was majorly responsible for me taking this plunge and I am very thankful to her for the same. ‘Teen Do Paanch’ was a small film. Because of the kind of budget I had, I couldn’t afford to sign established composers. I met some young composers but didn’t like the compositions they were offering. A composer friend of mine suggested me to compose the songs for my film myself. I tried as I didn’t have options. The two songs I had composed were received pretty well. I had no plans to become a composer but now, I might do it in the future. I definitely want to sing more often.
Making one’s first film, they say, is very difficult. Did you have to face any difficulty in finding support for your debut feature-length film ‘Teen Do Paanch’?
I had worked with the producers of the film earlier. I had written a film for them called ‘Chidiya’. It was a children’s film and had Vinay Pathak in it. We had a good working relationship and they suggested that I should make a film for them. They set up everything and made the process very smooth. I shared the script of ‘Teen Do Paanch’ with them and they instantly liked it. Shruti had written this script 6-7 years back. We made some minor changes to it. Shreyas (Talpade) and Bidita (Bag) loved the script and were a delight to work with.
You own a production company called Me 2 Films with your wife Shruti Anandita Varma. Tell us something about it.
Our production house was launched in the year 2007. We have made a lot of short films that have received awards. We have also made corporate films and government films. We made an anthem for International Law Organization. We had made a prayer for the Tihar jail which was sung by the inmates themselves. We took a few of the inmates to a studio in Delhi under police supervision and got the prayer recorded. We have shot a travel series on North East and have covered eight states in north east for the same. It’s a 13-part series that will be released on Doordarshan.
What are you doing next?
Our company is producing the second season of Mount Everest Fashion Runaway Show. I am doing a lot of work with Eros. I have done a couple of singles with them as a lyricist. My wife Shruti is planning to direct a film which I have written. We might start shooting it by September. I plan to direct a comedy next. I hope to direct a lot of films now.