Whenever you came across Mehboob being credited as the lyricist on a film or an album, you looked forward to exquisite poetry. That’s the kind of legacy the man built for years when he wrote several memorable songs for films like ‘Rangeela’, ‘Bombay’, ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, ‘Doli Saja Ke Rakhna’, ‘Tujhe Meri Kasam’, ‘Uuf Kya Jaadoo Mohabbat Hai..!’ and ‘Yuva’, among others. Apart from films, he also penned the lyrics for several popular non-film albums like ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ (A R Rahman), ‘Pal’ (K K), ‘Kal Raat’ (Kamaal Khan) and ‘Piya Basanti…Again’ (Ustad Sultan Khan & K S Chithra).
Health issues kept him away from professional life for a while but now, he is back to treat his fans and listeners to songs written by him again. ‘Heropanti 2’ will mark his comeback to cinema and there are many other projects in the pipeline that will follow.
In this exclusive interview, the poet and lyricist talks about his eventful journey in the Hindi film industry, popular songs, underrated albums, love for poetry and lots more.
Last year, ‘Bombay’ and ‘Rangeela’ completed 25 years of their release. ‘Rangeela’ released in the year 1995 and the Hindi version of ‘Bombay’ released in the same year. These were two of your first successful projects and the music of these films remain popular and fresh in the minds of the listeners even today. How do you feel about it?
I feel extremely happy to see these songs being as relevant today as they were at the time of their release. I see contestants on all these reality shows singing the songs from ‘Bombay’ and ‘Rangeela’ quite often. This just shows that they still have a huge fan following. When these albums released, the critics praised them lavishly and said they were ahead of their time. I guess that’s the reason they sound fresh till date. A while back, a friend of mine told me he was at the airport and there was a lot of rush there. The situation there implored him to start humming, “kya karein, kya naa karein…” (laughs). I know that ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ is still played at most weddings even today. ‘Humma Humma’ was remixed three years back for ‘OK Jaanu’. I think if you do good work, people will remember it for ages.
‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ proved to be another milestone in your career.
Yes! By the time ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ happened, I had already spent four years in the industry. Ismail and I had known each other for a long time. We used to make songs and present them to directors. Two songs from the film, ‘Tadap Tadap Ke’ and ‘Chand Chhupa Baadal Mein’, were already a part of our song bank. In fact, ‘Tadap Tadap Ke’ was finalized for another film which eventually got shelved. It was the first song Sanjay Leela Bhansali heard from us. He loved it and we got the film because of that song. Sanjay is a very musical director and he was deeply involved with the music of the film. Now, of course, he scores the music of his films himself. He is also one of those filmmakers who appreciates good poetry.
Ismail Darbar and you used to know each other since the time he was working as a session violinist for different composers and you were trying to become a screenwriter in the Hindi film industry. He would give you the freedom to write the verses first and then, he would set a tune to them. What is the kind of working relationship you shared with him?
As you rightly pointed out, we had known each other from our struggling days. Back in the day, I had written a script in which there was a situation for a song. Though scriptwriters are not required to write songs, I wrote a few lines there to explain the situation. When Ismail heard those lines, he was very happy and said, “this is poetry!”. When we met three years later, he told me established lyricists don’t oblige him when he requests them to write lyrics for his tunes. They would tell him to come to them after he signs a film. Since we were friends, I offered to write songs for him to help him out. We used to spend 10-12 hours together every day making songs and struggled for almost a decade before getting a breakthrough in the industry.
Did A R Rahman also ask you to write the lyrics first? What was his approach like?
No, Rahman always makes the tunes first. When he started out, he didn’t know Hindi at all. He used to give me the tune and I would write the lyrics. Though ‘Bombay’ released first, my first film with him was ‘Rangeela’. Since Ramu (Ram Gopal Verma) ji and I were in touch since ‘Drohi’, he offered me ‘Rangeela’. While working on ‘Rangeela’, Rahman and I developed such a good working relationship that he asked me to write the lyrics for the Hindi dubbed version of ‘Bombay’. One of the things that I love about Rahman is that he is a very flexible person. Sometimes, I would ask him to change a word at the last minute but he would never mind that. He is always open to feedback. There is a song called ‘Gulla Gulla’/’Kuch Bhi Na Socho’ in ‘Bombay. The recording of the song was in progress and I suddenly felt that a few words need to be changed. When I told this to Rahman, he was fine with the idea and just asked me to check with Mani sir. I spoke to Mani sir and he simply said, “whatever you want, do it.” Rahman is always very relaxed and that also makes you feel at ease. Sometimes, when we would not able to crack a song, we would just start chatting about random things or we would go out and have some food. Apart from being a great composer, he is also an extraordinary human being.
You had worked with Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy on the iconic song ‘School Chale Hum’. It was a song sponsored by the Government and was a part of its initiative to promote literacy. How was the experience of working on this song?
The song was for a noble cause and I was humbled to get the opportunity to be a part of this initiative. Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji was the Prime Minister of our country then. Somebody from his team had approached filmmaker Bharath Bala for this project. Bharath had directed several music videos in the past including ‘Vande Mataram’ which I had written. Since we had worked very well in the past, he approached me to write the song. I wrote the lyrics first and then, Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy composed a melody around it. The song received a lot of love from the listeners and Vajpayee ji praised it too.
Most of the songs that you wrote went on to become huge hits but there are some underrated albums as well. For instance, a lesser-known film like ‘Desh Devi’ had some of your finest poetry.
Yes, that film had some wonderful songs. Milind Ukey, the director of the film, was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s assistant. He insisted that I write songs that have a lot of poetic depth to them. The thing is that when you write for a film, you must get good situations. The film had an interesting script and there was enough scope for multiple songs to be incorporated in it.
Do you feel the success of a film is important for its songs to do well?
To be very honest, the success of a film does help in the songs becoming popular. At the end of the day, music is one of the many elements of a film. If a film does well, everybody associated with it benefits from it. Having said that, there have been many instances when a film of mine didn’t work but the songs became big. ‘Dil Hi Dil Mein’ was not a very successful film but its songs became very popular.
Your name has always been associated as somebody who writes rich poetry. These days, a lot of people say that the youngsters don’t understand seemingly difficult words and therefore, such phrases should be avoided in film songs. Would you still write phrases like “teekhe teekhe nayan naqsh tere, kaliyon se komal honth tere” (‘Ae Nazneen Suno Na’ – ‘Dil Hi Dil Mein’) or “aasmaan pe thodi der ko hi apne rang dikhaati woh dhanak hai, usko shaayad aisa hi lage hai saare rangon pe uska haq hai” (‘Jhoomti Ghataon Mein’ – ‘Shakti The Power’) today or prefer using simpler words?
I think we tend to underestimate the intelligence of the audience. When people like a piece of poetry, they try to find its meaning. Good poetry is always appreciated by people. There is a line in ‘Tadap Tadap’ which goes “kabhi hai milan, kabhi hai furqat, hai yahi kya woh mohabbat….”. A fan, who was not too well-versed with Urdu, once asked me whether ‘furqat’ means ‘judaai’. I said yes and asked him how did he figure it out. He said since ‘milan’ came first in the line, ‘furqat’ would have meant ‘judaai’. If we write good poetry, a lot of people would be inspired to learn or understand it better. I am grateful to my producers for always giving me the freedom to write what I wanted to. Every writer has an individualistic style and he must stick to it. While working on a song for ‘Heropanti 2’, Ahmed told me, “Mehboob bhai, idhar woh Mehboob waala touch nahin aa raha hai”. I laughed and reworked on the song. His statement implied that he associated a certain writing style with me. I feel good that they recognize me for my individual style. Also, one has to keep in mind the situation and character while writing the song. Initially, for ‘Kya Kare Kya Na Kare’ (‘Rangeela’), I had written poetic lines like “Suraj se main aankhein mila lun…..”. We recorded the song in Chennai and came back to Mumbai. Suddenly, Ramu ji called me and said, we will have to change the lyrics. He explained to me that Munna (Aamir Khan) is a tapori and therefore, would not say or sing such heavy lines. I agreed with him. The next day, I was on a flight to Chennai to rewrite the antara. By the time I landed in Chennai, I had written the lines “roz roz hum sochta yahi, aaj humko agar woh mil jaaye kahin, toh aisa bolega saala waisa bolega…..”. People who listen to Hindi film music are craving for good poetry.
You have several non-film albums to your credit like ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’, ‘Humsafar’, ‘Kal Raat’, ‘Piya Basanti….Again’. Do you think a lyricist or a composer gets more freedom while working in this space?
Yes, definitely! The non-film music space is also known as the independent music space and the name itself suggests freedom. You are not bound by any particular situation in the script or what the director wants. An album belongs to the artiste and is a result of his vision. For instance, when KK decided to come up with an album for the first time and asked him to write lyrics for it, I requested him to sit with me for eight days, so that we could work on the project together. It was the first time I was working on an independent album and I needed some time to absorb this new process. KK and I would decide the topic for each song and then, make the songs. When it comes to a non-film album, the creators of the songs get the freedom to decide the thought or the idea on which a particular song will be based. In ‘Chanda Suraj Laakhon Taare’ (‘Gurus of Peace’), we spoke about how borders divide human beings. In ‘Only You’ (‘Vande Mataram’), I wrote about the relationship humans share with God.
When we think of all the famous lyricists in Hindi cinema, we realize most of them were poets who came from the northern part of the country. You, meanwhile, grew up in Mumbai. Did you have enough access to poetry and literature? How did you get to hone your skills as a poet or a lyricist while living in a metropolitan city like Mumbai?
This is a very good question! Nobody has ever asked this to me. My forefathers are from Nasik and we are Maharashtrians. I was born in Mumbai and we lived all our lives in Bandra, a suburb in Mumbai. Initially, I was studying in a Convent school. My father asked me to study in an Urdu medium school so that I could learn Urdu better. That actually proved to be a turning point for me. In that school, we learnt to read Quran from a very young age. I also got to read the works of great poets like Ghalib, Iqbal, Meer and many others. I was very fascinated by their poetry. There was a lot of emphasis on poetry and prose in our curriculum in school. As a child, my father had encouraged me to learn Arabic, so that I could read the Quran. That also helped me as a writer. When I reached 7th standard, I had a good grasp over these languages and I started reading couplets. One day, I wrote a nazm, shared it with my sister and asked her to show it to her teacher in school. When her teacher read the nazm, she asked, “who has written this?”. My sister feigned ignorance and told the teacher she found it lying somewhere. The teacher then said, “it must be written either by Ghalib or by Iqbal”. When my sister informed me about this, my happiness knew no bounds. I started writing more seriously and read up a lot of books to keep improving my vocabulary and knowledge. I will always be grateful to my father for buying books from me. His office was in South Mumbai. He would often get me books from there.
Your daughter Sana Kotwal made her debut as a composer with the film ‘Lashtam Pashtam’. Are you guiding her in her career?
I feel I can guide her only till a certain extent as I am not a composer. She used to see me doing music sittings at home. Rahman used to come here many times and would play his tunes on the keyboard. I guess all that left a huge impression on her. She was very young when she asked me to get her a keyboard. When I asked her why does she want a keyboard, she said she wanted to become a composer. I was quite surprised to hear that but I did buy her a keyboard. One day, she composed a tune on her own. I made AR listen to the tune. He heard it and asked me to get Sana to Chennai. She had composed 4-5 tunes by then. Rahman heard those tunes, took me out of the room and said, “if you ever stop her from pursuing her dreams, I am going to kill you” (laughs). For AR, Sana has always been his daughter and he has always been very encouraging of her dreams. I enrolled her in Trinity College of London where she learnt to play the piano, drums and the violin. When she became a little older, Rahman took her to his shows as a backup vocalist and after a while, she started singing as one of the main vocalists. She has a couple of projects lined up which will come out soon. She is a very hard-working girl and I am very proud of her.
You suffered from multiple slip disc in mid 2000s which implored you to take a break from professional life. How did you overcome it?
When doctors told me, I was suffering from this issue, I got shaken up. Even now, when I think of the pain I endured back then, I get a shiver down my spine. My condition was so bad that sometimes my body would become numb while I would be washing my hands in the basin. I was advised not to travel and I decided to take a break from work. Because of taking this break from professional life, I got adequate time to take rest and recuperate from this condition. I did a lot of physiotherapy sessions and that helped a lot. I spent much of my time reading books. Internet was becoming bigger at that time and I discovered a lot of good material while surfing through the net. I also wrote many scripts during this time.
You used to manage your father’s fish and birds shop in Bandra for a very long time. Is it still functional?
Yes, but I am not involved with it at the moment. My brother is managing it now.
The last full-fledged album you worked on with A R Rahman was ‘Yuva’. You also wrote a song (‘Aye Jawan’) for ‘Kochadaiiyaan’. How does it feel to get back to working with him with ‘Heropanti 2’?
AR and I had actually started working on a film in 2014. We had even recorded four songs for it. The director then wanted to revise the script. The film didn’t take off then but if it does in the near future, we will continue working on it together. As far as ‘Heropanti 2’ is concerned, we are trying our best to present a well-packaged album to the audience. Because of the Covid-19 situation, we had a lot of discussions on video calls. They resumed shooting the film a while back and it is shaping up very well.
Do you think it’s challenging to find situations for a song in an action film?
The writer and the director take care of that part. The situations are mostly locked before the composer and the lyricist start working on the film. Ahmed has an advantage of being both a director and a choreographer. He knows what to shoot as a director and as a choreographer, he has a very good understanding of rhythm and beats.
The Indian Performing Right Society Ltd (IPRS) recently carried out a campaign called ‘Credit De Do Yaar’. Most music streaming companies do not mention the lyricist’s name in the credits. Through this campaign, they tried to raise awareness about this issue. What are your thoughts on this?
It is a wonderful initiative and I support it completely. The name of the lyricist should definitely be mentioned wherever the song is being played. You cannot imagine a song without words. Making music is a team effort and everybody who contributes towards the creation of a song should get his or her due credit.