Home » Interviews » “There are very few original voices in the music industry today” – Raj Shekhar

Whenever you see the name Raj Shekhar mentioned on the credit titles of a Hindi film soundtrack, you expect rich and quality poetry. The young lyricist burst on the scene with ‘Tanu Weds Manu’, a film whose music continues to be popular till date. In the last one decade, Raj Shekhar has written memorable songs for films like ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’, ‘Hichki’, ‘Qarib Qarib Singlle’, ‘Veere Di Wedding’, ‘Tumbbad’, ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ and ‘Saand Ki Aankh’, among others. At the moment, Raj is in news for his work as a lyricist on the incredible soundtrack of the Netflix original film ‘Meenakshi Sundareshwar’, produced by Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment. 

In this interview, he talks about the process of writing the songs for ‘Meenakshi Sundareshwar’, completing a decade in the film industry, the importance of true to the script of a film, deterioration in the quality of lyrics in Hindi cinema, underrated songs, upcoming projects and more.

What are the challenges involved in writing for a Hindi film with Tamil characters? While music director Justin Prabhakaran used instruments like santoor, shehnai and veena, to bring a sense of ethnicity to the soundtrack, you used Tamil words like ‘Kanmani’ in a few places.

What’s wonderful about ‘Meenakshi Sundareshwar’ is that the characters were portrayed authentically and not in a stereotypical manner. I have always believed that the language of the songs should be similar to that of the film. I always read the script and try to understand the way the characters are speaking and the milieu the film is set in. The song that I worked on for ‘Tumbbad’, for instance, was written in chaste Hindi. Yogi (Irrfan) in ‘Qareeb Qareeb Singlle’ was a shaayar, so the song (“Jaane De”) had to reflect that. Director Vivek Soni wanted a flavour of Tamil Nadu in the songs. Justin Prabhakaran is from Tamil Nadu and the tunes he would send me would have some Tamil words used as dummy lyrics. A lot of words in Tamil end with “aa”. Some Tamilians say English words in a similar manner. ‘Left’ becomes ‘leftaa’ and ‘right’ becomes ‘rightaa’. Therefore, I used words like ‘tragedyaa’ in the song ‘Tittar Bittar’. We played around with different syllables. I love the sound of the word ‘Kanmani’. It means beloved. ‘Suno Kanmani’ translates to to ‘listen, my love.’ Those who have heard the album must have noticed that a few words like “jugnu jugnu”, “resham resham”, “reza reza”, “tittar tittar”, “aawara aawara” have been used repeatedly.  The film is about a couple, so using certain words as a pair also served the theme of the film well.  

‘Tu Yahin Hai’ was the first song to be released from the film. The song has an inherent sweetness to it. How was the process of writing it?

That song depicts the emotions of the couple who are in a long-distance marriage. Once, I was in a long-distance relationship myself, so some of the lines I wrote were based on my experiences. The antara is actually about the kind of conversation our parents have with each other. Unlike the way we show in films, a married couple does not talk about romantic things all the time. I have observed my parents very closely over the years. They talk about mundane things like getting grocery from the store and whether their son, who is living miles away from each other, has recovered from his fever. The lines “humein subah se iska intezaar hai, ki jaldi jaldi sham ho, ki poore din ke kisse hum batayenge tasaliyon se raat ko….” depict the emotions of a regular couple.  

‘Vaada Machaney’ was such an interestingly written song. How was the process of writing this song?

There are many people working in IT industries who want to do some creative work in their free time. Somebody wants to draw and there are some who want to try their hand at poetry. According to me, coding is as poetic as writing a song. Engineers are not less creative in any way. That’s the reason I wrote the lines “hum kar toh rahe shaayari par bhasha apni binary”.

You said you write songs keeping the story and characters in mind but there might be times when you are required to succumb to the demands of the music label or the producer. You had written Punjabi verses for a song titled ‘Ki Honda Pyaar’ for ‘Jabariya Jodi’, a film which was set in Bihar. 

‘Ki Honda Pyaar’ was made for another project. Vishal (Mishra; composer) played this song to producer Shaailesh R Singh on some occasion and he really liked it. He wanted to use this song in ‘Jabariya Jodi’. I was not very supportive of the idea as the film was set in Bihar and the song had Punjabi lyrics. Having said that, I am happy the song reached out to the listeners and they appreciated it. I love the antara of the song which had the lines “koi ishq dilaasa de kar, ek ilm zara sa de de, woh jo mera tha mujhe hi kyon, milta hi nahin….”.

‘Tanu Weds Manu’, your debut film as a lyricist, released ten years ago in 2011. You were assisting director Aanand L Rai on that film and had made a list of lyricists who would have been approached for the film. You wrote dummy lyrics for a couple of songs and Aanand liked them so much that he gave you the responsibility to write the songs for the film. How do you look back at that film?

‘Tanu Weds Manu’ will always remain a special film to me. I had no plans of becoming a lyricist but became one because of this film. The entire credit for me writing the lyrics for the film goes to Aanand L Rai and Himanshu Sharma. The first two songs that I wrote were “Manu Bhaiya” and “Rangrez”. I made a lot of friends and many professional associations, too, happened through the film. Almost every single day, I get messages on social media about ‘Tanu Weds Manu’. If an album keeps getting love ten years since it was released, then it shows we did something right. It makes me believe that I can work according to my standards without making any compromise.  

It is often said that a successful project in the industry leads to more work. The music of ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ was very popular and the film was a hit but after that you disappeared for four years. During this time, you had just one released song (“Enne Unne” – ‘Issaq’). Why did this happen?

Till date, even I don’t know why that happened. I was on cloud nine after the success of ‘Tanu Weds Manu’. People around me told me that I will get multiple awards for my songs. I had started losing weight in order to look good when I go to an award function to pick my award (laughs). Forget awards, I didn’t even get a single nomination. Krsna won the Filmfare RD Burman award for the film but for some reason, the award functions didn’t even acknowledge my contribution. In hindsight, I am glad that I didn’t get awards then. As Irshad bhai has written, “rang birange vehmon mein main udta phiroon” (“Phir Se Ud Chala” – ‘Rockstar’). Had I got a lot of attention and fame then, I might have got carried away. It’s not that I resent awards. If I get one, I will be happy but if they don’t come my way, I would have no remorse either.  

But why, do you think, good offers didn’t come your way?

I remember Aanand ji telling me that “tumhare gaane screenplay mein gaddhon ko bharne mein kaam aate hain par ek item ki tarah chamak ke nahin aate” (“your songs fill up the gaps in the screenplay but they don’t adhere to popular notions of how a commercial song ought to be”). I did write for some films after ‘Tanu Weds Manu’. Some got shelved and a few of them never released. Also, there was another problem. When you struggle as a lyricist, you know how the system works. You go to music directors or labels to ask for work. Since I had not planned on becoming a lyricist, I had no idea how one should seek work. I thought a lot of people would approach me themselves because of my work in ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ but that didn’t happen. On one hand, I was getting a lot of praise for my work and on the other hand, I was in a financial crisis. Thankfully, I got the opportunity to write dialogues for a few TV shows like ‘Saavdhan India’ and that helped me run my kitchen. I will be always be grateful to TV as it helped me sustain myself in Mumbai during that phase.

You have said in an interview that you draw inspiration from real-life incidents but you had to face a challenge while writing “Madamji Go Easy” from ‘Hichki’. You had no reference for the song and ended up writing more than 50 drafts for it.

Kuch gaane hote hain jo pareshaan kare hain, yeh aisa hi ek gaana tha (Certain songs trouble you a lot. This was one such song). The hook was difficult to crack. Both the songs that I wrote for ‘Hichki’ took a lot of time to write. In a way, ‘Hichki’ has been my most challenging project as a lyrics writer till date. There was a time when I became so frustrated while writing the song that I asked the team to find someone else.

You are from Bihar and have done a Bachelor’s in Hindi from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. While one expects you to have a good command over Hindi, you have also written songs in Haryanvi (“Ghani Bawri”) and Punjabi (“Ki Honda Pyaar”) as well. Is a Hindi film lyricist expected to have a command over multiple languages?

I always keep my eyes and ears open. I have always had an inclination towards understanding different cultures and language. Whether you are from Rajasthan or Kerala, you have the same heart. Symbols and metaphors might differ but the intent and the intensity of the emotions remain the same. When I was living in the hostel in Delhi University, I had many friends who were from Haryana. ‘Ghani Bawri’ doesn’t have a lot of difficult words. ‘Ki Honda Pyaar’ had dilli-waali Punjabi, so I could manage. If I need some help with a language while writing a song, I reach out to friends. If you are a lyricist, you never know the kind of characters you will get tomorrow. We cannot learn all the languages but we can keep our eyes and ears open. Also, you should be well-aware of your strengths and limitations. A while back, I was offered to write the lyrics of a film that was set in rural Punjab. I politely declined the offer stating that I would not be able to do justice to it. As a lyricist, I don’t work for music directors. I work with them. It’s a collaborative process. I work for a script and the characters in it.  

Udne lage hain hum jaane kiske sang sang, indradhanush pe hain ab naye naye rang…..” (‘Bulbula’) – these lines written by you describes the emotions of the eight year old protagonist Hemu (Karan Dave) in ‘Meri Nimmo’. The quirky ‘Old School Girl’ in ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’ served as an introduction to Datto (Kangana Ranaut). You are one of the few lyricists who write songs that take the narrative of the film forward. What do you to do understand the world of the film you work on?

After I sign a film, I make it a point to read its script. I make a lot of notes while going through the screenplay. I believe in being in a collaborative space. I am a script’s lyricist. Non-film singles or music videos that don’t have much of a story arc do not inspire me much. I always seek good collaborators. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t do a lot of films. Now, I have decided not to do multi-composer/multiple lyricist films. You can’t give your hundred per cent to such a film. I believe I can make a significant contribution to the script of a film too. For instance, while reading a script, I can find some spots where a music piece or a song can be included.

There has been a deterioration in the quality of lyrics in Hindi film music. Several factors like music directors, who don’t even have a decent command over Hindi, writing lyrics and individuals, who are not very well-read, being given the responsibility to write songs, have contributed to this. What are your thoughts on this?

There has, definitely, been a deterioration in lyrical quality. There are very few original voices in the music industry today. There are very few people whose work I look forward to. Gulzar saab and Javed saab are, of course legends and one always looks forward to hearing songs written by them. Among my contemporaries, I really admire Irshad Kamil and Amitabh Bhattacharya. They have done quality work consistently. I love Varun Grover’s work but he doesn’t write songs very often. One comes across grammatical mistakes in every other song these days. I don’t have a problem with music directors writing lyrics but the thing is that they are setting a wrong precedent by writing verses that don’t have any depth to them. When poorly written songs become popular, most songs will be devoid of thoughtful and original poetry in the future as well. If you want to write, you must work very hard at honing your skills. You must read the masters. I am not asking anybody to be a purist but one needs to be responsible. Whenever I feel sad, I listen to “Main Zindagi Ka Saath” (‘Hum Dono’) to make myself feel better. You have to ask yourself whether you are writing something that is creating an impact.

“O Saathi Mere” from ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ is one of my favourite songs written by you. The song had a difficult meter and it took a while for you write it.

It’s always a delight to work with Sonu (Nigam) ji. Recently, I worked with him on the song “Sheher” that was made for Unacademy Unwind with MTV. Even today, he tells me “O Saathi Mere” is one of his best songs. It took me a lot of time to write that song. Krsna had made a beautiful tune. The late Pritesh Mehta was the music producer on both ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ and ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’. Musically, this song had a divine and sublime feel to it. It was difficult to match that level. It was a romantic song with a prayer-like feel to it. I didn’t want to write something that wouldn’t do justice to how it sounded musically. Though the song couldn’t be used in ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’, Aanand ji has assured me that he will use it in some film someday.

“Jaane De” from ‘Qarib Qarib Singlle’ is another favourite.

It was a very easy song to write. It is a special song for many reasons. While working on this song, we got to spend some time with Irrfan sir. The song was made very quickly. The tune composed by Vishal was highly evocative. Yogi was a shaayar but also a harfan maula at the same time, so I tried to write something which would bring both these aspects of his personality to the fore.

An interesting incident happened during the recording of the song. Atif Aslam prefers his songs written in Urdu and you had written the song in Devnagri script.

Yes, it was quite funny. I write in Devnagri script. I was not aware of that Atif couldn’t read Devnagri. As soon as I got to know of this, I started writing the song in Roman English. I was halfway through the process of writing the song in Roman when Atif arrived in the studio. I gave him the mukhda and told him that I will finish writing the antara in a minute. After a while, Atif asked can he write it in Urdu. He had started rehearsing, so his brother wrote the song in Urdu for him. Many singers in Mumbai prefer lyrics being written in Roman English and given to them. Somebody like Sonu Nigam, however, prefers lyrics in Devnagri script. The same goes for Shreya Ghoshal and Rekha Bhardwaj.  

Last year, a film called ‘Bamfaad’ released on an OTT platform. It had an incredible soundtrack. The music was composed by Vishal Mishra and you had written the lyrics. Strangely, the music label never released the complete soundtrack. Then, there was ‘Meri Nimmo’ which had good songs but the album was not promoted well and therefore, went unnoticed. Do such experiences leave you disappointed?

In this long journey of life, one is bound to face disappointments in one’s personal and professional life. One can just try to create better material. Hope and honesty are two things I have always believed in. I hope to do better and be honest with my work. Every song that gets made should at least get a fair chance to reach out to the audience. Sometimes, it takes a month to make one film. If a hundred people have worked on a song, you are disregarding each of them by not releasing the song. I had written a song for the SonyLIV web series ‘Kathmandu Connection’ which never released. It was a beautiful melody composed by Sneha Khanwalkar. These things do make you feel sad but I can only do things which I have some control on.

Out of all the songs that you have written, which is the one that is the closest to your heart?

“Rangrez” is very close to my heart as it was the first film song I wrote. “O Saathi Mere” is also very special as a lot of hard work had gone into making it but it did not reach out to a large number of people because of not being there in the film.

You had come to Mumbai with the hope of becoming a filmmaker. When do you plan to direct a film?

If I don’t get good songs to write, I will have to direct a film (laughs). I am working on 6-7 films as a lyricist. I have not written any script as yet. I am enjoying my journey as a lyricist at the moment. If I make my own film, I will not write the songs myself. I would request Gulzar saab to write the songs.

Which are the projects you are working on at the moment?

I have written songs for ‘Good Luck Jerry’ which has been produced by Aanand ji and features Janhvi Kapoor in the lead role. A bunch of other films are slated to release between 2022-23 but I am not at the liberty to talk about them at the moment.

Are you interested in writing scripts?

I would like to write dialogues for films. Writing a script is far more difficult than writing a song. It can get very lonely at times. I might write a script someday but there are no plans to do so in the immediate future.

What is that one thing that Madhepura, your hometown in Bihar, has taught you and has stayed with you?

Mujhe Madhepura ke khet bahut pasand hain (I love the open fields of Madhepura). My father is a farmer. So is my brother. We are from agricultural background. Farmers have always inspired me a lot. It is also inspiring to see them going through so many challenges and harvesting their crops. I am grateful about the fact I was born in a small town. After living in a village for many years, I migrated to a city. I have seen many different worlds.

Last year, many Hindi film lyricists joined hands for a campaign called ‘Credit De Do Yaar’. Through this campaign, the issue of streaming platforms not mentioning the names of the lyricists in the album listing was highlighted. You had participated in this campaign as well. Do you things have improved in the last one year or so?

‘Credit De Do Yaar’ has been an important initiative. See, we can raise our voice but if somebody doesn’t want to let go of unlawful practices, what can one do. I don’t understand what the issue in giving credits is. Perhaps, some people don’t want lyricists to become brand names. I had a very good experience with ‘Meenakshi Sundareshwar’. I extremely happy with Dharmatic Entertainment and Dharma Productions. They are extremely transparent about credits. My name is there everywhere. Justin made sure that even if a musician played an instrument for a second, he got his due credit. Even while tweeting about the song, he credited everyone associated with it.

On people he has worked with

Aanand L Rai

He always gives me utmost freedom while working on a film. He is like an elder brother to me whose presence I feel protected in.

Asha Bhosle

I feel fortunate to have worked with a legend like her. I never really discuss work with my parents. However, the day “Aasmaa” (‘Saand Ki Aankh’) was recorded, I called them up and told them excitedly that Asha ji has sung a song written by me. I was in tears while sharing this news with them. I thought whenever the song would be played on radio, I would be introduced as the lyricist for a song that has been sung by Asha ji. It was a huge honour for me.

Vishal Mishra

Vishal is a lovable brat and like my younger brother. He is one of the most soulful composers I have worked with.

Ali Abbas Zafar

He is one of my closest friends. We were studying in Delhi University around the same time and he was my roommate in hostel. I am working with him on a very exciting project which should be announced soon.

Krsna

I miss him. We started our journey together. I hope we collaborate on some project soon.

Vishal and Sheykhar

They are extremely talented composers. Unfortunately, I have not been a part of their most successful songs. Hopefully, our next collaboration would prove to be more memorable.

Shashwat Sachdev

He represents the ‘new’. He always comes up with unique ideas and that makes him a wonderful composer to collaborate with.  

Sneha Khanwalkar

She is crazy and innovative. She always surprises you with the kind of compositions she comes up with.

Justin Prabhakaran

He is another ‘me’. He is an extremely down-to-earth person. You can’t help but submit to his honesty and humbleness and do your best as a collaborator. Working with Justin has been one of the most memorable experiences in my professional career.