CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE LYRICAL KIND.
There is a magic to Hindi film lyrics. Over the years all human wisdom has been expressed in Hindi film songs in one way or another. Often the most complex of thoughts in the simplest words. Whenever I’m stuck for an advertising baseline for a brand, I sift through the treasure trove of movie lyrics and I invariably find what I’m looking for. Some lyricist or other has expressed it years back, better than I would ever be able to. As a consequence I’m a huge admirer of lyricists. And luckily, because of the nature of my job, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting, and working with, a few of them.
Years back I worked on a commercial for Sprite. The client was the redoubtable Idi Srinivas Murthy from Coke. He had just come on the business and the first film we had done for him as a client was a turkey of biblical proportions. It was so bad that he had written it off as a bad dream and refused to air it. We as an agency were feeling miserable and were desperate to give him a hit. Consequently the pressure on us to get this one right was immense. We were working with Nomad films with the mercurial Lloyd Baptista as the director. We shot the film in Kuala Lumpur and descended in Mumbai for the post production. The film had turned out quite well visually we thought, but it was missing something. In discussions with Krishna Mani, the creative director on the job, I decided that it needed a jingle. We hadn’t discussed a jingle at the pre production meeting with Srini, but I was younger and a lot more rash then, and decided to go ahead and record one anyway. I wrote the jingle myself but somehow, try as I might, I just couldn’t. seem to get the. tone right. Finally, in exasperation I spoke to Amitabh Bhattacharya the producer and he said he would get me a lyricist to work with. We hadn’t budgeted for the lyricist’s fees. So obviously it couldn’t be someone famous.
The next day we were at Prime Focus, the post studio, and Amitabh called me out of the edit suite. He said the lyricist was waiting in the reception. I walked out and was introduced to a slight, studious looking young man. As a brief I made him read the jingle I had written. He read it quietly and said ‘yeh toh bahut accha hai. Iska main kya karoon?’. I felt flattered and disappointed at the same time. If he felt my attempt was so good would he be able to do better? Finally I told him about the tonality I was looking for and the kind of words he needed to use. He nodded and said he would start work right away. And he meant right away. Because he finished writing it in the reception of Prime Focus in 15 minutes flat. When he presented the jingle to me I was blown away. He had lifted the quality to another level. He had captured every bit of the brief I had given him and come up with a piece of lyricist’s art. I was so thrilled I hugged him. ‘Who are you man?’ I asked him. ‘Where did you learn to write like that? And why haven’t I heard of you?’
‘Main struggler hoon sir’ he said. ‘I have come from Lucknow to try my luck as a singer and lyricist.’
It turned out that the young lad’s name was also, confusingly enough, Amitabh Bhattacharya. As everyone knows he went on to great things after that, churning out hit after Bollywood hit and winning every lyricist’s award there is to win.
The Sprite film, incidentally was a smash. Srini, great client that he was, loved the soundtrack that he hadn’t approved.
Many years later I boasted to some friends that the great Amitabh Bhattacharya had loved a jingle I had written and had said that he couldn’t improve on it.
‘But he did, didn’t he?’ quipped one of my particularly irritating buddies.
‘And he is from Lucknow. He was just being polite.’
Just before the afore mentioned Sprite film I had shot a Limca film in Bangkok with the brilliant Shashank ‘Bob’ Chaturvedi. The lead pair in the film were Sushama Reddy and Niketan Madhok. It is one of the biggest hits of my career. Bob’s superb direction, the great chemistry between the lead pair and Anand’s lilting music made it wonderful. But Swanand Kirkire’s sublime lyrics lifted it further and made it great.
I met Swanand for the first time for Limca and have worked with him several times since then. A man blessed with transcendent talent, he is the creative person’s creative person. Emotional, sensitive and blessed with a singing voice that makes women go weak at the knees Swanand is a true great in the tradition of Shailendra, Sahir and Anand Bakshi. My greatest memory of Swanand is drinking whisky with him in my Taj Land’s End room with a few colleagues. What an evening it was. As the level in the bottle of Chivas dropped, the energy and emotion in the room grew. Finally Swanand sang ‘Baawra Mann’ for us, his powerful voice reducing us to awed, goosebumpy silence and himself to tears with the emotion of his own rendition.
Whenever i have a bad day at office or am feeling low, I remember that evening and remind myself how blessed I am to be doing what I do for a living.
A few years before this magical evening, in the autumn of 2006 I and my art partner then, Sudip Bandyopadhyay joined McCann in Mumbai for an immensely forgettable seven months or so. While McCann was, and is, a fine agency somehow it wasn’t working for us. We didn’t. have exciting brands to work on and after three months or so we didn’t see much hope of progress. Sudip by then had decided to quit agency life altogether and become a full time ad film director. Now we were both staying in Bandra those days as was Prasoon Joshi, the legendary Big Boss at McCann and famous part time Bollywood lyricist . Seeing as we were new to Mumbai, Prasoon would very kindly give us a lift home in his car every evening. One day on the ride home, Sudip decided to tell Prasoon that he was moving on as he had had enough of advertising. Prasoon was taken aback as it had hardly been a couple of months since we had joined. He advised Sudip not to take a step in haste but slowly subsided when he realised that his mind was made up. ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘let’s talk tomorrow on our way to the client meeting.’
The next day was a pitch for Onida, the television and white goods brand. Sudip was unwell so he couldn’t make it. And I rode in the car with Prasoon to the pitch meeting. By now Prasoon had thought about Sudip’s resignation. all night and whipped himself into a frenzy of rage. ‘This is most unprofessional’ he thundered. ‘You guys used McCann and me to shift to Mumbai, just so Sudip could get a foothold before he started making films. It’s all pre planned!’ I protested that this was not true. This was a spontaneous decision since anyway Sudip never thought more than five minutes ahead. Prasoon was totally unmoved by all my protestations of innocence and accused us of hatching increasingly heinous plots. ‘We paid for your hotel stay for two months,’ he screamed, ‘we paid for washing your chaddis!’ Finally it got to a point that I was about to lose my patience and scream back at him. Just then we stopped at a traffic light and an auto rickshaw pulled up alongside. The auto’s music system was belting out the song. ‘Chaand Sifarish’ from the film Fanaa, for which Prasoon had written the lyrics. Suddenly the furious Chairman of the company went silent and the child like creative person emerged. The layers of corporate bullshit sloughed off in an instant and the pure lyricist shone through. A smile began playing on his lips as he sang softly along, totally enamoured of his own creation. My heart went out to him then. A fellow creative person enraptured and intoxicated by his own sublime talent. The car pulled away from the auto and Prasoon was silent till the last strains of the song were drowned out by the noise of traffic. He turned back to continue the rant. But his heart wasn’t in the confrontation anymore having just been touched by magic. And neither was mine.
I quit McCann Mumbai and eventually found my way home to Ogilvy in Delhi. We pitched for and won the HDFC home loans account and the client briefed us on a film. After much backing and forthing we finally agreed on a script, which needed, you guessed it, a jingle. The client insisted that we spare no expense and so it was decided that we would get Gulzar Saab to write the lyrics. I was very excited as I was a huge fan and had never met Gulzar before, except a chance encounter in an aircraft where I had, tongue-tied, handed him my boarding pass in order to secure an autograph.
I had briefed Gulzar Saab on the phone and on the appointed day myself, Krishna Mani and the client landed up at Boskyana, Gulzar’s Pali Hill bungalow. The man himself greeted us dressed, as always, in a crisp white kurta-pyjama. He hospitably offered us a cup of tea and immediately got down to business. In that velvety voice of his he presented the jingle he had written. It was beautifully written of course, but to my horror completely off brief. How does one tell the Great Gulzar that he has to rework?
The client was totally unwilling so the horrendous task fell upon my shoulders. As tactfully as possible I told him that we were looking for something else. The man was furious. ‘Yaani yeh dobaara likhna padega?’ He asked me, incredulously. ‘Ji Sir,’ I said hanging my head like a penitent schoolboy. I told him we wanted something like the jingle he had written for a financial company. He refused to acknowledge that he had written it. Although I knew for certain that he had. He was ageing and had completely forgotten about it. ‘Maine nahin likha,’ he maintained stubbornly, ‘aap ussi shayar ko le lijiye jisne woh likha hai.’ Finally after much ego massage he agreed to rewrite the jingle. The client finally piped up, ‘We already have your original jingle. And after you’ve written the new version we can take a call on which one to run with.’ Gulzar Saab turned like an ageing lion ‘No!’ He thundered. ‘You choose ONE. If you make me write another I will no longer allow you to use the first one!’ The client embarrassedly back tracked and said ‘Hanji Sirji. Of course of course. Jaise aap theek samjhein’.
That encounter with Gulzar taught me two things. One, how a creative person should attach a high value to his creations. And two, that age finally gets the better of all of us.
So looking back over the years:
I’ve been praised by Amitabh Bhattacharya,
Got drunk with Swanand Kirkire.
Been hired by Prasoon Joshi.
And fired by Gulzar.
All in all, not a bad lifetime of reflected glory.