Interviews ...

“It is the best time to be a lyricist” – Irshad Kamil

Jo bhi main kehna chahun, barbaad karein alfaaz mere…” – Irshad Kamil wrote these lines for ‘Jo Bhi Main’, a song which featured in Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Rockstar’. These are the lines that might pop up in your head when you make an attempt to describe the poet and lyricist. Irshad is working actively as a lyricist in the Hindi film industry. His filmography comprises of several popular titles. He is one of the very few lyricists today who can also be identified as a shaayar or a poet. Recently, Irshad’s songs featured in multiple films which released very close to each other.

In this interview, Irshad talks about his journey as a poet and lyricist, writing the songs for Chamkila, the stories behind some of his memorable songs, upcoming projects and more.

In a span of a few weeks, you had four releases. While ‘Tera Kya Hoga Lovely’ was a social comedy, ‘Woh Bhi Din The’ was a coming-of-age film. ‘Bade Miyan Chote Miyan’ was an action drama and ‘Chamkila’ was a biopic. How do you feel to see your poetry being used in films that are so different from each other?

I feel very happy. All these films were set in different zones. When you work on such different projects, you hope people also take note of it and feel that I have a certain arc and can do a variety of work.  

‘Tera Kya Hoga Lovely’, which had music by Amit Trivedi had a lovely song in the form of ‘Gham Ka Rang’. “Na badhke jaan hi leta hai, naa jeete jee kam hota hai, gham ka rang bhi hota hai, rang ka gham bhi hota hai….”, the lines written by you gave one a glimpse into the sorrow in the protagonist’s heart. In the film, Lovely (Ileana D’Cruz) finds it difficult to get married because of the complexion of her skin.

The song is very close to my heart. I wish it had reached out to a larger number of people. When such songs do not reach out to the listeners, one feels sad.

In ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’, Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra sang the songs originally rendered by Chamkila and his wife Amarjot Kaur. The album, however, largely comprised of songs which made one familiarise with the point-of-view of the audience or the people who used to listen to their music.

‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ was a different genre altogether. Though it was a biopic, its structure and tonality were very different from a film made in this genre. Chamkila was a great singer and composer. The lyrics of his songs also played an important role in him becoming popular. He used to make historical social commentary through his lyrics. Everything was presented in the film in a very realistic manner.

Imtiaz Ali has always had a great sense of music. ‘Socha Na Tha’ (2005) marked Imtiaz’s debut as a director and it was also the first film you had signed as a lyricist. How do you look back at your journey with him?

Imtiaz invests a lot of time in the music-making process. He is also very open to feedback and suggestions. He gives a lot of freedom to his composers and lyricists. When you are working towards achieving a goal, you have to ensure everybody is on the same page. Everybody wants to do their best. You hire somebody because you feel they have expertise on a certain thing. If a director shows confidence in you, you feel motivated to do better.

‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ was set in Punjab. You are from Punjab as well. You were born in a small town in the state called Malerkotla. What did the place teach you?

Whatever I am today, what I was in the past and what I will become is because of Malerkotla. The land has Sufism, colours of Punjabiyat, ganga jamuni tehzeeb, a sense of masti (fun) and rootedness. These are some of the many things I love about Malerkotla. These elements have also become a part of me.

You have written the songs for all the theatrical films directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. Recently, you worked with him on ‘Bade Miyan Chote Miyan’.

I have always had a great time working with Ali. Nowadays, you end up connecting with your collaborators on phone and Zoom. Ali has a very good understanding of melody. He can use a romantic song in a fight sequence and you will find it complementing the sequence so well. Katrina Kaif had a fight sequence in ‘Tera Noor’ in ‘Tiger Zinda Hai’. He is one of those filmmakers who have a great sense of music. More importantly, he knows how to use songs at different points in the film appropriately.

All the songs in ‘Bade Miyan Chote Miyan’ were written by you and composed by Vishal Mishra. You had earlier collaborated him on one song (‘Pehla Pyaar’) for ‘Kabir Singh’.

Yes! This time, we worked on four songs. Now, I understand Vishal a little better as a composer. I really enjoyed working with him. Vishal is a very versatile composer. I hope we collaborate on more films in the future.

You studied at Sanatan Dharm Prem Pracharak High School. After that, you studied journalism at the Panjab University. You have a PhD degree in Hindi. What kind of preparation you went through to become a lyricist?

Aap ke paas sirf do cheezein hoti hain, mohabbat aur aap ka hunar. The more you delve into your craft, the more you grow. Every individual has to find their own path. You have to figure out how you will reach your destination. I get a lot of e-mails from aspiring lyricists. They ask me what they should do become a lyricist. Till date, I don’t know how to move ahead in this journey. If you have the confidence to do something, do it. If you feel you can swim, just jump.

You have a solid command over multiple languages, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. Having a strong hold over certain languages is one of the things aspiring lyricists should do. 

This is a very basic thing. If you want to become the best chef in the world but do not know how to use a frying pan, then you cannot expect things to work out for you. If somebody wants to become a writer or lyricist, they need to have a good command over the language. What is more important is that you should know how to use your vocabulary well. There are many words which have contextual meanings. You should know about them as well.

‘Chameli’ (2003) was the first your first released film as a lyricist. ‘Socha Na Tha’, however, was the first film you had signed and worked on. The film went on the floors sometime in the year 2000 and released in 2005. ‘Yaara Rab’ was the most popular song from the album. ‘Seedhe Saade Dhang Se’, in my opinion, is one of the best proposal songs to have been written and composed in Hindi cinema.

The songs of the film have become more popular over the years. If something is not promoted well, it does not become very popular. With ‘Seedhe Saade’, my goal was to write a simple and straightforward proposal song, “main seedhe saade dhang se kehta hun dil ki baat, ek ghar basana chahta hun main tumhaare saath….”. ‘Chor Bazaari’ from ‘Love Aaj Kal’ was the first song that celebrated a break-up. The first purely Punjabi song in a commercial Hindi film was ‘Mauja Hi Mauja’. Before that, the one song that was written purely in Punjabi was ‘Main Koi Jhooth Boleya’ from ‘Jaagte Raho’.

I don’t know why ‘Socha Na Tha’ took years to be completed and released. When you do your first project, you want it to come out soon. That did not happen but ‘Socha Na Tha’ helped me in my career in several ways. It was the first film I had signed as a lyricist. I got ‘Chameli’ because Sandesh bhai had recommended my name to the makers.

Interestingly, you were not paid for ‘Chameli’. The songs from the film, especially ‘Bhaage Re Man’ and ‘Sajna Ve Sajna’ became very popular.

I got ten thousand rupees for ‘Chameli’. I did not get paid for ‘Shabd’. In the opening credits of ‘Chameli’, I was not credited. My name was mentioned only in the rolling titles. Even if the songs of ‘Chameli’ would not have worked, I would have continued with my struggle. I did not have any other option. If I have burnt all my boats and come to a city of my own free will, I could not have gone back. I had left my job and come to Mumbai. There was no question of heading back home.

In an interview, you stated that you write songs for the public. While writing songs, which are designed to appeal to a large audience, do you have to make some compromises with your craft at times?

When you know about a particular craft and another person does not have any understanding of it, they mock you. This is a very strange thing. Shaayar hona ek hissa hota hai, geetkaar hona doosra hota hai. Every lyricist is not a poet but a poet stands a good chance at becoming a lyricist. Sometimes, a word pops up in your mind which you find interesting. Then, you start making a song around it. Language or vocabulary is a tool. A painter can use a brush to paint. Brush is not a painting. Language is a tool to write songs. I equally enjoy being a poet and a lyricist. When I am a poet, I write songs as per my wish. When I am working as a lyricist, I have to follow a brief, understand the characters, get an idea about the situation and write accordingly. Ultimately, both are writing related works.

While studying at Panjab University, you did a lot of theatre. How was that experience like?

At one point, I was known to be one of the best actors in Chandigarh. I used to act a lot on stage. We did a lot of plays in those days. Some of the notable plays I acted in were ‘Aadhe Adhure’ by Mohan Rakesh and ‘Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya O Jamyai Nai’ by Asghar Wajahat and ‘Hey Wadhan’ by Girish Karnad. In ‘Jis Lahore’, I played the role of poet Nasir Kazmi. The theatre scene in Chandigarh was good.

Did you ever consider acting in films?

I could not gather the confidence to do that. I didn’t want to play insubstantial roles and nobody would have offered me the part of a hero, (Laughs). So, I decided to stick to writing.

Your first job was with an English newspaper, The Tribune, in Chandigarh. One night, when you were working in the office at around 1:30 a.m., you started wondering why you are pursuing journalism. Lekh Tandon came to Chandigarh. Kamal Tiwari, who was the joint director of cultural affairs of Haryana, made the two of you meet. You wrote a few episodes. You worked from Chandigarh for a while and then, one day, you boarded the Pashchim Express and arrived in Mumbai. Over the years, you wrote several shows. In an interview given in the early 2000s, you had stated that “nobody write dailies by choice”.

Television was a different space altogether. I was working with the Indian Express Group when I decided to quit journalism. Lekh ji brought me to Mumbai. That was the time when the weekly to daily shift was happening in television. You had to deliver five episodes a week. After coming to Mumbai, I had to keep working to sustain myself. I would be busy throughout the day. I would be writing eighteen hours every day. It was not a very pleasant situation to be in.

Why did you never write a script for a film?

When you do multiple things, people in the industry tend to get confused. They do not know whether to hire you as a dialogue writer, screenplay writer or a lyricist. In the initial stages, the bias is more when your work has not come out. I decided to stick to being a lyricist. Once you get established, people feel you do not know anything else. I did the story, screenplay and dialogues for several TV shows. After that, I never explored that space.

Don’t you think it is unfair on the industry’s part to stereotype or put labels on people?

I wouldn’t blame the industry. Everybody wants to play safe. If they see you doing something well, they want to give you more of their work. If you write lyrics and one day, you tell them that you write screenplays as well, they might not offer you a script to write immediately as they have not seen your work as a scriptwriter.

Would you like to write a script someday?

I would love to write a script. If a good opportunity comes my way, I would love to take it up.

Aangan mein kheenchi lakeer yahaan, tab bikhre gaye sab yahaan vahaan, koi maa bilkhi toh behen dari, kahin log mare kahin rooh mari, kahin mari mohabbat, dekh toh lo, jab ek aangan ke ho gaye do…”, you wrote these lines for the title track of the TV show ‘Ek Aangan Ke Ho Gaye Do’ which was produced and directed by Lekh Tandon. The title track was composed by Khayyam. Did writing title tracks for TV shows lead you back towards writing songs for films?

I always wanted to be a lyricist. Incidentally, I got the opportunity to write screenplays and dialogues for TV shows. I felt this was a step towards me reaching Mumbai. Without going through any kind of struggle, I got the opportunity to write TV shows. Around that time, I reached out to a few senior music directors but nothing worked out. I realized it would not be easy for me to get a break as a lyricist. TV kept me busy as a writer and enabled me to pay my bills. Then, one fine day, I met Sandesh bhai and that led me to getting my first film as a lyricist. I met Imtiaz through him. Slowly, things started falling into place.

Is it a good time to be a lyricist?

I think it is the best time to be a lyricist. These days, anybody can be anything. You just spoke about how music directors are writing lyrics. When anybody is doing anything, anybody can become a lyricist now (laughs).

Over the years, you have worked with almost every leading music director in the industry. Is there any composer you wish to work with?

I want to keep working with all those music directors, whom I have collaborated with in the past, again and again. Every time I sit with a music director, I am not a lyricist. I am a student. In the hierarchy of the industry, music directors have a higher place than lyricists. I always look forward to learning from them. I thoroughly enjoy the process of creating a song.

A few years back, fifteen lyricists from the industry, including you, joined hands for an initiative titled ‘Credit De Do Yaar’. This initiative was designed to bring one’s attention to the fact that lyricists were not being properly credited for their work. Even now, we see streaming platforms omitting out and radio channels not mentioning the names of the lyricists.

This initiative was launched by Swanand (Kirkire) bhai and Varun (Grover) bhai. All of us should be thankful to them. We must fight for our rights. Ultimately, it is about the name. Getting paid for your work is important. However, getting credit for your work is even more important.

Over the years, you wrote many wonderful songs which did not get their due. ‘Kahaan Hoon Main’ (‘Highway’), ‘O Jaaneman’ (‘Tum Milo toh Sahi’), ‘Main Ro Na Padun’ (‘Hum Phirr Milein Na Milein’), ‘Aawan Akhiyan Jaawan Akhiyaan’ (‘Aahista Aahista’), ‘Haiye Re’ (Ustad & The Divas’), ‘Sune Saaye’ (‘Dear Maaya’) and ‘Yeh Mast Hawa Jo Behti Hai’ (Thodi Life Thoda Magic’) are some of the songs which should have received more attention.  

I feel very sad when good songs do not get enough attention. Sometimes, people ask me which song of mine should have become more popular or reached out to a larger audience. I find it difficult to answer that question. However, I do have a soft corner for songs which did not reach enough people. ‘Hawayein’ (‘Jab Harry Met Sejal’) logon ka gaana ban gaya. Jo gaane logon tak pahunch nahin paaye, who ab bhi mere hain.

When you were just starting out in your career, you wrote a ghazal for the husband-wife duo Rajendra Mehta and Neena Mehta.

Yes, I wrote a ghazal for them which is very close to my heart. I wrote “vo jo bekhauf mohabbat hunar deta hai, haan wahi shaqs bichadne ka bhi darr deta hai…”. Years later, Sandesh bhai composed a fresh tune around it and used it in the film ‘Tum Milo Toh Sahi’ (2010).

You worked quite a bit in the non-film music space as well. You collaborated with Sandesh Shandilya on the album ‘Ustad and The Divas’ which had the very popular song ‘Leja Leja Re’. Recently, you wrote the song ‘Barkha’ which was composed by Arijit Singh and released under his label Oriyon Music.

The first non-film album I wrote was ‘Rabba’. It was composed by Amar Haldipur and sung by Jaspinder Narula. It was released by Times Music. The independent music space in India is growing at a good pace. Wherever there is freedom, there is some confusion as well. These days, mostly singles are being made. 99.9% of these singles are set in a romantic space. The writing of most of these songs is amateur. Sometimes, you fail to understand what the artist is saying.

Back in the day, an album would be put together by a music composer, lyricist and a singer. These days, one person tries to do everything. A lot of such people identify themselves as songwriters.

Yes, they look at the West and try to emulate the trends. Somebody who is a good singer might not have a talent for composing music or writing lyrics.

You founded the poetry band, The Ink Band. The band comprised of members like Prajakta Shukre, Agnel Roman, Ragini Shankar, Ankush Boradkar and Deepanshu Pandit.

The Ink Band was India’s first poetry band. Before the pandemic, we were doing a lot of work. We were performing all across the country. When the lockdown was announced, we had four shows lined up for the next fifteen days. The pandemic changed a lot of things. To get back together, you have to put in a lot of effort, but now I think we should restart it.

Apart from getting two books (one play one poetry) published, you also wrote ‘Kaali Aurat Ka Khwaab’, a book which chronicled the story behind some of the songs written by you.

Writing ‘Kaali Aurat Ka Khwaab’ was a very interesting experience. Till then, nobody had shared the stories behind the songs written by them. I thought those who had heard those songs might be interested to know how they took shape.

A lot of times, producers, directors and music directors urge lyricists to use simple words. ‘Patakha Guddi’ had a lot of words which a lot of people might not understand but they connected to the words and the song became a huge hit. When you were writing ‘Main Rang Sharbaton Ka’, the producer wanted you to change a few lines but Pritam stood by you. Some of the most popular songs released in the last few years had rich poetry. Why do, then, so many people insist on dumbing down things?

If I am not familiar with a word, it doesn’t mean that nobody will understand it. If somebody does not know the meaning of a word but likes the way it sounds, they will Google its meaning. It doesn’t matter whether somebody knows a word or not. The emotion in the word should connect with them. A word that is not a part of your vocabulary would be a part of somebody else’s vocabulary. Sometimes, you take a word and try to weave a thought around it. That’s not a thought. Thought or feeling is the most important thing. A lot of people have not understood the meaning of ‘Kun Faya Kun’ but a large number of people connected with it.

Because of the internet, many songs, which did not get their due upon their release, have become popular now. ‘Saude Baazi’ from ‘Aakrosh’ did not get a lot of attention when it was released but it was trending on social media for a long time.

Just a couple of days back, Pritam and I were talking about this song. It is incredible how nobody heard it when it came out but now everybody is making reels on it.

Out of all the lyricists working in the industry today, whose work do you admire the most?

Taking a few names would be unfair as everybody is doing so well. All of them are my friends and I love their work.

One of the films which will feature songs written by you this year is the Varun Dhawan – Keerthy Suresh – Wamiqa Gabbi starrer ‘Baby John’.

We are still working on ‘Baby John’. A little bit of work is left. When you work with Atlee sir, you understand how a commercial director looks at things. You also grow in the process. I had a great time working with him on ‘Jawaan’. I am doing a film with Aamir Khan Productions called ‘Ek Din’. Junaid Khan and Sunil Pandey. Ram Sampath has done the music for the film. Ram and I tried to collaborate 2-3 times in the past but somehow, it never happened. I feel happy to have finally got the opportunity to work with him. We have almost finished working on the film. I am working with Sachin – Jigar on ‘Ikkis. It has been directed by Sriram Raghavan and features Agastya Nanda and Dharmendra in principal roles. I am working with Rahman sir on the Vicky Kaushal – Rashmika Mandanna starrer ‘Chhaava’.

On collaborators

A. R. Rahman

Rahman sir, for me, is too big a musician. Even though we have worked on many films now, I still look at him in awe. I have a lot of respect for him. He is a school in himself. His thought process and method of working are incredible. Whenever I go to Rahman sir’s studio, I learn something new.

Sandesh Shandilya

Sandesh bhai has been a very close friend. He is one of the most wonderful human beings I have known. He gave me the first break of my life and I can never thank him enough for it. His compositions have a sweetness to them. It is very difficult to compose such sweet melodies.


I share a beautiful friendship with Pritam. When ‘Chameli’ released, he messaged me and asked me when we can meet. At that time, a new outlet of Barista had opened in Lokhandwala. I remember he had an Icon car then. He came near Barista, we sat inside his car and had our first meeting there. I love him equally as a person and a creative mind. We have done a lot of beautiful songs together and hoping to make more beautiful songs in future.

Himesh Reshammiya

‘Aahista Aahista’ was the first film we worked on together. Nine years after that, we collaborated on ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’. When we were doing ‘Aahista Aahista’, he was at the peak of his career as a composer and singer. He was the busiest composer in the industry. The film had some beautiful songs. During ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’, I experienced the joy of being a part of traditional music sittings for the first time. Sooraj ji, his father, Himesh bhai and I used to sit for 5-6 hours and finalize the songs. Recently, we worked on ‘Raksha Bandhan’. His music is very melodious and rooted. He has a pan-India approach.

Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy

When you collaborate with Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy, work happens very fast. Everything happens quickly and smoothly. It is amazing to see three musicians working in sync with each other and creating such wonderful melodies. I worked with them for the first time on ‘We Are Family’. Working with them recently on ‘Dono’ has been one of the best experiences for me.

Vishal and Sheykhar

Their sound is always ‘now’. They understand the pulse of the youth and create the kind of melodies that sound fresh. I remember Vishal (Dadlani) bhai telling me once that ‘Dil Diyan Gallan’ was the first song to hit 1 billion views on YouTube. Both of them are very friendly and relaxed. They are filled with youthful energy and that’s one of the many things I like about them.

On memorable songs

Bhaage Re Mann – Chameli

I was working on the song but we were not able to crack the antaras. Then, one day, Sandesh bhai said that I might lose the opportunity to write this song as I was not managing to crack it. That night, I wrote ten new antaras for the song. Out of those ten antaras, they selected antara.

Tum Se Hi – Jab We Met

When I heard the composition, I recorded it on my Dictaphone. After that, I didn’t say a word and walked out of the studio. For three days, I didn’t take anybody’s call. Imtiaz was frantically looking for me. Even Pritam was worried. They had finalized the date for recording the song. I told them to set up everything and I will meet them directly on the day of the recording. When Mohit was almost behind the mic, I arrived at the studio and handed over the lyrics to them. I gave my veto on the song. I told them that I don’t want a word to be changed. The composition inspired me tremendously.

Jo Bhi Main – Rockstar

During my college days, I had written a ghazal. Usmein beech ka yeh aakhri she’r tha – “tum jaate ho soch bhi meri saath – saath chal deti hai, mere andar baitha main tab aur koi ho jaata hai, in lafzon ke maayne kaamil jaane kaun badalta hai, main kehta hun kuch, matlab kuch aur ho jaata hai”. When I shared this with Imtiaz, he wanted me to simplify it. That led me to writing “jo bhi main kehna chahun barbaad karein alfaaz mere…”

Aahista – Laila Majnu

I love working with people who are just starting out in their careers. I like the experience of being with them when they take their first steps. ‘Socha Na Tha’ was the first film of Imtiaz, Abhay and Ayesha and many others who were associated with it. ‘Laila Majnu’ was Sajid’s (Ali) first released films. The actors were also just starting their journeys. It was also one of the first films on which Niladri Kumar had worked as the music director. Being a little senior to them, I felt I had to work very hard to give them lyrics which they like (laughs). The composition was extremely soothing and I really liked the way Arijit sung it. The entire album has a timeless quality to it.

Ghar – Jab Harry Met Sejal

Yeh feel ka gaana tha. The situation appealed a lot to me. The one thing Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) used to miss the most while staying abroad was his ‘ghar’ or home. The melody was very beautiful. It had a haunting feel to it. I thought if I bring this thought, it would suit the film and melody.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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