Kausar Munir is a fan of overcast skies.
It offers a visual cue to the mood that is often reflected in her poetry. Quiet and understated, gently nudging at the lonely corners of the heart. She feels that the grey skies and accompanying soft drizzle slow down the concept of time, which bodes well for her inherently lazy pace. “I can’t tell you,” she begins, “How much I enjoy being in my space, in my head, in my bed.”
A native of Mumbai, Munir was raised in the Bandra of yore, at a time when imposing glass enclosures selling American apparel and European footwear hadn’t overwhelmed Linking Road. Munir’s grandmother, Salma Siddiqui, was an Urdu writer who was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Her father graduated from FTII, made a documentary, and later became a professor of Film Studies while Munir’s mother worked in hospitality. One of Munir’s two sisters, Rehana is a novelist, whose debut novel Paper Moon was released last year.
“Nobody had to actively encourage me to read but the culture at home was always about poetry and literature,” Munir said over a Zoom call from her home. “As you grow up, you end up absorbing and internalising the ebb and flow of things without anyone having to nudge you in that specific direction.”
Breaking into Hindi, she says, “Kaan badey pakkey hain, sunni sunai par chal rahe hain” (The ears are quite sharp, they’re surviving on hearsay)
As a child studying at Apostolic Carmel Convent in Hill Road, Munir spent several afternoons in the school library, devouring volumes of Enid Blyton and Archie comics and more critically, savouring tales from Amar Chitra Katha, an exercise that’d prove invaluable in familiarising her with Hindu mythology.
Drawn to stories since an early age, studying English Literature at St. Xavier’s seemed like a natural progression in terms of academic learning. Under the tutelage of the legendary writer and teacher Eunice D’Souza, Munir escaped to and discovered the worlds of Tolstoy and Tagore, Amrita Pritam and Virginia Woolf, Sahir Ludhianvi and Jane Austen, writers who’d leave an indelible imprint on her imagination.
“Words as a world were always important. Stories became my favourite escape,” says Munir.
Her first opportunity to write a song came through chance.
After graduating from Xavier’s, Munir worked as a research assistant for a documentary filmmaker, a gig that eventually led her to writing for television. This was the early 2000s, when network television was witnessing a dramatic spike in viewership. TV’s outsized influence would enable Ekta Kapor to make a fortune peddling melodramatic soap operas while Amitabh Bachchan’s declining career would see an unexpected rise with Kaun Banega Crorepati.
Munir was one of the junior writers on the hit show, Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin, where she met Vijay Krishna Acharya, who’d eventually make films such as Tashan, Dhoom 3 and Thugs of Hindostan. It was Viktor, as he’s known in the industry, who asked Munir to write a song for his directorial debut, which resulted in the creation of Falak Tak, her first song as a lyricist.
Whether it’s Pareshaan from Ishaqzaade, a breezy love ballad that captures the tense excitement of new love, or Maana Ke Hum Yaar Nahin (Meri Pyaari Bindu), a tender farewell to a lost romance, or Nachdi Phira (Secret Superstar) a song that conflates love with a deep spiritual experience, or Rehne Do Na (Guilty), about the self-doubt that affects the journey of falling in love after surviving betrayal, Munir’s is an original voice at a time when the Hindi film song faces a credibility crisis.
In a cacophonic mix of remixes and reboots, Munir’s words are a throwback to a time when a song spoke of a character’s inner life, quietly propelling the narrative and infusing it with gravitas instead of rudely interjecting it.
Among other things, they also speak about female desire, reclaiming a space dominated by item numbers (mostly penned by men) and unrefined rhymes masquerading as poetry. Her songs are reminiscent of poetry prevalent in the Hindi cinema of the 50s and 60s: Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh, Lag Jaa Gale, Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hai, songs written by men, but that spoke evocatively about the female experience.
Munir says that she doesn’t believe gender has a role to play in crafting poetry. “It’s about talent, skill and imagination,” she says emphatically, discarding the argument that lived experience is essentially in conveying its realities.
“The writers that you mentioned: Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi were all poets, first. That poetry seeped into their lyrics. This isn’t to put poets above lyricists, some poets struggled as song-writers. But the point is these people had wit, tact, observation, inspiration, imagination, flair, humour, beauty all of which combined to capture the complexities of the human experience. What we’ve today isn’t a collective of men trying to bring down women through songs, they just don’t know better. They are bad, lazy writers who inspire cheap imagery because that’s the extent of their abilities. I wish they could make their songs stick without using Fevicol.”
She argues that Beedi Jalai Le and Kajra Re, too, are ‘item numbers’ but they have sophisticated poetry, and don’t rely on vulgar objectification. “Only someone with the calibre of Gulzar saahb can evoke that.”
When putting thoughts on paper, Munir says she isn’t overtly drawing from a specific experience but from a bank of emotions, filled over a period of time with events that influenced her and experiences that stayed within her subconscious.
“That way, I’m not a method writer,” she says. “I will not sit and draw from my romances or say oh, this song was inspired by my break-up or this song has the rage I felt when so-and-so happened. Nope. It’s all there and it all comes out. But not so overtly. At times, it comes out even unknowingly. For example, I don’t know if I’ve written a song in four days or it was 40 years in the making.”
Inspiration can strike anywhere, she says. Like the time when she was traveling to Andheri from Bandra and the auto-rickshaw guy decided to give her a tour of Bombay, presuming her to be a tourist.
“I was quite offended but he went on with his Mumbai darshan. When they passed by the iconic Hare Ram, Hare Krishna temple, he turned to me and said, Madam, this is the Sholay of temples.”
That thought morphed into the line, “Aashiqon Mein Jiska Title Titanic” in the song Jhalla from Ishaqzaade. “I wondered, if a temple could be Sholay, why can’t a lover be Titanic?”
Here, the writer-lyricist unpacks the stories that led to some of her most celebrated songs from Hindi films.
Pareshaan, Ishaqzaade: The Initial Euphoria of New Love
When I got the brief, I just knew I had to find an original way of saying something that has been done to death in Hindi films: first love. From Pehla Nasha to Aaj Main Upar, seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses has been exploited to the hilt. Habib (director Habib Faisal) was nurturing and Amit (music director Amit Trivedi) too pushed me into thinking something original. We were worried about doing this and from that worry, the word emerged:: Pareshaan.
So we kept probing the space that you find yourself in during first love: it’s a feeling of bewilderment. You are seeing yourself fall, you can’t help it, but you are also worried. In a joyful way. Once the seed had taken thought, the lines fell in place. Using the word Pareshaan as a chant came from the memory of watching the Asghar Wajahat play, Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, O Jamyai Na. It had a chant that went, Bulle Shah, Pareshaan, Pareshaan, Bulle Shah. It was in a spiritual context. But the use of word as a chant had interested me. I offered this idea to Amit and Habib, who both liked it, and we designed the entire song around the word Pareshaan to convey the conundrum of new love.
Gash khaa ke galiyan mudne lagi hain,
Mudne lagi hain
Raahon se teri judne lagi hain,
Judne lagi hain..
I love personifying places. Usually, it’s people who swoon and fall down (gush khana), so I thought women keep swooning and falling in romantic poetry, why not do that with alleys and lanes? And why just swoon and fall, why not swoon, blend and belong?
A lot of things came together with Ishaqzaade. The title, for example, isn’t an actual word. I made it up. Habib once told me that the film is about, “Haraamzaade, jo ek doosre ke ishq mein pad gaye hain.” To which, I said, “Toh ye Ishaqzaade hain?” He said, “Thank you. That’s my title.”
Nachdi Phira, Secret Superstar: Love As A Religious Experience
This was like painting on a blank canvas. It was about a young girl showing the range of her musical talent to these producers. Within the film too, it’s used as a song in a film. Amit Trivedi said to make the song. I had four lines, we developed it into a song. Those were:
main to ishaq di boli, bolungi,
main to ishaq di vaani gaoongi,
pehen ke preet ka chola main toh,
ishaq da gidda paungi.
As you rightly pointed out there’s a sense of maturity in this song. We wanted that to be the case as the other songs in the film are from a 14-year-old’s perspective. With this one, we weren’t bound by that limitation. Aamir Khan and Amit were both convinced but the film’s director, Advait, wasn’t. Aamir, being Aamir, even did a focus group for the song and we had some great feedback. Eventually it was Advait’s decision, who came around. To me, Nachdi Phira is more of a spiritual song. It’s not the intent. But in Sufi thought, or bhakti, the beloved and the God merge. That was the imagery in my mind. There was no context to this song so I created my own. In my head, it was Meera singing it.
Maana Ke Hum Yaar Nahin, Meri Pyaari Bindu: The Inevitability Of Separation
In college, I read this poem by Robert Browning and its last lines stayed with me.
“Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may,
Or so very little longer.”
It was around this thought, “Or so very little longer” that I wrote the entire song. When you meet your past love after a while, you meet them like you meet anybody else. But the gaze stays a bit longer, the hand lingers, just a second longer. That one moment capturing the truth of a shared past.
Another poet inspired the song. The one who wrote the lines, “Is ishq ko anjaam par laana nahi mumkin, usse khoobsurat mod pe chod dena accha.” (This love story cannot reach its destiny, it’s best to park it around a beautiful bend and let it go)
I am a big fan of dignified goodbyes as opposed to dramatic declarations or showdowns. Big, dramatic, passionate love isn’t my personality type. To me, it’s about subtlety and quietness. Graceful exchanges. Telepathic communications. And maybe that’s why I don’t get all the big songs, the hit songs, the shaadi songs, the Batdameez Dils (laughs).
Anyway, what the song means to me is that you can’t wish away the past whatever your present circumstances might be. You can’t wipe away the effect it had on who you became, on your story. There’s also some mischief in the song: it says that yes, we’ve decided to put our past in the past but let’s not tempt fate. If we’d be put in a room together, we know what’d happen.
Rehne Do Na, Guilty, Loving, Losing And Loving Again
This was a film about a very sensitive subject and I was constantly worried about it landing right. Before the pandemic, we had a screening of this film and I was so heartened to see myself credited in a separate plate as ‘Poetry and Lyrics By.’ This song’s journey was very organic: I jammed with Ankur Tiwari, who has a very different way of working. It made me feel as if I am working in a band. I’d say a few lines, he’d get the rhythm and say, “this is good this is good” it was a very fluid experience.
This song captures the inner conflict of Kiara’s character in the film. She’s so afraid to love again. But she wants to. She’s hesitant. One step ahead, two steps backwards. It’s that grey area which I found very fascinating. As a person, I believe in uncertainty and nuance. The many shades of grey that form a relationship. While the song plays out as if it’s been sung to someone, it’s actually a conversation she’s having with herself.
Yun Aa Gaye Ho Jaise Purana Zakham
Yun Aa Gaye Ho Jaise Naya Ho Marham
She knows what this is going to be, she’s been through these motions. There’s disillusionment and cynicism and the fear of being hurt again but there’s also the desire to love again. It’s that dilemma, the character’s duality that the song aims to capture. There’s something elegiac about the song.
Prem Mein Tohre, Begum Jaan, A Sex-Worker's Sorrow
I often feel I’ve been born in the wrong time. I feel nostalgic for a time that I haven’t experienced. It’s a strange kind of fake nostalgia. How can you miss something you’ve never had? Now, this is a song about a sex-worker, the madame of a brothel. She’s had a difficult life, especially in the matters of the heart, given her work. I felt this song, especially the lines,
Prem Mein Tohri Aisi Padi Main, Purana Zamana Naya Ho Gaya,
Purana zamana naya ho gaya, yeh kya ho gaya
There’s innocence in it, nostalgia in it and also a nakedness in it. In love, one is so vulnerable, you allow your lover to see you as you truly are. At times, love heals you, but when it does, it also witnesses your wounds. There was that. I also wanted to explore the irony of a sex worker’s life: the romantic barrenness of a woman who lives off doing sex work. We tend to dehumanise sex workers in our cinema, the attempt was to humanise her as a living, breathing person who may have her own heartaches.