Profile

The Reluctant Songwriter

Lalitha Suhasini is the former Editor of Rolling Stone India
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With his quirky lines and robust slang, Amitabh Bhattacharya of Dev.D fame is one of Bollywood’s busiest lyricists today

As universal emotions go, the rage evoked by traffic offenders is one of the most neglected. Caught in a snarl-up on Indian streets, the harried man behind the wheel needs nothing more than a drive-time anthem to yell along with, filling the air with words foul enough to rattle offenders to their senses. Amitabh Bhattacharya, who has written the lyrics for Bhaag DK Bose, the track that just launched the yet-to-be-released Aamir Khan production Delhi Belly featuring Imran Khan, may not have realised its tremendous rush hour potential.

We meet Bhattacharya at Audio Garage, the North Mumbai studio where the soundtrack of Dev.D, featuring his breakthrough Bollywood smash Emosanal Atyachaar, was recorded. The Lucknow-raised Bengali speaks with no discernible accent, shifting from Hindi to English with ease, answering queries in a staccato manner. Besides sneaking expletives into his latest track Bhaag DK Bose, Bhattacharya has also written the raging hit Character Dheela, a lively rib-poker on double standards, for the Salman Khan-starrer Ready. All this makes him the go-to guy for lyrics that address the unaddressed in film songs. It also explains why he’s so hard to pin down.

“His wordplay is fantastic,” says composer Vishal Dadlani, who roped in Bhattacharya for Anjaana Anjaani that released in 2010. “How much of patta, jharna, jheel (leaf, spring, lake) can we have in a Hindi film song?” “Even if it’s using profanities, he explores his quirkier side and is unafraid to push the boundaries. He’s got the potential we’ve seen in Gulzarsaab and Javedsaab,” says Dadlani.

For a seven-film-old lyricist, especially one who doesn’t aspire to highbrow poetry, that’s saying something. His feel for streetspeak has given Hindi cinema such standout lines as ‘Bol bol why did you ditch me?’, voiced by a wedding band singer in Emosanal Atyachar, and ‘Chai mein dooba hua biscoot’ (tea-soaked biscuit) as a description of a protagonist in Ainvayi a half-Punjabi song from the film Band Baaja Baaraat.

Bhattacharya, though self-assured while discussing his work, is also guilty of underplaying his talent. “It’s the melody that gets the songs out of me,” he says. Of Bhaag DK Bose, he says, “When Ram Sampath (the composer) sang the track to me, it was so funny and full of energy that bas ho gaya (it just happened). Initially, the film had a character called DK Bose, so credit for that goes to Akshat (Varma) the scriptwriter too.” The character eventually got axed, but DK Bose lives on in the film’s soundtrack.

When Bhattacharya moved to Mumbai ten years ago, he wanted to be a playback singer. He had no connections in Bollywood. Though his parents were ardent fans of Hindi film music, as is the case in most Indian households, he was the first of his family to dare look towards the industry for a career. “I first called up Pritam Chakraborty for help. I had seen his name on TV in the promos of an album, found his number in the Screen directory, and just called him up. He was really kind and let me assist him. He wasn’t the Pritam that we know now, but was into advertising, and introduced me to the industry.”

Over the next four years, he learnt his ropes around recording studios. “I was this package—handy assistant material, could sing and write scratch dummy lyrics for jingles,” he says. Although he hadn’t written a line of poetry or lyrics before he moved to Mumbai, his Lucknow upbringing gave him an easy familiarity with Hindi and Urdu.

By 2002, Bhattacharya had met some of Bollywood’s biggest composers, including Anu Malik and Vishal-Shekhar, with his demos. But it was Amartya Rahut, who scored the music for Aage Se Right (2009), who took note of his lyrical spark. Rahut was part of Om: The Fusion Band, a band that included composer Amit Trivedi. By then, Bhattacharya had begun singing jingles, and often worked with Trivedi and Rahut. “If you’ve worked in the advertising industry, you’re also inspired to think out of the box. It’s quite contagious, this [ad] ability to write catchy lines in Hinglish,” he says.

Trivedi and Rahut approached Bhattacharya, who kicked up a fuss before he agreed to write the songs for their debut album. “They were persistent that I take writing lyrics seriously, but since I was pushing my singing career, I insisted I’d use a pen name,” says Bhattacharya, who took the name Indraneel for the 2005 album.

When filmmaker Anurag Kashyap picked Trivedi to score the soundtrack of Dev.D, the composer pushed Bhattacharya to write the lyrics. “I wrote the lyrics for both Aamir and Dev.D reluctantly,” he recalls.

Things have changed since. Usually, Bhattacharya sits down with the composer for a detailed narration of the film’s script, and is keen to take in the dialogues and mannerisms of the characters as well. Apart from the narrative, he readily admits he uses the lingo of the film’s characters as stylistic inspiration for the lyrics: in Band Baaja Baarat, HouseFull and Udaan, this is obvious. “I know which zone to go into now. If I’m writing Aazadiyaan for Udaan, then that would mean a certain amount of intense poetry and inspirational lyrics, but when the characters speak a mix of Hindi and English, I make sure that the lyrics reflect that,” he says.

Being a vocalist helps too. It lets Bhattacharya turn the exercise around into a test. “I make sure I have fun singing the song,” he says. He’s also never taken his finger off the pulse. “I remember when we were doing a show at Mood-i (IIT Mumbai’s annual cultural fest) last year with Amit Trivedi, youngsters tripped out on phrases like aali re saali re and patloon mein junoon (from Aali Re Saali Re of No One Killed Jessica), so I have a hang of what works,” he says.

For someone who grew up on the work of greats such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Hasrat Jaipuri, Shailendra and Anand Bakshi, Bhattacharya took no time adapting to street language. “My bhaasha is quite bhrast now,” he jokes, laughing at his own corruption of the language. “But fortunately, while writing I stick to whatever is correct. When I go back to Lucknow, it’s happened often that my friends catch me when I use Bambaiyya phrases like ‘Bhau mat dena’ (Give no importance).”

Right now, Bhattacharya is in the thick of several big banner projects, including Dharma Productions’ Short Term Shaadi and remake of Agneepath, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and UTV’s My Friend Pinto and Yash Raj Films’ Ladies vs Ricky Bahl.

“Working for Rahman is the big dream,” he says, as we prepare to leave the studio. He winces as a musician friend backslaps him for his DK Bose number, and nods a trifle sheepishly. We hear the patois of the streets of Mumbai in his songs, but Bhattacharya isn’t quite the Mumbaiyya yet.