The lyricist and adman Prasoon Joshi began his writing career in his teens. His first book was published when he was 17. This was Main Aur Woh, a book of poems and stories and essays, which emerged from an interest in philosophy, especially the writings of Nietzsche. Yet, in university he chose to study physics and followed it up with an MBA. He then decided that his career lay in advertising, and over the 1990s wrote and conceptualised many memorable ads, including the astonishingly popular (and multiple prize-winning) ‘Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola’ series with Aamir Khan. As if that isn’t enough, he is also a shamelessly prolific lyricist for Hindi films, having written favourites such as Masakali in Delhi 6 and Maa in Taare Zameen Par.
Q When and where do you write?
A I write at any time because I am a constant traveller. My job requires me to travel all over; the structure of my days is necessarily fluid. I cannot set aside a designated time to write. I write whenever I feel like it, when the moment seizes me. Poetry is like that and I think of myself primarily as a poet. I write in airports, in the car, when my daughter is jumping on me. I remember that when I lived in Noida, I would drive to work, and so many times, I have stopped the car to jot down something that struck me at the time.
Obviously, this means that I don’t—that I can’t—have a writing room. No special desk, no favourite pen, no exclusive view, nothing. I don’t need anything to get into the writing frame of mind. In fact, I tell my wife not to treat me as a writer, as something special. I don’t like this romanticisation of the writer, the creative persona. I recently told a colleague, the CFO [at McCann Erickson], that I’m not very different from him. He processes the world through numbers, I do it through words.
I write a lot at airports. I wrote the song Khalbali Hai Khalbali in Rang De Basanti at London airport. But a flight is possibly the best place to write. No one can reach you by phone; if you tell the stewards, they won’t disturb you.
When I was young, which is to say when I was a student, I used to write very early in the morning. I am a morning person that way. I still enjoy the quiet and cool of that time, but I can’t set it aside any longer.
Q How do you write?
A I am a scribbler. I scribble on napkins, conference pads, cigarette packs—the business cards that people give me all the time come in very handy. But I am also a tech geek. I have composed entire songs on my phone. I remember Mr Bachchan had called me to compose a poem for the IPL opening ceremony. He asked for a 6-7 minute poem, and that is very long for a poem. I composed all of it while waiting for my flight at Dubai, and sent it off before I boarded. When I landed in Mumbai and switched on my phone, it was full of congratulatory messages. So I am not that kind of snob that I need a beautiful fountain pen and rich creamy handmade paper. Sure, that’s beautiful. I will write with a quill if I need to, but I don’t have nostalgia for the old ways of writing. I love tech, in fact. Anything that helps you write is good.
Q Do you need solitude to write?
A I love solitude but I don’t need it to write. I can focus, I have learnt to shut out the world. I save the solitude for my holidays. I love hill stations. When I have time, I go off to the hills and take long, long walks. That is my idea of fun. Fun is not only loud music or alcohol or a dance floor. But I don’t use solitude to write. Solitude is for de-stressing. But actually, to say that is misleading because it implies that I am stressed out in the first place. I don’t get stressed out because I enjoy what I do.
Q So writing is all joy, there’s no struggle?
A It is a struggle, but I enjoy that. To think a thought through can be very frustrating, but I like that frustration. I like the pain, the struggle, the effort. It’s like how a scientist or mathematician works on a problem, it’s not all fun. That is inherent to the process of writing and I have embraced it. Happiness is being able to follow and cherish the thought you have.
Q How is ad copy different from a poem?
A In the sense that you have briefs, and limitations, and dictations, and clients; in other words, you deal with reality. In poetry, I was painting on skies and seas. Here, there were walls and canvases. Then, there’s the thing about deadlines. I learnt to work within a time framework.
You’d think this goes against the grain of a poet, but actually, advertising has helped my poetry. I don’t think advertising has to be soulless or inferior in some way because it is bound by these constraints. It is like commissioned art. A lot of great art is actually commissioned, like Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel. The fact that it has been commissioned doesn’t take away from its greatness.
And learning to work with deadlines is a very useful lesson for writers. It is a discipline.
Q How do you handle disagreements with clients?
A I am not adamant. To me, advertising and film are both collective decisions. I am clear about that. What I try to do is make my own space.
To answer your question more specifically, I am proud of my work and convinced of it. But I also keep an open mind. If the client is not happy, then you are not doing something right.
Q What about writing lyrics? Is it different from poetry?
A Yes, in fact it is very different because you have to pay attention to the sound of the words. There are lots of words you can use in poetry that you can’t in songs because they aren’t rhythmic or hummable. In that sense, it is more limited than poetry. As a lyricist, I have an advantage in this because I have some knowledge and understanding of music. I love Hindustani classical music. I have even composed a song in the film Aarakshan [the song Saans Albeli].
Q How does it work with songs—does the music come first and you fit the words in?
A This is a question I am asked a lot. I say a song is successful when it is so seamless that you can’t tell which came first.
Q This is probably why you’re asked this so often. Because you don’t answer it.
A (Laughs) It’s not a hard and fast system. Sometimes the music comes first. Typically, in an item song sort of situation, where the groove is very important, the music is decided first. Then, the words are fitted to it. More than 60 per cent of the time in the industry, the tune comes first, I would say.
But it also depends on your level of comfort with the composers and makers of the film. I enjoy working with people I know. They often let me write the song first. For instance, the Maa song in Taare Zameen Par, I wrote it and then Shankar [of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy] came up with the strains. But on occasion it’s happened that the composer has come up with the first bars, and asked me to work with them. In Delhi 6, [AR] Rahman came up with the bars of Maula Maula… for a Sufi song and gave them to me.
I am not necessarily constrained by the music being given to me because of my facility with music on the whole.
Q As a writer, is it important for you to be appreciated by your audience?
A Yes, self-expression is not enough. I don’t feel satisfied unless I have an audience. I want that feedback, the engagement. By that, I don’t mean that I am happy if the song is a hit. I mean, it’s okay, I’m not going to complain if it’s a hit. But what is really thrilling is to see whether what I have tried to say resonates with the audience. In the song Maa, for instance, I wrote about my relationship with my mother, the things I tell her, the things I don’t. ‘Chehre pe aane deta nahin, dil hi dil mein ghabrata hoon maa (I try not to show on my face how I tremble at heart).’ I must have got at least 25,000 emails for that song, and most of them said this was how they were with their moms. That was very exciting. You write from your own experience but when it transcends your private space to become something approaching universal, that means you’ve got somewhere as a writer.
Q Do you think courage is an important attribute for a writer to have?
A I would call it honesty, not courage. It is very important that a writer is brutally honest, and in that sense, you must have courage. You are exposing yourself every time you are writing.
Honesty is important because writing is a more exact form of art than others. And because of this, it is more committal. You put your beliefs in it. This is not so evident in, say, a piece of music. When you listen to it, you like it or you don’t. But you don’t say you agree with it or that you disagree. A piece of writing may be beautiful but not something you are in agreement with.
Q Do you suffer from writer’s bloc?
A Of course, it is part of the process, of being a writer. But I have not experienced it for a very long time, possibly because of the nature of what I do. Usually it lasts 5-6 days. But there was this one song, Maula Maula Maula Mere Maula from Delhi 6 where Rahman had composed the opening bars. It took me a year to crack that song. I just couldn’t get it. Then one day, I had a flash of an image from my childhood. There was a masjid close to our home and I would see a very old lady praying for blessings, doing sajda as they call it. She was wrinkled and her forehead was lined. I remember her eyes closed in prayer, her forehead touching the ground, as if Allah’s own dust would repair her fate. That’s it, I wrote the lines ‘Daraarein daraarein hai mathey mein Maula/ Marammat muquaddar ki kar de Maula’ (This forehead of mine is lined with cracks/I need you O Maula to fix my destiny). Once I got these lines, I flew to Chennai to meet Rahman and the rest of the song just flowed. But it took a year to get those first two lines. It is inexplicable, in some ways, the creative process. How it all comes together.