I am not sure when and why he pressed the button, but some moody god somewhere decided to play with my life last year—the year that I completed ten years as an outsider in Bollywood.
This guy turned my life 180 degrees, hurling me straight from the quiet corridor of my newspaper office to an FM radio studio, narrating stories to millions of listeners every night from the imaginary ‘Yaad Sheher’, to Bollywood music and film script sittings, to setting up my own startup content company, Content Project.
At two ends of that ten-year journey stand two meetings with two visionaries, both in their respective fourth-floor offices, that changed the course of my life: Mahesh Bhatt and Aditya Chopra. Mr Bhatt gave me my first break as a lyricist with Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai in Jism. Mr Chopra gave me the opportunity to become a script-writer—letting me co-write the upcoming Salman-Katrina romantic thriller Ek Tha Tiger with the film’s director, Kabir Khan.
I can never forget that first meeting with Mr Bhatt—the first time I came face to face with someone from Bollywood. Journalism teaches you not to be in awe of big names, so I wasn’t. So, after this famished writer from Delhi got lost in Juhu looking for Vishesh Films’ office and was rewarded with a pizza, I broke into small talk in the middle of a discussion with him on my first book: “I also write songs.”
I also write songs. Unknown to me on that muggy afternoon in that small room with two couches and a treadmill in Mumbai’s JVPD Scheme, those four words were about to become the abracadabra of my life, a moment that would some day launch my career.
Ten minutes later, tapping the black bag I used to carry then, I was singing a song I had written and composed in my college days in Nainital: Khwabon ki ye zameen hai, yaadon ka aasmaan. Midway through the song, Mr Bhatt went and stood in the middle of the room and shouted to no one in particular: “Hit hai!”
‘These Bollywood people are crazy,’ I thought to myself. It’s a story I have reminded Mr Bhatt of several times since, and have found myself privileged to have been mentored by his creative madness.
And then, ten years later, I walked one day into the sprawling Yash Raj Studios—as imposing as a fortress from the outside, but as informal as a college campus inside, where young directors and their assistants are often found playing table tennis when not working on the next big film.
There, on the directors’ floor with its large canteen and white chairs, I met director Kabir Khan, fresh from the success of his second film, the thriller New York. Within a couple of months, we were co-writing the script that was later named Ek Tha Tiger. In a business where I was beginning to feel out of place because its work ethic was so different, the simple act of getting myself coffee from the vending machine at Yash Raj was a warm reminder of the 9-to-5 world I had left behind.
Here, I was getting to work with the legendary Aditya Chopra. It has been one of the most enriching experiences of my stint in Bollywood—I learnt so much while jamming with him for Ek Tha Tiger.
The creative madness that I picked up from my first mentor, Mahesh Bhatt, has morphed into another. I used to trudge to faraway lands, to remote villages from Karnataka to Kashmir, writing about insurgencies and ambitions and land battles and social fault lines. I now go on stage for live shows to tell stories and sing songs, often reliving and recounting emotions heard and seen as a journalist. My colleagues and I are setting up Gaon Connection, India’s first professionally run rural newspaper, based in Kunaura village of Uttar Pradesh, where city and village
journalism trainees are working together to enrich one another’s experiences. As a scriptwriter on Ek Tha Tiger, I was able to use a lot of insights from my journalism days. And in a business where there is absolutely no structured mentoring of talent, I have the privilege of working with a very bright team of writers called Monday Mandli; at 11 am every Monday, they turn up at my home, where I train them to write fiction stories and learn a lot from them in return, sitting like a 39-year-old feudal lord in a teak rocking chair made in Saharanpur that I lugged all the way from Delhi.
The rocking chair is one of the familiar items in a life that now seems unrecognisable from ten years ago.
Back then, I was plodding away quietly in Delhi, far away from Bollywood, loving my journalism job, counting my lost Bollywood opportunities, watching from the sidelines, receiving tunes from composers on cassettes, and then CDs, and then via e-mail, and sending my lyrics to them via fax, then e-mail, then SMS.
Thus did technology trace my tentative Bollywood journey of more than 30 films—from the fax machine in a tiny Noida shop on which I had sent the lyrics of Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai in 2001, to my BlackBerry handset on which I BBMed the lyrics of the mujra number Dil Mera Muft Ka for the film Agent Vinod in 2011.
I have been such an outsider in Bollywood that in my first ten years of being a lyricist, I got opportunities to work with the most brilliant of composers, from Vishal-Shekhar to Pritam to Shankar-Ehsan-Loy, but barely had face-to-face music sittings. I have written Bollywood songs from a jungle in Jharkhand, a highway in Kashmir, a train in Italy, a shopping mall in California and even an electrical goods shop in Lucknow.
Somewhere along the way, I got used to not feeling bad when radio stations did not mention the names of lyricists and composers while airing songs, to being a backroom boy with people saying, “What? You wrote that song?”, to being paid badly, and to not receiving royalties.
In these ten years, Bollywood has been transformed as well. Averaging growth of about 14 per cent per year, and defying all predictions that the arrival of DVDs and piracy would stop people from going to movie theatres, Bollywood now sells 3.3 billion tickets annually. That’s slightly less than three Indias cramming movie theatres every year. From Walt Disney to Fox, Western studios are already here and aggressively investing in cinema. Clever marketing of films ensures that a lot of costs are box office-agnostic—they are recovered even before a single ticket is sold.
But that success does not show in the underbelly of Bollywood, not at the coffee shops near my home in Andheri West where writers who came from faraway small towns to chase dreams and write movies are greying by the day and waiting for the other person to pay the coffee bills and buy cigarettes.
Whenever I go for a meeting to one of these coffee shops, I wonder if these men and women, my fellow writers, regret coming here from the comfort of their faraway lands. But then, they too might have been hurled here by some moody god, the same guy who hurled me. Here, at these coffee shops, I am sometimes reminded of a conversation I had two years ago with my then editor Sanjoy Narayan, as he sat in his office and I walked in all muddled up.
“Some people can live with regret. Some can’t,” he had said.
I knew I can’t.
I was then deputy executive editor at Hindustan Times, and I had gone where few journalists had been foolhardy enough to go before—I had, um... set up a band. It’s called Band Called Nine. It is a storytelling-and-song set-up, in which I narrate a story that is interspersed with nine songs. (I also do a con job and sing two songs in it.)When a senior executive at a music company made that suggestion, I remember telling him: “Me? People like me don’t set up bands. I don’t even have long hair.”
The band—with prominent Bollywood singer Shilpa Rao as its lead singer—had been chosen to debut at the prestigious Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai. It was a big deal for us.
I needed to be in Mumbai for rehearsals. I had come to tell Sanjoy of how I was torn between my love for music and the arts, and my love for journalism. And torn between the comfort of my safe middle-class life that let me pay my car and house EMIs and an uncertain road where who knew what lay in store.
When I emerged from Sanjoy’s room, I had made my decision: I was going on a six-month sabbatical from full-time journalism and moving to Mumbai. I didn’t want to quit right away.
I am middle class. We play safe, as you know.
I had joined the dreamers at Andheri’s coffee shops. We have all taken our sabbaticals from life. We are all chasing the extraordinary moment, caressing the jagged edges of our lives, feeding off our angst and pain, and running away pompously from our biggest fear—of becoming ‘ordinary people’.
You know, these coffee shops of Andheri are deceptive watering holes where dreams come to be nurtured—and preyed upon. It’s as if every table has transformed into a tiny multiplex. A film is being made and shown at every table, a new set of dreams being showcased. The aspiring writer and director, the struggling actor and actress, everyone held together by tiny baits of dreams—“He loved the idea, wants a narration”; “He is going to speak with Kareena’s manager”; “Let’s do a first draft and then pitch; but I can’t pay you now”. Never the real thing. Always just the desperate search for the next milestone.
But it’s a beautifully knit community bound by hope in the underbelly of Bollywood. Capuccinos and Lattes flow fast and furious. Swear words swirl. Small-town dreamers get to speak in their own dialects.
There are grim tales too. That ever-present but invisible piece of Bollywood furniture—the casting couch—often comes up.
“You have no idea how deep it is, and how brazenly sexual favours can be asked,” a friend who came here to become an actress tells me. “I dropped out and went back to doing a day job because I knew I could never cope with that world.”
Yes, you have to cope at every step in your chase of dreams. Single people don’t get homes easily, and if they are linked in any way to Bollywood, God help them. If you do get an apartment, you don’t know if you’ll have the next rent cheque—because payments in Bollywood are staggered, uncertain and often disappear into thin air.
I met a senior executive at one of India’s top event management firms and played some songs of the band and the story narration.
“It’s a brilliant concept,” she said. “It will never work on stage.”
She was only reiterating what many others had told me—that music piracy has killed the non-film music business, and music labels just do not invest in non-film anymore.
So I came out of her office and called my colleagues.“This is what she said. So I guess it’s time to prove her wrong,” I said.
At 9 pm on 12 February 2010, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap introduced Band Called Nine, and we went on stage before a packed audience. And I began narrating the story, a nostalgia-seeped small-town love story that starts in Nainital and weaves in a lot of my own experiences.
Twelve hours later, at 9 am the next morning, we got a call from Atul Churamani, then the music boss at Saregama (formerly HMV), who proposed we do an album. The album went on to win the ‘best music debut’ trophy at the Global Indian Music Awards (Gima), the New Talent Award, and was nominated for the Radio Mirchi Music awards.
I was getting my biggest lesson in the entertainment business: if you have a new idea, you will inevitably find takers. And Bombay will let you dream big, no matter who you are. And no matter what you wear and how you go to that meeting.
“What? You are going to meetings in autos? And you wear jeans and chappals?” My father was incredulous. It took time to convince him that Bombay, unlike Delhi, does not judge you by appearances and the size of your ambition.
Yes, ambition runs deep. I am often reminded of the words my English teacher George Irwin, while at St Joseph’s College in Nainital, wrote me in a letter once: ‘Let me encourage you to dream big. And not just make dreams but let your dreams make you.’
And I am greedy for creative adventures. One such began last year when I took my band’s CD to 92.7 Big FM to discuss a radio partnership. The CEO, Tarun Katial, listened to the first minute, requested the engineer to pause, and asked me: “Would you like to do a radio show?” I said I knew only one thing—telling stories. How about doing a daily show where I would tell stories from an imaginary city called, well, Yaad Sheher? And there, just like that, was born the radio show that placed me before a mike for the first time in my life.
The show’s content, uploaded onto Facebook every morning, got 5.5 million views from 19 countries in its first season, spanning three months. Mindbogglingly for me as a communicator, 70 per cent of these were listeners aged 13-24 years.
I know it sounds filmi, but a couple of times every year, while climbing the staircase to an office or walking into a conference room for a meeting, I ask myself: ‘Is this a moment that is going to change my life?’
And I know that somewhere up there, there is a moody god working away on his keyboard, keen to play with my life—in a sporting way—every once in a while. I look forward to the next time he hits the keys.