A lot of the writing in Masaan comes from literature
Simple, practical, apparently unemotional and detached, Varun Grover is definitely the most sorted person I have come across in a long time. The writer and stand-up comedian shares some interesting perspectives on work, the industry, his latest release – Masaan, his love for poetry and much more.
Starting with your stand-up acts; you have faced a lot of flak from certain groups who have tagged you as ‘anti-Indian’. What do you have to say to these offended people?
I think every stand up comedian has to face this since it is a relatively new phenomenon here. Everyone has his or her limits and I guess I have my own too. Maybe, if someone cracked a joke on Lata Mangeshkar, I wouldn’t find it funny. I don’t know. My philosophy is that there should be a joke on everything. I know it sounds less modest but I read a lot and am politically aware, which is why I have strong political opinions too. Over the last two three years, people in India have become very politically volatile. They are in a hurry to bracket everyone. So if I say something about Modi, someone will ask, ‘Congress ne kitne paise diye hain?’ If I joke about the Congress they will ask, ‘How much did the Aam Aadmi Party pay you? It is difficult for people to understand that someone can joke about politics and still be unbiased, which I think, I am. I try to retain that to the extent that I won’t leave an opportunity to make a joke about Arvind Kejriwal just to prove that I am neutral. As a stand-up comedian I don’t want to come across as someone who has political affiliations. These days, people believe that ‘Modi is India’ just like years ago, they believed ‘Indira is India.’ So if I ever had something to say about Modi, I am labeled as anti-national, which is okay because it is just in people’s heads.
Will you continue to do it?
Yes, I will because I think the number of people who think that way, is only going down and not increasing. Everyone will realize at some point that we mean no harm. This is a democracy and it is okay to have opinions about everything.
I read in an interview where you spoke about Farhan Akhtar being paid 4 lakhs to say lines you wrote and that too, not so well. You thought you’d rather do it yourself. Is that what made you get into stand-up comedy?
Yes. That was one of the factors, not the only one. The real point was whether I was confident enough to perform my own lines or not. Secondly, I needed an opportunity, which came to me with Vir Das’s open mics. While writing on that particular show (Oye! Its Friday) for Farhan, I realized the difference between the fees of a writer and that of a performer. The difference is huge. I thought I could definitely try.
But whatever you did, the fees of a writer would never match up to that of the performer, right?
Yes. It’s a very Socialist or Leftist kind of ideology ki main eentein utha raha hoon aur us ghar mein koi aur reh raha hai. So it was just that main eentein nahin uthaaunga. It was never about main mahal mein rehne lagoonga. The only protest, in my own way, was that I wouldn’t write for anyone else.
So you write dialogues, screenplay, lyrics and also do stand-up acts. What is the most gratifying, out of these, for you?
I think all three have their own charm. They are all complete art forms in their individual right and give me complete satisfaction. It is like a preference in food. I like Italian, Chinese and Indian equally. So at different times of the month I do each of these things.
Is there a particular approach for each of these? Do you need to prepare or does it all come naturally to you?
I do prepare while writing lyrics. Since it is the most technical form of writing, there is a method I follow, especially because you are not working alone. You are working for a director, with a music director who has a tune in his head, which is your technical parameter. You need to keep all these things in mind and ultimately deliver the song. Considering that, I follow a technique, which is something every lyric writer would do, I guess. I take the song and listen the hell out of it until I don’t need to play it anymore.
So the tune is composed first, usually?
It is… in most cases. But two songs in Masaan, ‘Tu Kisi Rail Si Guzarti Hai’ and ‘Man Kastoori’ were written first. However, for ‘Moh Moh Ke Dhaage’ in Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha, the tune was composed first.
So I take the tune and play it on loop for the next few days as if it is the biggest hit ever. By then I understand the nuances of the song and even start liking it as a psychological effect. When I don’t need to play the song anymore, I start writing. I know every beat of the song by heart and it all just flows.
What is your relationship with Anurag Kashyap like?
He was someone I always wanted to work with ever since I came to Mumbai in 2004. In 2006, I saw Black Friday in a screening and even saw Paanch in one of the secret screenings. It was a big thing for me when I got the chance to write for Anurag Kashyap in That Girl in Yellow Boots, first, and then in Gangs of Wasseypur (GOW). When I worked with him, I realized that all I knew about the man was through his craft. The best thing to happen to any newcomer is to work with Anurag Kashyap. He is so full of respect for creative people, which I find lacking in this industry. People function like an industry here and even treat others as a part of the industry, unless you are a star. As a creative person, the amount of freedom he gives you and the faith he puts in you, is unbelievable. To have a director whom you admire so much, trust you completely is amazing. He never told Sneha (Khanvalkar) or me what to do. There was no brief. It was very strange for me. I have worked with quite a few directors with whom projects didn’t work out or even take off. Even those directors had very strong viewpoints about how they wanted their songs.
But for Anurag to put that faith in you and believe that you will understand what kind of a song the film needs just by reading the script is a big thing. It was scary also in the beginning. We thought everything would be rejected. But he was so open all the time. For anything we gave him, he would say, ‘Accha hai! Karte hain… isko film mein fit karte hain.’ He would watch the film and then think about where the song could fit in. You know, if kids are given confidence in their growing years, they remain confident all their lives. The same thing happened with me in this industry. Anurag gave me so much confidence in my first film itself that I can stand up to a director and tell him to go with my instinct because I know it has worked. I find it very strange when people hire you but come across like they have no faith in you. A lot of people do that.
You mentioned that there was no brief for GOW. Where did these quirky terms like ‘Tain Tain Too Too’ and ‘Womaniya’ come from? To know where not to use words is equally crucial and a lyricist’s call.
When you get complete freedom, it’s like you’re sky diving. Initially, you’re scared but once you jump, you realize ki poora aakaash hai tumhare saamne. You can do anything now. If you go by the conventional route, the brain would never come up with things like this. The first two songs we made for this album were ‘Bhoos ke dher mein raai ka daana’ and ‘Diha ho Bihar ke lala‘. Anurag was very upbeat about them and that gave us the confidence to push it even more. I would give Sneha the credit for both, ‘Tain Tain Too Too’ and ‘Womaniya’. We were jamming when she said we should mix English and Hindi to make the ladies sangeet song. That’s when I came up with this word Womaniya and she instantly jumped at it. The first approval came from Sneha and Anurag also liked it eventually. Sneha was completely at the top of her game in this album. She had some crazy energy throughout those two years. Both the films, GOW 1 & 2 had 27 songs in total and we still had around eight songs, which we couldn’t use.
Wow! That’s some adrenaline rush.
Totally. She (Sneha) would come up with something new every week. We explored a lot and discovered interesting things during the journey of this album. There was a radio play in Bihar during the fifties called Loha Singh. It was not even a musical. Sneha wanted to make a song based on that. We went to the All India Radio office, fished out archives and listened to Loha Singh’s play all day. I wrote something on that too and we made a song. Eventually it didn’t make it in the film and I can’t imagine it being used in any other film either. What could the reference be?
That’s some passion. The spirit of banaate hain is amazing!!
Credit goes to Anurag for this too. He works with new people because they bring in a different kind of energy to the table. It’s a different level of output, which is difficult to get out of a veteran. Just imagine if A. R. Rahman were to do the music for GOW. I am sure he would do a fantastic job but Anurag wanted that energy and madness which was more important for the film than a genius.
Coming to Masaan, how was the Cannes experience?
The experience was surreal. I couldn’t believe that it was my film. At Cannes, their culture is such that they are very vocal about everything. There are a lot of films, which get booed there too. People walked out of Gasper Noe’s Love. I was at the screening of Youth and even in that, people clapped for a long time, there were whistles in the hall. Initially we were overwhelmed but when we attended more screenings, we realized that that’s how every film is received in Cannes. It was just that it was a new experience for us. Also the fact that it came from India, which is a new place, added to it all. For instance, if a good film from the North-East comes to MAMI, it adds to the wonder-value because it is an unexpected place.
Neeraj, Richa and the rest of the crew were very emotional. I am generally detached because I move on very quickly. It’s more like – Ok! Done. Ho gaya. aage badhte hain… for me. I am not particularly for being emotionally attached to anything in life, be it people and more so movies. We do movies for fun and to express ourselves. You know whether you’ve done it well or not. That’s all there is to know. Apart from that, public reaction and the film doing well will only help me in my next film. That is the only connection I have with this film right now, or any other film that I have done. I wrote the songs of Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha. Once the music was done, I just panned away and waited for the reaction of people.
Are you super human or what?
I have seen so much outrage in the social media over the past few years, or even generally in life. I feel we obsess about things that are not really big. We spend too little time on more important things. Not to sound too philosophical, but we need to think about what our purpose in life is or what we really want to do in life.
Are you saying this is not what you want to do moving forward?
No. I am saying I am happy doing this. The purpose is not to see what the film is doing. It is to write the film and get it made. That’s all. When I become a producer I may have to worry about other things.
So Bombay Velvet released and some people didn’t like it. Fine. You didn’t like it. Move on! I think people who are attacking the film and those defending the film are equally mad. Do you think tumhare defend karne se kuch ho jayega? Why defend it? Leave it. It’s just a film. The more I see this kind of outrage, the more detached I feel. I don’t want to be that guy who feels bad if someone says film ghatiya thi or gaana ghatiya tha. It’s perfectly fine. It’s your opinion and you are the judge.
After GOW, I wrote the songs of Aankon Dekhi, which was again, art house. But when Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha happened, there were people who were angry with me saying things like tum bikk gaye, tumne commercial film likh di. Even if I go and write Tera Pyaar Hookah Bar, it’s my choice. I am on my own journey. I am exploring things. Who are these people to tell me what to do? Sorry for my repeated food references but why should I eat only saatvik food? If I feel like eating those color wale, MSGwaale hakka noodles from the street side, it’s my choice. People try to impose their choices, ideas and dreams on filmmakers and stars. This mind set makes me move even further away and say hato yahaan se, aage badhte hain.
Masaan is not a big budget film. There’s hardly any money to make here for a writer, right? What keeps you going in such projects?
There’s no money at all. I am the kind of person who always thinks that everything that I have today is a bonus. Twelve years ago, I would have worked in a corporate and paid someone to let me write and publish my work because I love to write. I was working in a software firm and could have opted for that life too. But today, if someone is paying me to write, I am surviving in Mumbai with my wife, we have a rented flat and life is going on, I am more than happy. We don’t want more than this. I am getting enough to live this life where if I want to go out and eat once a month, I can. Ultimately all I want to do is to write. If a film gives me the opportunity to write on my own terms, it’s ideal. It happened with Masaan. Neeraj is a good friend and we’re on the same wavelength. I never felt that it was a burden for me. Even when we went for a recce initially, we paid for our own trips. It was not about me being a hired writer or he being the director. It was like two friends going Dutch while traveling. It was our project.
Whose concept was this? Where did the germ of the idea come from?
The concept was Neeraj’s. He had an idea, which is now one of the stories in the film; Vicky Kaushal and Shweta Tripathi’s story. He wanted to make it a short film. I thought it was a big story for a short film but not big enough for a full-fledged feature film. We decided to explore further.
A lot of writers have this sentiment, ‘Likha kuch tha, kuch aur hi ban gayi.’ From your experience, how often has the filmmaker or composer done justice to your vision as a writer?
This happens with everyone. Even the best of writers with the best of filmmakers will achieve only a certain percent of what is actually written. For that matter even if Anurag Kashyap writes a film and directs it too, it will only be that close to his first draft. You do one interpretation as a director, the cameraman does his own, the producer has a take and then finally the marketing team has something to add after which you can get around 70% of the script. This was true for me in Masaan. As far as songs go, ‘Moh Moh Ke Dhaage’ was one such song. The music came first but the arrangement could have gone either way. With Sneha, ‘Womaniya’ and ‘Kaala Re’ turned out exactly the way I wanted. In GOW, there was ‘Moora’, which I imagined with very little music but the final was much louder since it was the climax song. In Masaan, I would think ‘Mann Kastoori’ is another fulfilling song.
The ratio is not bad at all. You seem quite happy.
Yes I am, because I choose projects very carefully. Ultimately, at the end of the year, you struggle to list down even 10 good songs out of the 500 that released. Even if you write 10 albums, only about two or three of your songs will be in the top 10. It is better to focus on albums that you feel good about.
Normally, movies or songs have a market value because of the actors or stars. A song is never sold highlighting its lyricist or composer. Do you think writers get their due?
A writer’s journey is much longer. If Gulzar saab is attached to a project, his name would be on the poster even if he has just written the lyrics. For an actor, to get that first film as a lead, is a really long curve. Irrfan Khan passed out from NSD in 1986 and he does a mainstream film opposite Deepika Padukone in 2015.
Of course, he came into the limelight after Maqbool in 2003 which is also a good 17 years later. If you are a talented writer, it is easier to break in. Then to make a name for yourself, you will need another 10 years. So you will need a decade or two either way. I think it’s a better deal if you are a writer and you’re famous as compared to being an actor who is famous. The writer has a longer life. Gulzar saab and Javed saab still write. Once you are an established writer, no one can throw you off in a day. An actor’s story changes every week. A writer gets several attempts to redeem himself.
This is the best perspective I have heard from a writer till date.
I think actors deserve the limelight they get. They are the face of the film. They are the ones who are ultimately translating your dialogues, which is easy, but translating your pauses, is not. Good actors like Irrfan and Richa do that. It’s easy to watch them and have an opinion. When I did Bombay Velvet I realized. The stand-up acts were still easy because I am used to that. But I did one scene, which didn’t make it in the final film. I remember it was a scene where Anushka is on the phone, sitting on the bed and crying. As soon as she put the phone down, I had to open the room door and just say three words – Time to Go! I took around seven takes to say that. It was so frustrating. We take no time to criticize actors but the beat of it is so important. It’s all about timing. Sometimes I would enter late, the camera wouldn’t turn to me in time. Acting is like music in many ways. It’s beat oriented, especially when you’re working with a co-actor. It is tough. Ultimately Anurag also tried a shot without turning the camera to me. He thought he could capture me through the mirror but even in that, I fumbled. It was such a bad take that it didn’t make it in the film.
Poetry plays a very important part in Masaan, especially for Deepak and Shaalu. Was that intentional?
I love poetry and I think a lot of writers in Mumbai also do. I am not sure why they don’t bring it out on screen. It started as an indulgence. The film starts with Brij Narayan Chakbast’s poetry on a black screen. Since we wanted to make poetry an integral part of the film, we thought of giving one of the characters (Shaalu) a love for poetry. That’s how we got in lots of poetry from Bashir Badr to Nida Fazli to Mirza Galib. It’s like a small tribute to these people and Hindi literature. Vinod Kumar Shukla, another one of my favorite writers, has written a novel called Deevar mein ek khidki rehti thi. Pankaj Tripathi’s character is inspired by one of the characters of the novel. We drew traits from a character of one of Satyajit Ray’s short films. A lot of the writing comes from literature. We could do it convincingly because we had the template of Benaras where people are actually into poetry and literature. It may have looked forced if it were a city story. Hopefully it doesn’t stick out in this film too.
Did others in the crew also know about these poets and where you drew your references from?
Except Neeraj, no one knew about the poets. In fact, when Shweta Tripathi read the script, she asked for all the reference books to read so she would look convincing on screen. She started reading them aloud daily and we would have discussions about Bashir Badr, Nida Fazli, Akbar Illahbaadi and all my favorite poets.
The film was initially titled ‘Raand Saand Seedhi Sanyaasi’ right?
Yes. That was what I originally wanted. I still think Masaan is not the best title for this film. It is a happy, life affirming film, so why Masaan? We worked with Raand Saand Seedhi Sanyasi for a long time. It is a line from Kabir’s doha – Raand Saand Seedhi Sanyasi, inse bache toh bhoge kaashi. In original Hindi, raand means a widow, just like randwa is a widower. Since Benaras was the land of widowers who eventually got into prostitution, the meaning slowly changed to randi which is prostitute. Raand is not a prostitute. The original phrase means ‘Look beyond these four probes of Benaras, Widowers, Bulls, Ladders and Priests.’ Richa’s character goes through something, which makes the society treat her like a slut. Saand is for Vicky’s character since he is focused like a bull. Also, people move out of the way when they see a bull and he’s playing a boy from a lower caste or an untouchable. Seedhi, is a small orphan kid who lives on the stairs of the ghat. Sanyasi was for Sanjay Mishra who plays a priest. I still feel it was the most apt title but because raand has its own connotations, the name didn’t go through the censors. In fact, we couldn’t even convince our producers who were very sensible, educated people. The censor authorities are not even that.
Do you think the film would have been better if it were a big budget film?
I don’t think it would have been made better but I am sure it would be technically more refined. We got little time to shoot. Though we had budgeted for 45 days, we only got 34 days of shoot. There are a few sequences where I feel the amount of emotional churning needed was not achieved. We didn’t have time for mood shots. Thankfully after that, Nitin Vaid, the editor put his heart and soul into the film. I don’t think anyone puts in so much effort and time into such a small budget film. Again, it was about passion. They were at it until Neeraj was happy. As a normal viewer, no one will be able to figure out what we couldn’t do. The film is getting great response too, which is great.
Eventually, you want to direct your own film right?
No. I want to be that writer who can write from outside Mumbai. If I become a director, I will have to live here. In the next 20 years I want to make just about two or three good films.
If and when you make a film, what kind of cinema would it be?
I would make films that are more personal, semi – autobiographical. I do not want to make a film which is art house. Masaan is one of those films, even though it is life affirming and happy. For me, it would be more slice of life in the Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha space. It could be a comedy, drama or coming of age film but no one will die in my film. Everyone will be alive and happy.
Watch Varun Grover talk about his favorite films from the year gone by and more