Bollywood’s famous lyricist, dialogue and screenplay writer Kausar Munir doesn’t need any introduction. When you see her name on the credit list of any movie, you know what the writing has to offer. With the recently released film Begum Jaan, Munir who has written its dialogues, lyrics and the additional screenplay is surprising herself as well as people who know her by entering a zone which is quite alien to her real life. While talking about her writing process for this Vidya Balan starrer, she also shares the process of penning the moving songs and how she believes in always following the vision of the director she works with.

Kausar Munir

Kausar Munir

Begum Jaan is a remake of the Bengali film Rajkahini. How difficult or easy is the process of writing a remake?

The screenplay was redeveloped with the director (Srijit Mukherji) who himself is the writer of the Bengali film. When I got into the picture, we changed a lot of the screenplay as the Bengali film was set in East Pakistan and Begum Jaan is set in the West, which is Punjab. After we reworked the structure then it was like any other film. I was well-versed with the material and content for writing the dialogues, then the lyrics happened.

The journey of any song, poem, performance or a film is not from the day you are hired to deliver but from the day you are born

Have you seen the Bengali version? 

Yes. When Bhatt sahab (Mahesh Bhatt, Producer) approached me to see Rajkahini, I did see and like it. But there were certain things that I didn’t like, so Srijit Mukherjee and I had a discussion. He was very kind, generous and perceptive to be able to understand how it could be adapted for the Hindi audience and how we’d have to change the vocabulary, not just in terms of language but also the emotional vocabulary.

When we say additional screenplay, what does it entail? 

With this film, it was pretty clear because there was an existing story and screenplay already written in Bengali, which we were adapting in Hindi. We were changing certain things to accommodate them to new geographical locations and the emotional temperature of the story, which already existed. The basic structure remains the same but a lot of the tonalities within scenes have been changed.

Rajkahini was a 2 hour 40-minute film and Begum Jaan is a 2 hour 5-minute film. So, that is the first and basic difference. Rajkahini is about the politics of partition and then it moves forward, whereas Begum Jaan starts from this woman, her dilemmas and then makes a larger point. That change of perspective had to be made through the screenplay. Rajkahini is called that because the story is about all that and Begum Jaan is named so because it is about a woman’s life which is affected by partition.

Whatever you do, whether it is period or non-period, jingles or anything, do your best work and be true to the vision of the director

Did you also do some kind research as the story is set in a different period? 

My work was made easier because of the existing material. To me, the vocabulary that I use comes from words that I have heard all my life from here and there. Begum Jaan has been at several places and then she landed somewhere and made that her home. Her language is not purist. Also, this is a story of prostitutes and a brothel where one is not expecting any purity in the language.

Begum Jaan

Vidya Balan in a still from Begum Jaan

Yes, the dialogues are definitely hard-hitting. There is no mincing of words. As a writer how do you approach such dialogues? 

I’m very different from this in real life. My last work was the lyrics of Dear Zindagi, which is 180 degrees different from what I’m saying in this zone. I’m more like that person who wrote those songs of Dear Zindagi and not like the one who has written the dialogues for Begum Jaan. I’m very good at listening to the director and following his or her instructions and vision. That is a plus as well as a minus point. Plus because I’ll totally adapt and adhere to that particular vision that the director wants from me. I’m one of those people who does not even use cuss words in real life; they are actually not part of my vocabulary. It is not who I am. It was the requirement of the film. In any way, the tone of the film is very high-pitched.

This is a story of prostitutes and a brothel where one is not expecting any purity in the language

When one does not come from such a different zone, but is meant to write in a certain way, how does one manage? 

You draw from life and your experiences. Nobody has died but we still write about deaths. There is a certain emotional knowledge that we write from. And characterization is something that you draw from your own life – how a particular person will react. When you are doing characterization, you bring together things you have noticed all your life. It is part of our imagination and experiences.

O Re Kaharo is a very heartbreaking song. The visuals are different from what the lyrics say and are extremely disturbing. Tell us about the journey of this song?

Srijit wanted Begum Jaan to sing this song when a very disturbing moment is going on. Both of us almost simultaneously came up with the idea that, what if we talk about a bidai (A girl’s traditional send-off after her wedding) but actually a girl is being sent into the trade. It would appear stronger than saying the obvious. It was wonderful that Srijit and I were on the same page and because of that, it was easy. What made the bidai song heartbreakingly ironic was the way it juxtaposed the whole thing. I have also written a long poem about what I thought Begum Jaan was and a lot of that sentiment is used in this song. It helped the director and me to bond and was also helpful in the writing process.

After listening to the dialogues, people who know me will surely say, what the hell am I doing?

The other track Prem Mein Tohare explores many deep thoughts. To me, it seemed that the lyrics somehow represent a nomadic life of a sex worker by talking about places like Awadh, Banaras, Jhelum. What was the writing process like?

Absolutely! There is a line that says ghaat se ghaat me aisi phiri re, mujhse thikana mera kho gaya. In Hindi there is a saying, ‘ghat ghat ka paani peena…’ There are two folds in it. One is describing the geographical journey of a woman and the struggles she has been through. Secondly, since the story talks about partition, all these places that I have mentioned in the song have been affected by it. Primarily it is about a woman and her journey.

From the first thought to the time when you finished writing the track, what kind of a journey was it for the song? 

Being a rationalist script, I already knew what the director’s vision was and what was needed from me. I always feel that the journey of any song, poem, performance or a film is not from the day you are hired to deliver but from the day you are born. To be precise, having been close to the script I used a lot of those references in the song. But even if that is not the case, to me it is enough to get the material that I want by listening to the situation and following the vision of the director.

Generally, what process do you follow to write the lyrics of any song? 

Most of the times melodies are made first. That melody is sent to you and then you have to use a craft skill. Besides the poetry and thought, you need to have an understanding of the meter. It is quite mathematical to fit those lines into that meter. And I think practice helps you a lot with it. The more you do, the more you get to know how to do it. There is no school that can teach you this. Sometimes things happen in the first or second go. But at times, you are working with the best director and you’ll have already worked together on a few films but you still take 22 drafts to complete the song.

Coming back to Begum Jaan, how different is this film from your previous projects? 

After listening to the dialogues, people who know me will surely say, what the hell am I doing? Because it is a complete shift from my personality. I was a little afraid of taking it (this film) on and my fear was that it was too bombastic. But Bhatt sahab is so compelling and he said, ‘So what if it is!’ So I told myself that even if people don’t like it, I’m just talking about my work, I’ll at least have done something which is different from me.

I’m one of those people who does not even use cuss words in real life

Since it is a period film, what kind of challenges does one face while writing such a film? 

I think it is easier to do a period film and old world stuff. And it is harder to be contemporary because it is easier to speak in a manner which is more formal and exaggerated. Woh dialogue baazi wala ab zamana hai hi nahi… (Dialogues today are not really exaggerated) That is the reason I said that people might applaud something like Begum Jaan or debunk it. For there are dialogues that are self-congratulatory rather than saying things in a way we often talk. That was the tone of Dear Zindagi. That is why those lyrics were very conversational.

What points should one keep in mind while writing a period film? 

I just feel that whatever you do whether it is, period or non-period, jingles or anything, do your best work and be true to the vision of the director. Because at the end of the day, the director knows the entire part and you are just one part of his huge film. Do the best that you can do.

When you are focused on following a director’s vision, how do you manage to keep your point forward in situations when you don’t agree with his/her take? 

When I say follow, I don’t mean like a horse with blinkers. I mean follow the vision for which you have to believe in one. So don’t take up a job if you don’t agree with that person’s point of view. And if there is still a situation when you don’t agree with something, just battle it out. Debate it but post that either you should be able to understand and come to his way of seeing things or he should come to your way of seeing things. That is democratic and healthy.

Having said that I’ll always follow the director’s vision – for why he has hired me and not XYZ. Because I’ll bring something different to the table. If Srijit has hired me, maybe he doesn’t want Milap Zaveri or Varun Grover who are the other end of the spectrum. So follow his vision but with the courage of your own conviction.