Ace lyricist Swanand Kirkire dives into the nitty-gritty of language, the process of lyric writing and why he shares his poems for free on social platforms such as Facebook.


Swanand Kirkire

How does one write lyrics? What role do language and observing life play in writing lyrics? 

Lyric writing is a process. While language is important, you also need to observe life as a practice to be any kind of writer. In India, lyrics essentially are written for a script/film and should suffice or fulfil the need of a star/director in a particular film. The kind of language you use, the images and metaphors you add, come from the film itself.

For me, it is important to understand the language of the film. It is as simple as when you cast an actor, his costume is according to the script and period of the film. For instance, Parineeta is a ’60s musical, mushy romance, so the words automatically flow to match the theme. When you take a film such as 3 Idiots that features urban and a young college crowd, you can write words such as ‘All is well… honth ghooma seeti bajaa…’ because the characters belong to the new generation. Having said that, the soul of the song matters the most. If the soul is in the right place, the song takes a good shape.

The song, which got you a break in films, was written even before the film was conceived. How did that work out?

That was a coincidence. The director liked the song I had written and it fit in perfectly with the film, so he decided to use it. The song was personal. And the beauty of a personal expression is that it becomes universal easily. When you write a song for any film, you have to make sure that it enters the personal zone. It should come from your experience.

Apart from having a specific role in the film, lyrics have a separate identity. When a lyricist writes a song, he/she would imagine or visualise it in a completely different manner than how it may turn out once the song is actually shot. However that imagination is your window to write the lyrics. That is why a film’s songs become useful for the listener even when it is not in the film. The songs play a big role in their sorrows, happiness and in their life in general. We do not have any popular music other than film. Ultimately, it boils down to movies.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

Life in general is my inspiration. I love the form of poetry. A simple line has the power to become universal in nature. I also love languages. I don’t know from where it originated but I always liked listening to new words, understanding their meanings and figuring out the usage of words in different languages. If I am listening to Bengali, I immediately start finding similar Hindi words in Bengali or if I am listening to Malayalam, I try finding how the word originated. I have a fascination for language and sound. The fun of linguistics was the first thing that got me into lyric writing.

Was there an atmosphere of reading in the house?

I grew up in a house where we would constantly talk about music. I cannot pinpoint a particular incident but I am sure that is where it started. We used to talk about sounds of words in the songs and open vowels. When you sing, you think of all these things.

When I started listening to Gulzar saab‘s songs, I was fascinated with the way he brought day-to-day language, imagery and poetry into lyrics and urban images, which we lack today. We still go into sajna, sajni, ishq and mohabbat. We don’t use and understand those words but still, when it comes to a song, it goes back to all that. We don’t have our own language. Gulzar saab started that — finding his own language.

This exploration towards words or form of words, did it come at home or when you joined NSD?

It came at home first. I recognized it when I was in NSD, learnt the art and then I started exploring things. NSD was a place where I was exposed to not only our own world but also the other worlds in terms of art and culture.

Were you around the time when Tigmanshu (Dhulia) and Irrfan (Khan) were there?

No, they were very senior. Nawazuddin Siddiqui was my batchmate. Rajpal Yadav was our junior and Atul Kulkarni was my senior. Ashutosh Rana, Mukesh Tiwari, Yashpal Sharma, Manoj Bajpayee and Ashish Vidyarthi were my seniors a well. Ashish had come to Indore for a workshop and he was the first one who inspired me to get out of the city and explore the world. He has been a major influence in my life.

You trained as an actor at NSD. Have you also had training in scriptwriting or are you self-trained?

Two things have helped me in script writing. A need to ​tell stories, which I have always liked,​and ​my experience of studying at NSD, even though it was in a different field​. I understand the craft of scriptwriting, playwriting and scene writing. ​It is a little different in cinema but I have learnt​ to adapt it to cinema. It is fun experimenting with ​different forms of expression.

Besides Talisman and Tanuja’s film, what else have you written so far?

Chameli and Eklavya. Now I am working on an animation film based on the story of Kabuliwala. I am also working on my own film.

After two national awards for scriptwriting, are you careful about the way you go ahead with it? Do you read a lot?

I try to read but you don’t get to read a lot; it is a constant battle. But I am not careful. This year, I have acted in four or five films. People wanted me to act, so I thought why not?

Does being a lyricist help to be a scriptwriter as well?

Being a scriptwriter helps being a lyricist. Lyrics are not a big part of storytelling.

But don’t they take the film forward?

Not every time. Scenes carry the film forward. If you understand script and screenplay, then you understand lyrics. If you understand lyrics, it is not necessary that you will understand the screenplay.

Who are your favourite scriptwriters and directors?

Salim-Javed are my favourite and so is Goldie Anand. I also like directors such as Dibakar Banerjee and I have enjoyed some of of Anurag Kashyap’s films as well. I like lyric writers such as Irshad Kamil and Amitabh Bhattacharya, who are also my close friends.

Any international lyric writers?

I like song writers such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon. The Beatles are my all-time favourite.

Why would you put up poems for free on Facebook when you make a living by writing?

It is fun. I pull them down when I use it. Some of the ones that I have shared are good while others are not so good. It is like an exercise for me. I don’t get to write otherwise. I know I have a platform where people are going to read it. So I write whatever enters my stream of consciousness and whatever comes to my mind.

Have you ever had writer’s block?

That happens but when you write for a living, you cannot afford writer’s blocks. It seems like a luxury. These are creative blocks, so you work on them.

— Priyanka Jain