Men Of The Year 2016: Amitabh Bhattacharya
I’m sitting with Amitabh Bhattacharya in a room at his apartment in Mumbai’s Oshiwara area, where the Lucknow-born-and-raised songwriter lives with his parents. Furnished simply, with a TV, a small couch and a cupboard, this is his space, where he shuts himself up, listens to music and writes. As he smokes a cigarette and gazes out of the window, he points toward a building, where lyricist Irshad Kamil stays. “He holds these mushairas [poetic symposiums] at his place, where he gets everyone [professional lyricists] together, and once he’d called me for one of them,” he says, with a laugh. “Everyone was reciting all this heavy duty poetry — they’d all begin with ‘Arz kiya hai’ — and I felt incredibly intimidated. When it was my turn, I just folded my hands and said that I don’t write poetry, let me just recite the lyrics of one of my songs.”
Bhattacharya first came to Mumbai in 1999, with dreams of becoming a Bollywood singer. Although born here, he spent his school and college-going years in Lucknow, where his father, Somnath, was initially posted as an employee of the Central Ground Water Board. “He always had a very good ear for music, even as a child,” says the senior Bhattacharya, recalling how, at the age of 4, Amitabh would sing Hindi film songs note-for-note, including humming out the musical interludes, and record them on a portable cassette player.
By his own admission, he had never written anything in his life: no poetry, no couplets, not even prose. While trying to make it as a singer, he befriended music director Pritam, who would coax him into writing scratch lyrics for tracks they would try to pitch, either for an ad or a Hindi film. Later, Bhattacharya would get his break with Amit Trivedi, who forced him to write lyrics for him, assuring him that they’d get re-written by someone else. They didn’t, and Bhattacharya went on to become one of the industry’s most sought after lyricists.
The lyricist of some of the biggest Bollywood hits in recent years — from ‘Bhaag DK Bose’ (2011’s Delhi Belly) to ‘Badtameez dil’ (2013’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) to ‘Gerua’ (from last year’s Dilwale) — is currently basking in the success of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, whose songs are composed by his long-time friend and collaborator Pritam. For Bhattacharya, songs like ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ and ‘Channa Mereya’ are evidence of his growth as a writer, even though they’re more simplistic and accessible than much of his earlier work.
“You’ll find that from Dev.D to Ae Dil…, my lyrics have gone from complicated to simple, and I feel like I’m finally getting through to my listeners,” he says. “Take ‘Nayan tarse’, which uses fewer words to make a deeper, more ambiguous point and is completely driven by phonetics, and compare it to ‘Tere bin guzaara, ae dil hai mushkil’, which uses more words but leaves no doubt in the listener’s mind as to what the words mean. I think, as one grows older, one develops an affinity to simpler, more profound things. Now, I enjoy this more.”
Bhattacharya finds himself as much at ease with profundity as he is with ‘gibberish’ (incorporating everyday colloquialisms, sometimes for their meaning, other times for their phonetics) For instance, the just-released track ‘Haanikarak Bapu’ from the upcoming Aamir Khan starrer Dangal, features the refrain ‘Bapu, sehat ke liye tu toh haanikarak hai’ (father, you’re injurious to health). Being able to express this thought, in this manner, gives him immense pleasure. “See, these kinds of phrases — ‘Sehat ke liya haanikarak hai’, ‘Rukawat ke liye khed hai’ (the inconvenience caused is regretted) — are things we’ve grown up hearing,” he says. “So we connect with them instantly.”
The way Hindi films use music has also changed since Bhattacharya started writing lyrics: there are fewer songs now, and choreographed, lip-synced numbers are being abandoned in favour of those that play over montages, without disturbing the narrative. However, as a life-long Kishore Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan fan, Bhattacharya hopes that Hindi films don’t ever do away with the larger-than-life musical format. “In commercial films, I get all the colours: the happy song, the sad song, the playful song, and so on,” he says. “Those are the projects I actively look out for. That’s my space.”