Something to Sing About

The life and lyrics of Irshad Kamil

01 September 2013
Bollywood lyricist Irshad Kamil performs at a mushaira during his student days in Punjab.
Bollywood lyricist Irshad Kamil performs at a mushaira during his student days in Punjab.

NOTHING ESTABLISHES THE CIRCUMSTANCES of young and dreamy Janardhan Jakhar in Imtiaz Ali’s musical drama Rockstar (2011) better than the constant barbs of his Haryanvi joint family. Twenty minutes into the movie, he is berated by his older brothers for forgetting to complete a domestic errand. The youngest member of a hierarchical family, the guitar-clutching, Jim Morrison-worshipping Jakhar has no option but to shut up and suffer the daily humiliation. Angst builds up inside him as his family keeps dismissing his dreams; “Kaunsi duniya mein hai tu?” (Which world are you in?) his brothers jeer.

Few people could identify more with Jakhar’s character than the film’s lyricist Irshad Kamil. Having grown up as the youngest of seven children in a conventional middle-class family, the artistically inclined Kamil faced his share of dismissals. “Ghar mein aap ho, sabse chotey ho. Saarey bade kaam kar rahe hain, padhai-vadhai kar rahe hain aur aapko samajh mein nahin aa raha hai ki aapko karna kya hai uss age mein” (You are the youngest in the house. Everyone is working, studying and you aren’t able to understand what it is that you want to do at that age), Kamil told me when I met him in July. “Arrey tu karta kya rehta hai? Aise hi ghoomta rehta hai. Chal mera scooter saaf kar de. Accha ji. Kisi ka scooter saaf kar diya. Tu kya kar raha hai? Kidhar ghoom raha hai? Chal meri shirt press karke lekar aa” (What are you up to? You don’t do anything. Go clean my scooter. Ok. What are you doing? Where are you going? Go get my shirt ironed), he said, recalling the attitudes of those around him. “Aap thhe woh Janardhan Jakhar” (I was that Janardhan Jakhar), he said with great earnestness.

It was predominantly Kamil’s deep identification with the film’s lead character that made his lyrics for Rockstar, from the spiritual ‘Kun faya kun’ to the feisty ‘Sadda haq’ to the angst-filled ‘Jo bhi main kehna chaahoon’, his most accomplished work for Hindi films to date. “It [Irshad’s work] appealed without appealing to the lowest common denominator. Rockstar was the hallmark of great art,” said music director Vishal Dadlani. The Indian Express termed the film’s soundtrack “a milestone for Bollywood”.

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    Akshay Manwani  is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. His book on the poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi will be published by HarperCollins in 2013.

    Keywords: poetry Bollywood Punjab Urdu lyrics Sahir Ludhianvi Hindi film music Imtiaz Ali