He began his affair with movies by writing a song. And after almost five decades of also writing stories, screenplays, dialogues and poems and directing films, his career comes full circle when the Oscar statuette unexpectedly came knocking for another song. How does it feel? Gulzar frames candid answers.

A cliched query that you must be answering a zillion times a day – but it has to be asked: How does it feel to be an Oscar awardee?
Well, I don’t mind because the question is very natural under the circumstances! (Smiles) It feels very nice. It is like a topping of a nice big cherry on your career. I do not know whether this is a plateau or a peak, or how I will fare in the coming years and whether I will maintain my success or not, so it’s lovely to live the feeling, especially since it is for the first thing I did in Hindi films ever – write a song!

 

Are the press reports true – that you did not go to the ceremony because there were procedural glitches in your travel plans?

Well, the real reason was my shoulder – I injured it while swinging my arm during tennis and I am still under treatment. I have just returned from a session with my physiotherapist (the interview happened three days after the Academy Awards). It was terribly painful, and though I may have managed with medicines I thought that if I go there I should be in top health.

We would like to know how Jai ho was conceived and created.
We made Jai ho like any other song, in the way Rahman works every time. He usually offers one or two compositions for each situation, with ideas and suggstions thrown across on the angles of the situation. It was a song of victory after a struggle – the struggle of romance and love. So as usual, I wrote the words and phrases starting with the obvious phase Jai ho. Then Sukhwinder Singh, who was present, sang the line I wrote and it was he and his exquisite voice that actually created the magic. Rahman and I have won the Oscar but Sukhwinder truly deserves mention for the song as it has finally turned out.

Despite being for a foreign film, did you imagine the song reaching this far?
How could I? (Smiles) Rahman never told me that it was for a non-Indian film. When I asked him, he was very vague and that did make me very suspicious. But that’s something I think about when I look back. Because we made it in the same normal way in which we have been working all these years. Only this time the director wasn’t around.

Rahman isn’t conversant with much Hindi and Urdu. So could you describe this way of working?
Rahman’s compositions are a challenge – because he is innovative and unconventional. His music talks to you and work becomes easy. In the past too, I have written my songs after fixing key phrases first, like Chal chhaiyya chhaiyya (Dil Se…) and O humdum suniyo re (Saathiya). Besides inspiring me with his composition, Rahman is such a good soul that I never feel that I am at work. The atmosphere is very conducive to creativity with ideas being bounced across. There is so much give-and-take and actual exchanges of thoughts and images. And Rahman is making a lot of effort at his Hindi now and is improving – like he sent me this message after getting his awards that said, “Shukriya, huzoor!”

Do you recollect your first meeting with Rahman?
It’s been 11 years since Dil Se…happened. I first met him at his old studio and whether there or at his current studio, the atmosphere is very pious. You have seen how Bal Krishna looks – dark and with long tresses and Rahman reminded me in those days of some chhota bhagwan with that child-like innocence. Now of course he keeps his hair short, but the innocence remains. (Laughs)

I remember when Lata (Mangeshkar)ji sang for the first time for him in that film – Jiya jale – she told me that she felt very lonely in the singer’s cabin!! That was because the studio’s design was such that the singer and those sitting at the recording console could not see each other and could only converse through the machine. Lataji found that very disconcerting and so I suggested to Rahman that I would sit in a particular corner so that she could see me while she was singing.

Of course his current studio is built in the conventional way! But there’s a beautiful tradition that he follows that few know about, because he is a very religious and spiritual person.

And what is that?
The moment his singer stands in front of the microphone, Rahman lights a candle outside. And that candle burns on for hours. So whenever I want to ask him when he is planning to start the recording, I jokingly asked him, “Mombatti kab jalaaoge (When will you going to light the candle)?”

Do you always go down to Chennai for sittings?
I usually do. But Rahman does record occasionally in Mumbai at Ranjit Barot’s studio. He even comes to my home sometime – and when he does, the case is very different from how other music directors do, like he does not use the harmonium. It’s him, his Blackberry with his voice and me. So I always say that we are three people here – Rahman, his mobile phone and me – making music! He stores his ideas and tunes and even records his voice on that.

How have you seen Rahman evolve over the years?
He seems much more at ease now, more at home with the Hindi film mijaaz or temperament. When I was doing Dil Se…, he had mostly done the dubbed Hindi versions of his South Indian films. He has of course grown internationally for the last few years and recorded abroad too. In short, he has spoken in a language of music that has grown beyond the boundaries of human languages and speech to communicate with the world.

Essentially, Jai ho is an “item” number. Whenever there is virtually no situation, how do the words come to you?
Obviously, it is the composition that inspires again, along with the script and the director. I will give you an example – Saathiya’s O humdum suniyo re. Shaad Ali wanted this song during the credit titles. People criticised me for what they called ridiculous images like Nange paao chand aayega, but I was using the moon to symbolise the hero’s character. The hero and heroine are secretly married and he goes stealthily to her house every night. The song was the storyline in a nutshell.

You have always resonated more with music composers who broke convention – like R.D.Burman, Vishal Bhardwaj and Rahman.
Yes, I feel closer to their compositions as they give me scope to write blank verse, which is the form I like the most.

 

R.D.Burman and A.R.Rahman are the reigning icons of GenerationX, often at the cost of injustice to contemporaries. How would you compare them personally and professionally?
You cannot compare creative people. But yes, they had a common attitude to work – they were both bold enough to experiment and to look for something new and different.For them, music was not about just business but also about expanding horizons.

I worked with Pancham mainly in the films I directed, or at least scripted. He expanded all his horizons and kept himself clued on to what was happening in Western music and in the world, like Rahman does. He too recorded abroad but times were different then, Hollywood had not opened up and Pancham recorded abroad only for occasional albums, whereas Rahman has got to do films. So you could say that Pancham was the breeze and Rahman is the wind – the difference being the velocity!

Interestingly, both were also rooted in folk – Pancham in Eastern folk with its Baul and Bhatiali and Rahman in Southern folk.

Trends and times, as you rightly say, dictate even innovation.
True. Pancham then could not break the mukhda-antara structure, but he weaved in the Bengali tradition – sanchaari – by adding verses in-between in place of interludes in some songs. For a children’s song in my Kitaab, Pancham had even played on tables of different heights instead of the tabla. Similarly the way Rahman uses the sarod or the guitar is so different from the way others use them.

But having said that, and with all due respect to Rahman, there are other music directors today who are also hugely talented, like Vishal Bhardwaj, with whom I am doing completely different music scores in Kaminay and Ishqiya and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Then there is Ilayaraja, with whom I had a great time reuniting 25 years after Sadma in the forthcoming film SRK.