It just so happens that I speak to Hussain Haidry on the day the video of a Muslim man in Assam being shot by the state police, and then his bullet-wounded body being desecrated by a photographer, goes viral. The poet, lyricist, and screenwriter is among a handful few from the Hindi film industry unafraid to criticise the current regime—not an easy thing for a public figure associated with films, even more so for someone like Haidry, a Muslim. It's an identity that is both at the heart of who he is and a constant reminder that he lives in a country—and world—that's increasingly being divided along religious lines.
It is this constant conflict that "Hindustani Musalman", Haidry's impassioned poem from 2017 that went viral, addresses when it talks about the complex layers that make up the Indian muslim identity, one who has both taken a dip in the Ganga as well as grown up reading Urdu newspapers—and, one who now smokes cigarettes. Haidry tells me that one of the reasons—and perhaps the most important reason—why he can't stay at his parents' house in Indore, even as many left Mumbai after the pandemic, is because he is not allowed to smoke there. "Hahakar mach jayega bhai ghar par," he says over the phone from Mumbai, where he is in since 2016 after he decided to try his luck in Hindi films.
It would seem that Haidry had a completely different life prior to that—head of finance in a healthcare company in Kolkata, and a pass out from the Indian Institute of Management—but he was already initiated into the world of open mics and Urdu poetry in 2009, where he met likeminded people and future colleagues like Varun Grover and Ghazal Dhaliwal. The break in Bollywood came with a couple of songs in Tanuja Chandra's Qarib Qarib Single (2017), and then, in Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz (2018). Last week, Haidry's name popped up as the co-writer and dialogue writer of Abhishek Chaubey's excellent short in the new Netflix anthology Ankahi Kahaniya. In this interview, he speaks about being political, lyrics writing in a rapidly-changing Hindi cinema, and why Dard-e-Disco is a great song.
The format of Indian cinema is changing. Songs are fading into the background. Lyricists are often left out from the credits. Is it a great time to be a lyricist?
I am grateful and thankful that I am a lyricist. Is it a great time? I am not so sure. If you want to be a lyricist of songs which are tailor-made to go viral by big music companies, then any time is as good as today. On a creative level—even though we have moved from lip sync to montage and as a result there may not be as many songs in a film—good, weird situations are coming up for us to write songs on. There are various themes one can explore.
In Mukkabaaz, I can write about a street fight. In a song from Chacha Vidhayak Hai Humare, I can write about small-town friendships. A lot of interesting situations are coming up. In "Tanha Begum" from Qarib Qarib Single, I am writing about a woman who is on dating sites and is fed up on being single.
Dangal's "Haanikarak Baapu" is in a weird situation. But then in the same film, there is also "Gilehrya", which is generic. I think the generic-ness of songs is having a slight tilt towards…specificity. It's a good time to be a lyricist in terms of the kind of projects you can be exposed to, and perhaps not a great time also because work in the mainstream is shrinking.
It is also not a great time to be a Muslim in India. As someone who is fairly political and critical about the government, how has life been like for you—in Bollywood and otherwise?
It's the usual things that everyone else goes through. If there's a physical event, you are accosted. Your inbox is full of abuses. They try to throttle your work opportunities by scaring the people associated with you, which is what happened with Takht. They are seeing a muslim guy who is successful, doing poetry, writing lyrics, writing dialogue and screenplays. These are influential circles—even though I am not very influential (laughs). Apan Shah Rukh Khan toh nahi hai. But they understand that is tarah k jagaao pe political banda nahi chahiye hota hai. It's also easy to convince society that this guy must be wrong and they try to make an example out of you: that this is what will happen to you if you speak up.
It is very difficult. It affects one's mental health and one's orientation towards work and life and the world. But we also become thick-skinned after a point, you lose the fear. I didn't have much to begin with, so there is only so much I could lose. And it's not like I have been discriminated against only after 2014. I was facing it since the day I was born. It's just that now the state is brazenly supporting and rewarding people who are behaving criminally against Muslims on a daily basis in various forms. It has been mainstreamed. I don't think I need to point at people in the Hindi film industry who are supporting this ideology—they are very much out there. But I think people of their stature should counter them, rather than a small-time writer like me, who will be squashed.
Abhishek Chaubey's short in Ankahi Kahaniya is your second work as a screenwriter (after Laakhon Mein Ek Season 2). What do you think you brought to the table?
Abhishek has great clarity and it was so easy to work with him. I was quite surprised that he asked me to write it, because he can ask any big writer. Anybody will write for him. What I was probably able to bring was a lot of images, because the film doesn't have that many dialogues. I wrote it like that, including the cuts, in a way that the images corresponding to the two characters run parallel and converge. Abhishek said he wanted somebody who writes poetry to write the screenplay because he wanted it to be slightly poetic. I hope I was able to justify it.
I could also draw from personal experiences of having been familiar with life in a Bombay chawl. I have stayed in a Mohd Ali road chawl where some relatives used to live. I know the life there, what the buildings are like, the common bathroom system. Generally you have to visit a place a couple of times when you are making it a setting in your film. But I didn't have to do so much 'research'. I could imagine it in my head while sitting at home.
You said in an interview that "For me, the nostalgia era is '90s and 2000s." If I ask you to name a few songs that had an impact on you, what would those be—and why?
For me the nostalgia started forming in the 2000s about the 90s songs. I was obsessed with some songs, like "Pehli Pehli Baar Baliye" from Sangharsh, or "Aawaz Do Humko" from Dushman. Then there is a very cliched song "Tere Dar Par Sanam". Like some films become cults, these songs become moods—a pool of moods where you dive into. Aur bhi kuch gaano ne bohut mudassir kiya tha jaise…I really used to like the songs of Aks, especially the ones that were not celebrated, like "Yeh Raat…Sannate Ki Sij Pe Soye, Saap Si Sarakti Raat". I would wonder back then how songs like these were made. "Phoonk Le" from No Smoking is another song like that. Chalte Chalte has an interesting song 'Tujhpar gagan se barsi agan kyoon hai', which is high quality Urdu poetry.
Every line in 'I am the Best' from Phir Bhi dil Hai Hindustani is funny. Javed Akhtar has written two versions, and four antaras of it. It's not easy. People criticise "Dard-e-Disco", but for me it's a brilliant song. The situation of the song is absurd—a ghatiya film is being made with a ghatiya item number. It demands idiosyncratic writing. But there is also a line which is as good as great Urdu poetry: 'Abr-E-Karam Ghir Ghir Ke Mujhpe Barsa Tha, Abr-E-Karam Barsa To Tab Mein Tarsha Tha'. I can talk on this for hours. Composers like Jatin-Lalit, AR Rahman, Anu Malik, and among lyricists, Javed Akhtar, Anand Bakshi and a bit of Gulzar, have been extreme influences for me.
Your body of work as a lyricist is not big but you've written songs that are quite different from each other. Your songs in Mukkabaaz are rooted in the Hindi heartland, but there are also the two songs from Taish, which have electronic, lounge–ish kind of sounds. Is it a conscious approach to do as many different kinds of work as possible so as not to get typecast? Do lyricists get typecast anyway?
Yes, I am constantly trying to do that. Recently I was asked to write a song which I thought I can't – I don't know the dialect, and I didn't know how to make a song out of the brief. After 5-6 days I figured it out. I keep trying to do different kinds of songs. There are others, apart from the examples you took, like a song from Gurgaon is completely Haryanvi. Even though Mukkabaaz is in a certain zone, there are many variations. "Bohut Hua Samman" is a proper protest song in the East UP dialect, but "Bohut Dookha Mann" is a birha song.
"Bandar Baant" from Sherni was very difficult because I had to write it to a set composition. If you look at the song without the lyrics, it goes in a single flow. There is no space for me to write. So I had to find its meter and get the beat right. I had to fit it to the T, every single syllable had to match.
"Re Baawri" is a simple, old romantic thought. Sometimes the tune is saying something but the brief is saying something else. Sometimes hearing a tune you start imagining certain words, repetitions, variations, certain kind of phonetics. You have to give importance to the melody, otherwise there will be no longevity. Hindi film songs should also exist on its own, so that you can enjoy it even without having seen the film.
As for the second part of your second question, yes lyricists do get typecast. There are lyricists who are perceived in a way and can be categorised, even though everyone tries to write diverse things. My approach is that you can just keep working and hope that someday somebody will notice—just like you did.