What is your earliest memory of writing poems?
When I was in class 5, my elder sister used to teach me at home. As strict as she was, I remember that one time I was busy penning down something on the last page of the book instead of solving sums, and she gave me a tight whack! She then snatched the copy to read my deed and was baffled at what was written by such a young boy — Mere babul main raat ko nahi aaungi, teri galiyaan bohot hai sooni, main aate-aate ghabraungi. Other than that, I used to religiously listen to Aabshaar on the All India Radio and pen down every ghazal they played. Throughout college, I also wrote love letters on behalf on my friends.
Why did you give up journalism?
I belong to a middle class family from Malerkotla in Singrur, Punjab. If you suggest the idea of going to Mumbai and becoming a lyricist, people raise a lot of questions and eyebrows. They will say things like, ‘naukri nahi mili, isiliye Bambai jaa raha hai’ and I wasted a lot of time responding to them. On completing my PhD in Hindi, I had no option but to take up a job as a journalist. In a moment of epiphany I asked myself if I wanted to be a Khushwant Singh or Kuldeep Nayar, and the answer was no.
Then how did you land in Bombay?
During my stint in Chandigarh as a journalist, I went to interview veteran director Lekh Tandon who was in need of a dialogue writer for his show. I wrote for him while he was in the city. On returning to Mumbai, he called me to write for a few more episodes. So, I took a leave from my job for 15 days but returned only after six months! By then, I was served a notice and terminated from employment. Later, on being introduced to Sandesh Shadilya, I recited some 25 ghazals for him in a go! He then introduced me to Imtiaz Ali. My association with these people has been long and strong.
Unlike most lyricists today, you’ve taken huge risks with Urdu and Punjabi diction…
I cannot write superficial songs and have walked out of projects when asked to compromise on this principle. Often times, music directors ask you to write a song around phrases they think will become the next chart-buster, but I am not in agreement. The commercial pressure puts the quality at stake. I believe in enjoying the process instead.