PlanetBollywood.com correspondent Amanda Sodhi brings you an in-depth interview with lyricist Shellee / Shailender Singh Sodhi, who has written beautiful songs for films including “Admissions Open,” “Dev D,” “Quick Gun Murugan,” “Acid Factory,” as well as songs for the band Agnee. Here Shellee discusses his work and background in detail and also offers insight into the Bollywood entertainment industry.
The OST “Admissions Open,” which has music composed by Amit Trivedi and lyrics by you, very recently released. Tell us about the lyrics.
Now I want to write Dohe, Chopaaiyaan, Ghazals, Thumris, etc. with the film songs of course. These are my latest lines—
Kutton ki tu fikr naa kar, kyaa kagaa khaayegaa
Poshaakeyn toh hongi par udh dhaagaa jaayegaa
Jungle saarey dard ke maarey
Kat-tey rehengey yun hi bechaarey
Gham hai yehi ga, ma, sa...Rey
Sunn re baabu, system be-kabu
Shor hi shor aaju-baaju
Sunn re yaar seheli
Vatan ki vaat lageli.
The songs you wrote for “Dev D”—Pardesi, Mahi Mainu, Hikknaal, Dhol Yaaraa Dhol—got a terrific response, yet songs with lyrics penned down by you after that are quite few. Has it been a conscious decision or is it really very competitive for lyricists in Bollywood?
In fact, I wanted "Dhol Yaaraa Dhol " to be more popular than "Pardesi" or any other song of “Dev D” written by me, but these things are in the hands of the decision makers of music promotion and marketing guys. Promotion and publicity plays a very important role nowadays. Sometimes average songs get promoted and are popular while a brilliant song is not heard by anybody because it was not promoted through music video on different channels.
In that case, how important, then, is it for individual lyricists to also work on marketing themselves to gain visibility?
People market themselves by appearing on channels, Page Three parties giving interviews or creating controversies. But if anybody is not talented enough then marketing can’t help after a point. Being talented is the real key to success and of course hard work. And now everybody wants to be visible. Scenario has changed.
Whether it be phrases like “bhantaadhaar,” “ankhiyaan dunaali,” or “’feem daa nashaa tere nainaa vich jee,” “khushiyon ki khatiyaa,” you really paid close attention to using innovative imagery and various dialects in your lyrics…Tell us a bit about the lyrics-writing process for “Dev D.”
I wanted to use words like "Bantaadhaar" and phrases like "Khushiyon Ki Khatiyaa." I love folk music of all regions, I love Ghazals, old Hindi film songs of 60's, 70's and some of 80's. I like folk idioms, phrases, sayings and different dialects. Basically, one has to develop a total fascination for folk idioms, dialects and music to write the right kind of words for a particular song. I never read the script of “Dev D,” but of course Anurag Kashyap called me to his office to show the complete film before the final edit, so that I can do justice to the situations. Anurag gives freedom once he has faith in you and your skills.
Have you traveled a lot over India to gain familiarity with various dialects?
I have traveled, but I haven’t traveled a lot—I still have to travel and meet lots of people from India’s interior area and listen to their folk music and interact with them. I have friends who are very familiar with different dialects. I myself know Haryanvi, different Punjabi dialects and Rajasthani and Avadhi, Chattisgadhi and Pahadhi dialects. Different kind of folk songs help a lot also to become familiar with dialects.
You’ve also written lyrics for “Quickgun Murugun,” “Acid Factory,” the band Agnee and Krishna’s album “Kabhi Ishq Gali Naa Jaiyyo.” What else have you been working on?
I loved the way the band Agnee is promoting the song "Raanjhnn Yaar Di." The song is sung brilliantly by Mohan. And, I just go to Agnee's shows to see Mohan, Koko and the other band members of Agnee creating magic on stage—I love Agnee.
The song of "Quickgun Murugun" was not promoted at all—there was no music video of the song and the same happened with the song of "Acid Factory." As I told you, music videos and publicity plays a major role. If all over the country people don't listen or see promotional songs of a movie before its release, then how will they know about the song? Nowadays, even music lovers feel criminal to buy a music CD. All is available on free sites and jantaa prefer downloading it.
I am waiting for the film F.O.S.L.A.. I want to do that kind of work.
Another interesting film I am working on as a lyricist is "Ye Jo Mohabbat Hai "directed by Pravin Kumar. In this film one of my songs is sung by Raghubir Yadav, the legendary theatre and film actor who really sings well and he has got an amazing folk voice.
Not all of our readers are aware of “Frustrated One-Sided Lovers Association”/F.O.S.L.A. Tell us about the project.
F.O.S.L.A. is a youth-centric film with mind-blowing songs. Kahaani bataaney ka riwaaz nahin hai aaj-kal India mein, doobaaraa kaam nahin miltaa (laughs).
Tell our readers a bit about your background, and how you got into lyrics-writing.
I am a poet. I was always a poet. I used to write love letters for students and friends for chaai-samosa, beer or for some money in my college days. My dad Shri Himmat Singh Sodhi was a poet, scholar and an intellectual person. I did my major from department of Indian theatre, Chandigarh at Punjab University, and I did theatre in Ambala Cantt and Patiala. I was brought up in a very literary environment—comrades and authors used to come to my dad for discussions. I have that influence on me and I learned and experienced a lot from "Fakkadhgiri," bohemian lifestyle. A writer has to wander and should experience life thru traveling also to get stories and ideas. Writing lyrics was never a conscious decision. I want to write scripts for films—I have my own ideas also. Later, I want to direct my stories or other peoples stories. Before “Dev D,” I wrote lyrics for seven films, but all of them met the same fate—they didn’t reach the masses for different reasons.
I believe you once mentioned that your father introduced you to Gulzar and he offered you a role as an actor but your true dream was to learn direction under him. Do you still wish to make the transition from lyricist to director?
Gulzar saab wanted me to act, maybe he was seeing an actor in me. Lots of people still try to convince me to act. It happens…you want to become something...people want to make something out of you. Yes, I came to Bombay to assist him. He doesn’t even know that I am writing lyrics because I haven’t met him since a long time.
So how hard is it to break into the industry as a lyricist?
I am just a beginner and waiting for my songs to get released and I have to work hard to achieve my goals. Now there is lot of competition, but if one is good then will have his or her share of success. "Nishchay kar apni jeet karo" (from Gurubaani).
Any advice for aspiring artists?
Everybody has his own journey, experiences. There is no fixed rule, no mathematics here. Just work hard in the right direction and keep on improving, updating your skills.
You also enjoy photography and have made documentaries, worked as an anchor, and did theater work also. Is it hard to juggle so many interests?
I love doing photography because of traveling and different colors, textures and moods you get in a fixed frame. I have a few photographer friends and I am just working on one documentary film. It’s not complete yet. But I want to make few documentaries, too.
Oh, well tell us about the documentary film you are working on.
It’s a film about Hakka Chinese Community of China living in Kolkata since very long. It’s their struggle, their life and their connections and roots their fathers and grandfathers have in China.
You’re also a panelist on the censor board’s advisory board? Censor Board is a certification body of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry of India. It's honorary work. We see lots of films and suggest cuts.
Back to lyrics-writing. What has been the least amount of time you spent writing a song, and what has been the longest amount of time you’ve spent writing a song?
Seven minutes to eight days. Again, in film song writing you have to listen to some useful and some bad suggestions. But each and every film is a learning experience.
Do you have pre-written lyrics or do you like writing to tune?
I work both ways. Yes, I also do have already written "mukhdhaas" and songs. But most of the times I have to write fresh songs.
What have been your observations after meeting various music composers? What have you noticed in terms of what they look for in a lyrics-writer?
In Bombay, people don't speak Hindi like we do speak in North India. Even Punjabis who are living in Bombay cant speak good, pure Punjabi. Most of the times I have to explain to music composers about the importance or beauty of a particular word or phrase. I am not a linguist or a language scholar, but I love to experiment with my songs and don’t want to write similar kind of songs.
Any favorite poets?
Ustaad Daaman, Faiz, Paash, Shiv Batalvi, Nazir Akbarabadi, Fanishwar Renu, Bulle Shah, Majaaz, Kabir and many more. The list is very long.
Any favorite lyrics?
Many. “Aawaaz de kahaan hai," "Tu pyaar kaa saagar hai," "Nain so nain naahi," "Humein tumse pyaar kitna," "Yeh raat yeh chaandni," " Dil toh bachaa hai ji," and many ghazals of Mehdi Hassan Saab, Ghulam Ali, Nusrat Saab and Farida Khanum's. Bahut hain…kyaa kyaa ginwaaun.
What are the worst lyrics you’ve ever heard?
I don’t listen to worst songs and if I listen sometimes, I just forget them then and there.
Are there any singers you’d really like to sing your lyrics? Any music composers you’d love to work with?
I like Mohit Chauhan's voice, Raahat Fateh Ali, Krishna Beura, Richa Sharma and a few more are there. Music composers—Rohit Sharma, A.R. Rehman, Vishal Bhardwaj, Amit Trivedi, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and a few more .
Is there anything else you’d like to add to the interview, Shellee?
Yeah, sure. Writers and lyricists are underpaid and get exploited a lot. Hardly anybody wants to pay them good money, but all the producers want an extremely well-written script. Why would anybody work hard if he is getting peanuts as remuneration? And, as far as the royalty issue is concerned, lyricists and music composers are still fighting with producers and music companies for their fair share of profit. Domestic royalty is very less and international royalty is also less. Lyricists get a one time payment—they don't do shows like singers or background score or jingles like music composers. We don't get any share from ring tones and caller tunes of the songs we make. So, whatever they get per song is their only money. We must respect lyricists, music composers and writers in India. We must respect intellectual property rights. Indian government should also protect our rights and take strong steps about royalty issues.
It’s been great interviewing you. Wishing you all the best!
Thanks, Amanda. Chak de fattey! Cheers!
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