He is a writer, lyricist, director, actor – all rolled in to one and has dabbled in advertising, theatre, television and films. In the recent past, the multi-faceted Mayur Puri has written the Hindi dialogues for some of the biggest Hollywood films to have released in India. In this exclusive interview, he talks about his long and eventful journey in Mumbai, challenge of writing dialogues for a dubbed film, popular songs, iconic dialogues of ‘Om Shanti Om’, the biggest setback in his career, plans to direct a film and upcoming projects.
While a lot of people were excited when ‘Mowgli’ was announced, there were some who wondered why another adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’ was made.
Actually director Andy Serkis had planned ‘Mowgli’ much before Walt Disney announced ‘The Jungle Book’. By the time he and his team realised that Walt Disney was making an adaptation of the book, he had already begun working on the film. Netflix stepped in as producers while the film was still being made.
‘The Jungle Book’ is children-friendly literature. Did the fact that ‘Mowgli’ had a dark tone to it compel the makers to release it on Netflix?
In my personal opinion, ‘Mowgli’ deserves to be seen on the big screen. But, Netflix has made it available to a lot of people who would not have got an opportunity to watch it otherwise. Also, these days, people have big home theatre systems at their homes. At the end of the day, content matters and it should reach out to people properly.
Did you realise the dark tone of the film could alienate children?
I did understand that this was not a film for very small children but I also feel children are far more resilient than we give them credit for. They can watch a lot of things which we think they will not be able to watch. As long as the kids know that what they are watching on the screen is not real, it is fine. There is a certain kind of content that is not appropriate for children. I think children above the age of 3-4 years can watch ‘Mowgli’.
‘The Jungle Book’ is an Indian story. Why do you think nobody made it in India till date?
It is too expensive. Anthromorphic animation is very difficult and needs lot of lot investment both in respect of time and money. You get the same performance. It is a very complex process. We do not have such huge budgets. India is the manufacturer of films but in terms of business, we are much behind most of the developed countries. We do not have enough screens to exhibit our films. No producer in India can invest the kind of money making a film like ‘The Jungle Book’ requires as there is no recovery.
Were you a film buff since childhood?
Absolutely! I grew up in a small town called Kalol in Gujarat. It was surrounded by eighty villages. All the farmers and factory workers would come to the town after finishing their work. Because of them, the theatres were flourishing. There were three theatres in the town which is quite a big number considering the size of the town and the times we were living in. I grew up watching a lot of films in theatres.
‘Jumbo’ was the first animation film you worked on.
I had actually started doing CG work before that. I had made a lot of ad films in Ahmedabad. I was the creative director of ‘Jumbo’. It was a Thai film which was dubbed into Hindi. There was no market for children and animation films back then. The first animation film I worked on as a writer was ‘The Jungle Book’. I had already worked with UTV Disney on ‘ABCD’ and ‘ABCD 2’. Initially, I was apprehensive about writing for a dubbed film. I was a big fan of the original ‘The Jungle Book’ which released in the 80s. I told them that I would rewrite the film. I did not want to do a literal translation. I made a six page long treatment note and shared it with the team. In the original version, when they see fire, they call it ‘red flower’. If I call it ‘laal phool’, it would not have made any sense. So, I called it ‘rakht phool’. It sounded dramatic. When you are writing lines for a dubbed film, you must make an effort to translate emotions and not words.
What is the biggest challenge you face while writing Hindi dialogues for a film which is originally made in English?
A lot of people think matching lips is an issue but that is not true. The consonants are the same in every language. You have to make sure that you deliver the emotions in the right way. ‘The Jungle Book’, the first film I wrote, changed the history of dubbed films in India. The Hindi version made more money than the English version in India. After that I worked on films like ‘Captain America Civil War’, ‘Finding Dory’, ‘Moana’, ‘Thor – Rangarok’, ‘Avengers’, ‘Angry Birds’. I do not see it as a challenge but a lot of writers find might it challenging to adapt the characters to an Indian setting. In the Hindi version, I turned ‘Baloo’ from ‘The Jungle Book’ into a Punjabi character because he was a foodie and loved honey. Indians are generally foodies but Punjabis, specifically, are known for their love for food. In the English version, he says, “I can get used to this”. In the Hindi version, I translated it as “yeh hai maze ki zindagi”. The ‘Baloo’ in Mowgli was very different as it was a far more intense film.
Your journey in Mumbai started with the film ‘Tere Liye’. It had a lovely album by Jeet-Pritam. The title track, sung by Sonu Nigam, was wonderful.
I think you are the only person who remembers the album (laughs). The title track was mesmerizing, I agree. We would switch off the lights of the studio and would listen to the song. It had a very different sound and sounded so fresh. I had written hand-written notes and given it to everyone who worked on creating that song. It was a small film about youngsters who run a band. It was a good film but multiplexes had not arrived by then and it was difficult for such films to get a space in theatres. Had the film released today, it would have done very well.
Your association with Sanjay Gadhvi started with that film.
I had met him through common friends in Mumbai. I called him and that was the time he was starting ‘Tere Liye’. I joined him as his chief assistant. I assisted on him two more films, ‘Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai’ and ‘Dhoom’. I had also written ‘Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai’. We worked on ‘Dhoom’ for close to two years.
‘Dhoom’ turned out to be a huge hit.
Yes, the film released on Friday and we partied on Sunday as by then, we knew that it was a sure-shot hit. On Monday, we had even decided that there would be a sequel to the film. I got a lot of offers to write after ‘Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai’ but I only worked on ‘Dhoom’ for two years as an associate director. I learnt a lot at Yash Raj Films and had become very comfortable there. I resigned from Yash Raj Films in September with the love and blessings of Adi sir and Yash ji. Shortly after that, I was supposed to direct a film or Sa Re Ga Ma but the film did not take off. After that, for six months I was struggling for work. Pritam had started doing a lot of films. I used to write dummy lyrics for him and a lot of his earlier songs had mukhdas written by me. Pritam told me that I neither got nor credit for those songs, so I should now start writing complete songs by myself. Pritam had given me a tune and I wrote a few lines. Director Vivek Agnihotri loved it and asked me to come and finish the song in the studio. The song was called ‘Halka Halka’ and was sung by Sonu Nigam and Sunidhi Chauhan. He then asked me to do two mores songs for the film. Suddenly, I ended up writing for five films in 2005. The next year, I wrote for ‘Pyaar Ke Side Effects’ which was my first solo album as a lyricist.
Talking of lyrics, when did you start writing poetry?
I used to write ghazals and poetry since the time I was in school. But, I would write in Hindi and English and not in Urdu. When I was in eleventh standard, I had a friend called Aslam Baig Mirza. One day, he told me “poetry ki asli zabaan Urdu hai” and that I should start writing in Urdu as well. I read a lot of translations of Urdu poetry by Prakash Pandit. I had always wanted to become a director and writing lyrics for films was never on my mind. Pritam discovered this talent and urged me to start doing it on a professional level.
You managed to lend a political context in ‘Chicken Kukdoo’ from ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ wonderfully.
We wrote the song very boldly. When I was a child, Hindus and Muslims or vegetarians or non-vegetarians used to sit and eat together. In the last couple of years, things had changed quite significantly. According to Hinduism, guests are meant to be treated as Gods. So, even if you are a vegetarian, if your guest wants to eat chicken, it his dharma to serve chicken. There is a line in the song which goes “sabhi ek plate mein adjust ho jaayein”. That is how India should be, right? The song did not become a big hit back then but people will remember it for a very long time. I had also written ‘Selfie Le Le Re’ for the film. We took a month each to make the two songs.
‘Mera Mann Jabse Racha Hai’ from ‘Tell Me O Kkhuda’ is one of my favourite songs written by you.
There is an instrument in Rajasthan called morchang. I used it in the line “bajta hai jaise ki mann ka morchang”. I always try to lesser known words in songs, so that more people get to know about them. I really wanted to have at least one song in the film which would have a strong Indian sound to it. I wish the song had become much popular. Shweta Pandit has a very expressive voice and she rendered the song beautifully. Anand Bakshi saab is my ideal. I love the way he rhymed Julie with ‘maamuli’. In a song like ‘Dil Garden Garden Ho Gaya’, I wrote a phrase like ‘dil ka visarjan ho gaya’ which was quite unusual for a song of that nature.
Do you think ‘Om Shanti Om’ was a turning point in your career?
Farah Khan asked me to write the dialogues for ‘Om Shanti Om’. I had no idea that it would turn out to be such a huge film. A lot of doors opened up for me after that. Dialogues like “picture abhi baaki hai mere dost”, “ek chutki sindoor ki ki keemat tum kya jaano Ramesh babu” will always stay fresh in the minds of film lovers.
Shortly, after this career high, you had to deal with a setback. You had to opt out of ‘Tell Me O Kkhuda’, which was supposed to be your first film as a director.
Yes, it was a huge setback for me. I had worked with Esha (Deol) on ‘Dhoom’ and she was a dear friend. She told me Hema (Malini) ji wanted to make a film with her and she said I should write and direct it. We shot for almost seventy days for seven-eight months. Till date, I am not sure what went wrong. A lot of people close to Hema ji did not like the way I worked. How can creative differences crop up after seventy days of shoot? Everybody was happy during the shoot and suddenly, one fine day, I am told to change several things. Still, I agreed to the changes as I wanted to complete the film. I tried to resolve the issue but things did not work out. I respectfully bowed out of the film and gave an NOC to Hema ji. She reshot the entire film. Although I kept mum on the entire incident, she badmouthed me in several interviews. I had lost touch with the industry as I was solely devoted to the film for a year and a half. The incident left a bad taste in my mouth and I took a sabbatical from Bollywood in 2010. My wife and I started an in institute called ‘Story Circus’ where we used to do workshops with children. I worked on it for two years and now, it has become a theatre group. A lot of industry kids used to come there. Farah’s children used to come there too but she did not know I was running it. She must have heard about the institute from someone and sent her children there. One day, as she came to pick her children, she was shocked to see me. She asked me to come and meet her for lunch the next day. She wanted me to do the dialogues for ‘Happy New Year’. We worked on the script for eight months. I also wrote ‘ABCD’ and ‘ABCD 2’ during this period. Soon, I got back to writing lyrics and things were back to being normal again.
It has been several years since that unfortunate incident with ‘Tell Me O Kkhuda’ happened. Why did you not direct a feature film after that?
The reason should be right. I got a lot of offers and even tried making a film a couple of times but it has been difficult to get the right cast. Having said that, directing a film has always been my biggest priority. I want to make the kind of cinema that entertains the audience while offering them something new.
You have made a short film called ‘Firdaws’ which made rounds of several film festivals. Do you plan to release it on some digital platform soon?
No, I have not made any deal with any digital platform yet. It has been a year and a half since we have been sending ‘Firdaws’ it to festivals. Till now, it has been screened at thirty-four festivals and won sixteen awards. Firdaws means the last stage of heaven or seventh heaven in Persian. My film does not have any religious angle but towards the beginning of the film there is a scroll that reads ‘this is a work of fiction just like religion’. A lot of people in Indian festivals have a problem with that line. My friend Rahul Bhat, who is also the lead actor of the film, asked me to work on a short film. Peshawar attacks had happened just then. I did a lot of research to understand why somebody would do these things. I studied the scriptures of different religion and realised every religion talks about heaven. It is a fantasy film revolving around a man. I plan to make two more short films, ‘Pedros Papa Paradise’ and ’33 Metres From Nirvana’. These are very different films but they talk about the concept of finding heaven in Christian and Hindu mythology respectively. It could be a trilogy of sorts.
You have acted in a couple of films as well. Do you enjoy acting?
I have been doing theatre since I was in school. In theatre there is no segregation between actors, directors and other team members. I used to write scripts, direct and serve as an assistant on sets as well. I acted in a lot of plays during those days. I acted in several Gujarati plays in Mumbai too. Writing and directing are my primary passions. When ‘Om Shanti Om’ was being made, Farah asked me to do a cameo in it. I had written ‘Prince’ and was with the team during the shoot when they asked me to play a part in it. The role in ‘Ajab Gazabb Love’ was supposed to be played by Arshad Warsi but he could not do it for some reason. Vashu Bhagnani had bought the rights of a Telugu film called ‘Seema Tapakai’. I was asked to write the film two months before they were about to start shooting. On the day of the muhurat, Sanjay said they are shooting from the next day and I have to play that role. The next day, I started shooting for the film. Acting has never been my main goal but I like doing it. I also act in plays directed my wife. That is quite interesting because during our college days, she used to act in plays directed by me.
You have not written a song in a long time.
I have written party numbers, items songs, romantic tracks – everything. I have even written four Ganpati bhajans. Honestly, I have not received any interesting offers in the recent past. If somebody offers me to write songs for a film which has interesting situations, I would love to do it.
Out of the ones you have written, which has been your favourite song?
It is hard to pick one. I love “Jaane Kya Chahe Mann Baawra” (‘Pyaar Ke Side Effects’), “Bheegi Bheegi” (‘Gangster – A Love Story’), “Issaq Tera” (‘Issaq’), “Tu Hi Tu” (‘Kick’). There were some good songs in ‘I Love NY’ as well. The maximum love I have received till date is for “Teri Ore” from ‘Singh Is Kinng’.
What are you doing next?
I have written the dialogues for two films, one has been produced by Fox Star Studios and the other is a Roy Kapur Films production. I will also do two films for Disney next year. I am also planning to direct a film soon.