Hussain Haidry on turning political poems into film songs

Hussain Haidry, the lyricist of Mukkabaaz on being new kid on the block and trying to strike a a balance between the political and the poetic

In February 2017, Hussain Haidry recited his poem ‘Hindustani Musalmaan’, about identity and the politics surrounding it at a performing arts venue in Mumbai. The YouTube video went viral and the freelance writer became a social-media sensation. A year later, Haidry has written the lyrics for the January 12 release Mukkabaaz. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, the film tells the story of an aspirant Shravan’s (Vineet Kumar Singh) revolt and rise as a boxer in Bareilly. The setting is fresh for songs about caste, bureaucracy, and politics; all of which are addressed in the electrically-charged protest tunes such as ‘Bahut Hua Samman’, and the euphemistic ‘Chhipkali’. The Indore-born chartered accountant quit his job in 2015 to pursue a career as a full-time lyricist and screenwriter. Edited excerpts from an interview…

How did Mukkabaazhappen?

Screenwriter and lyricist Varun Grover asked me to meet Anurag Kashyap as he was looking for a new lyricist for his film. I went and met Kashyap and read some of my poems and he asked me to write the songs with the film’s debutant music director Rachita Arora.

Was it that easy to get a break?

Oh no, I mean, I have been making friends at open mic poetry readings where I met Varun Grover some seven years ago. I have been trying to train myself to write for a long time. Also I read the film’s script and wrote two situational tracks, after which Kashyap showed interest.

So you have been struggling for seven years?

Not really, I used to work as a chartered accountant so surviving in the city was not a headache. Last year, my friend Gazal Dhaliwal who is the screenwriter of Qarib Qarib Singlle introduced me to director Tanuja Chandra, and I wrote two songs ‘Tanha Begum’ and ‘Tu Chale Toh’ for the film. I never thought I would meet Kashyap and write for his film. I am a big fan of his work and I gushed when I met him. Writing five songs for Mukkabaaz is a big deal for me.

Your recitation of the poem ‘Hindustani Musalmaan’ went viral last year, is that when things began to look bright?

I got the Mukkabaaz offer a month before the poem. I was not sure I can write lyrics but Grover and Dhaliwal kept insisting and that’s how I got the encouragement to find a synthesis between poems and lyrics.

‘Hindustani Musalmaan’ is a mix of the political and the personal, and that’s not how Bollywood songs traditionally work.

Yes. But if it can be treated musically, then it’s possible.

A recent song you can think of where you find the perfect balance of poetry and lyrics?

‘Jee Ve Sohaneya’ written by Irshad Kamil for Jab Harry Met Sejal.

That’s a song most lyricists have singled out as their favourite track of last year.

It is quite exceptional poetry, expressing love philosophically and soulfully.

How does the song ‘Chhipkali’ literally about a lizard fit in Mukkabaaz?

It was not supposed to be in the film. It is a poem with political undercurrents that I wrote and was narrating to a friend when Kashyap heard it and said he wants to use it in the film. I told him it would not be a good idea but he used it in a montage sequence where the hero’s psyche is being explained as he struggles with his job, corruption, the political environment, and his love life. Lyricist Swanand Kirkire suggested how to turn the poem into lyrics by tweaking the metre for rhythm and Vijay Arora has sung it wonderfully.

Do you have a background in music?

I studied Indian classical music for a year, and I can play the harmonica and the flute.

What about your fascination with poetry and lyrics, when did that start?

My father owns a book shop in Indore so I read a lot of books growing up. I studied Urdu as a child in a madrasa and have also read the poems of all the great Urdu poets. In 2004, when I had to participate in a function, I wanted to impress the crowd with my knowledge of songs and poems and so I began to take a keen interest in shayari (not the sms-variety). Reading the poems of Nida Fazli, Bashir Badr, Jaun Elia, Ahmad Faraz, Dushyant Kumar and so many others from both India and Pakistan helped me hone my skills as a poet. The lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi have been a constant source of inspiration to write.

What next after Mukkabaaz?

Frankly, nothing else right now. Mukkabaaz happened just like that. It’s only [afterwards that] we will know if someone wants to hire me for another song writing job.