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Bollywood’s exclusive club of female lyricists

Oct 10, 2013

Even now women in the industry are exploited while the men rule, says Maya Govind, a very creative and popular poetess.

Ila Arun

Mumbai: What is common to these Hindi film numbers besides the fact that they were chat toppers of their time?  ‘Pritam aan milo…’ (1955), ‘Jabse tumne bansi bajaya’ (1974), ‘Kahan se aaye badara’ (1981), ‘Tum salamat raho’ (1983), ‘Aap yeh sochake milate huye’ (1998), ‘Aafton ke parinde’ (2012), ‘Piya o re piya’ (2012)? Well, they have been penned by women poets and lyricists, a truly rare species in Bollywood.

Around the world, audiences cannot imagine a desi potboiler without dramatic song-and-dance sequences that take the story forward. With the exception of a few, Hindi movies have anywhere between five to 22 songs, on an average. Yet, 99.99 per cent of them has been written by men. In fact, the first woman to enter this exclusive club of writers and poets was Saroj Mohini Nayyar, the wife of late composer, O P Nayyar, when she wrote ‘Pritam aan milo’ in 1955 for Guru Dutt’s ‘Mr and Mrs 55’. She may not have been very prolific but she was certainly a pioneer. She is known to have written only one more song, although it did not achieve the same status as the other one did. After that, it took two decades for another woman to make her presence felt – Maya Govind, a very creative and popular poetess.

“In a way, I was the first full-fledged woman lyricist,” says Govind. “In those days, women still shunned the world of films. The late actor, Bharat Bhushan, had heard my poems and invited me to pen lyrics for his film. Then I kept getting work through word-of-mouth publicity. Over the years, I have written for some 450 films, including ‘Gaja Gamini’, ‘Main Khiladi Tu Anari’, ‘Hafta Vasool’, among others.”

Govind is a poet and formerly a Kathak dancer, and has been an active participant in several kavi sammelans (poet meets) across the country. Her immense talent has also been widely recognised and she is the recipient of several literary awards. Great success has followed her right from her very first songs – ‘Jabse tumane bansi bajayi re’ and ‘Naino mein darpan hai’ for the 1974 film, ‘Aarop’, which starred Vinod Khanna and Saira Banu.

The question to ask is that if Govind could be a real success in the world of Bollywood poetry, why then has there been such a dearth of female lyric writers? After her, the only names that come to mind are those of Rani Malik, Prabha Thakur and Indu Jain. Of course, recently, three new talents have proved their mettle – Kausar Munir, Anvita Dutt Guptan and Priya Panchal. Folk singer Ila Arun has written a couple of songs as has rapper Hard Kaur. But, apart from them, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else. It may be plausible that some name has been missed, although that’s not a very certain possibility.

Now compare their modest number with that of their male counterparts. The list of male lyricists is quite literally endless, starting from yesteryear’s greats like Kavi Pradeep, Shakeel Badayuni, Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Anand Bakshi, right up to wordsmiths like Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Nida Fazli to current favourites such as Prasoon Joshi, Amithabh Bhattacharya, Irshad Kamil and others.

Composer Ismail Darbar, well known for creating the soundtracks of films such as ‘Devdas’, ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, ‘Tera Jadoo Chal Gaya’ and others, remarks, “Who says there is a dearth of women lyricists. The problem is with the producers and directors in our industry. They don’t want to take the trouble of looking out for new talent. They don’t want to take any risk nor do they have the time to nurture new talent. They prefer tried and tested people.  And contrary to the popular notion, composers don’t really have any choice in the selection.’’

And this when Indian cinema is actually marking its centenary! There has been tremendous progress made in all aspects of filmmaking – content, screenplay, technology, audience’s preferences and the way film personalities pick their projects. But what really hasn’t changed is that this industry is still largely male-dominated and although there are any number of female lead actors commanding great money and respect, in other more technical departments, women take a back seat.

“Yehan abhi bhi auretein pisti hain aur mard raaj karate hein (Even now women in the industry are exploited while the men rule),’’ comments Govind, matter of fact. One of the reasons behind fewer women opting for this vocation is that they asked to go for sittings to places which may not appear “very conducive”. As it is women find it very tough to move around the city unless they are in a group. Frequent late night brainstorming sessions in studios are also a deterrent. Another factor that could prove a deterrent is that women may be hesitant to ask producers for work, given its almost total domination by well-established male talent.

Despite these challenges, today, there are some women who have forayed into this competitive world and become quite successful in a short span of time. Of late, several popular numbers have been written by female lyricists. Kausar Munir has penned ‘Mashallah’, ‘Saiyaara’ and also the anthemic ‘Ishaqzaade’. In one of her interviews, she admitted that being born and brought up in Bandra, a posh suburb of Mumbai, has meant that she doesn’t know Urdu very well, but she loves to remember words. In fact, the words of her most popular song, ‘Ishaqzaade’, came to her as she was trying to recall words like nawabzaade, shahzaade, haramzaade, and “so a person in ishq has to be ishaqzaade!” she had observed.

Anvita Dutt Guptan is another sought-after lyricist, who has been able to establish her name in the industry. Her songs, ‘Kukkad kamal da’, ‘Khuda jaane main fida hoon’, ‘Hosh hawas hai laapata’, ‘Laung da lashkara’, and so on, are on every radio station and I-pod in town. Then there is Priya Panchal, who has just joined this group with songs like ‘Karma is a bitch’, ‘Khoon choos le’, ‘Pee pa pee pa ho gaya’…

Incidentally, none of these newcomers are really “freshers”. As a singer, Panchal has more than 2,000 shows to her credit with Kalyanji-Anandji’s troupe. Munir comes from the television industry while Guptan was in the advertising world. As they are not very conversant with Urdu or pure Hindi, Hinglish is their favoured language – which makes them popular with the emerging generation.

Of course, this trio has been lucky enough to work with the big banners like Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions, and so they have not had to face exploitation and have, instead, been encouraged to test their talent. They have also been given due credit for their successes. But then most are not that fortunate. “Earlier in our industry, everyone respected each other. Good manners were observed. But I see today’s youngsters and wonder how can good songs come from them when they are surrounded by filthy language and ill-mannered people? They must find the industry real tough,’’ observes Govind.

Even the newcomers would agree with this assessment. Veterans like Govind and Darbar and others have a piece of advice: “One has to be strong and not bow down to demands that one don’t want to meet. Finally, real talent does get noticed. Things are changing so, perhaps, we will see more women lyricists soon!”

A prospect fervently to be wished for.

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