Varun Grover is a man who dons many hats. He’s a writer, a lyricist and a stand-up comedian. He also has his directorial plans in place. We recently caught up with him to discuss his journey so far, writing lyrics for the multiple award-winning documentary KATIYABAAZ, what he feels is lacking in Hindi films and a lot more. Excerpts:
I read that your parents bought you and your brother a lot of books to read during your childhood. Also that you decided to write while you were studying engineering. Can you tell us a bit about your journey so far?
Yes, the journey started in my childhood. I got lots of books to read. I grew up in a house in which the usual gift would be a book. I used to really look forward to going to a bookshop in Lucknow. There was a bookshop called ‘Universal Books’. It was like the Disneyland for us. We used to really enjoy going there. We went there only three-four times in a year on special occasions like birthdays or when our results came out. So I got attracted to reading and automatically to writing. As a kid, I wrote my first short story at the age of 10. It got published in a very famous children magazine of that time. So since then it was always at the back of mind to someday explore the profession of writing. My initial thought was to become a journalist. Because being in a small town, that is the only safe profession you can think which is associated with writing. You can’t really think of going to Bombay and becoming a writer. So that was not an option in my head. Option was that I’ll go to a journalism school and do a day job as a journalist. But as I went to college in Banaras and stated doing theatre, I realised that I can write and that there are other options also. I still did not have the courage to straight away go to Bombay from college. So I took up a job in a software company but luckily it was in Pune. So I kept travelling to Bombay every weekend or so just trying to explore things and met some people. That’s how I finally got the courage to do something. So I moved to Bombay after one year of job in Pune. So that’s how the journey has been.
And your first project was The Great Indian Comedy Show?
Yes, I had moved to Bombay in 2004 and in 2005 I got that first break with The Great Indian Comedy Show. I was writing the stand-up comedy portions for the anchors like Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak and Shekhar Suman.
Talking about KATIYABAAZ, how did you get associated with this film?
The directors, Fahad and Deepti approached me because I think they had loved my work in GANGS OF WASSEYPUR. In the first cut of the film, before the rough cut, the reference music was mostly from Wasseypur. So the initial plan was to get Sneha Khanwalkar and me to do the music. But it didn’t work out with Sneha for some time constraints and all. So they told me to write the lyrics and then would figure who will score the music for that. So I watched the film and wrote one version which they didn’t like much. Then I wrote another version which was closer to what they were looking for. They took that version to Indian Ocean who composed it.
Does it always happen that the lyrics come first and the music follows?
Not really. In WASSEYPUR, it was a 50-50 thing. There were some songs which were written first and composed later and some were composed first and then I wrote the lyrics. For KATIYABAAZ, I wrote first and they composed it later.
What was your first reaction when you saw the film?
When I saw the film, I was really, really fascinated because growing up in Lucknow I could completely relate to the film. We had our own local guy who would do the same job as Loha Singh does in the film. He was from the electricity department but he was obviously doing it illegally. So I could relate to the anger, the irony of the situation and the whole dystopia kind of universe that was created in Kanpur. And Kanpur is just next door to Lucknow. Kanpur and Lucknow are like Bombay and Navi Mumbai. So it was almost like watching the same like that I had left behind 10 years ago and the fact that nothing has changed in those places.
Did your experience of staying in Lucknow help you to write the lyrics?
Totally. Lucknow as well as Kanpur. Since my younger brother used to study in Kanpur, I used to go there a lot. So I know the city, its lingo and dialect. So it helped me a lot in writing the lyrics.
How was the experience working with Vikramaditya Motwane and the entire team of KATIYABAAZ?
It was fantastic. It was almost like surprise after surprise. Because when they called me to watch the film, I had no idea what the film is. They didn’t even tell me the name. They just said you have been recommended by somebody. So when I watched the film, it was the first surprise. It was from Kanpur and was such a relatable issue. And it was done with so much humour. It’s my forte as I am also a stand-up comedian. It had lots of humour and satire. That was the first surprise. Then when I wrote the song, I didn’t know who was composing it. And I have been a huge Indian Ocean fan for a long, long time. So that was the second surprise when they called me and said that Indian Ocean is performing the song. Then I came to know that Vikramaditya Motwane is doing the music video. That was the third big surprise. I think he’s one of the top five directors we have in Bollywood right now.
Can you talk us through the process of writing lyrics?
There are two ways. One is where I write the words first. For that I generally need a brief from the directors and a script. In this documentary, I had to see the entire documentary to get the feel of what the thing is and what kind of lingo to be used to what kind of mood to be used. That is one way. After that I’m mostly given a free hand to decide what the feature is and what kind of melody I would create. It’s a loose melody I create. It’s not like the music directors will ultimately stick to that melody. But I still create one tune in my head and then I write. So that is one way. Then we take it to the music director and the music director will then come back with a tune. Sometimes there’s a slight change if a word is sticking out or if a verse is not working. Then we rework the song and it gets to the final stage. The other way is where the melody is first decided and the composer comes up with a tune. In that way it’s easier for me because then I don’t generally have to rework. I get one more brief apart from the film and director’s brief and whatever they want. I now know that this is the tune and the tune also has its own mood. From the writer’s point of view, it’s difficult to write but ultimately I know that it’s not going to be changed. So it helps me in that way. So there are pros and cons in both the ways. But I still prefer the second way as there’s more clarity in what they want.
What do you think is lacking in the Hindi film industry? Irrespective of the box office success or failure, do you feel we lack good content films?
Basically it’s insecurity with our own stories. We just don’t tell our stories. We feel very insecure with new ideas because the industry right now is being run by marketing people or people who are MBAs who have only one way of thinking which is market survey. They feel that what is being accepted is the only thing which can run. They are just repeating the formulas. They have created one formula and they are just repeating it over and over again. I think if they put their energies behind good ideas, it will fly. But they are not doing that. There are very few people who are putting their energies behind good ideas like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bharadwaj. These people are telling their own stories. They are not afraid of new content. Like Dibakar made KHOSLA KA GHOSLA and then made OYE LUCKY! LUCKY OYE! and then LOVE SEX AUR DHOKA. So he’s changing genres and every film there’s something new and not at all a copy of his previous film. So that is what is needed I think by more people. Now Yash Raj Films has funded TITLI which is really brave. I hope they market is as well as they are marketing DAAWAT-E-ISHQ. Because if they market it well, it will work. It will spread a new kind of genre. Because it’s a big sign that Yash Raj is funding a film like TITLI. If that woks, there will be at least one film by every big production house like UTV and Viacom and Eros of this caliber. So I hope it works.
You had one said in an interview a while ago that we don’t pay much attention to lyrics. Do you still maintain that?
Yes, but in the last two years or so things have changed slightly. Again, because of the marketing, people have started feeling that lyrics have to have something. They can’t just be random words and they can’t just write on the melody and composition. They have to find a catch phrase at least. Even Honey Singh’s songs have one catch line. Even if it’s Char botal vodka, kaam mera rozka, it’s a new thought which I completely approve of. Even if it’s pedestrian poetry by some standard, but it’s still a thought which is not in the genre of ‘Saajan mera us paar hai, milne ko dil bekaraar hai’. It’s not that ordinary. It’s something extraordinary. It can be distasteful or disgraceful but that is a subjective matter. It’s trying out new things. Even ‘Aunty police bula legi is a new phrase. Somebody had to put his mind behind into this line. It’s almost like the Coke campaign by Prasoon Joshi saying ‘Thanda matlab coka cola’. It’s a relatable thought. People used it for so many things. People used it for Sheila Dixit and even their house parties. That is the power of great lyrics. Now that phrase will stay in public conscience for a long time while ‘Saajan mera us paar hai’ will stay with only a few film geeks.
You are also a stand-up comedian. How do strike a balance between everything?
I don’t know. It’s always a daily struggle and I don’t think I am striking very good balance. I am not a full time stand-up comic. I do only one show or two shows every two-three months. Rest of the time I spend either writing lyrics or screenplays.
What is the status of your directorial venture MAA BHAGWATIYA IIT COACHING?
We are looking for fundings right now. We have one producer who dropped in – Nitin Mahajan. But we are looking for more fundings. The plan is to start the film mid next year.
Have you finalised the casting?
It’ll have 16-17 year old kids. No star cast as such. We will start auditioning only next year because if we audition right now, they may look older next year.
What are your future projects?
I have written a film called MASAAN. It’s a Banarasi term for shamshan. It’s going in production in October.