WAXING LYRICAL
‘As a writer, creative risk is critical’
Pratibha Umashankar
Friday, October 25, 2013

Prasoon Joshi, the man who can touch millions of hearts with his lyrics, has achieved yet another feat by recreating on screen the inspiring story of Milkha Singh, the phenomenal Flying Sikh. He speaks to Pratibha Umashankar about what went into the making of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and about his romance with words

He’s known for weaving magic with words and 
transporting listeners to a world of romance. But Prasoon Joshi took a great creative risk by entering the arena of sports and penning the story, screenplay, dialogues and lyrics for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — a film on the life of an athlete of yesteryears, that too in a cricket-crazy country like India. “For me, as a writer, creative risk is critical,” says Prasoon. “If I’m not pushing myself and the boundaries of thought and emotion, that’s unfulfilling. I was drawn to the subject and strongly felt I could convert 
the life of the protagonist into a dramatic, compelling script and story. I wondered what made people give their all, every bit, every drop to their profession — be it sport or art. That made Milkha-ji special. It was a labour of love which took me two and a half years. I felt it’d resonate with the audiences.”

Prasoon confesses that he has emerged inspired from the experience and learnt that true heroes don’t believe in half measures. “I realised that athletics is the most basic of sport. There’s no paraphernalia. It’s a zone where you’re alone. In those crucial minutes and seconds, the world ceases to exist. It’s just you and the track, you and the heartbeat. You become one with the moment. I’ve felt the same when I write. The thought, the ink and I are one,” says the poet emotionally.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag becoming a cult film cutting across 
all ages makes him feel profoundly gratified, as deep down, he felt the film would touch hearts. “This feeling grew stronger when I was halfway through the writing. But the fact that it has gone on to move so many people is overwhelming and wonderful!” the writer says.

In a sense, it’s a “heroineless” film — an anathema in 
Bollywood. How did he pull it off? To this he says: “The truth’s that Milkha-ji has never had any serious affairs and his wife’s the one and only true love of his life, though when young, it’s natural to have attractions. But I wanted to create and flesh out the female characters for a purpose. Be it Biro (Sonam 
Kapoor) who becomes a catalyst for the wayward youth to change his ways and join a respectable profession, or Stella who helps him realise that indulging in even innocent and natural impulses at a wrong time can deviate you from your path, or even the encounter with Parizaad, the swimming champ, is instrumental in making Milkha strengthen his 
resolve. All these characters were created as turning points in his life; they were a key to his journey. But my favourite was etching the brother-sister bond. I’m very close to my two sisters, and the pen is biased and emotion was richly infused into the character that Divya Dutta portrayed. In a way, I tried to condense the personas of a mother and sister into one character. For me, writing the female characters was special!”

Prasoon has faced flak from a small section of critics that he has taken artistic license to create a screen hero. He spiritedly defends his creation. “Yes, it’s a larger-than-life portrayal, and one has to take artistic and historical liberties. I’ve used my imagination to create and chisel characters and carve out scenes and incidents, worked on realistic dialogue, all with the intention of portraying the struggle of the athlete, and making it connect with people at different levels — physical, psychological, historical and emotional. I was very clear that we weren’t making a documentary or chronicling sporting events. There had to be the right balance of 
reality infused with imagination and between fact and fiction to engage and entertain, move and inspire. It’s easier said than done. And there’s always an 
X factor for any creative project to 
become a success, be it the receptivity of the audience or the blessing of someone up there.”

Given the subtle and restrained treatment of the story, casting was tricky. Prasoon gives full credit to Farhan Akhtar, who essayed the role with both sensitivity and élan. “I don’t think we could’ve wished for a better screen Milkha, says the writer. “Farhan lived the character and breathed life into it. Not just the look, but his dedication and craft enriched the film tremendously.”

Talking of the many hours spent 
talking to Milkhaji to glean the finer det-ails of his life to portray a nuanced on-screen persona, Prasoon admits to his hard disk being full of recorded conversations with the athlete. “I tried to get to know him not as a sportsman, but as a person and tried to psychologically dive deep,” says Prasoon. “There’s documentation, books, documentaries and statistics available on his races and sporting life, but as a writer, it was about unearthing deeper truths and feelings — ones that were perhaps in his subconscious — and express the unexpressed.”

The story of Milkha Singh is also about the trauma the subcontinent suffered during the Partition, and how Milkha fights his inner demons to emerge a 
winner. Prasoon immersed himself in the socio-political environment of the country of the time. Here, his love for works of the great writer Saadat Hasan Manto played a pivotal role. And Prasoon knew his handiwork had been richly rewarded when the real-life hero was moved to tears after watching the film.

“Having Milkha-ji’s blessing and the faith of the audience is priceless,” he says. “But if the film has succeeded in starting a discussion about sport, it’s great. And if it gets one thinking about overcoming difficulties, about facing and fighting the odds and not running away, but confronting them with the last ounce of energy and will — that for me will be a true victory.”

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag  has certainly succeeded in giving due credit to a forgotten hero. But above all, it’s a universal tale of tragedy and triumph — the triu-mph of the indomitable human spirit.

The physicist turned lyricist

Not many know that the poet who has caught the imagination of young audiences and given voice to their innermost feelings majored in Physics and has an MBA to his credit. He speaks about his change of avatar and that of Bollywood…

Poetry is lifeblood for me. I’ve been writing since I remember. When I was about nine, during the summer holidays at my grandmother’s home in Almora, I’d write stories and hand-stitch booklets and have a self-styled Prasoon Bal Pustakalya (library). The 50 paise that I lent the booklets for enriched my life. I continued to write poems through my teen years and caught the notice of a publisher who converted them into my first book.

But as I grew up, my parents made me realise that writing poetry wouldn’t earn me a living. Being from a middle-class government services family, education was a 
priority. My parents’ wishes mattered to me. I guess I was too sensitive to rebel. So I trod the path of science and then did my MBA, but never stopped writing. Deep down, I understood that if poetry cannot nurture me, I’ll have to nurture poetry.

During my MBA summer training, I got placed at an advertising agency and discovered I could be paid to write! My passions — writing music, poetry — could be combined with my management degree and channelised into a profession.

It was liberating! I landed a job in 
a paint company and thought I’d be in a 
well-paid stable job. But I found and still 
find advertising challenging and entered 
the field.

Film lyrics was an accident. I was brought up in an environment of classical and folk music in a small mountain town. As a child, films were rare. So film music was far remo-ved from my radar. I became friends with some folk musicians in Delhi who wanted to cut a music album and I agreed to write for them. Thus happened albums for Silk Route and Mann Ke Manjeere, an album for women-related causes with Shubha Mudgal. The director heard it and invited me to write a song. Then a chance meeting with Aditya Chopra at an airport, a casual conversation… and he offered me the songs of Hum Tum.

I know that, very often, listeners resonate to my songs without fully grasping the meaning of the words. Poetry appeals to us at a very subliminal level. Even though every word may not be understood, if the train of thought, the essence gets communicated and felt, it’s enough. If that initial feeling draws a person to unearth different layers of meaning, then that’s great. Also, I feel there must be space in a song for listeners to find their own interpretation, derive their own meaning — a feeling of owning the song. That’s what makes the song stay in their hearts.

Pure poetry may not reach out to a large audience, but my attempt has been to keep poetry alive even if the medium is a film song. Be it in films like Phir Milenge, Taare Zameen Par, Delhi 6 or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. In fact, my latest book Sunshine Lanes is an attempt to take across the poetic nuances of my popular film songs to readers.

You can’t wait for inspiration when 
writing lyrics for films. The key is to keep practising your craft. You’ve to internalise it so that it becomes effortless. Working on 
a brief and deadlines is not necessarily a constraint. Look at the Sistine Chapel: 
Michelangelo was commissioned to paint it and what a wonder he created! So many classical music compositions were commissioned by kings and the court musicians created timeless magic.

I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to explore varied subjects. Be it my songs for Taare Zameen Par, Chittagong or Rang De Basanti, each have their own story.

Ma may seem like a simple song, but I wondered whether my personal childhood fears I expressed through it would ring true for others. But so many related to it!

We’re fortunate that masters like Kaifi Azmi, Neeraj, Sahir Ludhianvi have written for Hindi cinema. Javed Saab and Gulzar Saab are stalwarts, and I’m lucky to have them as guiding lights.

Indian cinema has now been through a 100-year journey. Initially, it found its source of inspiration from the rich literary tapestry underpinning our society. The limited 
middle-class audience was receptive to quality work and didn’t hanker for dumbed-down entertainment.

As times changed, the audiences grew, and many hadn’t been brought up on literature, poetry, music and the fine arts. Cinema had to face the challenge of widening its base, while keeping its artistic sensibilities thriving — not an easy task. But I’m positive we’ll meet with increased success as we evolve as a people and society.

Personally, I straddle the world of poetry and advertising. I think my art and vocation feed off each other. When I hit a writer’s block in one, it’s the other that gives me a fresh perspective.

I’m seen as a flag-bearer for feminists. I’ve always marvelled at the varied aspects of a woman — her innate strength, beauty and depth of emotion. I’ve seen the sensitivity and strength of women, be it in my grandmother, mother, sisters, my colleagues or my wife, and now my daughter. 

I’ve never planned anything in life. It’s 
all serendipity.

AD LIB

During the course of his advertising career, Prasoon earned the title of “The Ad Guru of India”, and

has a string of acclaimed advertisements to his credit — including campaigns for NDTV India (Sach dikhate hain hum), Saffola (Abhi to main jawan hoon), and the Cannes-winning “Thanda matlab Coca-Cola” campaign with Aamir Khan

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