A word is a capsule of emotions
That’s what Prasoon Joshi embodies in his many avatars as a poet, writer, lyricist and ad guru. India’s most prolific image-maker swears by its confusion and chaos as his muse and has bridged the rural-urban divide with a punchline as strong as Thanda Matlab Coca Cola, the inspiration for which was a porter sleeping in the shadow cast by a pile of soft drinks crates on a platform at Hapur. A truck driver drinking water from a pitcher with his head held high became the storyboard for yet another slogan that articulated Indian-ness in a globalised world — Piyo sar utha ke. And when his driver asked him to buy a no-frills mobile that would let him talk, he conceived of the populist tagline “People buy phones to talk”. Joshi tells Rinku Ghosh how India is organically designed and in sync with human nature. “And that will usher in another golden age,” he feels. Excerpts:
What was your experience as cultural advisor to the Commonwealth Games?
I was part of the board of advisors, along with filmmaker Shyam Benegal and author Javed Akhtar. Bharat Bala was the creative director. We had submitted a concept that we liked. I did this as a service to the nation, no fees were involved. I am a great believer that India turns things around very fast. We might take time in arriving, but we manage to put up a great show. We are a democracy in the true sense of the word. Before any event, there are elaborate discussions, everybody is heard but in the end everything unifies into a whole.
That is why I love my country. I have got enough opportunities to work and settle abroad, but I have chosen to be here. A foreigner friend of mine was surprised to see people hugging each other at Marine Drive. I told him Indians like physical contact. A hug or a jhappi is our expression of friendliness rather than just shaking hands. Even our traffic works on eye contact between drivers (laughs).
How would you describe Brand India today?
India defies the advertising brief of “what do you stand for”. It cannot be defined in a line because there are so many facets to it, it is a linear brand. To begin with, it is a civilisation and not a country. Being multi-cultural and trans-cultural, co-existence is our biggest virtue. Many countries can learn this trait from us. With globalisation, we can assimilate the world but most foreigners find it difficult to adjust with other cultures. We are in a constant state of transition and moulding ourselves accordingly.
Don’t you think this might be construed as ambivalence in a post-globalised world?
I do not see any problem there because we can’t define India ourselves. We can say the United States is a capitalist nation but in India, we have communism, socialism and so many other “isms” carving their space. We allow dissent with as much ease. This is the greatness of India — the co-existence of contradictions. Finality kills creativity. I want to be surprised all the time.
I have never ever hankered for global validation. We can learn from developed nations as much as they can learn from us. They are far superior in technology, but when it comes to human emotions and understanding how a society functions, we have left them far behind. India is organically designed and in sync with human nature. Therefore, we will last long.
The West follows Abraham Maslow’s theory on hierarchy of needs. It says your physical needs should be fulfilled first, then social, followed by others before you finally attain self-actualisation. Recently, I was watching a documentary on Kabir and was taken in by the footage where a vendor woman from north India, while lamenting her daily struggle says, “Yeh to dil ka panchi hai, udd jayega (the soul is like a bird and will fly away).” If you ask whether her basic needs are fulfilled, she will say no. But she has a spiritual consciousness. In India, spirituality goes hand-in-hand with needs. That is why the West appears very robotic to us.
You just came back from Cannes. Besides being an award winner, you’ve also been on the jury of the Lions International Advertising Festival. Has Indian advertising come of age?
Indian creativity is culturally coded. That is why it will take a lot of time for the West to understand us. The older generation of filmmakers in Bollywood understood this and created soul cinema which is relevant even now and has survived the onslaught from Hollywood. Why? Because they never succumbed to or ran after the West. For them, the domestic audience was of paramount importance. If we had trained our audience to enjoy just Western cinema and culture, our cinema wouldn’t have developed or been so rich. Therefore, I am not looking at any external validations of our creativity. Our cinema is born out of society, so it is important we cater to it.
Having said that, there are many technical facets of filmmaking that we can learn from the West — their craft, technological innovations, breakthroughs in cinematography, special effects, lighting and how-tos on manipulating shadows and creating depth in a frame. But we should not get caught up in imitating them so much that we lose sight of our inspiration and end up being gimmicky for the sake of it. We must understand that every culture has a pace and rhythm that should never be ignored. That’s why I see hope in today’s youngsters who may have Westernised ways of living but are very proud of their identity. In future, they are going to create a new language and code for other countries.
You have probably been part of the coding process because Hinglish is now an accepted mode of communication courtesy your punchlines…
I believe in cross-fertilisation. Two ideas interact with each other and the third one is born. It becomes legitimate. I am not nationalistic just for the heck of nationalism. I believe that cultures should interact with each other and seek out a combined expression. The third culture evolves with the fourth and a fifth is born. This is how society grows.
Likewise, when languages interact with each other, there’s a new dialogue. But in this process, do not kill the old. Because it’s not about replacement, it’s about enhancement. In my songs, I try to use a lot of words that are not a part of our daily usage. Like masti ki paathshala (fun school). People were apprehensive whether the word paathshala would click considering the English “school” had gained currency in common parlance. Now it has become a rage. They made a film and even TV programmes called Paathshala. There are so many beautiful words that we should use. A word is a capsule of emotions put together, we should not let it die.
I don’t divide languages, I let them flow. I am influenced by Hindi, English, Urdu poetry and the various translations I read. Then there are my travels. All this put together gives me a language which I feel comfortable expressing myself in. I do not change a word when it comes to my mind. If it is coming, there must be a reason. So without any hangover, hang-ups and prejudices, I start writing. I am thankful to the people and especially the youngsters who have warmed up to my writing. This is the greatest satisfaction. For example, the song ‘Rubaroo’ in Rang de Basanti has a line, Suraj ko mein nigal gaya (I swallowed the sun). When people say they get it and can relate to it, I feel I’ve done my job. Then there’s the song from Dilli 6 which goes like Daraarein daraarein maathey pey maula, marammat muqaddar ki kar dey maula. People got the image of a woman with furrows on her forehead, bowing down to God. What does she want, will she get healed? Now this is a thought in my head. If I communicate it rightly to people, the whole circle gets completed.
When did your fascination with words begin?
That has to be during my growing up years at Almora in Uttarakhand. People thought I was wasting time scribbling gibberish on notepads. That is why I tell youngsters that they should believe in the couplet that poet Iqbal wrote when he was fascinated by a bird called Shahin. He says, “Lapakna jhapatna, palat kar jhapatna, lahoo garam rakhne ka hai bas bahana (The Shahin attacks the prey, flies with it, then drops it back and repeats the process again to keep himself active).” He is not hungry, he is practising. Because when opportunity comes, there will be no time to practise.
I have written for no reason over the years. I have several pads filled with various ideas that I am not sure of using. I didn’t know that I would get into advertising, coming as I did from a middle class family. My parents were Government servants and we had a hand-to-mouth existence. It was difficult for me to imagine that I would be travelling to different countries and speaking at fora about advertising. I just groomed myself on instinct.
Language is like a mother. She is the only person before whom you don’t have to conduct yourself. You can surrender to her without conditions. That is why there’s too much of mother in my poetry, be it ‘Ma’ in Taare Zameen Par or ‘Lukka Chhuppi’ in Rang de Basanti. She is the only person you can take for granted in the world. No matter what you do, a mother will always stand by you regardless of whether you are a success or failure.
How did films happen?
They happened quite incidentally like advertising. I was writing poetry when my parents felt I should do something substantial because the two books that I had written till then did not yield any result. “Who reads poetry? You can’t survive on writing books,” they said. So I took up an MBA course. While pursuing it, somebody tipped me off about a copy writer’s job in an advertising agency. I jumped at it because this was one place where I could do what I love, write, and get paid.
Then I wrote a song for a band called Silk Route and penned Ab ke saawan and Mann ke manjeere for Shubha Mudgal. Film director Raj Kumar Santoshi heard Mudgal and approached me to write a women-oriented song for Lajja. He told me Illayaraja would be composing the music and Lata Mangeshkar would be singing it. I was over the moon and wrote Kaun dagar, kaun sheher tu chali kahan. It wasn’t a chartbuster but was very significant for the film. After that people started liking my work and I bagged films like Hum Tum, Rang de Basanti, Fanaa and Taare Zameen Par.
You have such a photographic way of describing things, have you never thought of making a film yourself?
Filmmaking is a time-consuming process and there’s a lot on my plate right now. I feel I am contributing a lot though through my words and will keep writing as much as I can. I’ve just finished scripting the life of Milkha Singh and given it to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who will soon start casting and directing.
As of now, I am not making a film but I may later. That, too, when I find nobody to translate my script. As long as I have able directors like Mehra as my friends, I needn’t worry too much.
Did you research for the Milkha Singh script?
I have to feel everything I give to people. So I did the research myself and spent a lot of time with Milkha Singh in Chandigarh, sometimes spending late nights just talking. His experiences and thoughts made for a very enriching experience. I got my raw material from these extended conversations and backed it up with the archives. It took a year, including my Saturdays and Sundays.
You’ve said there’s a great hope in our future as our youth are very confident, conscious and sure about themselves. Do you think that we are heading to another golden age in terms of an intellectual and cultural efflorescence? How would you define your own time?
We are already in a golden period for sure. I think economics is a very important part of society and its growth. And we are gradually becoming a country where things are possible. It bothers me though that the economic growth is not reaching everyone and many still don’t have the means to meet basic needs. I do not feel good travelling in planes and living in air-conditioned houses when somebody continues to have a dustbowl existence. How the progress of this country should be initiated is a complex question. But I feel we still don’t have the basic framework and attitude right. Urban India is imposing its way on rural India without being sensitive to what the latter really needs.
We are not creating or marketing products for the rural consumer but trying to sell what we have created for ourselves. I was reading somewhere about a fungal infection that women rice farmers contract. There could be a potential product for this ailment. People laugh about how people in Punjab make lassi in a washing machine but don’t see the indigenous effort is a result of a need for a giant mixer and whipper. The point here is that economic growth will only happen if people understand each other’s needs. Indian companies haven’t even touched the surface. We don’t have campaigns for fertilisers, genetically modified or organic crops.
A lot needs to be done. But I am very convinced that we are living in the best times, we’ve got a great governance in place and there is stability. This time our growth has to be solid.
What is the one thing that you have not done and would like to do in future?
I want to cut my own album as I am into poetry, composing and singing.
You are trained in classical music?
Yes. Moreover, I think we should encourage the culture of private albums. Films have given me an immense opportunity to communicate what I want to but I want to do something thematic like Mann ke manjeere, the album that was completely dedicated to women. I have also been thinking of working on my book that has been in the making for the last 10 years. In fact, I am going to Almora now to spend time with my family and complete this book. I do not plan too much; I like to embrace what comes my way. I feel that I am only the wire and not the electricity. I am lucky to be the medium through whom ideas pass.
You are doing poetry, advertisements and films. What is it that you focus on at the end of the day?
My focus is always on communicating through various means. Moreover, creative people should never focus on the professional aspect, they should concentrate on thoughts. Gone are the days when people had only one print or visual medium. Now there’s the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube… So I can communicate through any medium, be it digital, verbal or visual art. My motivation and satisfaction comes from reaching out to people with my thoughts. I wouldn’t mind reciting poetry in a mall, I know somebody would get it. And I would be only following convention. There was a time when our poets passed on their choicest couplets to nautch girls to recite. Many ghazals have been made famous by courtesans and remain evergreen. I don’t believe in limiting myself as long as I can make an iota of difference to society.