Tribute, inspiration, and theft: The curious case of Bollywood song lyrics
Filmy music often ‘borrows’ heavily from Urdu and Hindi classics, and folk music.
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When does borrowing turn into theft?
The answer is obvious – ask before borrowing, and do not go about saying that the goods are your own property. There’s no way of returning borrowed words. The most we can do to avoid insinuations of robbery or mal-intent is to publicly credit the source.
For Tu Kisi Rail Si Guzarti Hai in Masaan, Varun Grover ran about to get permissions from Dushyant Kumar’s descendants to use two lines from his poem.
With creative artists, credit is not a straight business. We respond to poems with fresh verses, and build upon foundational myths; we wrench a new politics, a deeper insight out of old tales.
With film songs, crediting is especially tricky, since much of popular Bollywood music borrows heavily from folk songs and the great Hindi/Urdu classics.
Recently, a very hummable song from Baaghi 2 was being discussed on social media. “Allah Mujhe Dard Ke Qaabil Bana Diya” borrows in two ways. The first is a clean “lift” of one couplet:
“Betaabiyaan Samet Ke Saare Jahaan Ki
Jab Kuchh Naa Ban Sakaa To Mera Dil Banaa Diya”
This couplet is credited to Najmi Naginvi on Rekhta.org, though it is also often credited to Jigar Moradabadi. The latter is a more famous poet and one of his famous ghazals certainly uses the same meter, rhyme and refrain. Sample this:
“Laakhon Mein Intiḳhaab Ke Qaabil Banaa Diyaa
Jis Dil Ko Tum Ne Dekh Liyaa Dil Banaa Diyaa”
The second way in which the Baaghi 2 song borrows is by taking the structure and similar ideas from Jigar. In the tradition of Urdu poetry, this may not be considered outright theft. There’s a phrase for it: zameen udaana. Translated loosely, it means, to take the ground in which a poem is rooted. Another poet may take the same rhyme and refrain, and create something new.
However, the full verse borrowed is nothing but theft.
The lyric credit for this song on the official T Series channel on YouTube is listed as “Arko”. Neither Najmi Naginvi nor Jigar Moradabadi are mentioned anywhere. Interestingly, “additional vocals” are credited, but there is no room for the original source of the song’s theme, words, or its lyrical structure.
This is not unusual for Bollywood.
The famous song “Dillagi Ne Di Hawa, Thoda Sa Dhuaan Utha”, in the film Dostana, includes a line “Ankhon Ka Tha Qusoor Churi Dil Pe Chal Gayi”, which is from a ghazal by Jaleel Manikpuri, also sung by Mehndi Hassan.
The question of originality is tricky. In Urdu poetry, there is a longstanding tradition of paying tribute or treating a great master’s work as the starting point from where you push off your own lyrical boat. There are even “tarhi” mushairas, where a new generation of poets is given an existing line of verse and asked to create a new poem around it.
Gulzar, one of the greatest contemporary lyricists, is rooted in this tradition. He often builds upon a single phrase by an old giant, such as ‘Zeehal-E-Miskeen, Makun Taghaful” by Amir Khusrau, and “Jee Dhoondta Hai Phir Vahi Fursat Ke Raat Din” by Mirza Ghalib, or changes a “Thaiyya Thaiyya” by Bulleh Shah into “Chaiyya Chaiyya”.
However, these verses are centuries old, and there’s no dispute about their authorship. He did run into rough weather when he modified the first two lines of a poem by a near contemporary, Hindi poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, who died in 1983.
Gulzar had changed “Ibn Batuta/ Pehen Ke Joota” to “Ibn Batuta/ Bagal Mein Joota” for the film Ishqiya. True, the rest of the poem was totally different, but it can’t hurt to list Saxena’s poem as a source of inspiration, since he is not as well known as Gulzar.
Gulzar borrows phrases from classics, but those are well-established works, with their authorship clear.There is a long tradition of poets being called out by other poets if their borrowings become apparent. I was speaking with one of the young, upcoming voices in Urdu poetry, Abhishek Shukla, who tells me that even Ghalib was accused of borrowing ideas from Persian writers; a scholar called Yagana Changezi has pointed them out in a text called Ghalib-shikan.
There are several such anecdotes about similarity of verses, and there may well be an authentic khayaal ki takkar, an accidental collision of ideas. Shukla says it has happened to him too, and he is happy to acknowledge the similarity of the couplets in print as well as on social media. But some poets hide behind “takkar” when caught shoplifting.
There’s a story about Firaq Gorakhpuri at a mushaira, where he heard a younger man recite his (Firaq’s) couplets. Firaq asked if those verses were indeed his own work, and the young man said they were. But, starting to realise that he had blundered, or belatedly recognizing Firaq, he took refuge behind “takkar”. Firaq reportedly said that it was possible for a bicycle to collide with another bicycle, with a horse-carriage, or even a car, but what were the chances of it colliding with an aeroplane?
In another instance, Khumar Barabankvi was hearing his own ghazal being recited at a mushaira by a younger poet. When he stopped, Barabankvi said aloud: “Young man, you might as well read out the last two couplets too.”
If a poem is going in print, it doesn't hurt to add a footnote or use quote marks or italics for a borrowed verse. For film songs, however, it is incumbent upon the lyricist to mention it in the credits. If it is a tribute, it would be evident only to the well-read who are familiar with the original. In a cultural context where most people do not read poetry but do listen to film songs, to not credit the line is very problematic.
However, within the film writers’ community, nobody wants to confront unpleasant questions such as the nature of creative pursuit, and who deserves how much. Finally, it all comes down to a writer’s personal work ethic.
Varun Grover wrote a song based on Dushyant Kumar’s “Tu Kisi Rail Si Guzarti Hai” and has acknowledged it. The official Zee Music Company channel on YouTube mentions it too. He also did the hard work of running about to get permissions from the late poet’s descendants to use two lines, and he reached out to the publishers too. Many others don't want to do the work.
The other problem is that producers are parsimonious when it comes to writers. Even if the sums of money required are small, they are reluctant to pay it. I would not be exaggerating if I said that major production houses hesitate before paying writers even Rs 10,000, but don’t bat an eyelid before coughing up Rs 2 crore for filming the song.
In the internet age, due credit is a peculiar nightmare. One lyric website lists the very famous poem, “Ye Daag Daag Ujala, Ye Shabgazida Seher” as written by Gulzar for the film Firaq, while the actual poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, is listed as “singer”.
Film writers would do well to stand up not only for their own rights, but also for establishing base rules and norms for writing credits. The merit (and income) of a lyricist is directly linked to the ability to generate fresh words and images, binding them into a succinct verse.
If he (or she) chooses to give credit where it is due, he will only gain the respect of his contemporaries. Unless, of course, he is unable to write songs without the help of borrowed lines. In that case, what can other writers offer him except compassion?