After nearly two decades in Bollywood, Piyush Mishra’s enduring legacy has been his songwriting: frequently political, often humorous, and always with a touch of sadness. How does he do it?
“There’s no rocket science behind it,” Mishra told Scroll.in. “Just keep your eyes and ears open and you get a lot of stuff for songs. Politics has always been around. Left and Right have always been fighting. I don’t understand people who say they can’t write songs without a revolution, without a girl to inspire.”
Hindi film watchers got a taste of Mishra’s talent through the songs of Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2007), composed by the band Indian Ocean. Mishra and Indian Ocean have collaborated once again for the film Chakki. The October 7 release stars Rahul Bhat as a businessman who takes on the corrupt electricity board. KK, who tragically died in May, has sung one of the songs.
Mishra’s songs carry a distinctive raconteur’s charge that was honed during his days in Delhi. He was born and raised in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. He moved to Delhi in the 1980s to study at the National School of Drama, and stayed on in the capital acting in and directing plays alongside writing and composing songs. Until the age of 40, he was an avowed Communist.
By the time Mishra came to Mumbai in the 2000s, he had become disillusioned by his ideological choice. “Communism makes fools out of people,” Mishra said. “They brainwash you. They use their cadre, keep them hungry, and ask them to ditch their families and work for the society. But family is part of society itself. I gave a lot to Communism for 20 years.”
His observations on and experiences with changing political attitudes in India and the world frequently show up in his songs.
Mishra’s lyrics for Ranaji (Gulaal, 2009), a courtesan’s song about a temperamental landlord, includes references to the September 11, 2001, attacks, the subsequent war in Afghanistan and the introduction of neoliberalism in India.
Neoliberalism returns in Uth Ja Bhau, Mishra’s song for his band Ballimaaraan. The track follows a man who went to sleep at the start of the 1990s and is waking up to a new world.
In the caustic and violent Aabroo from Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Mishra writes about political factionism and corruption. One side sings: “Hum maar tamnacha, bail pe nikle, rail bech aaye” (I fired a gun, now I’m out on bail, and I sold the railways). The other responds: “Hum cricket ka balla chhodo, hum khel bech aayein” (Forget the cricket bat, I sold the whole game).
Ik Bagal, featured on the Gangs of Wasseypur soundtrack, is from one of Mishra’s plays from 1996.
Many of Mishra’s earlier songs were inspired by anger. “I always had resistance within me – it began in my childhood, when my family wouldn’t let me do what I want,” he recalled. “Then, I had grouses against my friends who questioned my artistic activities. Communism gave me an outlet for anger. Suddenly, everything and everybody was wrong.”
If Delhi shaped Mishra, Mumbai gave him his due. His first movie role was in Mani Ratnam’s Hindi-language Dil Se (1999), starring Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala. Mishra was cast as a Central Bureau of Investigation officer on the recommendation of Tigmanshu Dhulia, the film’s dialogue writer and casting director.
“Pankaj Kapur, who had worked with Mani Ratnam in Roja, was supposed to play the role,” Mishra recalled. “But then Mani Ratnam spoke to me and cast me.”
Anurag Kashyap pushed Mishra to pursue songwriting alongside acting. Kashyap’s Gulaal, which follows politics in contemporary Rajasthan, includes the popular song Arambh Hai Prachand. Created for a film critical of fascist sentimentalism, the song has since been co-opted by the Hindu Right. Pro-Hindutva YouTube videos and Instagram reels frequently feature the song as a call-to-arms anthem.
Mishra is both okay with and helpless about this development. He pointed out that the song has been used by supporters of the Indian Army, Indian cricket team and parties across the political spectrum, including Bharatiya Janata Party and Samajwadi Party.
“The song rights are with Saregama, not me, and nobody asks me before using it,” Mishra said.
Because of his reputation as a pop philosopher, Mishra is frequently cast as a poet or songwriter (Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Gulaal), a narrator (Gangs of Wasseypur), or a storyteller (Tamasha). Since Gangs of Wasseypur, his distinctively droll and fast-paced manner of speaking has become a hit with millennials.
“I love all the mimics,” Mishra said. “But my voice is now not the same as how I sounded in Gangs of Wasseypur.” (Not really.)
There’s a flipside to internet fame. Mishra, alongside Gulzar, are among the contemporary Hindi film lyricists to whom random poems are misattributed online. Mishra is not bothered by what could be considered a contamination of his art and identity.
In the 1990s, Mishra created the play Gagan Damama Bajyo, which followed Bhagat Singh’s ideological journey. Mishra then wrote the dialogue for Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh, a milquetoast interpretation of the revolutionary figure.
“If Anurag Kashyap had made a Bhagat Singh film, he would show his life as it was,” Mishra said. “Nothing in my play was fictional. Bollywood will obviously romanticise him. He was a 5’10, fair, good-looking Sikh. How can screenplay writers save him from women? It’s all there in [Marxist revolutionary] Shiv Verma’s memoirs.”
Away from online misfortune and Bollywood, Mishra takes charge of his artistic identity in his live performances with Ballimaaraan of songs from his plays and films . The band’s name is inspired by the Old Delhi neighbourhood where Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib resided.
“I have no shame in admitting that I don’t understand Ghalib’s heavy-duty Urdu,” Mishra said. His favourite poets and lyricists include Shakeel Badayuni, Dushyant Kumar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra and Gulzar.
Blessed by Bollywood, does the ex-Communist still continue to be angry?
“Not since I discovered vipasana, meditation,” Mishra said. “My other hero after Bhagat Singh is Swami Vivekananda. He had said that a chamar [leather-shoe maker] is a bigger karmyogi [worker-saint] than an intellectual giving sermons. I believe that. I ask young people to just work. You may not find its fruits today, but you will, 20 years later. In Delhi, nobody gave me my kind of work. So, I created my own work.”
These life experiences and more will be elaborated in Mishra’s “novelistic autobiography”, Tumhari Aukaat Kya Hai Piyush Mishra, which will be published soon by Rajkamal Prakashan.