The Prime Video show Jubilee provides a rueful portrait of the Hindi film industry in the 1940s and 1950s, Remorse and recrimination, rather than celebration and triumph, mark the experiences of a maverick studio boss, his movie star wife, an aspiring actor, an ambitious director and a former courtesan. Even as Jubilee seeks to puncture any nostalgia that viewers may have for this period, the show relies on a retro soundtrack by Amit Trivedi and lyrics by Kausar Munir to mimic the filmmaking conventions of the period.

Trivedi has composed a dozen original songs, several of which are lip-synced by the actors. Munir’s thoughtful lyrics are suffused with the philosophical musings that characterised songs from Hindi cinema’s Golden Age. Babuji Bhole Bhaale, sung by Sunidhi Chauhan, for instance, is a classic club song in which Wamiqa Gabbi’s character warns of the world’s tricky ways. Itni Si Hai Dastaan, sung by Chauhan and Mohammed Irfan, is a romantic duet.

The mood of disillusionment is most strongly felt in the lullaby-like Saare Ke Saare Akele, sung by Devenderpal Singh. Munir pays homage to Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics for Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool when she writes about a single night in which everything is lost.

Munir’s recent credits include songs for the films Mrs Chatterjee vs. Norway (2023), Qala (2022), Gehraiyaan (2022) and 83 (2021). Whether in Doobey from Gehraiyaan, which uses nautical metaphors to explore a woman’s extra-marital affair, or the inspirational Lehra Do from the cricket-themed 83, Munir lives up to her reputation for exploring profound thoughts through accessible lyrics. Munir is also a dialogue writer, having worked on the show Rocket Boys and the upcoming film Sarzameen.

In an interview, Munir noted that Jubilee posed a particular challenge: how retro could she go, and how contemporary did she need to be? Five episodes of Jubilee, created by Soumik Sen and Vikramaditya Motwane and written by Atul Sabharwal, have been premiered on Prime Video. Ahead of the release of the remaining five episodes on April 14, Munir spoke to Scroll on her approach to lyric writing and her views on the changing role of the Hindi film song.

Jubilee reunites you with Amit Trivedi. How did you get involved with the show?
Ishaqzaade was our first project together. We know what each other is capable of and where you should push.

Vikram [Vikramaditya Motwane] was the one who called me for Jubilee. He said, I think this is your space. I was thrilled, because not just as a writer but as a consumer, as somebody who reads and watches and listens, I love the retro space.

What helped with Jubilee was that the script was locked. Vikram had clarity but there was also complete autonomy.

Kausar Munir and Amit Trivedi. Courtesy Kausar Munir/Instagram.

We are seeing a great number of shows and films set in the past...
I call it the Downton [Abbey] effect.

... Unlike in Hollywood, Indian period productions can’t use existing songs since they belong to specific films. How do you create a new soundscape that reminds us of the past but also works in the present?
You have to find ways to make the song contemporary and appealing. That is also a choice in terms of the singers used.

I am an admirer of music from the 1950s and 1960s. One has grown up listening to this music, I didn’t need to research. I didn’t think much of what a ghazal is or about the structure of a poetic ballad. I went with wherever the melody and the script took me.

What I guarded against was songs like Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha, Pyaar Ke Kaabil Mujhe [Your gaze has made me worthy of your love]. That is such a male perspective – you are now considered worthy of love that defines you. A lot of male lyricists either idealise women or treat them as unfaithful. I wanted to avoid that narrative altogether.

This is a conversation I have also had with Rocket Boys. The lines have to be re-imagined – an interpretation, an invention of what the emotional mood was and whatever you know and choose to pick up from that history. People will say that you are meddling. But how does one tell a story based on true characters and events that are in the past? Otherwise, make a documentary.

Jubilee has examples of film song types: the hero’s self-description song, the club song, the conversation between lovers, the lament.
Saare Ke Saare Akele is a hat-tip to Dekhi Zamaane Ki Yaari from Kaagaz Ke Phool. The references were all there in the script.

Babuji Bhole Bhaale was a reference to the club song Babuji Dheere Chalna [from Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar, 1958]. Dariya Cha Raja was a reference to Ramaya Vastavaiya [from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420, 1955]. It became easy to re-imagine that space.

Jubilee jukebox.

Did you feel like you were competing with the film music of the period, which continues to be hugely popular?
If I had thought that way, I wouldn’t have done it. Those are the blinkers that I have on. Plus, I am writing for the director. She has the vision, and I have to submit to it.

What are the qualities of the lyrics of that time as opposed to the present?
It was more inward. It was not about external validation. It was about reflection. Even if it was a love song, there was some reflection between lovers and, by transference, the world and society that they live in.

Right now, the emphasis is more on, look how clever I am, I have brought something new. That is also the market. Music producers and labels are looking for new catchphrases and hook phrases. In that space, the poetry is lost.

Everybody is looking for a new idiom in the songs, a new way of saying things. There is trickery at times, there isn’t poetry. It’s like you are trying different ways of dazzling people.

Phero Na Najariya, Qala (2022).

In your own lyrics, there is often a conversational quality.
In 50% of the songs, it’s either two characters talking to each other or making lists of why they like somebody. My father had said to me that he really enjoyed Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics because they had a sawaal-jawaab [a question-response]. So I like duet songs to have some kind of conversation.

I have had people say to me that sometimes, I am able to present a large thought in simple language. That is not something that I do consciously. That is the way I write. I find the simplest things the hardest to write.

For instance, Pareshaan from Ishaqzaade is a young woman’s monologue about being in love. She uses the interesting word “pareshaan”, troubled. She is talking to herself but addressing the listener too.
That is the only way in which I know how to do progression, to further the idea. Music labels find this annoying, since the songs tend to get very situational. I accept that criticism and I am learning to be able to make the song work for the script and outside the script too.

I try to get involved with scripts as early as possible. It’s not the best thing to do, but I don’t take on work based on the work itself, but on the people. You spend so much time engaging with people and it’s very hard if you’re not going to like them, or at least you don’t have the hope of being understood.

Pareshaan, Ishaqzaade (2012).

What are your thoughts on the fear that Hindi cinema is increasingly abandoning lip-synced songs or relegating film music to the background?
The kind of filmmaking has changed. I, for one, feels happy that Kesariya from Bhramastra and Jhoome Jo Pathaan from Pathaan did well. Songs will always be around, the form and usage will change. For a song to become really memorable, the lyrics matter. People remember the melody because of the lyrics.

Also, songs aren’t poetic any more, the lyrics are in the spoken language. Filmmakers want to be understood by a younger audience with very short attention spans. So a lot of the language that is now being used in songs is conversational language, everyday idioms, slang.

My difficulty is in finding a place in such blockbusters. I have to find my own hook.

Like your lyrics for Photocopy from Salman Khan’s Jai Ho: “if you are unavailable, your photograph will do; if your photograph is unavailable, a photocopy will do.”
That came from Salman. I think some girl had said that to him.

Lehra Do, 83 (2012).

Are young audiences listening closely to what the song lyrics are telling them?
In Jubilee, there is a song called Udankhatola [Flying Machine]. It is the closest to that time period. I have been in rooms where people are listening to the soundtrack and they lose interest [in the song].

I was surprised about Lehra Do from 83. This song has given me a lot of love, awards. I thought it was because it was about the emotion for the country. But you can’t peg everything to the mood of the moment. One of the lines is “sarkashi ka parcham lehra do” – sarkashi in its purest form means rebellion.

I do feel encouraged from time to time. That said, I have written three different mukhdas and all of them have been rejected. The biggest word now is young, young, young, from 16 to 25. You can’t become that, but you also can’t sit on your high horse and say, I won’t.

Some of your lyrics don’t seek solutions or create a definitive mood. Do you like ambiguity as a lyricist?
I like it when things are left unresolved. That is the tree of life and, well, literature. It is presumptuous to express answers or say that you know what it is.

I don’t know if it is a new thing, but only some people allow it. You want to underline the state of happiness or sadness. You want to say, this is a party song or a truck song. To not be able to peg a song is a problem. People either switch off or they find you unrelatable.

It’s like therapy. I advocate therapy to so many. People say, what am I getting out of it, my problem didn’t get solved. I say, you know yourself better, and now you have the tools to deal with it.

Falak Tak, Tashan (2008).

Do you see yourself working more frequently as a dialogue writer? You wrote the dialogue for Rocket Boys, for instance.
I was very happy and proud to be part of Rocket Boys. I wouldn’t think I am the natural choice for that show. So credit to producer Nikkhil Advani and director Abhay Pannu.

When Nikkhil approached me, I said, who’s going to watch this show? The script was written in English. Abhay honestly told me that the writers [that had been tried out] were writing Hindustani dialogue that sounded like a tacky translation. So we agreed that we were not going to use period language. Things that are complicated in English will be left in English. We will approach the emotional tone.

It feels good to be part of a show called “Rocket Boys”, at a time when we have such few women writers and lyricists.

Rocket Boys season 2 (2023).

You did a lovely interview with Gulzar for Hindustan Times. Let’s ask you some of the questions you asked him. For instance, do people make assumptions about you?
Well, there is this legacy thing. My grandmother, Salma Siddiqui, was part of the Progressive Writers movement. Many people think that Krishen Chander, who was a huge name in literature, was my grandfather. Technically yes, since he was my grandmother’s second husband.

My grandmother wrote a lot of prose, essays and short stories in Urdu and a novelette called Sikandarnama. I myself learnt to write Urdu during the lockdown from a teacher in Lucknow called Abhishek Shukla. So I am not some big Urdu pundit.

People think I’m middle aged, or a middle-aged man. Also, that I am slightly boring.

Is poetry your first love? And do you get to do enough of it?
Yes and no. I am not being falsely modest, but I am not sure I am a poet. I write poetic songs and have started doing poems, but I haven’t fully committed to that world, in my own head.

Do you express political thoughts through your lyrics?
Not in songs – I don’t do that when other’s people time is involved. But in my poetry, yes.

I narrated a poem Voh Kaghaz Kahan Se Laaon, which was a corollary to Varun Grover’s Hum Kaagaz Nahin Dikhaayenge [about the National Register of Citizens]. I went into the back story of my grandmother, my father, myself and my daughter and who we are, and how am I to prove the Indianness of it?

Voh Kaghaz Kahan Se Laaoon.

Also read:

‘Jubilee’ review: In brooding tale of the price of stardom, a few notes of celebration