With ‘Chitta Ve’, the theme song of ‘Udta Punjab’, lyricist Shellee has described the Punjab state of mind by using the key word of the state’s drug problem — ‘chitta’, Punjabi for ‘white’. It is the colloquial name for smack or heroin, the addictive narcotics that are a white powder. With this, the Chandigarh-born, Ambala-bred theatre arts graduate has also lent a new Punjabi idiom to Bollywood, for better or for worse, beyond the happy-go-lucky, bhangra-dancing stereotype.
“With ‘chitta’, I added ‘ve’, a way of lovingly calling out to a dear one in Punjabi. The drug is very dear to the addict, you know.” Asked if he has ended up glorifying drugs, the 40-something writer says, “While the dependence on drugs comes out in the song, so does the desperation, and the devastation. There is a line in the song that says, ‘Pehle maza par phir mazar ban gaya’ (First it was fun, then it turned into a grave).”
Shellee’s 15-year-old son Anhad is also humming this song at home in Mumbai and has liked the beat. But he explains: “I have taken care to explain the sorrows of drug usage to him, and he has responded well.” The songs have got appreciation from his Chinese-Indian wife Meiying, who has stood by him as rock through his years of struggle.
Even ‘Chitta Ve’ went through 10 revisions before Shellee, born Shailender Singh Sodhi, finally heard his song on air. And, he admits, he had no idea it would turn out to be the hit it has become today.
“It was difficult to bring everyone on the same page. When director Abhishek Chaubey liked it, someone from Phantom Films would reject it... There was a time when composer (music director) Amit Trivedi and I had started doubting our talents. I had to write 10 versions of the song before it was finalised,” Shellee says. He admits he never thought that the song would do this well: “It all started with a phone call from Amit when I was chilling with friends in Pune. We have worked together in ‘Dev D’ and he told me to reach Mumbai the same day. I read the script and loved it though I found it dark.” It took him a month and a half to convince the Phantom team about ‘Chitta ve’. But it’s been worth the effort.
Shellee has three other songs on the album of seven. He specifically explains ‘Hass Nach Le’ that has Sufi overtones. “This is a song on the long spiritual tradition of Punjab and the call of the good earth, which goes, ‘Panj dariyavan de paida, sun bandea ve; Ais mitti ton bakaida, Sun bandea ve, leyy ton na ho alaida…’ (Born to the land of five rivers, you, listen now; take heed of this earth, listen now, do not strike a false note in the sonata…).”
Dark side of Punjab
“The film depicts the dark side of Punjab. So far, Punjab has been shown in a clichéd happy-go-lucky light in Hindi films, complete with bhangra and sarson de khet. So it’s important that the audience are familiarised with this side as well,” says Shellee. The Punjabi that he is, Shellee had put a condition that he would only take on the project if he was allowed to write the rap in the songs himself. “Usually, they engage rappers but I knew I had a dark side and wanted to explore it. I did a lot of research and even visited some places to meet drug addicts. It helped me write some of these songs,” he adds.
Shellee, whose father is the late Punjabi scholar Himmat Singh Sodhi, graduated from the department of Indian theatre at Panjab University, Chandigarh, after studying at DAV School, Ambala cantonment.