Swanand Kirkire: The everything man!
There are people who wait for the right opportunity, and then there are people who turn every opportunity into the right one. Swanand Kirkire is a man of the second kind. A National School of Drama (NSD) graduate who went to Mumbai with one dream, to direct a Bollywood film, is today a singer, songwriter, lyricist, and more recently, an actor. And all because he made the best of every opportunity that came his way.
Swanand credits his NSD learning and theatre days for his multi-hyphenated career in films. “NSD teaches you how to learn… how to pick up new learning,” he says. “While in NSD, we would write our own songs, own scripts, even do our lights and costumes if need be! Theatre makes you try everything. If it is my play, I might as well get things done myself rather than wait for someone else to come and do it. If you tell me you don’t have a light man, I will get up right away and do the lights. And it is the same for costume, acting, anything. I will fill in for anybody. The show must go on. That is what theatre teaches you,” he says, sitting in the green room of Prithvi Theatre.
The two-time National Award winning lyricist, who is also the voice behind songs like Tu Kisi Rail Si (Masaan) and Monta Re (Lootera), had earlier made his acting debut in professional theatre with Manav Kaul’s Colour Blind and has already played the lead in the Akshay Kumar produced Marathi film, Chumbak. Although he was a batch mate of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, acting was not initially his area of interest.
“I did a course in design and direction from NSD. I always wanted to be a director. But when you are in NSD, you learn a little bit about everything,” he chuckles. “I’m ready to take up any job, as long as you let me be in the theatre.”
Born in a middle-class Marathi family based in Indore, Swanand’s father was a bank employee while his mother was an administrative officer at the Indore University. “My parents were obsessed with music and they were both disciples of Kumar Gandharva, one of the doyens of Hindustani classical music. And many of my childhood memories are of playing in the courtyard of his house while he taught his students,” recalls Swanand.
One would expect this kid to become a singer, which he eventually did, but Swanand had other plans. “My uncle was into amateur theatre. I’d often accompany him to his rehearsals. I found myself more drawn to that world than to the world of classical music.”
When Swanand started working in amateur plays, he understood he required formal training to become a pro. “It was an exciting time for Indian cinema. It was the end of the 1980s. Parallel cinema was at its peak. Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad were breaking new ground. Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri were acting and I was totally in awe.”
So, he decided to join NSD. “I did not know if I would be good or bad at it, but that was not the point,” he explains. “Even if I was bad at this, I knew for sure that this was all I wanted to do.”
At 29, armed with an NSD degree, Swanand started his Bollywood career as an assistant to Sudhir Mishra in 2003. But fate had other plans for Swanand. While the two were working on Hazaaron Khwaishein…, Mishra heard a song penned by Swanand by chance. “I had written Bawra Mann almost six years earlier, when I was 26. Sudhir happened to hear the song from Kay Kay Menon and decided to use it in the movie! At the same time Pradip Sarkar was making Parineeta and wanted the same song! I told him that the song was taken but he was insistent. So I decided to write another one for him. That is how I landed Parineeta as a lyricist. That movie became a huge hit and almost immediately I got signed for Ekalavya, Khoya Khoya Chand, Laaga Chunri Mein Daag and of course Lage Raho Munnabhai (which got him the National Film Award for Best Lyrics in 2006).”
The next few years saw him become one of the most sought-after lyricists in Bollywood. But his writing had started with theatre and grew organically. “If I was directing a play I would sometimes write a song also. I wanted lyrics by Gulzar saab, but of course I could not possibly approach him to write a song for my play! I decided to write myself instead. My challenge to myself was that one day Gulzar saab will listen to my lyrics and go wow!” he reminisces.
Even though his works as a singer-songwriter-lyricist had put him on the list of Bollywood A-listers, Swanand kept his dream to direct simmering. In 2008, during the Prithvi Festival, he staged a play called Aao Sathi Sapna Dekhe. “Halfway through the rehearsals one of my actors had to leave. I decided to fill in for him. And after that suddenly I started getting acting offers, albeit in bit roles.”
He adds: “Theatre makes you an all-round, mature person and gives you the opportunity to experiment. You can write a play, put it together, and scrap it if it doesn’t turn out good, unlike in cinema, which is a tedious act.”
This year he’s played the eponymous Pitaji in Makarand Deshpande’s Pitaji Please, his first starring role in a play. But even today, his aim is to direct a film. “One day I’ll definitely make a film. But I am enjoying whatever I am doing and it is all adding up! You need to see the medium from all angles. I can think like a writer, a director, an actor, a light technician. It is enriching me as a director. Now I know how the actor will process a scene,” he quips.
Although he’s enjoying this phase, he’s still faced with a challenge: “Sometimes, while a play is running and I’m on stage, I catch myself checking if the light is fine! That switch is difficult at times,” he breaks into laughter.
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From HT Brunch, December 22, 2019
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