Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Masaan man Varun Grover’s journey: A civil engineer turned Bollywood scriptwriter

New Delhi: Varun Grover, a civil engineering graduate from Benaras Hindu University, was working with a software firm in Pune when he decided to quit his job in 2003 and pursue his passion - the movies, or more precisely, writing Hindi film screenplays and song lyrics.

His mother was sceptical. But his father, a retired military man, who had just read a cover story in the magzine India Today on the many ailments software engineers were vulnerable to because of the sedentary nature of their work, accepted his decision without reluctance.

“Go ahead and do what you want to," the father said.

The decision seems to have paid off. Masaan, a small Indo-French film for which Grover wrote the script and song lyrics, won the prestigious International Federation of Film Critics Award and the Promising Future Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in May this year.

Masaan, directed by debutant Neeraj Ghaywan, has sparkled in the international film circuit, getting a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes. Back home, it touched audiences with its depiction of the sensibilities of small-town India when it released two weeks ago.

Grover, 35, is being applauded for his quirky yet powerful writing in Masaan, which is set in Varanasi and is a portrayal of class and gender inequalities of a town struggling to come to terms with the possibilities of the future.

Grover caught public attention even before Masaan’s release. Some of his other recent songs have become popular especially the soulful “yeh moh-moh ke dhaage..." from Dum Lag Ke Haisha. He’s been the song-writer for several unconventional films such as That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and, more recently, NH10 (2015).

Grover is not the somber, brooding individual one might envision him to be after watching Masaan. Congratulate him on the work he’s been doing and he laughs uncomfortably. Get him talking about his movie memories from childhood and he doesn’t stop.

He speaks affectionately of the deep impact most mainstream films of the 1990s had on him. He was intensely moved by Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Rajshir Productions superhit musical family drama of 1994 (starring Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan).

“I watched Renuka Shahane die in the film on a Friday. I waited with bated breath until Sunday morning to catch her on Surabhi, the cultural magazine show on Doorsdarshan which she hosted then. When I finally saw her alive, I had tears in my eyes," he recalled.

Grover who grew up in Himachal Pradesh, Dehradun and Lucknow, wrote poetry for friends and for children’s magazines. Later, at BHU, he started scripting plays that the college theatre team took to the national youth festivals. “I’d moved from writing for my diary to writing for stage. It was the first time I felt I had the confidence to write professionally," he said.

When he got a job in Pune, he knew he didn’t want to be an engineer for life and started building contacts with ad agencies, “knowing I’d get paid about one-fourth of what I was being offered at the software job."

While writing consistently for television shows like Dus Ka Dum, Oye It’s Friday, The Great Indian Comedy Show and others, Grover was waiting for his chance to write for films. “The industry intimidated me earlier," he said. “Either I wasn’t cut out for it then or I wasn’t meeting the right people."

Out of desperation he did sign a film titled Accident on Hill Road, starring Farooq Sheikh and Celina Jaitley, that was released in 2010. “I realized how wrong it was. You just end up having ordinary films on your CV," he said.

That is when he decided to step back. His wait ended when Grover connected with Anurag Kashyap through the indie film website Passion for Cinema, and eventually wrote the lyrics for Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots and Gangs of Wasseypur, despite having considered himself to be essentially a scriptwriter. His songs like Womaniya, Hunter and Jiya Tu became chartbusters.

Prose remains Grover’s first love. “Lyrics main dimag se likhta hoon. Kahaani dil se (I write lyrics from the head, scripts from the heart)," he admitted. “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. A lot of people tell me it shouldn’t be this way. But it works for me."

And perhaps it is his passion to tell a story that works for him even when he writes a song. Sharad Katariya, director of Dum Laga Ke Haisha, whose songs Grover wrote vouched for this.

“In India, our films are known for their music. But in this case, Varun’s words really made the film. Ideas for so many scenes came from his songs. “

For the much-loved Moh Moh Ke Dhaage, he worked on the tune music director Anu Malik had composed, but Katariya said “he took it to another level."

The writer clearly has a broad understanding of cinema and art. “When I approached him, he first read the script and gave me feedback as a filmmaker. Then he wrote the songs suited to the milieu and language keeping intact the graph of the characters and the humour of the plot," Katariya said.

Grover’s Aankhon Dekhi director Rajat Kapoor agreed. “Besides his ease with the language, Varun’s passion for cinema and literature is what makes him very special," he said. “These days our writers and lyricists get all their education from older films, which, after a point, becomes tiresome. Varun is somebody who brings back a poetic language which we have more or less given up on in our quest to be more bambaiyya."

Incidentally, Gangs of Wasseypur had another talent on the sets. Neeraj Ghaywan was then an assistant director to Anurag Kashyap and already knew of Grover through the Passion of Cinema website. The two had much in common: both belonged to the educated middle-class, had lived in small towns and were engineers.

But what helped them connect and collaborate on Masaan was something else. “His sense of clarity astounds me," said Ghaywan. “He has this amazing ability to be direct, reason if he thinks it’s a horrible idea...because the film is above all."

Today, with his reputation for subtly hilarious social commentary in his stand-up comedy acts and his largely non-mainstream film choices, Grover tends to fall in the bracket of artistes who cater to ‘indie’ tastes. Does he agree?

“I’m okay with anybody interpreting my work anyway because I don’t take it seriously. If you start imagining an audience for yourself, you don’t do justice to the job. You fall into that trap of a self-image," he said.

Friends who thought his place was in small, indie films were angry when he signed up for mainstream production house Yash Raj Films’ Dum Laga Ke Haisha with Anu Malik as music composer.

“I really didn’t care," he said. “These boundaries break with every film. It’s not about the faces or the money put in but the issues and treatment of the film."

It’s a great time to be a writer because of the Internet, according to Grover.

“Anybody who has something unique or funny to say can go viral today," he says.

He is working on three films at the moment but wants to make his own by next year.

“It won’t be anything deep or philosophical like Masaan. I’m more a lover of the Sai Paranjpye kind of cinema that didn’t demand too much attention," he said candidly. “But my film will definitely revolve around the middle-class moralities that govern our lives. Small things that are such a big deal, be it the obsession with getting a job or buying a car."

To another slice-of-life soon, then.

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