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Goodwill Hunting with Ankur Tewari

Hindi pop-rock singer Ankur Tewari’s resilience paid off and why his connections draw him to act in and script Hindi films but never to sing for one

Lalitha Suhasini May 03, 2011
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Prarthna Singh

Just back from a holiday in China, 34-year-old singer-songwriter Ankur Tewari tells us that how a republic of subservient people inspired a song titled ”˜Mohabbat Zindabad’ on his next album. “It talks about revolution and how love will eventually rule,” says Tewari when we meet him at a noisy café in the North Mumbai artists’ hub Bandra.

Tewari fronts Ankur & the Ghalat Family, a four-member band that he formed in 2009. He sings in an unsteady tone that sounds like a guy having fun at a karaoke club. There’s also a quiet earnestness that engages his audience as he whistles along to the song unhurriedly.

The biggest reason why Tewari’s following is growing is perhaps the fact that he won’t cheat on emotion. “I don’t think I’m a great singer, but I don’t think anybody can sing my songs better than me,” he says with disarming candour. Guitarist-turned-sought-after-music producer Warren Mendonsa who first met Tewari when he stepped in on bass to support him at a show in Mumbai in 2009 explains the appeal his songs have for him. “He’s got simple songs that have an honesty in them that I liked immediately,” says the ex-Zero guitarist, who will produce Tewari’s second album, slated to release by the end of the year.

Unlike his peers, Tewari is indisposed towards singing for a Hindi film score. “I can’t sing if I don’t feel the lyrics. I need a couple of weeks to get used to the lyrics and I don’t think composers have that kind of time,” he explains. Tewari looks to everyday life for verse. In ”˜Manwa Re,’ another track for his next album he talks about finding optimism even when you’re dead broke: “Mutti bhar sikko mein guzra tha hafta/Ab woh bhi ho gaye hein laapata/Sabki Diwali hai diwala hain ya/Ab udhari ki aadat si hain yaahan.” The theme is a recurring one. He also wrote ”˜Jaanu’ from his debut Jannat (2010) when he hit rock bottom. “Some interpret ”˜Jaanu’ as a love song, but I wrote it when I was broke. It’s a song about friends who stand by you when you have few paisas in your pocket.”

Even today, if one were to cast a struggling artist for the music video of ”˜Manwa Re,’ Tewari looks the part. Except when we meet him, he’s staring at his iPad. No tramp this despite the scrawny frame, shabby beard and bed hair. Since the time Jannat released to mixed reviews, Tewari has gigged at metros across the country, taken a writing holiday in Goa and has managed to keep a roof over his head in Mumbai’s hippest suburb.

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Most bills have been paid because he’s been a workaholic and a dilettante with a gift for enterprise since childhood. “I’ve never had a plan but I am a big liar. Most of the jobs I’ve got are by lying. I believe that whatever it is, I can do it,” says Tewari, recalling his first con job in Roorkee, his hometown when still in school. The singer and a group of friends hatched a plan to make some quick money for a picnic to Dehradun, the hill station close to Roorkee. Tewari convinced a political party into paying him for cutting a rough promo for the upcoming elections. “We didn’t know anything about making films. We knew a guy who used to make shaadi videos, so we used his cameras. I remember we used an instrumental piece of music from the film Darr, because it had become such a hit then,” says Tewari.

His fascination for the stage began also began in school while watching his theatre director mother at work at the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, where Tewari’s father is a professor. “The students had an extremely DIY approach. They would beg, borrow or steal and come up with really nice sets. All my heroes, the guys I looked up to were into theatre which is what drew me to the stage.”

College was time to cut loose ”“ Tewari was sure he wanted to move out of Roorkee, a town that which he claims offered few career choices. “I didn’t want to be sucked into the army, become an engineer or a doctor or a political goon,” he says. So he chose hotel management in Bhopal. In college, Tewari began directing plays and performing at a restaurant by the airport. “It was called Jungle Brook,” he says, “The place was a hangout where young couples made out. They were not interested in music. I would sing a bit of Ali Haider, Nazia Hassan and Zohaib Hassan (all Pakistani pop artists), and sneak in my songs saying they’re some famous pop songs. I was getting Rs 500 a night, a free meal and a drink, a pick-up and a drop. I was performing there twice a week making Rs 1,000 a night which was an awesome lot of money and there was nothing to spend on in Bhopal anyway.” Soon, he was performing at the college fest without much skill, but more determined than the average plucky youngster. “Everyone else used to sing Kishore Kumar numbers but I did my own songs. I didn’t know more than three chords and played them with confidence. I always wanted to play the guitar. I learnt how to play on my own more out of anger when my guitar teacher had written me off. Even now, I feel I’m an average guitar player, but it helps me emote so I don’t give a damn.” He practised tabs printed in music magazines such as Rock Street Journal and by watching music shows such as Top of the Pops recorded off TV. “I’d pause at a point where you can see a chord being held and imitate it. I’d watch these shows over and over again,” he remembers.

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At 23, he wrote his big hit ”˜Sabse Peechhe Hum Khade.’ It was a post-party cathartic exercise to help Tewari deal with a girlfriend who had to choose between him and her family. “People have told me that they’ve got married because of that song. A friend’s driver who moved from his village to work in Mumbai told me he felt the song was written for him and motivated him to hang on. I hadn’t planned on this,” says Tewari.

Just the previous year, in 1999, Tewari moved to Mumbai for the first time. “I’ve realised that the city either embraces you and magically opens up doors for you or kicks you out,” he says. The first attempt had Tewari sliding into despondency ”“ living with rodents in a chawl and struggling to find a label.

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