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Songwriter Navneet Virk: ‘Let’s Please Not Write Trash Lyrics’

The poet behind the tracks from A.R. Rahman’s filmmaking debut ‘99 Songs’ speaks about lyrically navigating the sonic expanse of the album and how life in advertising influenced her creativity

Jessica Xalxo May 05, 2021

Navneet Virk's lyrics strike a balance between commerce and creativity. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

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Navneet Virk, the lyricist behind A.R. Rahman’s 99 Songs album, grew up on two popular genres of Indian music: classical and film. Melodies from Hindi cinema as well as shers from ghazal maestros wafted through the household as a 10-year-old Virk penned the odd poem or two. She never imagined she would ever write a song for a movie. 

The creative crossroads eventually brought her to the world of advertising where Virk has charted an almost three-decade-long journey at R K Swamy BBDO. As Senior Vice President and Executive Creative Director at India’s iconic advertising agency, Virk has discovered the clutter-breaking balance between art and commerce, between chaos and disciplined creativity. 

The advertising honcho recalls her first meeting with Academy and Grammy Award-winning composer Rahman; 99 Songs is the fifth project they’ve collaborated on. A lot of people forget that the global music legend too once inhabited the world of advertising. (His classic jingles for Leo Coffee and Titan are an inextricable part of Indian pop culture memory). This connection formed the stepping stone towards their creative collaborations to come. “The first jingle he ever wrote (for Allwyn’s trendy watches) was actually for our agency. He still remembers that,” she says.

With credits that include Rahman’s compositions such as the 2017 romantic ballad “Do Dilon Ke” (from Gurinder Chadha’s historical drama Viceroy House), the 2016 electro-pop anthem “Yaara” and the 2017 hip-hop track “Kaara Fankaara” (from the Bollywood drama Ok Jaanu), Virk has been finding her way back to poetry through lyricism. Her foray into songwriting streamlines the best of both her worlds towards an integrative raison d’être. Advertising after all is “creativity with a commercial purpose,” she says.

In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Virk speaks about her creative influences, the metaphorical value of the 99 Songs album and her biggest learnings from working on the landmark soundtrack. Excerpts:

How did you develop an affinity for songwriting?

Fundamentally, I’m a writer… that’s how it started out. Since I was a child, I was writing poetry and short stories and stuff. So, I never thought I would do songwriting. But the reason I was actually very attracted to lyric writing was because I feel it’s such a unique thing that we have — this whole treasure of film music. Nothing like this exists anywhere else and it’s such a large part of our lives. We’ve all grown up on it… I can’t imagine our country without this legacy of film music. Apart from all the classical stuff, the ghazals and all… I mean I grew up on music. So, the magic of film songs and their timelessness… I’ve heard a lot of old songs thanks to my parents and grandparents and I would just be fascinated by them… that wow, this song lives on, and there’s something to be said for that. The way that our music gets passed on. So, I think it would be a privilege for any writer to contribute to that legacy. I think the 99 Songs album is a tribute to music.

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How did your background as an advertising honcho influence or shape your lyricism for 99 Songs?

When you’re in advertising, you sort of do such a wide variety of creative work. I mean we advertising people need to know everything. We need to know music, we need to know to be able to write, we need to have an eye for design, for cinema, for all the arts, essentially. Advertising uses all of this and takes inspiration from all of this. 

So, of course, we write jingles and all in advertising, and that helps you find and craft your words, but I think fundamentally, you’ve to have a sense of poetry as well as a sense of appreciation. All of that is developed when you’re in advertising because that’s also creativity with a commercial purpose. So, you understand the discipline that needs to go in. It’s not just your dil ki shayari (writing poetry to your heart’s content.) There is a brief, there is a context, there is a purpose. So, within that boundary, you’ve to come out with something that’s beautiful and that still works. So, I think that’s where the advertising discipline helped because it’s disciplined creativity and it’s creativity with a commercial purpose. 

In fact, when I first met ARR (A.R. Rahman), we just talked because ARR himself started out with advertising. The first jingle he ever wrote (for Allwyn’s trendy watches) was actually for our agency (R K Swamy BBDO). He still remembers that.

You’ve written love songs (“O Aashiqa,” “Sofia,” “Teri Nazar”), lullabies (“O Mera Chand”), a jazz song (“Soja Soja”), festive tunes (“Gori Godh Bhari”) as well as power ballads (“Jwalamukhi”) and more on 99 Songs. How did you go about writing these songs, given the album’s diverse musicality?

Context really dictates everything. For everyone who’s a writer, you’re writing to that moment or that particular point in the story or you’re writing to that character. Like for instance, on “Soja Soja,” that song is a crazy song. It’s got these twists and turns and not everybody understands it. But that’s really the spirit of jazz, that’s the unpredictability of it. And that’s also the character of the person who is singing it. So, she’s an artist and she’s performing. And for performers and artists, their job is to intrigue and engage with the audience. And she’s doing that with all of this. She’s being assertive and confident, but then she’s also showing a sort of vulnerable side to her where she’s talking about love. So, that intrigue of it… is it her story, is it not her story, is it as much an internal dialogue of the character as it is what she’s just putting out to the audience? So, I guess the situation, the character, all of that is the guiding light for whatever we write. 

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Like for “Gori Godh Bhari,” it had to have that vibe of a simpler and beautiful time. And of course, the moment of expecting a child — the beauty of that. I love that song. To me, it’s my most favorite. It’s about the joy of having a child and how everything feels sweet to you all the time. So that whole innocence, that magic of becoming a mother and expecting a child…. “Gori Godh Bhari” captures that. This celebration of the godh bharaai (baby shower) is really about the mother experiencing once more what is going on with her. And the grandness, the magnitude of the moment. I think that’s really where it comes from because everything has to ring through in the moment. You’ve to be in the moment and then write for it. 

“Sofia” was one of the first tunes ARR had composed and shared with me. The connection between divinity and love is very strong and age-old and to say that you’re finding all the wisdom that you need to live in the one that you love or this emotion of love, that’s what the song is about.

The connection that the protagonist has with music and with nature, “The Voice Without Words” signals that connection musically. In the film, you’ll see there are moments where nature is reacting to the music and that’s a critical moment in the story.

“Jwalamukhi” expresses this intensity of love, of passion. That’s really the soul of the song; that’s also the way it’s sung, it’s really coming from the gut. I think it encompasses that whole feeling of almost reveling in the pain of separation because that’s what true lovers do. If you’re not feeling it then whatever. So, that is jwalamukhi (volcano). The word is something that will be rooted in your mind.

What creative learnings did you take away from the making of the 99 Songs album?

The biggest learning is to live with the tune. To not fall in love with everything that you write. It’s a marriage between the music and the words and that marriage, you’ve to make it work, otherwise, it comes out in the song. To not fall in love or let your ego come in the way of what you’re writing. 

At the same time, I also feel that the quality of words, the purity with which we try to work… it’s not about pandering to a mass or what’s popular. Let’s please not write trash lyrics. There’s just so much objectionable and tasteless stuff out there, and I think if you elevate what you’re writing in some way, then that’ll always shine. 

Let there be something in your song which reflects the good side of life. I’ve learned that from ARR because he would never have a song where there’s any word which is even remotely or potentially controversial.

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