The Art of Talking Films with Nasreen Munni Kabir

Shruti and Nasreen Munni Kabir discuss the art of creating, the documentation of Hindi cinema history, and the challenges of subtitling Hindi films.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. 

Today my guest is Nasreen Munni Kabir, a documentary filmmaker, TV producer and director, author, biographer, translator/subtitler, and an absolute authority on all things Hindi cinema. We spoke about her biographical conversation series of books with artists like Javed Akhtar, Gulzar, Lata Mangeshkar, Waheeda Rahman, Zakir Hussain, AR Rahman. We also spoke about her documentary films on Guru Dutt, and television series Movie Mahal chronicling the history of Hindi cinema, how she chooses her subjects, the difficulty of subtitling Hindi films, her favorite films, songs, artists, and much more. 

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hi Nasreen. Welcome to the show. This is such a pleasure, and I have just followed your work for such a long time.

NASREEN MUNNI KABIR: Oh, thank you, Shruti, and it’s so nice to meet you as well. Really nice.

The Differences Between Gulzar and Javed Akhtar

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m so happy to hear that. The latest book that you’ve written is a follow-up on your past conversations with Javed Akhtar. This is called “Talking Life,” after reading the work you’ve done with Javed Akhtar, with Gulzar, I thought it might be interesting to start with the two poets, because I think the contrast might bring out something more than just talking individually about Javed Akhtar.

To me, it seems like the main difference between them is that Javed Akhtar can take a beautiful painting or a visual and explain it very accessibly, very beautifully, with a fantastic vocabulary, whereas Gulzar can take an idea, something that’s actually very simple, accessible, ordinary, and then he can paint a visual out of it. Is that a good way to think about the two writers, poets, lyricists, and how they approach things and their mental model?

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, I think you’ve really got it absolutely right because, actually, Javed Saab is an intellectual, and I think Gulzar Saab is very intelligent and he’s intuitive. I think Javed Saab actually thinks things through and has the idea first, and then later the image comes, whereas I feel that Gulzar Saab has the image first. That gives a different approach to what you end up seeing and hearing.

Now, when you take the songs, you can see that the songs are, in Javed Saab’s case, they’re much more conversational, and the words are very clear, whereas Gulzar Saab’s poetry is unusual, and it is referring and creating new imagery. He would make combinations of words that actually you don’t expect and sometimes confuse you, and you don’t quite follow, but they are like “Bheegi Raat,” people say “Bheegi Raat,” a moist night, and so on and so forth. The imagery is very different, and I would say that they both speak from their heart, but one goes through their brain and the other through the instinct.

RAJAGOPALAN: For me, I was trying to find comparisons of this, and one that struck me was describing eyes is a big thing in Hindi movie songs. To me, this is not a film song, but it’s “Afreen Afreen,” which Javed Akhtar wrote with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There’s a big antara in there, which is just talking about aankhen, eyes, and then there is “Naina Thag Lenge” which is Gulzar’s song with Vishal Bhardwaj for “Omkara.” Thecontrast between the two is just crystal clear because here it’s like, "Oh, I see beautiful eyes, and I’m going to describe them 17 different ways."

On the other hand, everyone’s been lied to, everyone’s been betrayed, everyone can figure out or not know whether they can trust someone’s eyes, or looks, or face. The way Gulzar describes it is, "Likhat padhat na rasit na khata," which is, "There’s no paperwork to give me a guarantee that the eyes are not lying to me," which is just such a fantastic thought or a way to think about when do we believe something? Does it have an ISI mark? Does it come with paperwork?

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Actually, the thing is that we must also say that they write film songs, and the song that you’re talking about is related to the narrative, and it’s about characters who are deceptive and deceiving. He will use that. You can’t think of a film song separate from the narrative. I believe“Afreen Afreen” was not in the film. I think it’s just an album song.

 In a way, you can’t compare the two because it isn’t connected to narrative. What Gulzar Saab has done within the song is connect it to the characters, whereas “Afreen Afreen” is just the exploration of the words and the singing talent of Nusrat Saab. They are, in fact, very, very different songs, but when you talk about the way they use imagery, of course, I think that Gulzar Saab likes to evoke a lot of modern understanding of relationships. He does that even when the other song about the “Mera Kuchch Samaan” is a very good example of how it’s a very modern concept, and you feel it’s not a divorce, it could have been a live-in situation. You don’t think it’s a divorce. Therefore, he gets into very modern relationships with very classical language and unusual vocabulary, whereas Javed Saab is also very close to the narrative, and one can’t really separate film song from the narrative. In a way, that example is a little unfair to both.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I didn’t mean it as unfair. Let me give you another example with the same—if I stick with the eyes theme, it’s “Sapnon Se Bhare Naina” from “Luck by Chance,” which Javed Akhtar wrote. In this case, still we can stick with the “Omkara” song. Once again, you know that that difference becomes quite interesting.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely because the “Luck by Chance” is about people full of dreams who come to a city wanting to fulfill their ambition. If a song is a good film song, it has to relate to the story. Otherwise, I don’t believe it’s doing anything. Then it’s redundant. Today, if you look at the songs today, they are not very, very related to the story, and they don’t know what to do with the song because it is no longer a narrative form. It is in the background. It is an iteam song; it is something that is actually extraneous to this plot and the story. Whereas the better songs, and the film songs, the true film song is like a scene, but in poetry or in verse. Therefore, you have a very different approach to the whole thing.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Another difference between the two is there’s a lovely story in your book about how when Javed Akhtar was born. Normally you read something from the Quran and whisper it in the newborn’s ear. In his case, because his father was a writer, both a Communist and the Progressive Writers Movement and a poet, he apparently, or at least in the book, it says, "He whispered some verses from the Communist Manifesto." To me, when I read their poetry, it seems to me that Gulzar is the more revolutionary of the two. I mean that literally in the sense of revolution and anti-establishment. Of course, Gulzar is also director. You can see it in his movies like “Maachis” and so on.

If I take an example of, say, caste revolution, I was trying to think of both of them and what kind of songs they’ve written about upending the caste order. Gulzar has a song from “Raavan.” This is taking an older Punjabi verse, “Thoko De Kili,” and literally march to Delhi. That’s the idea behind that song. It’s a very revolutionary song. Javed Akhtar’s work on caste is—if you read “Yeh Tara Woh Tara Har Tara” or listen to from “Swades,” there’s one of those antaras in there where he’s talking about all the different work that the different castes do. It’s a very Ambedkarite idea, again, division of labor versus division of laborers, but it’s not very revolutionary in that sense, perhaps because the movies are different.


RAJAGOPALAN: It just seems to me that for both of them, in Gulzar’s work, I see a much more anti-establishment underlying theme in what he does.

MUNNI KABIR: I would say his vocabulary is very direct, but we cannot divorce it from the story. If that film was in, I don’t know, “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” it wouldn’t work because you have to have the story and the character whose vocabulary matches with his person and temperament. If you don’t have that, you have lost the audience, and the audience don’t believe a word of any of it. 

I think they both can, according to their mood and, according to their brief, be very revolutionary. I think Javed Saab in his way and the way he thinks and he’s outspoken. He’s become a really cultural commentator in many ways, and he’s very clear about his politics. I would say that really, to be honest, in all my work, I feel that you cannot divorce these things because they’re part of a whole—they sit with the director, with the screenplay writer, they understand the character, and then they write the song.

Whether it is Gulzar Saab, or Shailendra, or Sahir Saab, if they write songs that are divorced from the situation, no one is going to fall for it. That is exactly what the problem today is. Today the song is like a concept of love. It isn’t a dialogue of love because the characters are not singing them. They are background songs. It’s a very strict format. And if you deviate from them, I don’t think it remains a film song. What you’re saying is right, “Thok De Killi” was absolutely appropriate for that particular song. I mean, scene and the character, that cannot work anywhere else. Therefore, you can never judge the vocabulary of a song without its context.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is to you the difference between them or the similarity between them?

MUNNI KABIR: I think there’s not much similarity. I think the difference is what makes them unique and what makes them interesting to audiences. I think, as I said before, the Gulzar Saab’s imagery is very new. When we were talking with him, he would use the word chand [moon] and chandni [moonlight a lot, so he has a lot of obsessive ideas about certain words.

Javed Saab, less so. Even though people say he uses some words often, I think it’s less obvious with him. He’s very good with similes. He’s very good with an understanding of small moments. He’s very good with that. I like his particular song in “Kal Ho Naa Ho.” That’s a beautiful song, the title song. He can be quite philosophical and so on, and so can Gulzar Saab, but they are also poets, and so one has to—I don’t know their poetry well enough to ask for us to discuss it, but I think the real philosophical and linguistic energy goes in the poetry.

To examine them and compare them, I would not compare them. It’s like Sahir has very, very strong points and so does Shailendra. They cannot be compared, but because they are two poets and lyricists who are the bridge from that generation to now, they are often put in the same pot. It’s either Gulzar Saab or Javed Saab, but they’re very, very different. You can’t compare, as I say, Majrooh Saab and I don’t know Hasrat Jaipuri. These are different kinds of poets, but all of them understand cinema, understand characters, and I think that is their strength. They are writing for characters and taking their emotional point of view, which is not their own.

A poet who is writing of his own angst and his own feelings, whereas the film song is not that. They could have certain suggestions of the personal life, but the whole thing is not revolving around that.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. You said “Kal Ho Naa Ho,” another song about life and death, that, again—I’ve been thinking about the similarity and the difference in the songs, but again, I get your point. It’s different films. It’s “Aao Na” from “Haider” right?


RAJAGOPALAN: It is also about how fleeting life is, and death will surely come, but it’s just so different from “Kal Ho Naa Ho” and the temper. The broader philosophical point made might be similar, but they’re so different.

MUNNI KABIR: So different. Also, one thing that is a marvelous thing about film song really, Shruti, is they don’t repeat themselves.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s true.

MUNNI KABIR: You cannot take one song, really. Now, you’ll have songs from the old films playing in the background of the new films, but you cannot use the songs from “Bobby” in today’s films because it will not be accepted. Whereas, the stories are repeated again and again and again, and the song cannot.

I think, to me, the Hindi film song is the glue that attaches us to that cinema. It is really very, very key. It’s a key relationship. Because it’s going down, and there’s very few good songs today, frankly, all lyrics, I think the connection is very fickle. Do you know in the old days, you would say, what’s the old film you see, and you think about in the ‘70s, you think about “Pyaasa.” In the 50s, you think about Sehgal Saab. Today, I asked somebody what was an old film, they said, "Three Idiots."


MUNNI KABIR: Really, time is on something. I think the fact the music isn’t connecting also has played a psychological part to all of this.

RAJAGOPALAN: One thing I do notice is even if people are not watching the old films—whenever I visit India, on the radio and all these reality TV shows and “Indian Idol,” and all of these things, people are only singing songs from, say, 1950 to 1975. They’re not exactly singing what happened in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s, and then it comes back with Rahman and Shankar Ehsaan Loy. There’s a big gap, a 15-20-year gap where no one’s really singing most of the songs, but the songs have somehow managed to sustain. Everyone still knows them. One listens to them.

MUNNI KABIR: You see, the thing is if you look at the many television programs, you’ll find song clips, and on YouTube, they’re all there. There can be millions of hits for that song. You take “Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi,” you’ll see millions of hits for these songs. The talent contests actually have to have singers who actually know how to emote within the song words. In the old songs, you know the words. It’s not only because you know the words by heart. It’s because the words express something. Therefore, the poetry in those words is what makes those songs, and the tunes are melodic. Now, you’ll find that the whole structure of the song, the antara, and the mukhda—the antara may not repeat itself or something, so it’s a more difficult song to sing.

AR Rahman

RAJAGOPALAN: We have to thank Rahman, who’s another subjects of yours for interviews and books. When I read the Rahman book, it somehow felt different from your other books to me. Maybe I’m imagining this, but to me, I could see much more of your hand in it. I’m not sure if you had to edit it more or pull it together more, but Rahman, in his other interviews, doesn’t seem to give such cogent, such long answers that felt very different. With all the others, the conversation is more effortless. There’s a lot more back and forth. With Rahman, it felt more stilted. Am I imagining this or is there something and that book was genuinely different?

MUNNI KABIR: I think you’re not imagining it, and we’re talking about that. I don’t remember the year the book was done, but Rahman was very shy and very reticent. Shy is the wrong word, reticent to reveal himself. He would often give yes and no answers, so I had to do a lot of coaxing. Sometimes, without distorting the meaning and the intention, I would have to have joined together two answers to make at least four sentences. That was happening, plus we did this over Skype over three years which is—

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s tough.

MUNNI KABIR: —tough and time zones were different. He was in LA, I was in London, so that all was there. I think at that time, because everything is of its time, he gave as much as he would give. Today, he’s much more open, he gives much longer interviews and such, but that was his early days of exposure to the west to actually talking. He’s a very intelligent man and he’s got a fantastic understanding of things and technology and life. He’s a very good-hearted human being, and he has a lot to give as a human being. I would say he’s one of the most honorable people in many ways.

In film, especially, he’s not really full of himself. He’s very down to earth. All that is so wonderful, but at that time, because it was a long time ago, it was just after the Oscars, it was all quite—and book form is not his medium. A book is not the medium of a composer. He expresses himself in music.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s interesting because, at one point, he talks about how, I mean, he’s also largely self-educated. He had to drop out of school fairly early, but he talks about how he’s not very good with languages, and I feel like your big disadvantage was that it’s not that you didn’t know Tamil. It is that his native language is music and you’re talking to him in English, and he’s not very fluent in Hindi, English, Tamil, Urdu, anything.

MUNNI KABIR: English he’s very fluent.

RAJAGOPALAN: I mean in expressing himself, not a word.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes. Some composers are very good because they analyze music. He doesn’t analyze music in that way. Today, he does. Today, if you interviewed him, he would, and I don’t think it would have made much difference. Maybe it would have made a difference if I knew Tamil, maybe it would have, but I feel my big disadvantage was not knowing some note for the songs, for the lyrics of the songs, and those films. That was my big disadvantage, not that we would have conversed differently, but that was a big disadvantage for me.

RAJAGOPALAN: I read in one of John Coltrane’s biographies that apparently he and Sonny Rollins, one of his contemporaries, would just call each other and start playing music and hang up the phone. The other would respond in exactly the same way when they had a musically suitable answer. They had conversations like this with no words spoken and just music. I feel like one almost has to get something like that out of Rahman. You need to have the musical conversation.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, but now he would talk. Now, he would talk.

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, he would talk.

MUNNI KABIR: Absolutely, he would talk, but I will say that when I talk to Zakir Hussain Saab and when he talked about how he would be on stage, He said, "All music and especially classical music and jazz and so on, is a conversation." You improvise, and you answer them, and you ask questions. It’s a flowing conversation. I remember Lata-ji used to say that whenever she and Noor Jahan would speak on the phone, they would sing songs to each other because they were favorite songs, and all the operators are in Bombay used to listen in because Lata-ji was singing, and Noor Jahan was singing. Can you imagine being a fly on the wall in that situation?

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m getting goosebumps just listening to this story. That’s extraordinary. Before I get to Lata Mangeshkar, another interesting thing, you just said that Rahman is not full of himself. He’s quite different than your typical like Bollywood star that that one might imagine, and another connection there is Waheeda Rehman. Of course, they have the same last name. That’s another fun story, and we can get into it.

They both seem quite different from the other people that you’ve described. They are geographically removed from the Bollywood noise, and they partly that is chance—in case of Waheeda Rehman, it’s very intentional. She wanted to stay away from it. What else is it about these two? Is it that they are Tamilian and they’re South Indian? Is there something cultural? Is there something in the childhood? What makes them so different from everyone else who has reached that stardom that they are actually not at all bothered by the noise of it and not involved in it at all?

MUNNI KABIR: I think it is true because they were raised in the south because I think there was much more a sense of an old tradition, and that when you’re in that old tradition, you don’t think everything you do is genius. You’re a part of a continuous thing. Rahman came from a very modest background. Waheeda came from an elite, an educated background, and she also learned dance. She knew a different form of performance. That makes a difference too.

What’s in a Name?  

I think from the very start, in those days, the Muslim actresses would have to change their name, and she just refused to. She was the first to be called Waheeda Rehman, and it is not as wonderfully appealing as a Madhubala or Meena Kumari or Nargis or so on. It showed that she would put her foot down when it came to her identity, but more than that, I think it’s also that they are very grounded in family life. That is very true. 

Therefore, when you have a strong family—I really don’t mean to say that others don’t have a family life. They do. They all do, but it was a quieter life in many ways. More for Rahman, without trying to ever convert anyone or do anything, but he has a spiritual life. I think that makes a big difference. You think of things as being transitory, that you are very famous today, tomorrow your song may not work, and you have to be able to take both. If you can’t take both, you’re in big trouble.

RAJAGOPALAN: The lovely thing is not only do Rahman and Waheeda Rehman have the same name, the spelling is slightly different, but Waheeda Rehman is very adamant. She just refuses to drop her last name or change it, and Rahman actually adopts the name Rahman because his name at birth that was given to him is completely different.

MUNNI KABIR: Dilip Kumar.

RAJAGOPALAN: He says, "No offense to Dilip Kumar, but I never really liked the name." The other and he chooses Alla Rakha, which is also Zakir Hussain’s father, Abbaji’s name. There’s something going on with the names of all these people, like Guru Dutt is not really Guru Dutt—that’s his first name. No one knows the rest of his names.

MUNNI KABIR: Guru Dutt Padukone. 

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. Gulzar, I don’t think anyone knows Gulzar as Sampurna Singh Kalra. Javed Akhtar apparently got the name from his pet name which is Jadu. What’s going on? Is this just from that time? People were just pretty chill about names and changing names. Now, it feels like there’s this passport and “Aadhaar,” and the name is your name. That’s it. It’s all of your identity, but there seems to be something very fluid about the names of all these people. Are they unique, or is it just a function of that time?

MUNNI KABIR: I think it’s a very nice thing you brought up, and I’ve never thought about it before. Honestly, in a way, the world of cinema is fiction. Therefore, when you say everybody knew that Dilip Kumar and all his family and his close friends called him Yusuf Saab. They didn’t call him Dilip Kumar. There was a split between the screen identity and who the person was, and the name was like that. Many of them were quite natural that there was this split.

I don’t know if it is not so unique to just Indian cinema because, in Hollywood, I don’t know what Michael Douglas is—Kirk Douglas his real name or something completely different, and quite a few of the people who are Russian immigrants into America change their name to make it easier. Rock Hudson’s name I don’t think is Rock Hudson his original name. I don’t remember what it was, but it’s because they entered screen.

Of course, when a writer changes his name to a pen name, that’s a whole different ballgame, and you have the same thing happening in many kinds of art forms. I don’t know about painters usually keep their name, but in film and also in writers, you will find George Sands is—you know what I mean? It’s common practice.

The Work Ethic of Each Artist 

RAJAGOPALAN: Another thing that I found, maybe I’m trying to find too many unifying threads, but I read all the books together very recently, again, to prep for the conversation, so all this is popping up. Most of them had quite difficult childhoods and had to become responsible for earning for their family or at least look after themselves because their family could look after themselves very early. In the case of Waheeda Rehman, A.R. Rahman, Lata Mangeshkar, it starts in their teens.

Zakir Hussain also starts playing and earning in his teens but maybe not in such dire circumstances. Gulzar, in his late teens. Guru Dutt. They all start working very early, even by the standards of those days. Is that something that makes them all really unique? You’ve picked these people. You’ve obviously picked them because they’re different from [crosstalk]—

MUNNI KABIR: I’ll tell you later why I picked them. I tell you why but later.

RAJAGOPALAN: I would want to know. Perfect. Is this something that, I’m not saying you go looking for it, but did this pop out when you were researching them?


RAJAGOPALAN: When you were speaking with them?

MUNNI KABIR: Yes. I think when you have to earn for your family at a very young age which you mentioned all their names, and they did have to, you become a very responsible person. You become someone who is extremely responsible, very hardworking, and you know that the only thing you have to do is to protect your family, to earn, and to work. They have a really strong work ethic.

You would have a situation with Lata-ji, never used to think twice of going in the morning to one studio and taking the train, not eating sometimes, not knowing if there’s a canteen in the studio going to the next because it was her work ethic. It’s not just because she needed to earn money. It’s the way they made work their life, and I think in later years, when Waheedaji was settled, she became much more involved with her family, but I’m sure as a young person, she was also responsible.

Even Yusuf Saab, Dilip Kumar, he was looking after his family. Each one you find who were looking after their family became very responsible and obsessive by work, and that is a pattern you see. They knew the value of money. They knew the value of how important it was to make it in some form, in some way, and not necessarily egoistically full of themselves but in terms of actually having enough, so they would have enough because all around you when you see very poor people, they must be a bite of terror of also falling down and not moving up. It’s in front of you all the time. You walk down the street, and you see it.

RAJAGOPALAN: What I found interesting about them is despite having this situation where you have to have this fantastic work ethic, be professional, you’re basically doing this for a living, not as just a passion or something, even if it might be one. They all dare to be different, which is quite difficult in these circumstances. Normally one would imagine—I won’t say sell out, but it’s quite easy to say circumstances are difficult. We need to do this for the money and get on with it, but they all have said no to some phenomenal opportunities in their lives.

You’ve documented those instances well—maybe except Lata Mangeshkar, they’ve been big points in their life where they didn’t have much work, or they had to take a sabbatical, or they just couldn’t do what they were doing because it wasn’t fulfilling them in some way, or their talent wasn’t being used well. I find that quite interesting that one would expect them to be very cookie-cutter, do what the mainstream says, and they still managed to somehow be quite far removed from that kind of attitude.

MUNNI KABIR: Actually, what happened is that once they started working, the money security and the financial security got established, and then choices. For example, Waheeda ji talks about in the book, she talks about how she refused to wear certain type of clothes and had an argument with Raj Khosla, and basically, refused to work with him for quite a number of years.

They were people who also had very strong family backgrounds, very strong family backgrounds. Therefore, they also knew the values they carried forward. Even if it meant saying no to one film, another film was going to come. She was Waheeda Rehman. That wasn’t an issue, but what she stood for was an issue. Lata Mangeshkar would say, “Look, I’ll sing any number of songs but no vulgar songs.” That is her point of view and her sense of aesthetics and morality.

Waheeda Rehman

RAJAGOPALAN: With Waheeda Rehman, that, to me, is my favorite of all the books, probably because we know so little about her. She’s not really there in the conversation. She doesn’t give too many interviews. One, I learnt the most about her as a person. But also just so refreshing in her candor. If I were to use a modern language, I would say she has no Fs to give. She just says what she means. She’s not rude or nasty but just speaks her mind.

From the stories that are there in the book, it seems like she’s been doing that since she was 16, and she was doing that in front of everyone. She was giving ideas about edits, about removing songs from films, and she was just very honest and candid about what she thought. That’s one unique for a woman or her time in the film business. I just found her to be so extraordinary and refreshing.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes. I must say she was surprisingly aware of the technique of film. She knew about cameras. She knew about lenses. Photography is very important to her. She’s a good photographer. She was very, very aware of what was happening on the set, in terms of the technique. I don’t think many of the actresses were that aware of or asked questions about cameras and lenses and so on. She had a healthy relationship with other film people and healthy relationship with the technique of cinema.

Also, I think she had her gurus when she was learning how to dance. She understood that you don’t just dance. You understand dance. You don’t just work in cinema. You understand the forms and the language of cinema. You can see the discipline of the dance practice and ethics coming to her work. She brings something else to it, another layer.

RAJAGOPALAN: I thought it might also be that in the very early years, her cinematographer was V.K. Murthy, who is a fellow Tamilian and apparently one of the few people she could—

MUNNI KABIR: Yes. Good friends.

RAJAGOPALAN: —just chat with. I’ll tell you of V. K. Murthy’s story after this. There’s also so many instances of luck, or just chance, in these things. You find a Tamilian cinematographer, he happens to be one of the greatest that ever existed in that time or ever, and you have all these conversations with him because you are shy, you’re young. You don’t really know anyone else on the set, and he’s looking out for you. It’s quite lovely.

MUNNI KABIR: Don’t forget, it’s Guru Dutt,. Now, Guru Dutt found Murthy. It wasn’t the other way around. I would say, first, he’s the director. He’s the captain of the ship. Guru Dutt was an impressive filmmaker, was a very impressive filmmaker. If you start your career with him, like Sharmila Tagore starting with Mr. Ray, when you start with a master, how can you not be made alert of what’s happening around you? It’s not possible. It’s really not possible.

I would say Guru Dutt was such an amazing artist, and Murthy was at his service. When you have a good director, everybody involved wants to please that one man or that one woman. Same thing with Mr. Ray, look at his team, look at Guru Dutt’s team, Raj Kapoor’s, Mehboob Khan’s. They worked with the same people who they fed off each other’s artistry. All the actors who had any intelligence also did that. If you take back Dilip Kumar, if you look at, for me, his best performance is in “Andaz.” He’s working with Mehboob Khan.

Here is a man who is not educated at all, Mehboob, and yet he makes those amazingly modern films and amazing understanding of melodrama, fantastically cinematic. When you work with people like that, you have to raise the bar yourself as a human being. All the people who’ve worked even with Bimal RoyRaj KapoorGuru DuttMehmoob, they have all very interesting—they are the leading minds of the Indian cinema of that period. Today we have other leading minds too. It’s not that they just stopped existing.

You have to have an environment in which you are encouraged. Cinema is a team job. It’s teamwork, and if you don’t have everybody working with you—think of the song Sahir gave “Pyaasa.” Without “Pyaasa” songs, “Pyaasa” would not be “Pyaasa” without Sahir. And “Kaaghaz Ke Phool will not be in that fame without Murthy. Murthy said something wonderful about Guru Dutt. He said he really had a jeweler’s eye, and he knew how to pick the diamonds, and the director knows how to pick the diamonds, whether it’s actors or technicians because you’re in the hands of technicians. They are your eyes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Other than, say, the musical side of the technicians, most of the other technicians who worked with Guru Dutt actually did the best work with him. They never managed to quite replicate that level with the others that they worked with.

MUNNI KABIR: Mostly only Murthy, but Majrooh was fine. Sahir was fine.


MUNNI KABIR: Waheeda was fine. 

RAJAGOPALAN: The musical side is pretty good.

MUNNI KABIR: And acting. Waheeda, she did fine in “Guide.” She was brilliant. Dev Anand is good also in his own way.

RAJAGOPALAN: I still somehow feel the best work was with Guru Dutt.

MUNNI KABIR: Because the film is the best. It’s not their best work. It’s the film. The film is good. If you take, “Godfather,” my God, is all of them are excellent, but that film made it gel. That’s true of Hollywood.

RAJAGOPALAN: I have a question about Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, specifically on dancing. I learned from your documentary that Guru Dutt actually started his life learning choreography and was training to be a choreographer. I think there were some circumstances he was thrown out, or he left school.

MUNNI KABIR: He wasn’t thrown out, but he wanted to be a director.

RAJAGOPALAN: Waheeda Rehman was a fantastic dancer. That’s actually how she got introduced to film, but I don’t think she has any big dance sequences in any Guru Dutt movies, and he never choreographed her. Why is that? That’s such a bizarre thing.

MUNNI KABIR: Because there was no real space for a dance number per se in Guru Dutt’s films. Where would you have put it? You would have Madhubala in “Mr. and Mrs. 55.” She just walks in and does something, but there’s no real dance. Where his dance and his choreography can be seen totally evidently is in his camera movement, in his trolley shots, in his tracking shots. These are where you see choreography.

The way he choreographed a song between wide and close up and long shots, that’s choreography. He used choreography in the language of cinema rather than the literal language of having a dance. The only one place that they could have had a dance would have been in “Kaagaz Ke Phool” when Waheeda Rehman is an actress. There could have been a scene where she dances. Otherwise, in “Pyaasa,” if she was dancing in a kotha, she would have been a very different character. It would not have been the same Gulab. He knew that it’s not appropriate.

RAJAGOPALAN: The dream sequences are also not the dancing dream sequences.

MUNNI KABIR: No. It is a modern waltz. It’s not an Indian dance. It is a dream in the Hollywood sense that stairway to heaven, and the smoke and all of that, it’s very Hollywood understanding of a dream.

RAJAGOPALAN: “Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam” that entire—the way that song is shot and choreographed, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since, actually.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s a dance.

RAJAGOPALAN: It is a dance of light and shadow.

MUNNI KABIR: That’s what I was saying that the choreography was in his camera movements.

RAJAGOPALAN: That story is also lovely how they managed to get that beam of light, Murthy. It’s amazing to read that after having watched the movies, and a lot of it I may not have even paid attention to. 

The other thing that struck me about—not that I’m surprised that both Waheeda Rehman and Lata Mangeshkar understand the technical process of filmmaking, of sound recording, the equipment. They seem to know that really well. The reason I was surprised is that both of them are self-educated. They started working so early, and even their education is not exactly in this area. They never got to go to a film school or a traditional music school and have these other people where you meet. If you go to Berkeley School of Music, you’ll meet people who are on the technical side. You’ll meet sound engineers. They learn from the job, but there’s something about these two women. They are just so sharp and observant to what’s happening around them. That doesn’t surprise me because they’re women. It just surprises me because they basically had no formal education. 

MUNNI KABIR: I don’t think education has anything to do with filmmaking—

RAJAGOPALAN: [chuckles]

MUNNI KABIR: —because it is really about a visual—it’s a visual art, and it’s a combination of the seven arts. It’s music helping you, performance helping you, storytelling helping you, all of that helping you. Where it comes into play is that because Waheeda-ji was a dancer first, she knew the facial expressions. She herself talked about the fact she thought her voice was very weak, but her eyes and her expression because of dance training, was very strong.

Whereas Lata-ji could grasp the tune and grasp the song, and at the same time, she would ask the composer or the director, or whoever was she dealing with, "Who am I singing for?" The tonality would match Nargis, or Meena Kumari, or Saira Banu, or even Dimple and “Bobby.” For generations, she understood the kind of character that she was singing for, girlish, womanly, and so on.

If you see a song like “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh,” now that is for a mature woman. You can hear her tone, and you can hear the songs in “Bobby.” You could see that she understood the age group and the kind of actress she was singing for, and that has nothing to do with education. It’s understanding the form.

RAJAGOPALAN: It is different from their contemporaries, right? Not everyone was able to understand that this is either necessary, or even if they knew this is required, they perhaps didn’t have the talent or the means, or the facility to achieve it? There is something quite unique about both of them.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, but I would say we could be a little wrong, whereas Nargis had it, Meena Kumari had it, Rafi Saab had it, Kishore Kumar had it. There were a lot of very talented people were around, a lot of them. They all knew it. I don’t think Rafi Saab went to a university or something, but you hear “Chaudhavi Ka Chand,” you hear the other song in that one lovely song “Suhaani Raat Dhal Chuki.”

My God, I’d give him a Ph.D. in one second, but what use of it? What use of it is it to him to have a Ph.D. when he can sing like “Suhani Raat?”

RAJAGOPALAN: What I mean is Mukesh sounds like Mukesh, very distinct in every song.

MUNNI KABIR: He didn’t have classical training, while Rafi Saab did, and Lata-ji did. The classical training is the education, not the going to Berkeley. That was in its own tradition. They were totally educated.

Choosing her Subjects

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Let me ask the question you raised first, which is what made you pick all of them? What unites them other than the fact that they have worked with you?

MUNNI KABIR: I think it was a little bit of arrogance on my part, but I thought each one of them must have five films minimum that are classics, then I would choose them. Waheeda Rehman had obviously “Pyaasa,” she had “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam,” she had “Guide,” “Teesri Kasam,” which is a wonderful film, “Teesri Kasam.” She had also “Kaagaz Ke Phool” and other films. Five films, definitely. 

Lata-ji has 5,000 of them, and Rahman does, Gulzar does, and our dear Javed Sahab has. Who couldn’t write “Kitne Admi The?”

RAJAGOPALAN: That seems to be the necessary condition. It’s not the sufficient condition. There might be more than just this group that at least has five classical—

MUNNI KABIR: They had to be articulate.


MUNNI KABIR: They had to be articulate because they had to understand their own work and their own life. They’re very bright. All of them are very bright, but to me, the first thing is, can I have a retrospective and show five films of theirs? Otherwise, you are celebrating the premiere before the film was released. You have to have the work first. Your work has to matter, and then people will want to know about these people. If they’re just famous, it’s not enough. When it came to documentaries, I did a documentary on Amitabh, who’s also absolutely among history makers, and Shah Rukh also is a history maker. They’re history makers.

Javed Saab put it once, he said, "When these people entered their field, they changed it." After Lata-ji came in, singing had been molded by Lata-ji’s example. Say with Waheeda-ji acting, Rahman 100% percent, and so on. They changed things. They’re not just coming there for the job. They’ve changed what it means to be a playback singer. That must be part of the choice.

RAJAGOPALAN: Here, I think Zakir Hussain seems a little bit different, not just because he’s not mainly a film personality, but I wouldn’t say that he completely changed things. To me, what he did is—

MUNNI KABIR: I think he did.

RAJAGOPALAN: To me, it seems like he just took it to another level. He surpassed every metric and every expectation that might have been set for someone like him who came from this classical tradition.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, but the way he changed things is he worked with jazz musicians. He worked with all kinds of musicians, which the other traditional tabla players were not doing. Plus, people go to his concert just for the tabla. This is new. They would not go just for Alla Rakha. They would go because Pandit Ravi Shankar was there. He changed it, and he’s 100% percent history maker. I went to a concert—

RAJAGOPALAN: A history maker, for sure.

MUNNI KABIR: For sure. Nobody used to go to a solo tabla. I don’t remember it, even in the 60s, 70s, 80s, but Zakir, I went to a concert of his at the NCPA on Sunday, he was the star that brought the audience, even though there was Sabir Khan who was on Sarangi, beautiful, and a flute player was the woman. Wonderful. He’s the man. He’s the man. Of course, he also had the capacity and the ability to play with all the greats. Imagine how many great ustaads he’s played with. There isn’t one he hasn’t. There isn’t one. What a privilege. What a privilege.

RAJAGOPALAN: To me, the fact that he played with so many different musicians, somehow to me, it doesn’t seem that different, because, for instance, Alla Rakha recorded with Buddy Rich when? They have this lovely record of “Rich à la Rakha,” and that seems to be the forte of a tabla player. Abbaji before him had composed for film. He had played with dancers, he had played with jazz musicians, he had played with foreign troupes. To me, that seems more like a continuation than anything else.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s a continuation, and more so.

RAJAGOPALAN: But I do agree with you on the soloist.

MUNNI KABIR: The soloist is definitely Zakir, and maybe Allah Rakha. They would’ve also done that finally, but it didn’t happen. I don’t know whether he had played it with Bismillah Khan SaabAlla Rakha, I don’t know. Zakir has. I don’t know whether he’s played with some of the others. Birju Maharaj, did he play with him? I don’t know. I think he was mostly connected with Pandit Ravi Shankar. I’m not even sure whether he played with Vilayat Khan. Did he? I’m not sure.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think he might have, actually. I can go and look up my old vinyl records, but I think he might have actually.

MUNNI KABIR: Okay, but I would say that they are both geniuses.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, absolutely.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s unfair to compare one or the other, but they’re both—

RAJAGOPALAN: I didn’t mean as an unfair. I mean more in terms of everyone else does something quite—even if your father is a poet, or in Rahman’s case, his father was a musician, and so on. He even actually did music for a film. They seem to be quite different from the expected path that was laid out for them. I feel like, in some sense, Zakir Hussain has done something even harder. The expected path that was laid out for him was actually a pretty high bar to start with, and he managed to do all of that and also surpass it, not necessarily by being different from what was expected, but just by being extraordinary.

MUNNI KABIR: I agree. I agree, but I think also it’s a very, very hard thing to be the son of someone famous.

Articulating others’ life

RAJAGOPALAN: One of the other thing that unites all of these people. Like you said, they have to be extraordinary, they have to be articulate. In your experience, is that difficult among film personalities or even more generally artists, that they’re not able to articulate what they do very easily or well?

MUNNI KABIR: I think they have to trust you, number one. I think you have to actually study their work and come up with questions that will surprise them and that they will think about their work differently because you’ve surprised them with a question. I think they’re all very articulate. Some may be drifting into Hindustani and out into English. Lata-ji was all in Hindustani, and Javed Saab drifts in and out. So does Gulzar Saab, so does Waheeda-ji, so you have to be bilingual, but most important is you gain that trust.

They know why you are there. Why are you interviewing them? They have to know that. It really helps enormously if they know your work. Before I started doing these books, Shruti, I used to make documentaries. I made lots and lots of documentaries, and I did a three-hour documentary on that Lata-ji, so she knew me and Waheeda-ji I did because of Guru Dutt documentary.

RAJAGOPALAN: Through the Guru Dutt documentary?

MUNNI KABIR: I knew many of these people. Rahman, I did a documentary on the making of Bombay Dreams with Andrew Lloyd Webber, so Rahman was there, and Gulzar Saab, I’ve interviewed him on film many times, so they knew my work. They’ve seen it. I always made a point to give them a copy of the documentary, and they all saw, especially the Guru documentary, they all saw it. After seeing the Guru documentary, Lata-ji, thanks to a wonderful friend called Sanjeev Kohli, who is Madan Mohan’s [crosstalk] son.

RAJAGOPALAN: Madan Mohan’s son.

MUNNI KABIR: He recommended me to Lata-ji and she saw the Guru Dutt documentary, and that’s how she said yes. One job [crosstalk] led to the other. That is how it basically happened. Now the books are another kind of ball game. It’s another world. I’d say the Movie Mahal Series and the documentaries, and it’s visible today to a lot of people in India. They know me mainly by the books. I’ve been doing as I think lots of subtitling. I’ve had a lot of dealings with the younger generation of filmmakers.


RAJAGOPALAN: I want to get to all of those parts of your work, but I want to first start with documentaries. I want to start with Guru Dutt, so why a Guru Dutt documentary was it to reintroduce that to the next generation? Because by the time you made it, he had already been gone for many decades.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes. 22 years.

RAJAGOPALAN: Was it that that stuff will be forgotten or just a different kind of fascination or, it had a market internationally?

MUNNI KABIR: I was obsessed, and I still am, by Guru Dutt’s films.


MUNNI KABIR: Because I think he understood how to make the Hindi film idiom work perfectly. He understood how to do it, and that is rare. Really, It’s rare. Therefore, I was very, very interested in him as a filmmaker. He has such a nostalgic face and so full of melancholy. You fall in love with this kind of character. Plus, I think that if you want to keep someone’s work who you love and are passionate about alive, you champion their work. I was fortunate enough, thanks to Farrukh Dhondhy, who was working at that time, at my Channel 4, and he commissioned me to make these documentaries.

It was only a natural choice. I remember, I don’t know, I had seen 36 people who had worked with Guru Dutt, and then after that I chose the people who would be on film, and because of that, I met a lot of people. Later I gave the tape and I remember two comments, which really moved me. One was Raj Khosla, and he said, "How did you get Guru Dutt to act for you? Because all those clips looked like he’s acting for this documentary.” 

The other person who said something totally beautiful in his own style, it was Majrooh Sultan Puri. He said, “ismein toh halki si kahaani aa gayi” and that was a big compliment. Because it became like the story of Guru Dutt, and everybody, Murthy Saab, his—Guru Dutt’s mother—


MUNNI KABIR: Abrar Alvi. They were all wonderful, but when you go to Abrar Alvi, you don’t go researching on camera. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask him. I wanted to ask him about one scene in “Mr. and Mrs. 55,” another scene in “Sahib Bibi”. It took him back. Don’t forget another thing. It was 22 years after he died. Now, it’s how many more years, and so memory was much fresher then, and a lot of things were fresher in terms of the ‘50s in the ‘80s than they are today. Today, the ‘50s is what 70 years ago then it was—

RAJAGOPALAN: Most of the people he worked with are gone.

MUNNI KABIR: They are all gone. In that Waheeda-jiWaheeda-ji is the only one I believe was around. Mani Kaul is gone. He was in the film and, Johnny Walker, all of them. Majrooh Saab, Kaifi Saab, all of them. Waheeda-ji is the only one.

RAJAGOPALAN: Wow. It’s been a while. We forget how long it’s been since those movies. The other question I had about documentary, and I’m glad you mentioned that Majrooh Saab said that “ismein to kahaani aa gayi”  is that something you are looking for consciously? I know you are trying to tell a coherent narrative but are you trying to string it together as a poetic story, which is what I felt when I saw the Guru Dutt documentary.

MUNNI KABIR: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: It gives you a very nice peek into his life, but it’s almost like one of his songs.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s just, yes. You have to make it for one, a film, and for two, you have to tell a story, otherwise, it’s very dry, becomes very dry.

RAJAGOPALAN: Does it worry you that when you are in the documentary style of film making some fiction might peek into it or something else might slip into it. Is that a concern? Because you are very careful about that in the books and the conversations that it has to be the voice of the person that you are conversing with. You emphasize that in each introduction. Do you worry about that in the documentary filmmaking side at all?

MUNNI KABIR: Not really, because the documentary, if you’re showing a clip from “Pyaasa” or “Mr. And Mrs. 55” film is in interpreted by everybody who’s watching. You may think it is fictionalized or not authentic or whatever you think, is absolutely right, but the film clips allowed me to weave a story. Because Guru Dutt, that was the actor, he came alive. I cannot make the same film about Mehboob or about Bimal Roy because they were not actors in their films. I could make the same type of film about Raj Kapoor. It’s what Raj Khosla is as I said. How did you get him to act for you?

That’s a very perceptive comment, because it meant that the clips did the talking as if Guru Dutt was there. You really felt Guru Dutt’s presence, and that was very willful, and if it wasn’t willful, I should get another job.

RAJAGOPALAN: No. The unfortunate thing is I’ve seen it in a horrible YouTube print. I can just imagine what it would be like on a good print because I couldn’t find it streaming or otherwise.

MUNNI KABIR: I should send it to you.

The Motivation Behind Past and Current Projects

RAJAGOPALAN: That would be a treat. The other question I have is—I know that some of this was commissioned by Channel 4. You met certain people who had this common interest, but you are also unique in that you figured out that there is a global interest in Hindi cinema. This is before the NRI films of, Aditya Chopra or Karan Johar and this big now Indian—there’s a large enough and rich enough Indian diaspora that they watch these films, and they’ll watch a retrospective, but that wasn’t the case when you made these documentaries or when you started on this journey.

It’s there in one of your books Javed Akhtar said this. If there isn’t a market for your work, you have to create a market for it. Was that what you were trying to do, or did you just know that there will be a demand and an audience for it? Someone just has to have the eye and just put it out there, because you are very early on this journey, a first mover.

MUNNI KABIR: To be very honest, I never thought about all that. I just didn’t. I really felt that Hindi Cinema was not given the respect it was due. I felt the Masters really would be wonderful. I learned and discovered things for myself. It was my connection to India, so it was something that you wanted to learn more about and discover more about. Really, that was it. I honestly didn’t think about a market.

I was very, very fortunate, the Channel 4 and Farrukh Dhondhy and Sue Woodford before him, they understood that for the Asian community living in UK, they would love these programs. They commissioned them. But I was quite surprised with the reaction. We got thousands of letters. We got thousands of letters from fans in the UK saying, "Movie Mahal” the videotapes in the old days of VHS were circulating all of Africa. I remember meeting people from Kenya, and they said, "Oh, we’ve seen Movie Mahal and so on. I didn’t realize what it could do, and I’m very happy it happened then.

RAJAGOPALAN: You were, basically, making it for yourself. You thought, "I would want to see something like this movie in London and loving Hindi cinema."

MUNNI KABIR: I was making it to discover who are these people who make films because a documentary should be a line of inquiry, not just for the self, then you can just make selfies and sit. No one watch them. It’s to discover the work of some others and to understand their skills.

RAJAGOPALAN: Did you have a plan, like, "Okay, I’ll do this and then I’ll move on." Did you think of yourself primarily as a documentary filmmaker that "I will move on to another subject, maybe a politician, maybe a musician, maybe Elton John or something else?" Or was it that you think of yourself primarily as a film writer and a film journalist with a keen eye for Hindi cinema? How did you view yourself even at that age?

MUNNI KABIR: I had met P. K. Nair who was the first founding director of the National Film Archives. I think what interested me was not so much making documentaries about people, but about archiving and chronicling a history of a cinema. For me, I think my work has been really chronicling film practitioners, and so I’ll just be doing the same thing forever, but it’s going deeper and wider in as much as getting different people talking what they work.

The books were extension of that because the documentaries, the interviews, because obviously you cut for a documentary, and you make it shorter. The interviews are very long. Do you know a company called Adam Matthews? Adam Matthews actually have these educational packages, which they sell to different universities in America and Canada and so on. They are going to be promoting this Indian Cinema package.

You see the interviews, they’re very long. They’re not a program. To be honest, the primary inspiration, my guru was Mr. Nair and he taught me how it’s important to chronicle and archive the practitioners. He was archiving and really collecting films and keeping the negatives and so on. Primarily, it was about archiving and chronicling. 

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, you are doing archiving, but in real-time, with subtitling. First of all, may I just say as a consumer of these films, I’m so grateful that we have better subtitles, and we have you to thank for it. Because I’ll watch some of these movies and they will have English subtitles. In some serious scenes, I’ve just laughed out loud while watching these movies because subtitling is horrible. First, how did you get into it? I’m not surprised they asked you, but what is it about the process that interested you? And what are the movies you’ve done? What do you enjoy about it and so on?

MUNNI KABIR: I think some of the subtitling is very funny, and there’s a website which is run by an American called Paagal Subtitling. You must see it because she takes screen grabs from Hindi films and there’s a whole lot of them. They are outrageous. They ruin the film and as you say, all you do is laugh. Basically, while I was doing the films.

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t know if I found it in your thing or a meme that was floating around, but the Aamir Khan film, “The Rising.” It had Mangal Mangal.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, Mangal Mangal.

RAJAGOPALAN: It said Tuesday, Tuesday.

MUNNI KABIR: It wasn’t me.

RAJAGOPALAN: I know it wasn’t you, but I don’t know if you brought it up in some forum or I saw it in a meme. It said, “Mangal, Mangal, Mangal, Mangal” in the beginning of the song by Kailash Kher. It’s says, “Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday.” I thought, "Thank God it doesn’t say ‘Mars, Mars, Mars, Mars,’" because that’s the other way you can think about it.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes. Really, honestly, and obviously, it ruined the scene, ruined the song.

RAJAGOPALAN: I just laughed out loud. It’s horrible.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s horrible. Basically, when I was doing the documentaries in the ‘80s, I did big festivals of Indian Cinema, Pomp Center, 100 films, 120 films, and so on, and Channel 4 started. Besides the documentaries, they gave me a contract, which I still am doing, is curating the Indian films on Channel 4. Therefore, I started subtitling in the ‘80s because the films would go onto Channel 4, and I would do the subtitles and work with the team for the technical stuff, and also learning the process. One of the early films we did was “Sholay” and then it kept going.

Now, since the ‘80s and then in recent years, the Indian producers have asked me to do their films because they knew about the Channel 4 films and various. The films, I mean, I did 800 films, a lot of films, and a lot of classics. Recently, Shruti the film I’ve been getting the most praise for was “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani.

RAJAGOPALAN: The subtitling was fantastic in that, by the way, I am so thrilled. [crosstalk] I didn’t know you did it, but I actually watched it in the movie theater, and very, very nicely done.

MUNNI KABIR: I’ve got the most praise, including on Twitter, and God knows what about Rocky Aur Rani That was amazing and I enjoy it because it’s a challenge. It’s very much about cinema. You have to translate in two seconds, three seconds, and make it work. You have to keep the vocabulary, if possible, in terms of the character and so on. It’s a very challenging thing. Subtitles has now united the cultural world. Think in India, Shruti, how popular the Korean dramas are. How would they manage?

RAJAGOPALAN: Even in India, Malayalam cinema, Telugu cinema, we are just watching all this using subtitles. I don’t speak those languages.

MUNNI KABIR: That’s right. More important is how is everybody watching Korean.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Iranian, Korean. It’s amazing.

MUNNI KABIR: Amazing. These costume dramas are Korean what you call it. They are big, big in India. Yes. They’re big and it’s subtitled. Subtitles have been starting to be taken very seriously and Indian films had to follow.

RAJAGOPALAN: How do you think about your audience? For instance, I’ve noticed that you don’t do a word-for-word translation. Javed Akhtar said in “Hathi Mere Sathi,” there was a bit where it said “haath dho ke peeche pada hai”  which would roughly translate to that elephant is doggedly chasing me or stalking me?

MUNNI KABIR: Oh, yes, yes. It’s chasing me, but it’s—

RAJAGOPALAN: I think he said this elephant is chasing me after washing its hands or something.

MUNNI KABIR: Hands. Something ridiculous.

RAJAGOPALAN: Ridiculous.

MUNNI KABIR: I know you don’t do word for word. You’re not literal at all. I know that. I know the other challenge must be to get it to fit in that frame, even if it’s not all of the dialogue.

MUNNI KABIR: To try and keep the character.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. To keep the character. I’ll give you an example.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, please.

RAJAGOPALAN: Audience is international. It’s everybody non-Hindi speaking, and also, for instance….

RAJAGOPALAN: Would you do a namaste or a chai? Or would you leave that in?  

MUNNI KABIR: Yes. I leave it as namaste.

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. [crosstalk]

MUNNI KABIR: Everybody knows chai. No. Everybody knows namaste, everybody knows saalam. Really, everybody knows roti, lassi, biryani, who has translated pizza? Nobody. Risotto, nobody. Why should we translate lassi? Makes no sense.

RAJAGOPALAN: What are some of the words you struggle with where you feel like, “If I translate this, it’s going to be more appealing beyond the diaspora, but if I just transliterate it, it might be only the diaspora?”

MUNNI KABIR: I don’t do that, but technically difficult word is aukhat, jugaad, I think those are the words or some poetry, like one song “Chalo Ik Baar Phirse” is a very difficult song to translate because the way it’s not only structured, but the suggestiveness in words within the word, and you have a restriction of time. I’ll give you an example of subtitles should be almost invisible. If they’re good, you don’t notice them, and they should just let you get into the film.

You have to be clear. You don’t go away from the meaning of this thing, but you don’t become literal because you don’t have the time to be literal. If you did word by word, you’d be sitting there. For example, I was working on “Ponniyan Selvan.” Now, I don’t speak that one, but I worked with two translators, and then I prepared the subtitles, and then Mani Ratnam he sat with me and he checked everything and he was happy. We finished part one for PS1 in seminars with him checking.

Before that, the whole process took one week. I’ve done a lot of films. Now, recently, I’ll give you an example of something which I was very happy with because it was so spontaneous in my mind. There was “Tiger 3,” and there’s a shot in which Salman looks at an agent in the beginning of the film he’s lying on the ground and he’s wounded and whatever, and he’s an agent known to Tiger. He looks at this guy and he says “bohot arsoon ke baad mile hain” What do you think you would’ve said?

RAJAGOPALAN: “It’s been a while” or something like that. I wouldn’t use each of those words and translate them.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, but I put “long time, no see.”

RAJAGOPALAN: Long time, no see. That sounds perfect.

MUNNI KABIR: That sounds like dialogue.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it does sound like a dialogue, actually.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s a bit of Arnie-type of dialogue which suits Tiger [crosstalk].

RAJAGOPALAN: Which is perfect.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, you can’t put long time, no see if it’s “Chaudhvi Ka Chand.” You have to do it in relation to the period, the setting. Now, sometimes I remember somebody put—there’s a woman in a village and she’s getting hassled, and they put as a subtitle “pull up your socks.” Now, that’s too British. Seriously, first of all there’s no socks under the sari and then it’s too British. You can make it too American. I saw in “Chaudhvi Ka Chand” somebody had Johnny Walker is calling Rahman and they said, “Hi, dude.”


MUNNI KABIR: How could you do that?

RAJAGOPALAN: “Hi, dude” for what? Arrey Yaar? What’s the—Hindi?

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, Arrey Yaar the Arrey Yaar.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, boy I’m literally holding my head.

MUNNI KABIR: Mangal Mangal is the same family.

RAJAGOPALAN: Mangal Mangal was outrage yes, it was just—

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, outrageous and there was another word I found, and it was they couldn’t make up their mind. They said, "Why are you hic-coughing?" They didn’t get the hiccupping or hiccups or coughing. That’s an invented word I thought that there was in Asterix.

RAJAGOPALAN: Will this become easier with AI? That is you get one set of computer-generated subtitles and then you can tweak them and make them work. With Machine learning, it is actually getting better. Of course, it’s never going to bring what you bring. Do you think that that will actually shorten the process for someone like you?

MUNNI KABIR: I don’t think AI is going to work for sub-titles. I don’t think so because every line is different. Every situation is different. I’d like to see them have a subtitle and spell a Tamil name correctly. How are they going to do this? How are they going to do?

RAJAGOPALAN: Well, I don’t think it can be used standalone but can it aid a subtitler like you, not really? You don’t 

MUNNI KABIR: Not at all. It’s like people you see will buy a Mac and then write a novel.

RAJAGOPALAN: How many times do you watch a film. Before subtitling it are you brought in at a rough-cut stage? Do you watch the final cut? How does it work?

MUNNI KABIR: Because I’ve done so many films. I watch twice max, sometimes once.

RAJAGOPALAN: Wow, you’re fast.

MUNNI KABIR: Because that’s true.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s amazing.

MUNNI KABIR: That’s true.

RAJAGOPALAN: Are songs easier or harder than dialogue?

MUNNI KABIR: I find the 50’s songs easier than today songs. Because today songs don’t say much.

RAJAGOPALAN: They’re rubbish.

MUNNI KABIR: They’re kind of rubbish and they just are quite empty. What I don’t like is rhyming and forcing meaning. I’ve been watching some clips on YouTube, and they try to rhyme. It’s ridiculous. The subtitle is not a song to be sung and recorded by Taylor Swift. It is a subtitle and then to rhyme it mine and thine and whatever and time. It’s crazy, if you can do something clever do it. When it’s an idiom and they doing something, find an equivalent idiom. If they are rhyming something, try that. Not forcing meaning, change the meaning.

Favorite Films and Songs

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to ask you about some of the subjects that you worked on in detail these books, a couple of documentaries. What are your favorite works? I know you said, they have to have a minimum of five classics and so on. I wouldn’t say just name one film or one song. Sort of list a couple of your favorites, so we get a peek into that.


RAJAGOPALAN: Let’s start with film. Let’s say Guru Dutt, right. What is your top film?

MUNNI KABIR: Guru Dutt. I would say really, people would be surprised that it is “Mr. and Mrs. 55.”

RAJAGOPALAN: Same for me that’s fantastic.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s so beautiful.

RAJAGOPALAN: Okay, it’s a bit anti-women and that whole Lalita Pawar thing was a bit dated but of its time and the lightness of touch.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s hilarious.

MUNNI KABIR: Hilarious, brilliant dialogue, brilliant dialogue. I think it’s just gorgeous.

RAJAGOPALAN: Madhubala is just—I know that all of Guru Dutt’s heroines are gorgeous. There’s something about the two of them together.

MUNNI KABIR: Two of them, yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s magic.

MUNNI KABIR: Magic and she has such great comic timing. We didn’t think that of her.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely, yes, no, I’m surprised you said that. It’s my favorite Guru Dutt film and everyone just thinks not “Pyaasa,” really?

MUNNI KABIR: “Pyaasa” is very beautiful but “Mr. & Mrs. 55” shows a different kind of skill more difficult.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think it’s more watchable. I can go back and keep living and watching that again and again.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, and Johnny Walker is amazing in it and the scenes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Amazing. Yes, he’s amazing in all of Guru Dutt’s films but this is particularly great, and the scenes you picked.

MUNNI KABIR: The scenes between him—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and the scenes you picked. The scenes you picked for the documentary is also really lovely. The couple of scenes when he says, “Aap communist hain? Nahi, main cartoonist hoon.” You picked a couple of those very clever. It’s just such wonderful.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, very clever, yes and Raj Kapoor I would say “Shree 420” and Mehboob Saab I would say “Andaz” and Bimal Roy I will say “Do Bigha Zamin” too because of age. Oh, it’s a beautiful film.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, but I can’t watch it again and again I feel “ek baar dekh liya” is sort of enough—

MUNNI KABIR: It’s very sad.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. No, I can watch “Kaagaz ke Phool” again and again it’s somehow very sad, but I’m able to do it again and again and relive it. “Do Bigha Zamin” I think I’m one and done on that one.

MUNNI KABIR: I must tell you something. I’m not keen on “Kaaghaz ke Phool.”

RAJAGOPALAN: You are not? Nor is Waheeda Rehman but why aren’t you keen on it?

MUNNI KABIR: I think it didn’t work. It’s too fragmented and I think Johnny Walker’s section which worked out to be 30 to 40 minutes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I think it can go.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s a huge stone in the middle of the film. It is really foolish and it’s a confused mind. As Kaifi Saab said, “woh bahut confused the.” I thought that was a weak film. It was saved by the photography and that’s about it and the songs.

RAJAGOPALAN: The songs but also that emotion of everything is transitory and you can’t quite trust anything, fame, love, relationships. Somehow, that seems to be the sustaining factor in that film. That somehow seems to hold me as an audience.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, but I think the Johnny Walker bit just killed that.

RAJAGOPALAN: I forward [through] it. I quickly move on.

MUNNI KABIR: Really, you have to see the whole thing the whole story.

RAJAGOPALAN: That was a problem.

MUNNI KABIR: But “Shree 420” is amazing film. Again, amazing dialogue, amazing what he’s doing in that film. The song everything, everything was lovely.

MUNNI KABIR: I say newer films I say “Garam Hava” in the ‘70s unbelievable film, beautiful.

RAJAGOPALAN: What about your favorite Waheeda Rehman’s films? For me it’s “Guide” probably.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, “Guide” is very good.

RAJAGOPALAN: The absolute best but what else?

MUNNI KABIR: Her’s I liked “Teesri Kasam.”

RAJAGOPALAN: You liked “Teesri Kasam.”

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, something different. It was different. Of course, “Guide” is beautiful but she’s wonderful but “Teesri Kasam.” Just there was something about it that was very different. You don’t imagine here in that role.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I also really like “Mujhe Jeene Do” though. I like her a lot.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: I love the music. Yes, actually you got a couple of my favorite Lata songs in that movie. She has a lullaby the “Tere Bachpan song and “Raat Bhi Hai Kuch Bheegi Bheegi.”

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, that’s a beautiful song, yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Actually, my favorite of the Waheeda [and] Lata combination happened to both be Jaidev songs. Reshma and Shera, I love “Tu Chanda Main Chandni.” What are your favorites?

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, I see. Songs? [crosstalk].

RAJAGOPALAN: I’ll give you five, chalo, if you can’t force one.

MUNNI KABIR: Oh my god [laughs]. Okay, “Chandni Raaten Pyar ki Baaten” from “Jaal.” Then I like “Aap ki Nazron ne Samjha,” beautiful. She’s really talking to you in that. Then I like “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh.” That’s a fantastic song. Let me think of something Raj Kapoor’s there was a song I think in “Awara.” No, in “Shree 420.” I forget the name, but it is when he comes back from the casino, and she calls out to him. I forget the name. I’m sorry and let’s think of a last one. I think a very—it has the instant you realize it is Lata-ji is “Didi Tera Dewar Deewana.” 


MUNNI KABIR: The minute you hear that you hear her. I like that surprise element in her voice but so skilled. Of course, “Aayega Aanewala” beautiful it’s a beautiful song.

RAJAGOPALAN: That was also there in your documentary.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Movie “Mahal,” right?

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, right, it was there. And I did the documentary about her.

RAJAGOPALAN: About her too, yes.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, that is also very beautiful. The picturization was stunning Josef Wirshing, the cameraman very good. Lata ji songs that is very difficult. It depends on your mood and everything but “Aap Ki Nazron ne Samjha” is a very haunting thing. It’s a very haunting melody. Everybody likes “Lag Ja Gale” but I prefer “Aap ki Nazron ne Samjha.”

RAJAGOPALAN: What about your favorite Javed Akhtar song or script? I can give you one of each maybe.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, I think that’s cool. I would say the song would be “Kal Ho Naa Ho” and then as far as the film “Deewaar,” definitely. “Deewaar” is a beautiful script, beautiful dialogue. Beautiful intense intensity. Mr. Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor and Nirupa Roy these three were really brilliant. Very good. I think that’s really—and I don’t know Rahman I think “Bombay.” All the Mani Ratnam.

RAJAGOPALAN: All the Mani Ratnam albums. Actually, they’re fantastic.

MUNNI KABIR: All of them, exceptional. They’re very exceptional.

RAJAGOPALAN: Any non-Mani Ratnam album that really stands out for you?

MUNNI KABIR: I think “Rangeela” was very good.

RAJAGOPALAN: “Rangeela” was fantastic. Another for me is “1947 Earth.” I love every song in that.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, but there is some magical combination of Mani Ratnam AR, and and Gulzar. Freely there is a combination that works very well. I think also Rahman, because of history, their history. He always wants to please Mani Ratnam. When you want to please and to impress someone, and Mani Ratnam is someone you want him to be impressed. I’m telling you, when he walks in the room everybody stands up. Sometimes he looks at me and said, "Why are you standing up?" You just feel like you want to stand up because he has that amazing personality. He’s one of the most enlightening persons to work with.

I really think something is that two people I find the very exceptional directors. One is Mani Ratnam and I think Zoya Akhtar. Zoya has some real sense of cinema. The others are very good but there’s something special about these two. Sanjay Leela Bhansali you could say he has a definite approach and Karan Johar is definite approach. They are like schools of filmmaking. Like Raj Kapoor or Guru Dutt, you could say these four are schools of filmmaking.

RAJAGOPALAN: You can watch something by them and tell that this is their movie.

MUNNI KABIR: Instantly.

RAJAGOPALAN: Each of the movies is quite different.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, you can tell.

RAJAGOPALAN: Gulzar. Favorite film, favorite as a director. Favorite song.

MUNNI KABIR: Favorite film of Gulzar. I would say I like “Maachis. The song I really thought was beautiful “Tujhse Naraz Nahi Zindagi.”

RAJAGOPALAN: I love that song.

MUNNI KABIR: It’s a beautiful melody, beautiful words. There are many songs of his.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, there’s “Iss Mod Se Jaate Hain” 

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, that one is also beautiful. All of them are really very beautiful. It’s interesting how different they are. Each song is very different. In each era, he changed like Majrooh Saab. Majrooh Saab was very modern. He could do for Sehgal. He wrote songs for Sehgal and then he wrote for “Papa Kehte Hain Bada Naam Karega.” So, he had that range, but all of them really were at the service of films. Any interview you do you say, "Well, it depended on the film and the film script," and all of them would say that.

RAJAGOPALAN: With Zakir Hussain, I don’t want you to name a film album. He’s done so few, though they’ve been exceptional like “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer is fantastic. I like the little bits he did for “Saaz”. Do you have a favorite album or a favorite collaboration of his, a favorite concert?

MUNNI KABIR: I must tell you that it’s “Shakti.

RAJAGOPALAN: “Shakti,” right?

MUNNI KABIR: Oh, A Handful of Beauty. I remember going to the concert in Paris, and you really felt you were on a runway, and you were going to take off. It was an amazing album.

RAJAGOPALAN: What year was this? What year did you hear them in Paris?

MUNNI KABIR: I think somewhere in the ‘70s.

RAJAGOPALAN: This you heard when L. Shankar was still there in “Shakti.”

MUNNI KABIR: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: Okay. I never heard “Shakti” with L. Shankar, which to me is [crosstalk].


RAJAGOPALAN: Of course. Vikku Vinayakram.

MUNNI KABIR: Vikku, yes. He was there and so it was the real thing.

RAJAGOPALAN: It was the original group. I recently heard them on their 50th-anniversary tour. They were very kind. I met Zakir Hussain backstage, but for me, I’ve met Zakir Hussain more than once. I mean, it’s usually backstage in one of these concert situations, but John McLaughlin, it’s just something else to finally see him in person and have a chat with him. I’ll tell you that story. He was really lovely. 

I know that you like Haruki Murakami. Have you read, “Absolutely On Music Conversations with Ozawa?” Have you read this book of his?

MUNNI KABIR: No, I haven’t.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, I think you will enjoy it.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, really? Oh, I should. You must send me the reference.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I think you will really enjoy the book. It’s literally the two of them having a conversation.

MUNNI KABIR: Can I ask you a question?


MUNNI KABIR: Now, how long have you been in America and what connected you to Indian cinema?

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, I grew up in India. I grew up in Delhi. For me, the connection with cinema is more through music. Actually, most of the songs that I’m talking about, I don’t even know if I’ve seen the movies or if I’ve seen the movie, it’s a long time ago. Some Doordarshan sort of broadcast that was going on. The songs are just truly exceptional. I grew up in India. I’ve been in the US about 15, 17 years.

I came here for graduate school to study economics. I still watch all Hindi movies. I read about them. I love watching all cinema but Hindi cinema sort of, it’s like being at home. The songs, we’re the only ones who make musicals. Where the music has the standalone quality where it doesn’t have to be watched with the film. I don’t think most musicals in the West have that quality.

MUNNI KABIR: I will say it’s language. To be fair, I think “Singin’ in the Rain” is one masterpiece.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh yes, it is a masterpiece, but you can basically handpick. There are few movies where all the songs work like “Sound of Music.” All the songs are fantastic. “Singing in the Rain,” all the songs are lovely. 

In Indian movies, even especially Hindi movies because that’s most familiar to me but also all the other regions. I love the musical album of a movie when I have not watched the film. Have no intention of watching the film. The film is terrible.

Recently, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra made “Mirzya.” I haven’t seen the film. I have no interest in watching it, but that album is exceptional. It’s Shankar Ehsaan Loy with Gulzar. It’s got Kaushiki Chakraborty, who is Ajay Chakraborty’s daughter. Some really fantastic music in that. I can’t think of too many examples like this of Western musicals where I don’t care about the musical, I haven’t watched the film, but the songs just turn into something else.

Unless it’s a jazz standard or like John Coltrane has played “My Favorite Things, something like that, wouldn’t have that. Language is one, but there’s something about Indian movie music which lives beyond the film.

MUNNI KABIR: I would say, to be very fair to Hollywood, that all Indian films are musicals. It was an industry which was massive, whereas musical in America and Hollywood was just one genre. You cannot compare the two because everything is dependent on the music. Today, because it’s not, there is a problem. Originality.

RAJAGOPALAN: Even our thrillers are musicals, like “Woh Kaun Thi” is a musical. Uday [Bhatia] and I were talking about this. Our gangster movies are musicals. “Teesri Kasam” is a musical. I mean, “Jewel Thief” was a musical that is.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, what a musical. Which was the whole thing was musical, which was the thing that actually disturbed the Western viewers. They found it, my God, you’ve got a serious subject or too much. Too much and it added length to the film. The biggest problem was two-and-a-half-hour films. That was a big disadvantage for Hindi cinema. I would say, if you don’t really know, I mean, in Hindi or Urdu, Hindustani, I don’t think the songs can move you. It’s very connected to that language.

Because a Western audience don’t necessarily and don’t need to speak Hindi or Urdu, they cannot relate to that. It seemed like a really imposition onto—and subtitles cannot convey emotions in that way. I can’t imagine a Hindi subtitle for “Singing in the Rain.”

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh yes, that would be difficult. Some of these Marvel movies are dubbed in Bhojpuri and things like that, and they’re kind of hilarious. I haven’t watched the Bhojpuri version of the Marvel movies, but I see clips on Instagram and things, I’ll find [crosstalk].

I have two more questions, one is, if someone asked you that one would like to do a conversation series with Nasreen Munni Kabir, who would be the best person to interview you the way you would like to be interviewed?

MUNNI KABIR: To be honest, I wouldn’t like it.


MUNNI KABIR: Because I think that you do more effective work if you never get bigger than your subjects. That’s my reading, and to start thinking of myself as a separate person who has all of this, no. I wouldn’t be comfortable, maybe one day but right now, no. People have suggested—

RAJAGOPALAN: You’re a separate person who has this fantastic repository of knowledge, a fantastic body of work.

MUNNI KABIR: Somebody said something wonderful, it was Madhu Jain of India today, and when she reviewed the guru dutt film documentary, she said, "The wonderful thing about this film is the director, meaning me, is invisible." I love that idea. You have to open the door not to yourself, you have to open the door to a subject, and I don’t like that door opening onto me. I much prefer to say Lata Mangeshkar, AR Rahman, or something for the moment. It’s not false humility, it is actually a certain amount of, I think you get much more done if you just concentrate on the outside.

RAJAGOPALAN: Which makes you a lot like your subjects, I don’t know if you realize that. [laughs] The last question, what are you working on right now?

MUNNI KABIR: To be honest, I’m stuck, so I’ve been doing some subtitles, some of Shiram Raghavan, do you know his work?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I love his work.

MUNNI KABIR: Love his work, so he’s got a new film that’s going to be released.

RAJAGOPALAN: Merry Christmas,” right? That’s the one coming out, yes, I read about it in the papers.

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, so I’m working on that, I’m very, very excited about that, so basically, it’s subtitling. Shruti, I have no idea about a book because all the people I work with, I think I’m better on the old timers, frankly, because I know they work better and there’s nobody left. I’m a little bit at the moment thinking, and unless you get, you know how it is, you have to live with the book for two years or three years, and if you’re not obsessed it’s a problem. I don’t know if you ever saw, but I did two diaries. One was about the 100 years of Indian cinema, and one was about Sahir. I want to do a diary next year because it’ll be 100 years of Raj Kapoor.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, lovely. I would love to read that, I haven’t read the Sahir one, I’ve read the 100 Years of Cinema. The Sahir one, I haven’t even seen that floating around, I should try and find a copy. I love Sahir.

MUNNI KABIR: You’ll be amazed, we found some amazing pictures of him and his mother and really amazing pictures. I got 35 people to comment on their favorite Sahir song and about a story behind it.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, really?

MUNNI KABIR: Yes, I should try and find a way of sending you the diary.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for doing this. This was such a pleasure.

MUNNI KABIR: I really enjoyed talking to you, really.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you, I’m glad that was worth your while.

MUNNI KABIR: Absolutely, thank you.

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About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app