'Blasphemous' bard: Adipurush's Manoj Muntashir is no stranger to controversy

A year ago, poet and lyricist Manoj Muntashir Shukla (who wrote dialogues for Adipurush) posted a video whose title which might sound ominous now: ‘Nirdosh thhey Ram’ (Rama was innocent).
A still from the trailer of 'Adipurush', a screen adaptation of the Indian epic Ramayana starring Prabhas, Kriti Sanon and Saif Ali Khan. (Photo | Screengrab)
A still from the trailer of 'Adipurush', a screen adaptation of the Indian epic Ramayana starring Prabhas, Kriti Sanon and Saif Ali Khan. (Photo | Screengrab)

Writers, usually, tend to keep a low profile. Poet and lyricist Manoj Muntashir Shukla (who wrote dialogues for Adipurush), who has over two million followers on YouTube, posts motivational videos, and religious and nationalistic explainers as well.

A year ago, he put up a video, the title of which might sound ominous now: ‘Nirdosh thhey Ram’ (Rama was innocent). The video tried to debunk the ‘myth’ that Lord Rama abandoned his pregnant wife Sita in the forest.

(Express illustration | Sourav Roy)
(Express illustration | Sourav Roy)

He spoke of how colonial powers, in order to enslave subjects, destroy their culture first. “Burning religious scriptures is a crime,” he says, “But a bigger one is to add some indecent, untrue narratives to them, and violate their purity.”

Shukla’s words have come back to bite him, with the Allahabad High Court recently pulling up the makers of Adipurush over its dialogues, written by Shukla. “Suppose a small documentary was made on the Quran, can you think what kind of a serious law and order problem would have been created?” the bench stated. “Should we remain silent considering the funny manner in which the movie has been made?”

The Om Raut directorial, which stars Prabhas, Kriti Sanon, Saif Ali Khan and Sunny Singh, has been criticised for its caricaturish VFX and for its crude dialogues. Some of them are: “Jali na? (It burns, doesn’t it?)”, “Teri bua ka bageecha hain kya jo hawa khane chala aaya? (Is this your aunt’s garden where you can roam freely?)”, “Kapda tere baap ka, tel tere baap ka, aag tere baap ki toh jalegi bhi tere baap ki (Your father’s cloth, your father’s oil, your father’s fire, will only burn down your father).”

Initially, Shukla defended his words and stated in an interview that ‘meticulous thought’ had gone into writing them. “We have made it simple… Multiple characters in a film can’t speak the same language. There has to be a diversion, a division.”

Later, he went on to declare that Adipurush wasn’t an adaptation of the Ramayana but only an ‘inspiration’. This was in stark contrast with his statements before the film’s release. In an interview in October 2022, when asked if they were trying to explore new possibilities with the film, he had said, “The Ramayana that people have heard, read, and seen, [Adipurush] is the exact same Ramayana, there’s nothing different [in it].”

There’s some back-and-forth even in his name. Manoj Muntashir Shukla was born Manoj Shukla… on February 27, 1976, to a farming family in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi. He graduated from Allahabad University in 1999 and moved to Mumbai to seek work. He started his writing career by penning scripts for the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati and has credited Amitabh Bachchan for the opportunity. Then came India’s Got Talent and Indian Idol Junior. He also wrote the Hindi dialogues for Telugu-language films Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017), in addition to Marvel’s Black Panther (2018). Shukla has cited writer-duo Salim-Javed as his influence. 

Shukla dropped his birth surname and added ‘Muntashir’ (meaning ‘widespread’ or ‘scattered’) back in the 90s when he started out as a lyricist. He had heard the term in Habib Hashmi’s couplet on the radio. “Felt like Shukla didn’t have enough weight,” he had said in an interview. He added the ‘Shukla’ back in his name recently and stated in another conversation that he did so after the Urdu word ‘Muntashir’ was ‘questioned’ after he began raising his voice in “national interest”. “When I realised that it’s necessary to be a Shukla now, I became a Shukla,” he had said.

As a lyricist, Shukla penned songs like ‘Teri Galliyan’ from Ek Villain (2014), ‘Kaun Tujhe’ from MS Dhoni—The Untold Story (2016) and ‘Tere Sang Yaara’ from Rustom (2016). He earned acclaim for his 2019 patriotic song ‘Teri Mitti’ from the film Kesari but was sour after he lost the Filmfare award for Best Lyrics to Gully Boy’s ‘Apna time aayega’. Shukla said, “Will not attend an awards function, till I breathe my last.”

As you would have it, ‘Teri Mitti’ was found to be similar to the 1964 film Haqeeqat’s song ‘Kar chale hum fida’ written by Kaifi Azmi. Shukla has been accused of plagiarism at other times too. In his clarification, the writer had then stated, “None of my creations are 100 per cent original. File petitions against me and I will respect every decision of the court… ”

After Adipurush’s dialogues were labelled “blasphemous”, he said that he and the makers had decided to alter the contentious dialogues. “The lesson of Rama’s story is to respect every sentiment,” he stated. “…Then why were you so quick to label me as being against sanatan?”

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