The year was 2003. The remix outbreak was cause for much heartburn. If turning Lata Mangeshkar’s “Bangle Ke Peeche”, a saucy RD Burman number from the 1972 film Samadhi, into a club cut titled “Kaanta Laga” wasn’t enough, a smutty video featuring Shefali Zariwala in a thong and reading a porn magazine gave the old guard of Hindi film music more than enough to gripe about. The same year, at a concert for Mangeshkar on the occasion of her seventy-fifth birthday, former Bombay Vikings vocalist Neeraj Shridhar did a medley of numbers that included a remix version of “Hawa Mein Udta Jaaye” (originally sung by Mangeshkar for the Raj Kapoor film Barsaat). His rendition was so studded with dud notes that it had the audience, including Mangeshkar, cringing in their seats.
Shridhar has since graduated to singing on Hindi film scores such as Ready’s hit track “Character Dheela”. Although he still can’t hold a note, he finds favour with composers such as Pritam and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for his ability to pull off dance hits. Along with Mohit Chauhan, Lucky Ali and Tochi Raina, Shridhar is part of a growing breed of singers that may not always have the vocal strength for a show, but whose unconventional tones work so well for certain kinds of songs that they make up for lack of skill. “Globally, a lot of singers have a vibe but are off pitch,” said composer Shekhar Ravjiani, “But vocal texture is something that technology hasn’t been able to alter. Lucky and Neeraj put their heart and soul into it. They admit that they aren’t trained singers.”
Mellow-voiced Chauhan, who is the former lead vocalist of the Delhi folk rock band Silk Route may have a “voice made for poetry”, in lyricist Prasoon Joshi’s words, and the ability to voice hits like “Tumse Hi” from Jab We Met, “Masakali” from Delhi-6 and “Pee Loon” from Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai. But give him an acoustic set like the one he did for a popular radio station last year and he’d find it tough to hold his own. Lucky Ali, whose easy vocals best suit songs with a Bedouin twist, has worked with the biggest names in the industry, including Allah Rakha Rahman (“Khuda Hafiz” from Yuva) and Vishal-Shekhar for Anjaana Anjaani (“Hairat”). In 2008, Rahman launched a new find, Rashid Ali, a jazz guitarist from London, who lent his vocals to “Kabhi Kabhi Aditi” in Jaane Tu …Ya Jaane Na and “Cry Cry” for Jhootha Hi Sahi last year. Ali’s voice is similar to Adnan Sami’s: warm and richly textured, but he too slips up during live performances.
The vast difference between how a singer sounds in a studio and on a stage has to do with auto-tuning or correction of pitch. Deficiencies in pitch can be corrected during studio production, a procedure now considered almost mandatory by contemporary composers. So the litmus test for a consummate artist is the stage. However, technique or technology can never replace texture, according to composer Ehsaan Noorani. “A qawwali singer may not be pitch-perfect but he brings something magical to the song,” he said.
Composers look for that intangible quality called a “vibe”, which in the case of playback singing refers to the cinematic appeal and tonal quality of a vocalist. “Not all singers have a 70mm feel to their voice,” said Jigar Mukul Saraiya of the Sachin-Jigar collaboration. “They just don’t have the bigness that fits cinema.” The composers crafted a slick score for the film Shor In The City that included the standout track “Saibo”, a duet by Shreya Ghoshal and Tochi Raina. Although he is classically trained, Raina’s stage performances aren’t without flaws both in pitch and rhythm. Jigar defended Raina, saying a singer’s flaws worked to his advantage in the studio sometimes: “Tochi’s texture gives him an edge,” he said. “Sometimes, the lack of knowledge of technique and the unrefined approach lends his singing an honesty and edge.”
The change in playback singing mirrors larger shifts that have been taking place in the movie business since the early 2000s. The composer-director approach to a soundtrack or a background score is different today. Yesteryear directors sat in on music sessions because they had to fit song to situation, getting down to the last details such as the choice of playback singers. Today, a majority of filmmakers prefer to use them in the background. A case in point being the latest hit Delhi Belly.
Both audiences and critics have begun appreciating the scores of recent cinema right from the 2005 Bluffmaster to Hindie films such as Shaitan, which released this year. That composer Amit Trivedi walked away with not one but two national awards for his score for Dev.D is a sign of the times, considering that many tracks featured new singers and others were sung by Trivedi, who doesn’t rate himself too highly as a vocalist.
Directors have largely influenced soundtracks too. Rohan Sippy, who made Bluffmaster, and Anurag Kashyap are among those who expect an eclectic soundtrack, and not the conventional eight-to-nine-track OST. “Finally, it’s the director who’s the captain of the ship,” said Ravjiani. “They all want new voices.”
Filmmaker Sriram Raghavan, for instance, didn’t want regular tracks for his second movie Johnny Gaddaar.
“I only wanted one background song for a television promo,” he said. So all that composers Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy had was a three-minute promo to work with apart from a gist of the plot. “It was Shankar’s decision to use Suraj and Akriti Kakkar for the title track,” Raghavan said. “They were both relatively unknown at the time. I loved the freshness they brought to the song.”
The chase for new voices has meant that top singers of the ’90s, including Shaan, Sonu Nigam and Hariharan, rarely feature on soundtracks today. While Nigam maintains that he has chosen to cut down the number of tracks, Shaan admitted that there has been a slump in work. “There is still some kind of a demand and I also do regional songs, but my concern is higher for singers of today because they have to undo their training to sound unsophisticated,” he said. “I’ve had many trained singers tell me that they’ve been rejected because their voice lacked character or attitude.”
Quite a few of the voices that you hear in soundtracks were never meant to sing, Shaan added. “I don’t think audiences have a say in this,” he said. “It is the producer or actor or the music company that takes these calls to include voices that sound different even if it defies logic and art form.”
Older composers agree. Technique has been compromised for catchy or quirky vocal character, according to Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma of the ’70s hit pair Laxmikant Pyarelal, who scored for films such as Bobby, Amar Akbar Anthony and Satyam Shivam Sundaram. “One can rarely figure if it’s a male or a female singing nowadays, leave alone whether they’re singing in pitch,” he said. “Women sing at a really low pitch and male playback leads are given high-pitched songs. Music is a fine art with delicate nuances. Nowadays, composers are technically sound, but the sound has turned harsh.”
Evidently not to everyone’s ears. Given the success of the new music, off-key is perfectly on track.
By Lalitha Suhasini on September 01 2011 6.30pm
Photos by Rahul Das