Nineteen years ago, who would have thought while watching a young, petite singer from Kota, Rajasthan on Sonu Nigam-hosted TVS Sa Re Ga Ma, that she would emerge as one of India’s foremost playback singers. Ever since Shreya Ghoshal lent her voice to Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Paro in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002), there has been no looking back. Year after year; songs after songs; accolades after accolades — she has kept growing and has continuously worked on her craft. From the Hindi film industry to the Bengali film industry and almost the entire South Indian film industry, Ghoshal has rightfully placed herself at the top when it comes to playback singing choices for music composers in the country.
While Ghoshal considers Lata Mangeshkar her idol, today, however, she herself is an inspiration to millions of aspiring playback singers. Her mellifluous singing and honey-dipped voice texture have been rightfully utilised over the years by legends like Illaiyaraja and AR Rahman as well as new-age composers like Pritam and Amit Tripathi. From‘Bairi Piya’ in Devdas to ‘Ghoomar’ in Padmaavat, Ghoshal has come a long way.
“I was a baby then. I was not even 16 when I did Devdas. Over the years, the experience of singing different kinds of songs for different composers has taught me a lot of techniques along the way. I have grown as an artiste, as a person etc. My voice, then, had a lot of innocence. There was a certain naivety to the voice as it did not know how to modulate, how to be sensuous and how to bring a smirk — there was no intelligence in that voice. And that voice is never going to come back. However, I’m glad that it is preserved through these songs,” says Ghoshal retrospecting over her musical journey so far.
In the 1950s to the early 1990s, when it was mainly Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle ruling the roost, the two sister-singers had branched songs as per their style and comfort zone. Mangeshkar never sang a cabaret (except for the Intaqaam song ‘Aa Jaane Jaan’) in her mammoth career, while Bhosle got all the westernised songs, including scores of cabarets. This was also because they could afford to do so as there were not many singers around. However, it is quite different today as there are a bunch of voices, genres and textures that have found acceptance in the mainstream. Hence, today, more so, sticking to a ‘style’ means getting stereotyped and that, according to Ghoshal, is a dangerous thing for an artiste, in general.
Explaining that bit in greater detail and also drawing a contrast to the practices of yesteryears, Ghoshal says, “I guess those days, they made those choices because there was an abundance of good compositions. There is a little originality in today’s times, hence the filters are even more. Lesser the filters in life, greater the scope of growth. Usually, what happens once you taste success, is that you tend to aspire for the same and often become complacent, resulting in you becoming monotonous. And sometimes it works too. The producers, the composers would come to you with the same kind of songs. So one tends to take lesser risks. But today, everybody has to be a risk taker. And thanks to that, I did get to sing all kinds of songs and I am happy that I never got stereotyped. Otherwise, I would have really become bored.”
Something that has also changed over the years is the fact that, unlike films of the yesteryears, an actress does not have a uniform singing voice in the film. There is no more actress-singer pairing in the film industry, like those of Madhubala-Lata Mangeshkar, Helen-Asha Bhosle or Rani Mukerji-Alka Yagnik. Talking about this fading trend, Ghoshal elucidates, “The trend of lip-syncing is almost over now. The presence of a heroine in a song is really murky today, so the casting as per music is irrelevant. Amid so many choreographed dancers, the shots of the heroine usually just come about five to six times; the hero’s presence is anyway much larger. Also, the songs are situational with montages,” she says and further adds, “Honestly, a party song is not needed but it has to be created for the commercial success of the film. Hence, as an audience, one won’t be any less associated. But, say when I did Parineeta, Vidya Balan had a very strong presence; the film revolved around her — her story, her life and her emotions. In that case, of course, her voice has to be the same. Otherwise, your focus will shift at that very moment. So, when those aesthetics go missing, it really doesn’t matter.”
What has definitely gone down the slope is the agency of power. The baton of power, even in terms of music and arrangement, has come in the hands of the film producers over the years. “It’s happening, and that too very blatantly. We are not in a good time. The Hindi film industry, particularly, is going through a bad phase. There is less trust in the composer and the singer. Commercial power and ego are overshadowing the talent of the artistes. You can’t go to a surgeon and say that they don’t know how to do surgeries. Instead, you think, your friend — with no specialisation whatsoever — is more capable of doing it than the surgeons,” exclaims Ghoshal. She talks about this irreverence towards music composers as a vice typical of the Hindi film industry. The regional industries, on the other hand, have a far more musically democratic and creative environment. “It is a different space altogether. In the Tamil industry, which is only second to the Hindi film industry, a composer like Illaiyaraja is held at a position even bigger than Rajinikanth. That reverence comes from the people, the audience and that translates in the working of the industry. From the composers’ point of view, not everybody can command it, stand firm to their beliefs and don’t hesitate even if that means expulsion from big-budget films.”
“For singers, the best way is to go independent. That option is open; create that reverence and respect that you deserve and it is possible today.”
Speaking on the impact of the #MeToo wave, and a better understanding of misogyny and sexism in Hindi films, Ghoshal talks about how she herself has been at the receiving end of a few misogynistic songs that she opted out of. She reveals how ‘Chikni Chameli’ from Agneepath underwent multiple draft revisions before the final lyrics were locked in, while ‘Ooh La La’ from The Dirty Picture was conceptualised as a fun, quirky number customised to the sensibilities of 1980s film music. “Fortunately, I have only been at the receiving end of some really good songs. But there were a couple of songs that came to me after I had just sung ‘Chikni Chameli’, of similar taste. They were songs of some very known composers. Even when I was listening to the narration of the songs, I was turning red. I was wondering how I would say those words on the mic? I wasn’t comfortable at all. As a woman, I understand when certain things cross the line and where we need to draw the line. As an artiste, I do have a certain responsibility towards my audience who follow my songs. I don’t want a child coming up to me and say, ‘I love this song of yours and lip sync to those words and dance on it.’ It will be like a nightmare!”
Ghoshal adds how unlike actors in the industry, there’s not an issue of pay disparity among singers. The gender bias seeps in at the level of music composers. “Today, we can gauge where the artiste stands and what they can demand through live concerts. To be honest, much in contrast to the general notion, the singing assignments/recordings literally give us peanuts. It is only at the live concerts, where you basically judge the pull of an artiste and the number of people coming to the concert, that further decides the artiste’s value in the market. I know, for a fact, it has nothing to do with the gender. That’s the beauty of the music industry. However, where gender comes into the picture is the music composing business. You will mostly see male composers, I feel if that changes then it will be a fair play,” says Ghoshal.
While Ghoshal’s journey as a singer began in 2000 when she won TVS Sa Re Ga Ma‘s competition, she believes every artiste has their own individual journey. Every artiste has a voice, a style of their own, and needs to be heard and loved by everyone. True talent is something that cannot be ignored. While Ghoshal herself, Sunidhi Chauhan or Arijit Singh, found a platform on television to embark upon a career of playback singing, the other participants/winners of music reality shows have not met with that degree of success or recognition. As an advice to the budding musicians, Ghoshal says, “One cannot really say or decide their fate as artistes. What, however, he/she can do is taking their decisions wisely — what to say yes and what to say no to; how many shows to do that sustain their life so that they can eat and live comfortably, and how much time does one need to dedicate in pushing oneself to become a ‘complete’ artiste. One has to get into the habit of keep practising and honing one’s art better.”
Shreya Ghoshal and Armaan Malik will be seen on Amazon Prime Music and T-Series’ latest collaboration MixTape Season 2.