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Bollywood's new darling
The word 'darling' rolls off her tongue a bit differently now. It's nearly impossible for Usha Uthup to pronounce the word without throwing in a few extra Rs and rolling her eyes. "I can't say darling anymore. I have to say Darrrrling!" she jokes, on her way home from a recording session in Kolkata, where she lives with husband Jani Chacko Uthup and children Anjali and Sunny.
It's also a word we can easily use to describe her current status. Uthup, who was honoured with the Padma Shri recently, has been the darling of tinsel town ever since the song Darling aankhon se from 7 Khoon Maaf hit the airwaves.
Blessed with a deep voice that flirts and cajoles with the audience, Usha Uthup's songs defined clubbing in India in the '80s. Doston se pyar kiya, Ramba ho, Koi yahan aha nache nache were anthems for a generation with no access to MTV.
Young Usha grew up to a festival of different sounds. The fifth of six children in a traditional middle-class Tamilian family, she grew up in Mumbai where she studied at the Convent of Jesus & Mary. She listened to maestros like MS Subbalakshmi, Mozart, Bhimsen Joshi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, K L Saigal and Manna De, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Hindi filmi music was something she enjoyed at her neighbours Jamila and Shameem's house.
If Tamil was spoken at home, it was English, Hindi, Marathi and French at school. Today she can sing in Bengali, Punjabi, Assamese, Oriya, Gujarati, Konkani, Malayalam, Kannada, Tulu and Telugu. She can also croon in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Sinhalese, Swahili, Russian, Nepalese, Arabic, Creole, Zulu, and Spanish. She's like a one-woman United Nations on song.
"The only way to connect with people is to sing in their language, no matter what the language is, " she says. "Though I keep saying that music has no language, gender or caste, when you can sing in Tamil for a Tamil audience, it has a different feel. It works for me, it works for the audiences. There's no greater high than the sound of applause. When I was in Russia, I would sing in Russian. In South Africa, I would sing in Zulu. "
Nearly 43 years after she made her singing debut, Uthup's infectious vivacity and willingness to reinvent herself is inspiring. She plunged into the role of Maggi, servant to Priyanka Chopra's Suzanna, in 7 Khoon Maaf, with the zeal of a cub actor. "Isn't it amazing?" she says with childlike enthusiasm. "Honey Trehan from Vishal Bharadwaj's team called to ask if I would work in the movie. I honestly thought it was a song I had to sing. I had worked with Vishal earlier in Godmother and was floored by his music in Maachis. This came after all of us loved Maqbool and Omkara. Then I was told that the offer wasn't just for a song but for acting too. I was over the moon! I never imagined I would get an opportunity like this. "
Three decades ago, Uthup was someone you went to when you needed a bad girl song. Branded an angrezi singer, she was part of a clique, which included the inimitable RD Burman, deemed too Western for Bollywood.
"In those days, people looked down on him saying he was too Western, " she says. "I was a great fan and a close friend. In those days, he didn't get his due. Today, it's a different story. He's the most mixed and remixed man in the industry. Except for songs like Raina beeti jaye and other classical numbers, which were absolutely path-breaking and wonderful, he really didn't get his due. "
Today it's the same sound that the industry wants to reproduce. "I'm very proud when I see Sonu Niigam sing an English song during the ICC World Cup opening ceremony, " she says. "At one time it would've been looked down on. "
"All through my life and career I've believed that a song is a song is a song, irrespective of the language it is in and I've stood by that, " continues the 63-year-old singer who has also stood by her sartorial choice of kancheevaram sariand-oversize bindi. "Even when it was a drop in the ocean. I'm glad that I've made a definitive contribution to wiping out the stigma that used to be attached not just to nightclubbing or night club music but also to songs sung in English. Today, you'll hardly find a song which doesn't have English words. Forty years ago, I would only be asked to sing songs like 'I love you, can't you see how much I do'. I feel so happy that I have lived to tell the tale of how it all changed. "
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