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The new female playback voice is vastly different from the high pitch of the earlier decades - today, it is unapologetically low, bold and husky.
The Bollywood music industry seems to be in a rebellious mood. The template of a movie soundtrack over the past five years has drastically changed, incorporating genres and influences - rock, hip-hop, Arabic, folk, R&B, dubstep, drum 'n bass, electronica and even African music - that are thousands of kilometres from Indian shores. Music directors have gotten younger and have swapped instruments for laptops and MIDI controllers.
The most telling change perhaps has been in the female playback voices. A growing indie scene has given Bollywood access to a whole treasure trove of voices that are trained yet untainted by film music.
Today's usual vocal range - low, raw and husky - is in sharp contrast to the highpitched style that defined the past half century of Indian female playback singing, the "golden period" as it is known. Ironically, the music itself has become technically more polished, but it is the voice that is providing greater texture to the song.
Singers like Shefali Alvares, Shilpa Rao, Shalmali Kholgade, Neeti Mohan, Aditi Singh Sharma, Shruti Pathak, Nandini Srikar and Alyssa Mendonsa are the big names today. They are seasoned performers, have band backgrounds, have toured extensively, and have distinctive voices that can segue from jazz to bhangra in the same breath. Alvares is a trained jazz singer but she made the nation dance to Tu mera hero in Desi Boyz. Music director Amit Trivedi - who has a special knack for 'discovering' voices hired Kholgade to sing Pareshaan in Ishqzaade after listening to her English demo. He got Sharma, a regular on the Delhi rock circuit, to sing on Dev D and also roped her in to sing the throaty Dilli, dripping-with-attitude, and the uptempo Aali re in No One Killed Jessica.
There was a time when you could hear two lines of a song and immediately spot the singer. Like the Sadhna fringe, the naughty lilt in Asha Bhosle's voice was her own as was the innocence in Lata Mangeshkar's. Alka Yagnik and Kavita Krishnamurthy, were cut from the same mould as the soprano sisters.
Music historian and singer Vidya Shah says Bollywood has a strange way of defining voices. "The idea of feminine was restricted and fixed, " she says. "There's so much happening cinematically today, and that extends to the music as well. The high-pitched voices that were the epitome of feminine in the '70s can't work today. "
Films are becoming edgier and these storylines don't just need love happy/sad ballads, and one wedding song thrown in for good measure. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, perhaps the only music composers in Bollywood today to have worked with Krishnamurthy as well as Mendossa, attribute the evolution of the female playback to this change but also point to the demands made by producers. "Shankar and I often talk about how we no longer work with Alka or Kavita. The problem is that the prevalent voice today is more teen and Katy Perry-esque and producers and record companies are just not interested in working with singers who are reminiscent of the '90s, no matter how good, " says Ehsaan Noorani.
In the era before software and synthesisers made music, singers would record live in one take, often with a 45-piece orchestra behind them. Today, singers are called into the studio, given the song and told to record, without being briefed on who it will be shot on. Neeti Mohan, perhaps one of the few with no background in Western music before she joined the pop group Asma, thinks that as long as you sing from the heart, it all sounds good. "You have to try and feel the song and follow your music director's instructions, " she says.
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