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The female voice in Hindi film songs now has more muscle than ever before. That's a great signifier of how the New Bollywood has adjusted to the new woman, points out Avijit Ghosh.
Voices can be subterranean registers of social history. The kind of singing voice we prefer at a certain moment of history reveals something about us. It maps, in a rather inchoate way, our collective preferences and predilections. Which is why the rise and rise of a new generation of Bollywood female playback singers, whose voices are as different from their predecessors as soprano is from baritone, is not just an indicator of people's changing taste but perhaps also a reflection of how people themselves are changing.
You can almost touch the six-pack in the voice of these new playback singers. It is assertive and aggressive, full of beans and muscle;voices that are right-fit for the ambitious, independent and sexually-alive characters they playback for in New Bollywood. No surprise, the Filmfare Awards for the best female playback in the past four years have all gone to singers with power plus timbre. Kavita Seth soared with Iktara in Wake up Sid and shared the award with the husky Rekha Bhardwaj (Genda Phool in Delhi-6 ) in 2010. Mamta Sharma's sultry Munni (film: Dabangg) matched Sunidhi Chauhan's power-packed vocals in Sheila (film: Tees Maar Khan) for joint honours the following year. In 2012, Ms Bhardwaj and Usha Uthup together took the prize for Darling in Saat Khoon Maaf. And this year newbie Shalmali Kolgadi earned the award for her strong rendition of Pareshaan in Ishaqzaade. It is revealing that the husky voice of Usha Iyer/Uthup, once deemed fit only for disco tracks that 80s item girl Kalpana Iyer gyrated to, became playback for heroine Priyanka Chopra in Saat Khoon Maaf. Obviously the perception of what a heroine's singing voice should be has changed.
Back in the 1940s, female singers with heavier voices such as Noorjehan and Shamshad Begum enjoyed prominence. One major producer is even said to have rejected a struggling Lata Mangeshkar for her "thin" voice. But once Lata was firmly ensconced at the top, her voice became the gold standard for excellence, the sole measurement of what a heroine's voice should be. Everything else was almost construed as deviant both for the music director and the listener.
The virtues that one imagined and associated with her voice - purity, decorum and goodness - fitted both bahus battling mothers-in law and the flippant college girl mandated to appear pretty and sing three duets in mainstream flicks. In other words, it was perfectly aligned with the times and unthreatening to the existing social order.
For most film producers, directors and music directors, Lata was the preferred, go-to voice between the 1950s-80 s. Geeta Dutt could have been stiff competition but a bad marriage swallowed her. Asha Bhonsle wasn't the preferred choice for any major composer in the 50s, barring O P Nayyar and Ravi. Shamshad Begum's nasal and muscled voice was too confident for its times. Barring a few exceptions like Bahar, few of her chartbusting numbers from A-list productions like Awara, CID, Aar Paar, Naya Daur were picturised on heroines;they were all filmed on vamps, item girls and side heroines.
Indeed in the 1960s, the shadow of Lata loomed so large that fellow singer Suman Kalyanpur was appreciated primarily for such a near-perfect clone that it was impossible to distinguish the original from the other. Sharda had a distinctive voice but barring Shankar, no other composer took her seriously. By the 1980s, as Lata decided cut down on her assignments, sound-alikes such as Anuradha Paudwal and Alka Yagnik were firmly in business. Kavita Krishnamurthy was a little different but there was no indication of real change till the late 1990s.
It is hard to pinpoint when the wheels of change first began to roll. Certainly, Jaspinder Narula's robust rendition of the title track, Pyaar to Hona Hi tha (1998), which won her the Filmfare award for best female playback, is an important marker. While Narula fell short of reaching the very top, singing-contest winner Sunidhi Chauhan proved to be a gamechanger. Her rendition of Mehboob mere (film: Fiza, 2000) had real energy and power. It was a sign of changing times that in subsequent years most music directors have used Sunidhi's voice both for item girls as well as lead heroines. For every raunchy Bidi jailai le (film: Omkara), she also got vegetarian, peppy tracks filmed on heroines such as Gun gun guna (film: Agneepath) and Chor Bazari (film: Love aaj Kal, with Neeraj Sreedhar).
The change was directly linked to mainstream Bollywood casting off its old skin and really beginning to experiment with content in the new millennium. The new heroine now could do more than just get rescued from goons by the hero and sing songs in chiffon saris in Switzerland. She could walk tall even when the boyfriend dumped her (Luck By Chance), initiate sex (Kaminey), manipulate men (Ishqiya) and subvert to rule (Saheb, Bibi aur Gangster Returns). Clearly, both Bollywood and its audience were getting used to and accepting the power woman, at least on celluloid.
Suddenly the Anushka Manchandas, the Richa Sharmas and others were in business as the slight, virtuous voice seemed so yesterday. True, the soft and slender timbre that typified the 60s still remains part of the menu. After all, reigning prima donna Shreya Ghoshal is a chip of the old block, a classier version of the Yagnik generation.
But, undeniably, there is now a wider representation, a democracy of voices. And with every passing season, the bolder voices are getting stronger and louder.
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