Playback singers are usually more heard than seen, but not when the singer is also photogenic.
Sunidhi Chauhan’s camera-friendly looks have not escaped filmmakers, who have been wooing her with acting offers over the years. After fleeting appearances in a few films, the top-rung singer made her acting debut in the short film Playing Priya, directed by Arif Ali for the Humara Movies web channel. Playing Priya has a bafflingly thin plot, but Chauhan commands attention even though she says next to nothing. Is acting next for the 32-year-old singer, who has been performing on the stage since she was 11 at the behest of her theatre actor father Dushyant Kumar Chauhan? Will she now be reading scripts alongside crooning across languages (Tamil, Marathi and Bengali apart from Hindi)? Chauhan discusses her rise to fame and future plans with Scroll.in.
You received several acting offers in the past. Why didn’t you accept them?
I have been offered films from the time I have been in the industry for the past 20 years now. Big banners approached me, but I was not ready then. I was already doing so many songs. I was hardly 14 years old when I entered that zone. I used to be recording every day, I used to bunk my 9th standard classes and record and come back.
Over the years, the acting bug has been there in me. My dad has been an actor for 12 years, he used to be Ram at one of the Ramlila productions that used to be performed in Delhi. One day, the girl playing Gauri did not turn up. My dad put me up on stage. I was four then. I still remember my dialogue – it was about ten lines that I had to say to Sita. I went ahead and did it. Everyone was shocked that I could memorise the dialogue [so quickly], but I am quick at grasping things. Watching dad in his plays, I knew I wanted to follow him, but when, I didn’t know.
So what made you sign up for ‘Playing Priya’?
Over the past four-five years, I have started looking at films in a very different way. My interest has shifted from just watching them to trying to understand them from the point of view of the performer, director, writer and art director. I begged Imtiaz Ali to be a part of Tamasha, which he was preparing for. He made me an assistant – not technically, but I was there on the sets for 80% of the shoot and I learnt a lot from the experience. After seeing how it works, I wanted to be in front of the camera.
I am also friends with Arif Ali, who is Imtiaz’s brother. We used to discuss films. I happened to perform in Bangalore in March. Arif was keen on seeing me on the stage. He met me backstage after the show and said, “Sunidhi, now I am sure you should act.” He later came with a script. And that’s how it happened.
What was the experience of shooting the thriller?
I thought that since it’s a five-minute film, it would be wrapped up in six or seven hours. I had no idea that there would be 23 hours of continuous shooting with no sleep! Acting…my god…I have amazing respect for actors now. To be in that frame of mind for so many hours… it’s crazy. I don’t think I could have done it if Arif was not there.
The first take was fun to do, by the second take I was unsure. There is no dialogue and nobody to interact with, so it was a most difficult role to start with.
Are there any more assignments?
Not as of now, but I am waiting. I don’t mind approaching people and telling them to cast me, but I think it will come on its own merit. With Playing Priya, what I wanted was for my fans to be able to separate the singer Sunidhi from the actor. I am happy that this has been conveyed.
On YouTube, there are videos of you singing as a child. In one, you are singing ‘Mere Mehboob Na Jaa’ just like a seasoned singer. At what age did you know that singing was what you wanted to do?
In a pink sweater! I have seen that. I used to be a tape recorder then. I used to be standing in the wings when my father would nudge me, “Beta jao, go, take the stage.” I used to be prompted and I would sing on cue. My song would be over, I would be looking ahead blankly. A man would walk up to me and take the mike from me saying, “You are done, go.” What must have been going on inside the head of a five-year old girl?
You won the first ever talent hunt show ‘Meri Awaz Suno’ in 1996, for which Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey were among the judges. What did they say about your voice?
I was 13 when I participated in the show just to see her [Mangeshkar]. She is my goddess. I told dad to allow me to participate, he was against singing competitions. When I reached the mega final, Lata ji was sitting right in front of me. Manna Da, Pandit Jasraj ji, Parveen Sultana ji and Yash Chopra ji were there. Before my performance I was afraid that if I saw her, I would start crying. I sang without looking at her, kept my eyes to the ground. When I was done, I looked straight up into the audience. I was too nervous to look at the judges. When I won, Lataji stood there with a trophy. I cried. She wiped my tears and said in my ears, “Whatever you need, ask me, if you want to learn from anyone, just let me know.”
Your first music album in 1998, ‘Aira Gaira Nathu Khaira’, was a children’s album but you don’t sound like a child on it. Your voice had fully matured by then.
Yes, people around me thought that I sounded mature. Even as a child, I loved singing difficult songs and wasn’t keen on bacchon wala gaana (children’s songs).
You sang your first film song ‘Ladki Deewani Dekho Ladka Deewana’ for ‘Shastra’ in 1996 for music director Aadesh Shrivastava. Any memories from your first recording?
I was 11 when I recorded it, the film was released after two years. When I finished recording the song, Aadesh ji said, “Beta, yeh tumne heroine ke liye gaaya hai” (You have sung the song for the film’s heroine). I reacted “Kya?”
The other song from the film, Kya Ada Kya Jalwe Tere Paro, was a bigger hit. I was so happy that day that when I reached home, I had fever for the next three days. I couldn’t believe that I had sung for a heroine.
What was your turning point? Was it with ‘Ruki Ruki Si Zindagi’ in ‘Mast’ in 1999, for which you received your first Filmfare award nomination?
Strangely, I got the Filmare RD Burman award for new music talent the next year for the song Bumbro [Mission Kashmir, 2000] when ideally it should have been for Ruki Ruki Si if at all. They had nominated me in the main category. Ruki Ruki was a major break. I was singing for Urmila Matondkar. Everything changed after that.
Any song during the initial days that you thought should have fetched you an award?
I should have got a Filmfare trophy for Dhoom Machale. It was the anthem, but it didn’t happen. When I was nominated for Dhoom (2004), it was the 50th year of Filmfare, the golden trophy. I was certain of taking home one.
In a career spanning over 20 years, which five songs do rate as your best?
Le Chalein from My Brother Nikhil, Aa Zara from Murder 2, Dekho Na from Fanaa, Deedar De from Dus, Swing from Dil Dhadakne Dekho. I actually have 15-20 songs of which I am very proud.
You have sung in Tamil, Marathi, Telugu and even Pakistani films. How do you prepare for various accents?
I listen to it when it is dictated to me. I watch the lips. A lot of people know that I like to do mimicry. I am good with it, so I copy fast. I also first find out the basic meaning of the song. For regional languages, I usually listen to the feel. I remember when I was 13 and I performed in Kottayam after Meri Awaz Suno’s win. It was difficult singing in Hindi because the audience wasn’t there for Hindi songs. So they said, “Sing one Hindi song, the other 2-3 sing in Malayalam.” I prepared immediately and the newspapers said the next day, “Probably her background is Malayalam.”
‘Saiyyan’ from ‘Nayak’ in 2001, the first song you sang for AR Rahman, has complicated, meandering notes. Was it easy to record?
It was a 4am recording. He played something on the piano and said to sing the words on the tune. I sang. I kept clearing my throat on the mike. A few lines happened like that. After about 25 minutes he said, “Okay, goodnight.” And I said, “When did I sing, I didn’t even sing?” I was just rehearsing.
When you sang ‘Beedi’ (Omkara, 2006), for composer-director Vishal Bhardwaj, you were flooded with item songs. Did that bother you?
That did happen to me around Aisa Jadoo Dala Re [Khakee, 2004] and Dekh Le [Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, 2003], but it had changed long before. Anu Malik had given me my first love song Meri Zindagi [Ajnabee, 2001]. I started singing love songs for Armaan, Meri Zindagi Mein Aaye Ho and Le Chale. Anu Malik actually fought for me, he broke that label down.
Which composers do you like to work with?
I love recording with Vishal-Shekhar, they are friends. My first ever song with Mithoon is coming in the film Shivaay. I used to love working with Anand Raj Anand, I don’t know where he disappeared. He made some crazy songs, he was fantastic.
What was it like working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who started composing music for his films after ‘Guzaarish’ (2010)?
Great! I thought he would be very difficult. He was very particular about what he wanted. He was happy, I was happy. We both complimented each other. The difference of working with him and other composers is that he is looking at the song with visuals in his head, so he has a broader spectrum. He has more ideas, things that musicians cannot add to the screen.
In fact, he complimented me for Behta Hai Mann from Chameli (2003). He wanted to me sing songs like that one. I got Udi in Guzaarish much later. Then for his home production film My Friend Pinto, for which my husband, Hitesh Sonik, was doing the background music, there was a snippet of a song playing in the background that Bhansali heard and asked Sonik and me to develop into a full song. It was called Tu Taare Se Toota Hai.
Lata Mangeshkar once said in an interview that although she enjoys listening to your voice, she feels it might not be suited for lullabies. Have you tried singing one?
I have, in fact, sung one, in Neerja. It is my first one, Aisa Kyun Maa. It sounded pretty nice.
Is there anything that you wouldn’t try, say ghazals?
The ghazal is actually the first thing on my mind. A ghazal should feel like it is being sung by a singer who has devoted herself entirely to the genre. It should not sound like it is coming from a playback singer who has no time to master it.
What about English music?
I have recently finished my English album. It’s my baby, I have nourished it with a lot of love.
Three songs you are hooked on to?
Sooha Saha from Highway (2014) for Zeb Bangash. I don’t listen to my own songs, but Aa Zara from Murder 2 is an exception. Laakad Jal Ke Koyla by Rekha Bhardwaj and Jag Ja by Suresh Wadkar in Omkara.