Actor and occasional vocalist Shruti Haasan recently collaborated with music composer AR Rahman for a remix of Ranjha Ranjha from the movie Raavan (2010) for the television show MTV Unplugged. Haasan heads a band called The Extramentals and has acted and sung for her characters in several Tamil and Telugu films.

Haasan has won Filmfare awards in the categories as Best Playback and Best Actor – a feat her peers cannot match. Her father, Kamal Haasan, has also sung occasionally in his films, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same success as a playback singer.

Indian actors seldom put themselves through the grind that playback singing demands. Do they have what it takes?

In his book A Journey Down Memory Lane, Raju Bharatan traces the roots of the playback singer in film music. In the 1930s, Ashok Kumar accidentally became a singing star after he sang Main Bann Ki Chidiya with Devika Rani in the film Achhut Kanya (1936). Music composer Saraswati Devi told Bharatan that she had a hard time making the actors sing. “Only I know the problems I had keeping them simultaneously in tune,” she said.

Sound was still a new concept at the time. It had been introduced in Alam Ara (1931), which had seven recorded songs and was promoted as an “all talking, singing and dancing” spectacle. Actors were expected to sing for their parts irrespective of their vocal talents. Actors such as KL Saigal and Suraiya were cast in films for their looks as well as their singing abilities.

Main Bann Ki Chidiya from Achhut Kanya (1936).

All this changed when music composer C Ramachandra decided to forego Ashok Kumar’s nasal tone. For the melody Hum Ko Tumhara Hai Aasra in Sajan (1947, Ramachandra hired Mohammed Rafi.

Rafi’s first recorded Hindi song, Aaj Dil Ho Qaboo Mein, had been filmed on a singing troupe in Gaon Ki Gori (1945). His voice hadn’t yet been graced by an on-screen actor of the stature of Ashok Kumar. The hit song relieved Kumar of the responsibility of returning to the mike. Playback singers stepped in for the vocally challenged actors, and the tradition of using trained singers began.

The return of actors as singers was initially an experiment. In Dil Ki Rani (1947), Raj Kapoor played a poet, so it didn’t seem out of context to use his voice for O Duniya Ke Rehne Waalon, composed by SD Burman.

When Dilip Kumar sang Laagi Nahi Chhoote Rama with Lata Mangeshkar, the idea wasn’t to display his vocal chords. In the film Musafir (1975), Raja (Dilip Kumar) meets his lover Uma (Usha Kirron) and recalls the time when she sang for him. He sings with reluctance, if only to jog his foggy memory. The situation is apt for the actor to attempt a song.

Dil Ki Umangen Hain Jawan from Munimji (1954).

In Munimji (1954), Hemant Kumar playbacks for on-screen actor Dev Anand and Geeta Dutt for Nalini Jaywant in the song Dil Ki Umangen Hain Jawan. An awkward Pran is goaded by his co-actors into singing for himself. Pran sings in his cracked voice, adding an element of humour to the melody. Pran’s dilemma perfectly displays the actor’s hesitation to step into the singer’s shoes.

Nutan was in her teens when her mother, the actress Shobhana Samarth, launched her in Hamari Beti in 1950. Nutan sang Tujhe Kaisa Dulha Bhaaye Re, composed by Snehal Bhatkar. Nutan had learnt classical music, but she chose acting over singing. She sang a decade later in Chhabili (1960), recording seven songs for the film. She could hold a note better than most actors.

Ae Mere Humsafar from Chhabili (1960).

Actors who could sing was a novelty rather than a real threat to playback singers. Danny Denzongpa sang Mere Paas Aao in Yeh Gulistan Hamara (1972). Despite its popularity and his interest in singing, Denzongpa did not take up playback singing as a full-time profession along with his acting assignments.

When Amitabh Bachchan deployed his characteristic baritone for Mere Aangne Mein for Laawaris (1981), it was a gimmicky idea that grew into a serious trend. Actors also began singing to attract moviegoers.

Bachchan sang a dozen other songs across genres, from the romantic number Yeh Kahaan Aa Gaye Hum (Silsila, 1981) to a spoof of his songs Go Meera Go (Bbuddah…Hoga Terra Baap, 2011).

Actresses too stepped in front of the mike. Vyjayanthimala initially uttered only her disapproval “Nahi, kabhi nahi” (no, never) as Gopal (Raj Kapoor) watched her swim in the song Bol Radha Bol for the movie Sangam (1964). Vyjayanthimala gave her voice full expression for the Bengali duet Cheye Thaki with Mrinal Chakraborty in Tapan Sinha’s 1967 film Hatey Bazarey.

Cheye Thaki from Hatey Bazarey (1967).

If actors could sing, why couldn’t singers step before the camera? In 1982, Pakistani singer Salma Agha made her Indian debut in BR Chopra’s Nikaah. Her voice suited her character Nilofar, a demure, green-eyed beauty who sings melancholic ghazals. However, Agha failed to make a dent in subsequent films, including Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984), in which she was a modern, urban woman singing pop songs like Jhoom Jhoom Jhoom Baba in a screechy high pitch.

What worked for Agha in Nikaah did not work for her later roles – a predicament faced several decades ago by singing star Suraiya.

Suraiya had anticipated her diminishing future in films with the arrival of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar in the 1940s. Mangeshkar’s divine voice made Suraiya feel inadequate after the singers recorded the duet Mere Chand Mere Laal (Parwana, 1952). Suraiya had credited her healthy run in films to her winning combination of good looks and her ability to hold a note. Mangeshkar made it clear who could sing and who should only act – a lesson that Agha learnt many years later to her peril.

Other actresses tested their own voices only as far as the gimmickry could take them: Rekha (Qaida Qaida, Khubsoorat, 1980), Shabana Azmi (Aisa Nahi Ke, Anjuman, 1986), Sridevi (the title track of (Chandni , 1989), Madhuri Dixit (Kaahe Chhede Mohe , Devdas, 2002), Kareena Kapoor (Jab Nahi Aaye, Dev, 2004). Priyanka Chopra began her singing stint with Ullathai Killathe in the Tamil film Thamizhan in 2002. Her co-star Vijay sang the duet composed by D Imman.

Ullathai Killathe from Thamizhan (2002).

Lyrics that incorporate recitation and alliterative rap styles encourage actors to get behind the mic. Aamir Khan sang, or rather narrated, Aati Kya Khandala in Ghulam (1998). Composed by Jatin-Lalit, the tune was fashioned to accommodate both Khan’s character, a Mumbai street ruffian, and his limited vocal range. The song was an instant hit, owing in part to Nitin Raikwar’s pedestrian lyrics.

Other examples followed, including Shah Rukh Khan (Apun Bola, Josh, 2000), Abhishek Bachchan (Right Here Right Now, Bluffmaster, 2005) and Salman Khan (the title track of Bodyguard, 2011). Farhan Akhtar, Hrithik Roshan and Abhay Deol collaborated on Senorita in the movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011).

Even Ajay Devgn, who had already proven in a scene in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) that he is not an accomplished singer, tried to hum the title track of Bol Bachchan (2012) along with the father-son duo Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan.

Can these actors actually sing? The evidence is scanty, since they are given tracks designed around their limitations. None of the songs they have sung qualifies as an enduring classic.

With advances in recording technology, actors like Alia Bhatt and Shraddha Kapoor are singing more often. Bhatt has sung a track each in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Highway and Dear Zindagi. Kapoor has crooned for Ek Villian, Haider, ABCD2, Baaghi and Rock On 2. Clearly, these stars want to prove their added talent as playback singers.

No actor took playback singing as seriously as Premnath when he sang an Indian classical bandish Dagar Chalat Dekho in the little-known film Raja Kaka (1973). It was an enviable accomplishment that went unnoticed.

In the age of social media, where actors are under relentless public scrutiny, they cannot simply rely on their spontaneity and the magical qualities of auto-tuning software if they want their singing voices to be acknowledged. Acting is a challenge. So is singing.

Dagar Chalat Dekho from Raja Kaka (1973).