Playback singer Monali Thakur has added a feather to her cap in addition to being an actress and a reality show judge. With her new single Tamanna, Thakur has stepped into the world of composing, even it is for herself. “I am very clear that I don’t want to compose for films,” Thakur said.
Tamanna is the first of many singles Thakur plans to release on her own and without the help of record labels through her YouTube channel. The video sees Thakur in pop star mode, singing and dancing amid a battery of visual effects and numerous costume changes.
Tamanna is an electronic dance song that has been written by Amitabh Bhattacharya. To get an “international sound”, distinct from the film songs she sings in Hindi, Thakur employed Bert Elliot, an American music producer. “First, I tried doing the song with a famous Indian music producer but the track wasn’t falling in place,” Thakur said. “We let go of him and went for an authentic American Deep house guy who could deliver.”
Thakur was trained for years in Hindustani classical music, but she was particular about the kind of song with which she wanted to mark her debut as an independent singer, composer and performer. “Well, I love dancing,” Thakur said. “And I listen to different kinds of music from trance to jazz to hip hop. It isn’t that I need to show off to people that I can do classical or semi classical. For my single, I wanted to do an uptempo dance song but not in a bar or a club setting.”
Thakur was born into a musical family in Kolkata. Her father, Shakti Thakur, was a popular Bengali singer and actor. Her elder sister, Mehuli Thakur, was also a playback singer. Her mothers’ side had musical connections too.
“It was in my genes,” Thakur said. “As a kid, and even as I grew up singing, I would be overawed by my father’s stage presence and charisma, and on the other hand, try to be a singer like my sister.” The actual musical training, however, begun much later when Thakur was in the eighth standard. By that time, she had started to sing and dance in shows and school competitions. “I would do Manipuri [dance], Bharatnatyam,” Thakur recalled. “I introduced Western form [dance] in our school.”
Thakur moved to Mumbai after participating in the second season of the singing competition show Indian Idol in 2005. Although she was placed ninth, she began to get offers for small shows, which helped her through her days of struggle. “My family was drowning in financial problems at the time,” Thakur revealed. “I didn’t realise that this is how a career in Bombay would begin but today, I am glad I took part in the show.”
About her experience with Indian Idol, which ran for up to six months, Thakur said that she was mostly nervous the entire time. “I would get severe anxiety attacks while singing on stage and I wish I had more fun at the time,” she said. The 32-year-old singer has since gone on to be a judge on competitive singing shows, such as the Bengali show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’l Champs and the ongoing Hindi show Rising Star on Colors TV.
She is, however, clear about the impact of participating in and winning these shows: “You win good money and it gives you face value but you can only capitalise it for no more than a couple of months. The real war starts afterwards once you start working bit by bit.”
Though Thakur’s first song as a playback singer was for composer and Indian Idol judge Anu Malik in 2006, she considers her real breakthrough to be the superhit Zara Zara Touch Me from Race (2008). “Ramesh ji and Kumar ji [the producers of Race] had signed me up for an album for Tips at a time independent albums had become extinct,” Thakur said. “But they liked my voice, and Pritam got me to sing for a scratch recording. Abbas-Mustan [the directors] liked it, and that is how I got the other song, Khwab Dekhe, too.”
With a video featuring a svelte Katrina Kaif rolling over and around the hero (Saif Ali Khan), Zara Zara Touch Me became one of the year’s biggest chartbusters. For the next four years, Thakur sang numerous songs in Hindi and Bengali for a range of composers, mostly in the peppy item song space. But nothing stood out until Amit Trivedi got her to sing Aga Bai, a thumri, in the 2012 film Aiyyaa, which, in turn, helped her bag one of her signature songs, Sawaar Loon, from Lootera (2013).
“I was feeling incomplete at the time as I had so much to offer,” Thakur said. “So, I would complain to Amit [Trivedi], saying what was the point of doing riyaaz [practice] for 10-12 hours if I cannot use it. Then, he asked me to sing a thumri in Aga Bai, parts of which had already been sung by Shalmali Kholgade. The next year, I sang Sawaar Loon, for which I will be eternally grateful to Amit.”
Thakur’s biggest moment as a Hindi playback singer came in 2016, when she won the National Film Award for the Best Playback Singer (Female) for Moh Moh Ke Dhaage from Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015). “Anu ji [Malik, the composer] was like, only you can sing this song and no one else,” Thakur said. “Beneath all that madness, he is a real genius and a most sincere person.”
Having been one of the top playback singers in Hindi films for almost 12 years, and now embarking on a solo non-film career, is there anything that gets in Thakur’s way? Sexism, of course.
“The number of solo songs sung by women compared to those sung by women still continues to be terrible,” Thakur said. “For a strictly male situation, you would have a man singing the song, but even for female situations, men are brought in to sing.” She cited the example of Aaoge Jab Tum Sajna from Jab We Met (2007), which revolves around Kareena Kapoor’s character, but is sung by Rashid Khan.
Through the years, Trivedi, Pritam, Malik, and the composer duo Sachin-Jigar, with whom she has sung many songs, have all been mentors to her. “I am amazed by how Pritam da keeps evolving with each sound, time, and era, and manages to sound fresh every time,” Thakur said. “And then there’s no one as original as Amit.”
Above everyone else, including her father, she regards her singing guru Jagdish Prasad as her most important influence. “What he taught me will sustain me for the rest of her life,” Thakur said.