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Monali Thakur interview: ‘Reality shows gives you face value but the real war starts later’

Monali Thakur, who won the National Film Award for singing ‘Moh Moh Ke Dhaage’, talks about her new single and her Bollywood career.

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.”

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Tamanna.

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.”

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Woh Pehli Baar by Indian Idol 2 finalists featuring Monali Thakur.

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.”

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Zara Zara Touch Me, Race (2008).

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.”

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Sawaar Loon, Lootera (2013).

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.”

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Moh Moh Ke Dhaage, Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015).

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.

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Khwab Dekhe on MTV Unplugged.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.