A number-crunching exercise while examining 23-year-old Armaan Malik’s singing career begs the question: how?

After bursting onto the scene at the age of 18 with the hit Tumko To Aana Hi Tha in the Salman Khan-starrer Jai Ho (2014), Malik has had a super-hit song almost every quarter till date.

Only a few examples: Naina (Khoobsurat, 2014), Auliya (Ungli, 2014), Tumhe Apna Banane Ka (Hate Story 3, 2014), Buddhu Sa Mann (Kapoor & Sons, 2015), Main Rahoon Ya Na Rahoon (non-film, 2015), Bol Do Na Zara (Azhar, 2015), Besabriyaan (MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, 2016), and Ghar Se Nikalte Hi (non-film, 2018). And those are just the songs in Hindi.

Armaan Malik has sung up to 50 songs in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Gujarati and Bengali so far. He is the youngest recipient of the RD Burman New Music Talent award at the Filmfare Awards. Along with his brother, the composer Amaal Mallik, Armaan is among the leading lights of the Hindi film music industry in the 2010s.

But Armaan Malik also happens to be a third-generation star kid. He is the grandson of Sardar Malik, the son of Daboo Malik, and the nephew of Anu Malik. Is his meteoric success a result of being from the right family? Or is he just prenaturally talented?

Did coming from the Malik family help you?
Not really. In fact, I was rejected in the final round of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa L’il Champs [season one, 2006] because of coming from a connected family. They felt someone with no connections should have won. I thought that was unfair because you should be chosen because of your merit.

This again happened when I sang Mere Buddy for Bhoothnaath. My voice was replaced by someone else’s, because of the same reason. When the song finally aired, my voice was back in it though.

I paid my dues. My mother [Jyothi Malik] was very instrumental in my singing career. She encouraged me to pursue singing professionally at a very young age. We would hire studios for a few hours, and there I recorded a demo of known chartbusters, with a romantic song, a dance song, a few English numbers, and my mother and I approached several production houses and music composers with that demo, asking for work.

That led to recording jingles since the age of nine. From jingles, I got the opportunity to dub for My Name Is Khan. Till date, I have recorded at least 200 jingles in eight-nine languages, which helped me pick up languages all over India quickly.

So, I feel if I did not deliver at the age of nine in front of the mic, I would not have made it.

Main Rahoon Ya Na Rahoon, 2015.

Why was your father, composer Daboo Malik, against you participating in a singing competition show?
He felt that we [Amaal Mallik and Armaan Malik] should take a different route. He thought we should assist someone first and enter the business slowly, which is what Arijit Singh did, and that can be a great way to learn everything about making music. My brother did that. He assisted composers like Salim-Sulaiman.

For me, the reality show route worked. My mother was supportive. My father wasn’t, initially, but when he saw me on television and he got calls from friends, he was happy.

I became known as a child singer after that. I sang for Vishal-Shekhar [Mere Buddy, Bhoothnath] and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy [Bum Bum Bole, Taare Zameen Par].

2014 was your big year. Your debut album, ‘Armaan’, as well as your big break, ‘Jai Ho’, was released. How did you get to sing for Salman Khan?
I had a contract with Universal under which I released my first album. Salman sir heard a few songs from that. He speaks what he feels. He liked one song, and said that the rest are okay, but it’s not to his taste. So, that song made it to Jai Ho from the album. It was composed by my brother, so Salman sir took a liking to us and we did three songs for the film.

The music was coming out on T-Series. After that, Bhushan Kumar sat me down to discuss where my singing career would go. Once my Universal contract ended, I signed with T-Series.

Auliya, Ungli (2014).

Which songs would you say were the game-changers in your career?
The one that got me the most popularity was Tumhe Apna Banane Ka from Hate Story 3. The one that got me respect from the industry and my listeners was Main Rahoon Ya Na Rahoon.

The ‘MS Dhoni: The Untold Story’ album was also important because both you and your brother were carrying the entire album together.
It was very challenging. It was Amaal’s first movie as a solo composer. It was a huge project about our captain [Mahendra Singh Dhoni] and Neeraj sir [Pandey] was directing. And his films are never based much around the songs so this was new. The first song we cracked was Besabriyaan and Neeraj sir knew that whoever got that right could do the entire film. From there, Kaun Tujhe and the others happened.

Besides singing four songs, I also played some of the guitar parts and did some programming. It was a journey of an year – eight months of cracking the music and the rest went to arranging, recording, mixing, and mastering.

Besabriyaan, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016).

Your biggest collaborator is your brother, Amaal Mallik. How different are you both, inside and outside the studio?
He is more hot-headed and temperamental. I am calm and composed. We get into a lot of fights inside the studio, but that is to make the song better. Also, I don’t know how he deals with other singers, but for me, he does not let me leave till the song is perfect. Many composers can ask you to come back the next day and re-dub but not him.

When Amaal Mallik criticised the Hindi film music industry because of its repetitiveness, sparred with Mithoon online, criticised the Filmfare jury for its choice of nominations including his own work, and then bashed the trend of song remakes earlier this year, did you ever stop him because he was making a lot of people angry?
We only get to know what he writes on Facebook after he has written it. We both think from the heart. The difference is he is vocal about it and I am not. And I agree with whatever he has said. It’s the truth, and when you put out the truth, some people do not like it. But after what happened on Twitter with Sonakshi Sinha, we both decided it’s better to keep quiet and do our work.

We both know what the music industry is. We know the good and the bad because we have seen it up close. We know we are both swimming in it. And it’s not like he said anything new or eye-opening. When he spoke of the stagnation of the kind of music being made, he was speaking for the entire musical community, not just himself. We just do not want our creativity to be curtailed.

Besides Amaal Mallik, you have worked with a lot of other composers. How has your experience been?
All music composers have their quirks.

With Vishal-Shekhar, I did a bunch of Telugu songs. I share a comfort level with them. They explain the tune and the composition and then leave me to it. Vishal-Shekhar are those composers who make the song with one thought in mind but they let you take it to another level with your ideas. And then, there are over-involved composers.

S Thaman is a very funny character. Half the time, he does not come to the studio. So we speak on the phone, and sometimes, he is unavailable there too. So I listen to the track recorded by the cue singers and I replicate the cues all by myself in the studio. When I see him, I ask him why you aren’t there, and he says, it’s okay no problem, you do best. But that’s because he is too busy.

I recently worked with my dad [Daboo Malik], and he is very spontaneous. He will change the composition immediately and expect you to understand him. He comes from the ’90s when songs were made in minutes. So with him, I have to be on my toes.

Ninnila, Tholi Prema (2018).

To a listener of the songs you sang down South, which Hindi songs would you recommend as perfectly embodying your style, and the other way round as well?
To someone who has just heard my South songs, I would recommend Bol Do Na Zara and Main Rahoon Ya Na Rahoon. They best represent my musicality. For a Hindi music listener, the South songs of mine I would recommend are Yaar Inda Muyalkutti from Paayum Puli, and the Kannada song Ondu Malebillu from Chakravarthy for which I won the Best Male Playback Singer award at the south Filmfare Awards.

What was singing for AR Rahman like?
Before Mechanical Sundariye, I had met AR Rahman at a music launch in Mumbai. He said he really liked my singing and soon something would happen. I had no idea the ‘soon’ would come a week later.

Rahman sir wasn’t there in the studio because he was busy in LA [Los Angeles] working on the 2.0 score. Once I finished singing, I asked what it is for. Then I was told it’s for 2.0. I asked what’s 2.0? They said it’s Robot 2.0. That moment it struck me that I am not just singing for Rahman sir but also for Rajinikanth!

2.0 Hindi soundtrack, 2018.

After Arijit Singh, you are the most popular Hindi playback singer right now. Top singers get replaced in cycles, after five years or ten years or more. Do you feel insecure about your position?
I am not insecure at all. The world is so big, and there are so many singers. What matters is how you stand out from the crowd and what extra you are bringing to the table. It’s a very backward ’80s-’90s thinking that someone will come and take my place.

If I see a new singer doing well, I immediately tweet about it and appreciate it. If I hear someone do something excellent, I think what can I learn from him. For example, when Arijit sang Binte Dil, I was stunned. As if I wasn’t listening to Arijit Singh but Khaled from the Middle East.

Who continues to inspire you and support you in the Hindi film music industry?
Of course, my brother. Then Salim Merchant [of Salim-Sulaiman.] He is a friend and a mentor. He was there on my first album for a song. I have sang many songs for him. I often go to his studio and hang out with him.

From the singers, Sonu Nigam. He is someone I have always looked up to and ever since I heard him, I wanted to be like him. To this date, I am not nervous about meeting any big actor or celebrity, but I am nervous to meet him.

The biggest advice he [Sonu Nigam] gave me was to not imitate anyone’s singing style. Be original. These days there are many singers with the same tonality. People ask me, who sang this, and I am like, don’t you know it, and they say, what to do they all sound the same.

Also, he keeps saying, ‘Sur nahi hilna chahiye’ [Always hit the right note]. The pitch should be perfect. Very few singers like Lata ji, Sonu Nigam, Shreya [Ghoshal] sing in perfect pitch. The rest sing up to 80-85% pitch, and then you autotune it. Unlike popular notion, autotuning is not a bad thing.

Theher Ja, October (2018).

Do you think you are a versatile singer?
A playback singer is versatile when one can sing in multiple genres with ease, and when one can also do it in multiple languages. I know I am bracketed as a romantic singer. I have a lot of bubbly music inside me which hasn’t come out.

Recently, I did a single called Aaja Na Ferrari Mein, which is very pop and contemporary. Then, Theher Ja, in October, was a romantic song but with an European feel to it. I used falsetto there. I can also sing in many languages. To become versatile is a gradual process.

I have been writing my own songs since the age of 15, but in English. I haven’t been able to showcase them yet but I will, soon. What bothers me is that Indian singers are just known within India or South Asia or at the most, the diaspora outside. I want to be a global singer like Justin Bieber or Beyonce. If I can sing in so many Indian languages, then why not in English, Spanish or Arabic?