Should composers sing? Why not? All composers learn to sing. In Indian films, the successful singer-composers are the ones who can actually hold a note, such as Shankar Mahadevan, or are limited but know how to use their voice well, such as SD Burman. Then there are those with unconventional voices, such as AR Rahman, and the mavericks who can modulate their voices as and how they please, such as RD Burman.
Some composers shouldn’t be allowed into a recording booth, but their odd voices click with actors, such as Wajid Khan’s for Salman Khan.
The most unfortunate composers are those who aren’t bad singers per se, but are unable to bring that something extra to a tune. These include Salim Merchant, Jigar Saraiya and Arko Pravo Mukherjee. Here’s our list of the melodious, the middling, and the mediocre.
Hemant Kumar’s baritone and his ability to soften his voice served him well in the handful of tunes he sang in Hindi films. Born as Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, which is the name he used for his Bengali recordings, Kumar was stronger at enunciating in his native tongue. There is a qualitative difference between his singing in the Bengali and Hindi versions of the same tune. Case in point: Ei Raat Tomar Aamar (Deep Jwele Jaai, 1959) reworked as Yeh Nayan Dare Dare (Kohraa, 1964).
SD Burman’s love for Bhatiyali music came across strongly in the few Hindi film songs he sang. His uniquely sonorous voice conjures up the spirit of a travelling minstrel or bard solemnly holding forth on life. Burman limited himself to songs that commented upon the story’s emotional beats rather than provided playback for actors.
RD Burman’s actual voice wasn’t as raspy and throaty as some Hindi film music fans might think. While he was up to all sorts of vocal gymnastics in his Hindi songs, he mellowed down and belted soothing romantic ballads in Bengali, for example, his non-film hit Rubi Roy.
The junior Burman’s skill in manipulating his voice made him stunningly versatile for a range of tunes that required an out-of-the-ordinary edge. In many multi-singer tracks, he often stood out as the one with the most pizzazz, such as the Chand Mera Dil medley in Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (1977) or Pyar Hume Kis Mod Pe Le Aaya from Satte Pe Satta (1982).
Bappi Lahiri never saw his thick Bengali accent as a weakness. He turned it into a strength, since his voice snugly fit into his specific Bolly-disco brand. Although limited as a singer, Lahiri knew the trick of doing two or three things with his voice extremely well. This made him an extremely proficient playback voice whose charm has been put to great use by contemporary music directors such as AR Rahman and Vishal-Shekhar.
Like most singers whose first language isn’t Hindi, Bhupen Hazarika is best experienced in Assamese. His strongest achievement in Hindi as a composer-singer is the soundtrack for Rudaali (1993). Hazarika was 67 during the film’s production. By then, his famously resonant timbre had acquired a fuzzy grain, which made Dil Hoom Hoom Kare all the more haunting.
AR Rahman the singer is great, except the few times he is tangibly not. His pronunciation is criminal in such songs as Patakha Guddi (Highway, 2014) or Tere Bina (Guru, 2007). But it is his distinctive way of delivering words that is part of the charm.
That’s what makes his Mangta Hai Kya from Rangeela (1995) stand out in a soundtrack filled with conventional voices. It’s impossible to imagine a voice other than Rahman’s for songs like the Tamil Urvashi (Kadhalan, 1994) or the title tracks for Dil Se (1998) and Swades (2004). Or take the Rahmanalaaps from Choti Si Asha (Roja, 1992) or Kabhi Neem Neem (Yuva, 2004), for instance – those passages are so idiosyncratic that only someone with a clear idea of the song’s intention and execution could deliver them accurately.
Anu Malik’s clunky voice, which would even strike some as vulgarly unmusical, is a hoot in most of his wacky dance tunes, such as Ek Garam Chai Ki Pyali (Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega, 2000) or East or West India is the Best (Judwaa, 1997). Malik’s voice is best for rowdy-like characters breaking into a song in a decidedly unruly setting. No surprise that most of his memorable songs are for Salman Khan.
Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani, like their inspiration RD Burman, are terrific manipulators of their voices. Dadlani, a rock singer, tried to sing like Hariharan in Chand Chahiye (Supari, 2003), then Adnan Sami in Sholon Si (Shabd, 2005), and then Atif Aslam in Saaiyan Ve (Ta Ra Rum Pum, 2007), before finding his groove in Bollyrock tracks.
Ravjiani has a mellow voice, but he can bulk it up for songs like the Telugu hit Lover Also Fighter Also (Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India, 2018), and more recently, Tehas Nehas (Khali Peeli). The best examples of how good Ravjiani is as a singer are Aazmale (Taxi No 9211, 2006) and Haravali Pakhare from the duo’s Marathi soundtrack for Balak Palak (2013).
Shankar Mahadevan is one of our best. Before forming Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, he was one of Bollywood’s most underrated playback singers. Trained in Hindustani classical and Carnatic music, Mahadevan stood out in the 1990s for his quality work with AR Rahman, Anu Malik, and Ismail Darbar. Turning composer brought Mahadevan the opportunity to not only sing for the kind of interesting and challenging tunes he deserved, but also reshape Hindi film music for the new millennium.
Anand Raj Anand
Anand Raj Anand has a reputation for being a dance bar-song specialist, thanks to his hit work for Sanjay Gupta productions. But he’s actually a prolific composer with a strong ear for melody when he isn’t on autopilot.
As a singer, Anand frequently hit bull’s eye, the biggest example being Ishq Samandar (Kaante, 2002). He has economically used his high-pitched voice, usually for dance tracks. A successful departure was the torch song Dil De Diya, which still holds up as an evergreen hit.
Sandeep Chowta has a robust voice and can hit the high notes well. He found his niche as a singer with mid-tempo macho songs signalling attitude and swagger. The title tracks of Mast (1999) and Dum (2003) are two of the most popular examples. His most timeless contribution to Hindi film music has to be Ganda Hai from Company (2002).
Between Aashiq Banaya Aapne (2005) and Aap Ka Surroor (2007), in which he made his debut as an actor, Himesh Reshammiya had chanced upon a two-year musical sweet spot, which he unfortunately took too far too quickly. Reshammiya was always strong on melody, but it was the combination of his tweaked voice and minimalist production that made him a star in the mid-2000s. Most of his work from this period still holds up as A1 pop songs.
One of the reasons AR Rahman’s voice has endured is because he seldom sang solo. Amit Trivedi, despite having a distinctive voice, spread himself thin singing songs that did not require him at all.
If Trivedi lost his mojo somewhere in the mid-2010s as a composer, his voice started sounding just as flat around the same time. Nonetheless, Trivedi’s voice has the goods, as the spectacular Dev D (2009) soundtrack will always remind us.
Singer Vishal Bhardwaj sounds like he’s singing into your ears, especially for you rather than an audience. The tunes he chooses are just as sombre and soft, almost always featuring contemplative lyrics from Gulzar. It’s a nice tight set-up from which Bhardwaj has rarely deviated, such as the upbeat title track of Pataakha (2018), which is fun but not memorable.
The unique quality about Bhardwaj’s voice is that it absolutely lacks projection, which is why the aural experience of him underplaying the emotions of Gulzar’s loaded lyrics is quite fascinating.
Something about Salman Khan brings out the singer in composers with the most ungraceful voices. Once there was Anu Malik, and then we had Wajid Khan. The kind of songs he sang, like Soni De Nakhre (Partner, 2007) or Mashallah (Ek Tha Tiger, 2012), are only tolerable after sufficient drinks at a house party after 2 am. An exception is Mukhtasar (Teri Meri Kahaani, 2012), which could surely have had a much better singer.
Mithoon began composing and singing right when Atif Aslam and Pakistani rock had struck gold in Hindi pop culture. As a singer, Mithoon essentially copied the Pakistani rockers, and he copied well. After he took a break and returned with Aashiqui 2 (2013), he intelligently stepped away from the mic, letting professional singers do what they do best.
Like the best composer-singers, Sneha Khanwalkar can camouflage her voice really well despite having limited singing ability. She has two prominent styles of singing: songs where she sounds laid-back and languid, such as Moora or Kaala Re from the Gangs of Wasseypur movies, and songs where she is catty and snarly like Keh Ke Lunga (Wasseypur, 2012) and the magnificent What To Do from Aiyyaa (2013).
Bengali pop star Anupam Roy is limited as a composer as well as a singer. He can churn out solid melodies and has been occasionally brilliant, but has trapped himself in sameness. But when Roy lent his talents to the Hindi film Piku (2015), his brand of music came across as fresh and breezy. Being part of the singer-songwriter-with-a-guitar tradition, Roy’s persona is part of the entire package.
Ajay Gogavale has the slightly heavy voice. His brother Atul Gogavale is the mellow one. Both can more than hold a note and are stellar with melodies full of projection and bombast. Whenever they turn singers, they carry their songs well.
Ankit Tiwari is a one-trick pony as a singer and a composer. As music director, his songs are the anthems for Vishesh Films sadbois. As singer, his voice sounds like he is struggling to get out of bed. Very rarely does the two-in-one package yield something that’s worth listening to and has repeat value.
Most indie singer-songwriters who establish a musical personality before entering filmdom are rarely able to step out of their comfort zone, but that doesn’t hold true for Jasleen Royal. She is a crooner-around-the-campfire artist, much like Prateek Kuhad. Unlike him, she can operate across genres. The Hitchki (2018) soundtrack is a prime example. Her school-girl voice limits her, but she hasn’t started boring listeners just yet.