Did Alia Bhatt’s fans ask for her rendition of Tum Se Hi in Sadak 2? More likely, it’s the latest example of the decades-old gimmick in which composers attempt to extend a movie’s star’s popularity.
Whether the average Hindi movie star can and should sing is best illustrated by the forgettable 1985 Nadeem-Shravan album Star Ten, to which 10 Bollywood stars lent their voices. The trend of actors going behind the mic gathered speed in the latter half of the 2000s, following Rock On! (2008).
Autotune ensures that our singing stars aren’t sufficiently embarrassed by the final mix to never return to the recording studio. This has allowed a number of actors, including someone as ungraceful as Salman Khan, to build up their singing credits.
Singing actors work best when they are already singers, like Kishore Kumar, or have been blessed with a remarkably unique voice, like Amitabh Bachchan. Sometimes, there are actors who sing the odd song, and it magically works out.
Then there are the inbetweeners who can sing well and have sung enough, but are not quite recognised as singer-stars because of their acting talent overshadowing the rest.
When the voice is a star (or a meme) in itself
Not many composers know how to use Amitabh Bachchan’s booming voice judiciously. Mere Angne Mein or Rang Barse are just two out of over 20 songs he has sung in the movies. Latter-day composers like Vishal-Shekhar and Vishal Bhardwaj have managed to use Bachchan in interesting ways.
Like Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt’s voice grew thicker with age. Vinod Rathod was for Dutt what Sudesh Bhosale was for Bachchan for a while: the go-to playback voice. But why use a professional when the onscreen voice can be used cleverly? Case in point: Aye Shivani (Khoobsurat, 1999).
Kamal Haasan has sung a lot in Tamil movies, as have many other actors in the Tamil film industry. Haasan’s songs in Hindi aren’t particularly remarkable. One wonders why he needs to sing so much, but then one also wonders why he needs to play everybody in the movies.
Piyush Mishra’s singing voice evokes an image of a sage or a seer, quite like Mishra’s character in Tamasha (2015), holding forth on life and the spirit of the times and suchlike. Since his voice is so identifiable and has been heavily parodied, it is a good thing that he doesn’t sing as often in the movies as he used to earlier.
Farhan Akhtar’s hoarse voice was dexterously used by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in Rock On! But Akhtar took his one-time singing job so seriously, he has not stopped singing since. His rock-singer persona is an example of a gimmick that has been around for far too long – but then there is far worse beyond the movies.
You could have their voice – as a treat
Ashok Kumar used to sing in the movies, and correctly stepped away from the mic when professional singers took up the task. His nasal voice in his early songs is the stuff of parody, almost always good-natured, as heard in Aage Peeche from Rohit Shetty’s first Golmaal movie from 2006.
Although not exactly an exceptional singer, Meena Kumari did start off as a singer-actor. She later concentrated on acting, and with good reason.
Raj Kapoor doesn’t fare badly in his only singing performance. Since he plays a poet In Dil Ki Rani, his singing is woven into the screenplay.
Dilip Kumar can really hold a note, as one can see and hear in Lagi Nahi Chhute Ram. Here too, Kumar’s character sings in the movie because of the demands of the script.
Nutan clearly had it in her to be a proper singing star, but then it was the time of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.
Films have a song to introduce the hero. Anil Sharma’s ensemble action movie Tahalka had a villain introduction song. The zany Shom Shom, featuring Amrish Puri in his most fun outing, is best enjoyed as a visual experience, for which you should head to YouTube.
Between Amitabh Bachchan’s playback adventures in the 1980s and the post-Rock On! era came a short while in the late 1990s when Jatin-Lalit herded a bunch of Bollywood stars behind the mic. These songs were tailor-made to suit the actors’ limited vocal abilities, as can be heard in Dutt’s Aye Shivani. Aati Kya Khandala is another example.
Shah Rukh Khan
If Aamir Khan hit bull’s eye with a tapori tune, so did Shah Rukh Khan. Some years later, the actor belted out a catchy rap-like section in Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s take on Khaike Pan Banaraswala in Don (2006).
Salman Khan is not just the least musical of all the Khans, but he also insists on singing as well as writing lyrics. It’s quite something.
Like Jatin-Lalit, Vishal-Shekhar know how to tailor a song around an actor’s strengths and limitations. They did it for Sanjay Dutt in Musafir and Amitabh Bachchan in Kahaani. Likewise, they made Abhishek Bachchan sound cool in Bluffmaster! (2005).
According to reports, Parineeti Chopra is a trained Hindustani classical singer. She sounds really good in the few songs she has sung in movies as well as in live performances available on YouTube.
Shraddha Kapoor is also reportedly a trained classical singer. She is the granddaughter of singer Pandharinath Kolhapure, who is a cousin of the Mangeshkars. Among Kapoor’s few songs in the movies, her work in Rock On!! 2 for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is exceptional.
Filmmakers really want us to buy Alia Bhatt as a singing star. She has sung in five films so far, perhaps a sign of her star power or something else. Bhatt’s voice in Sooha Saaha, alongside that of Zeb Bangash, was a treat, but her latest attempt in Sadak 2 was an epic bore.
Danny Denzongpa is an ace singer when it comes to his first language, Nepali. In Hindi, he attempted playback singing a bunch of times, producing mixed results.
Like Parineeti Chopra and Shraddha Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra is a trained singer. Like co-star Farhan Akhtar, she has also attempted a parallel career in music. While a couple of her songs made it to Billboard charts, she never quite stood out for her singing despite being able to hold a note.
Ayushmann Khurrana sings a lot. Following the smash hit Pani Da Rang from Vicky Donor (2011), Khurrana has had a bunch of non-film hits, like Yahin Hoon Main and Mitti Di Khushboo. At this point, he is the closest thing we have to a proper singing star.
Like other Tamil stars, Siddharth also frequently lands up in the recording studio. In many songs, such as Santosh Narayanan’s Prabalamagavey (Ennakul Oruvan, 2014) and Vishal Chandrashekhar’s Shoot The Killi (Jil Jung Juk, 2016), he sounds as good as many contemporary singers. Siddharth’s 2010 Hindi film Striker has him singing for both Amit Trivedi and Yuvan Shankar Raja.
The acting singers
KL Saigal was more of a singer than an actor. The most popular recording artist in the movies at the beginning of the sound era, Saigal’s technical finesse and ability to please the casual listener became the template for latter-day playback singers.
Despite his good looks, Talat Mahmood’s attempts to sustain an acting career didn’t quite work out. There were simply far better actors out there.
Suraiya was India’s preeminent female singer-star before playback singing became a separate area of expertise. Unlike the syrupy sweet voice of Lata Mangeshkar, which became a standard for female singers to live up to for decades, Suraiya’s voice had an uneven texture which, coupled with her looks, was a highlight of her star power.
Like we imagine what the Indian cricket team could have been if the Partition had never happened, it’s tempting to imagine what Hindi movies in India could have been if if Noor Jehan hadn’t moved to Pakistan. Though her most memorable work happened across the border, she sang and acted in some of the biggest pre-1947 hits.
Salma Agha’s combination of seraphic looks and a slightly nasal voice was reminiscent of the Pakistani singer-actor Noor Jehan. Agha’s best work as a singer-actor is in her first film Nikaah (1983). Agha is quite good in the diametrically opposite Come Closer in Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984).
Blessed with an unusual voice, Lucky Ali rarely lent his voice to bad tunes in the movies. With an expressive face and haunting eyes, Ali could leave a strong impression with the right roles, as it happened in 2002, the year both Kaante and Sur were released.
With a cherubic face and a decent voice, Vasundhara Das’s star was rising in the early 2000s before she stepped away from the movies. She sang her best songs for AR Rahman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
Shruti Haasan has legitimate singing skills in addition to being a music composer and a movie star. Like her contemporary Andrea Jeremiah, Haasan simultaneously maintained a successful singing and acting career, occasionally shining in both.
Ali Zafar is a complete package who first made his mark as a Pakistani pop star before finding a career in the movies in India and then claiming the top position as a singing actor in Pakistan again with the recently released Teefa in Trouble (2018).
Hailing from the Punjabi tradition of pop singer-cum-movie star, Diljit Dosanjh built a name for himself as a pop prince through the 2000s before becoming a movie star. It’s too early to say where his short but blooming career in the Hindi films as a singer-actor will go.