Whether performing something like the full on hard rock/metal jam ‘Zehreelay’ from Rock On!! or the melodious ‘Give Me Some Sunshine’ from 3 Idiots, singer Suraj Jagan has one of the most unique voices in Hindi film music today. His background is rock, and it’s that rocker edge that gives his vocals that extra raw dimension beyond your average playback singer, and music directors have certainly taken notice of his fabulous voice. You have heard him in ‘Maula’ from Hide & Seek, Money Hai Toh Honey Hai’s‘No Big Deal'(a personal favorite), ‘Tum Bhi Ho Wahi’ – Kites, the Karthik calling Karthik – Theme Song, ‘Rang De’ – My Name is Khan and his newest song the brill ‘Sadka’ from I Hate Luv Storys. In this exclusive interview Suraj reveals some cool facts about working on Rock On!! (acting and singing), how the song in 3 Idiots happened, and much more about being a singer in the Hindi film industry.
Tell us how you got started singing.
It started way back in ’89, I was just sitting with a bunch of friends who are musicians and they heard me singing – I was just singing to myself. They got me to sing in their band and that is how it started.
How did you become a part of the Hindi music industry?
That took a while. Initially, I started doing a lot of ad jingles and that is how I got into the studio scene. I only did live for a long time, but then I started doing jingles and one thing led to another. I have known Vishal of Vishal-Shekhar for a long time because he has also been in the rock scene. He was the one who got me to sing my first film song. It was Vishal-Shekhar’s first movie, and they came to see if I would sing one song. That was ‘Hum Naujawan Hai’ from 1997’s Pyaar Mein Kabhie Kabhie.
What has been your favorite song to sing?
My favorite song is the latest one, which is from I Hate Luv Storys. It is called ‘Sadka Kiya’. That is the best song so far I have sung for movies. It is my favorite.
That song is with Mahalakshmi and composed by Vishal-Shekhar. How was it working with them?
Working with Vishal-Shekhar is always fun, because they are friends. So, when we meet up, it is more like you have just gone to some friend’s place. We are just hanging out, chatting and laughing and all that in the studio, and whenever I feel it, I just go in and start recording. It is great fun. As for Mahalakshmi, I didn’t even meet her. I went in and recorded and she was called much later and they did her parts.
Is that how it happens when you do a duet with somebody; you will be in the studio yourself and then later they come in?
Not always. I have sung songs with Sunidhi where she was right there while I was recording. It really doesn’t happen live. Recording like that rarely happens in the Hindi movie scene; usually they call one singer at a time. Sometimes they do call both the singers, but we don’t record together.
Is it hard to sing a song like that?
No, not at all. It doesn’t make a difference for me either way. In fact, it can be difficult when we are doing it together, because if one of us goes off or makes a mistake, even if the other one has done a good take, you have to do it again. In a way, it is better to do it separately.
Which star do you think your voice fits best?
Hmmm, my voice… I don’t know. I don’t really watch a lot of Hindi movies, so I don’t know (laughs). I guess Abhishek. I think Abhishek’s voice is pretty close to mine. I have sung this song for Imran Khan. I don’t know how his voice is; I have not heard him talk, but yeah, him. But, in Hindi movies they don’t really match the voices – they don’t really care about that. That is a good thing for me because otherwise I would have been out of work.
Have you enjoyed your work in the industry?
Very much so. I am learning things every day. I just love singing, and I am just very grateful that I get called to a recording. Just being with all of them – there is a lot of passion that you can really feel when you go for these recordings. The kind of involvement that is there with the sound engineer, and the music directors, and sometimes even the director of the movie, is there. They explain the scene to me and sometimes they narrate the entire script. It is great fun. I just love being part of that whole thing – the film industry. I have been lucky to be working with people who are mostly from the newer generation. We are all on the same wavelength, basically. I have not been much in contact with what you would call the “filmi” types of people. The kind of songs I am singing, that I am getting to sing, is the kind of stuff I have been influenced by – it is all rock influences. Vishal-Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, all these guys have those influences in their music. As people, we relate; we are somewhat from the same age group, same backgrounds. It is great fun.
It seems that over the past few years Hindi film music has gone to having more rock-influenced songs. Five, six years ago you might not have heard a rock guitar and a voice like yours. Do you find that to be true?
Yes, definitely. Actually Rahman has been doing it for a while, especially in the Tamil Industry. Over there they experiment a lot. He has done that even for some of the Hindi film songs. He is, I think, the first one to bring in the distortion guitar and things like that into Hindi films. I think what changed it was the movie Rock On!!, and the word rock became familiar to a lot of people who didn’t know what it was. That movie changed a lot of things; one of them was Farhan himself singing. He is not a singer like the playback singers, I mean his voice is pretty raw, you know, but it worked for the movie. That changed the mindset that existed here and the kind of lyrics that were written for the movies. That really opened the doors for experimentation and a lot of other people got opportunities. People like Amit Trivedi, who did Dev D and songs like ‘Emosanal Attyachaar’ and things like. I mean, you would never hear songs like this about five years back.
Even the song ‘Maula’ you sang for Hide & Seek, you would not have heard.
Yeah, exactly. I think ‘Zehreelay’, the track I sang for Rock On!!, was the first real rock song that was ever done for a Hindi movie. Like an out-and-out rock song. I don’t think there was any other song before that was that hard hitting. I was actually part of the composition of the song. I just made up the whole melody line and everything for that song – we just jammed and I sang whatever came to my mind and then Javed-saab wrote the lyrics later on. So, that melody, the singing part, is mine.
You worked on Rock On!! as an actor as well. What was that experience like?
That was pretty intimidating, actually. Getting that part was just a fluke thing that happened. I went to sing the song in the studio, we were doing the final recording, and these guys were clicking snaps from outside the vocal booth. That was a strange experience at least for me, it was the first time. So when I came out, the director Abhishek Kapoor asked me whether I would be willing to try out for the role. It was a strange coincidence that in the script, the guy had a tattoo on his neck and I have a tattoo on my neck, so that was one plus point. I thought all I had to do was just go sing that song on stage, just perform it, and I was fine with that. Later on I realized that there was actually a little bit of dialog and stuff like that. The performance bit of it was the easy part; the scenes where I am actually talking to them and wearing a suit were a little intimidating for me. I am not used to wearing a suit, being in an office; I have never worked in an office. But it was fun, the guys were great: Arjun, Farhan, Purab and Luke. I have known Luke and Purab a long time. They both used to work on this same TV channel. It was great, the whole experience!
You were nominated and won for your performance in ‘Give Me Some Sunshine'; tell us about recording the song.
Actually the recording of the song was done way, way back, even before the script of 3 Idiots was written. In fact, I heard from one of the press guys that Raju Hirani wanted to be inspired with a tune to write the script and he told Shantanu to come up with something, and this was the song he came up with. This is what I have heard; I don’t know whether it is true. So, apparently this song was written way back before the script was even finalized. When I went to sing it I had no idea what the movie was about; I had no clue at all. I just went there and it was just another recording for me. I went there, I did my thing and I enjoyed it. I just saw one box there with 3 Idiots written on it and I was wondering what that was. I didn’t even know the name of the movie at that point.
The strange thing is how I got this song. Two years before I had gone to record Sunshine, I had worked with Shantanu on an ad jingle. At that point, he told me, ‘I am going to use you for a film song one day’. He just said that, and he walked out of the studio. I remembered it, but I did not wait for it to happen; I was not waiting for his call or anything. He kept his word, and called me two years later. Later on when we were doing a radio interview he was telling them that he wrote this song keeping me in mind. I mean, he wanted only me to sing this song. He even went on to say that if for some reason my voice was not approved by the producers or whatever he would have changed the composition. I was blown away by that. Getting a song that great, and then him saying this, was icing on the cake for me.
Since it was recorded so much earlier, what did you think when you saw how it was used in the 3 Idiots?
Before I saw the movie, I did not realize that this song was so important. I mean this is THE song of the movie. This song talks more about the story than any other song in the film. I thought it was perfect the way it comes in the movie. In fact they play bits and parts of the song even right in the beginning of the movie and towards the end they also play a small part of it. I think it was perfect; the placement of the song in the film with the character singing it. That also created a very big impact for the song. People connected with the song in a big way before the movie released, but after they saw the movie it became even more. People are connecting with song even now. I think it was perfect.
Do you find that when the song is first out on the OST it does well, but once it is seen in the context of the movie is when it really explodes, and people love it even more?
Yes, it does. It happened with Rock On!!. When the music released it wasn’t really moving in the beginning. It wasn’t a hit at first before the movie released. Once the movie released, all those songs became instant hits and the music sold out. It does work. But, there have been times where the movie has flopped, but the songs have done well. There are movies that have recovered their costs because of the songs.
What do you think of Hindi movie music today?
I think right now it is at a very good stage because no longer are the few people ruling the scene. There is no monopoly of singers or music directors. That is a very good thing, because it is not just one or two voices that are being used. There is a lot of experimentation happening, so because of that a lot of new singers are getting a chance. Also a lot of new music directors are coming in straight and doing big movies, which wouldn’t have happened even five years back. I think we are at a very good stage right now. I mean a singer like me getting to sing in Hindi movies itself is a big thing.
Tell us about your work outside the movie industry.
I have a band called Dream out Loud. I have written a lot of songs with this friend of mine, Chandresh. At present I am not doing anything because ‘Give Me Some Sunshine’ has taken off in such a way that I am doing a lot of shows on my own, a lot of solo shows because that is what people want right now. The writing part of it has taken a back seat to it for the moment, but I am going to get back because that’s where my heart lies. I just love writing and composing songs. I am going to be doing that, but I am just not getting enough time now. There are a lot of recordings happening, it is just pouring right now, so I am just riding it as long as it lasts. I don’t know how long this is going to last.
What to you makes a good song – a song you like to sing and audiences like to hear?
Oh God, I don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t know if anyone knows the answer, because if they knew the answer to that one then every song would be a hit. There is no saying how people connect to songs. I mean even ‘Give Me Some Sunshine'; I never expected that song to be such a big hit. You know, a song like that becoming such a huge hit was very unexpected. I don’t think anyone expected it to be, except Aamir Khan, of course. He is the one that kept saying that this song is going to be a hit, and he is the only one who believed in that song way before the movie released. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to say how people connect to certain songs. I mean, I have been trying to figure that out: how to connect to people. I don’t know. I have no clue.
What are you working on now?
Disney is doing a Hindi movie called Zokkomon and I have sung one song for that. I don’t know when it is going to release. Then there is another song for a movie called Patiala House that I think is being shot; I am not sure whether it has been finished or not. I have sung a song for this remake they are doing of Stepmom. So, there are songs coming out this year, and I think this is a good year for me.
Where do you see yourself in the future with music in Hindi films and on your own?
This is something I used to dream about about 10 years back. I used to think, this is where I want to be, this is how I hope things will happen… things like that. The way things happen is not the way I imagine it. Somehow I get what I want, but it does not work out the way I think it would. It takes a different route but somehow I get were I wanted to be, but it is never the route I was planning to take! So, I have no idea! At present I am not even planning right now. I am just taking whatever comes and just going with it. That is why I said I am just riding this wave; I don’t know how long it is going to last. I am just happy at this point and time that things are happening for me because it is so unpredictable. I mean tomorrow I might be out…it is like that.
I hope the wave continues for many, many, many songs to come! I love the flavor his voice brings to the songs. In fact, while I was writing this, lyrics from his songs were going through my head. We can’t wait to hear the music he creates with his voice next and to add it to our favorite songs play-list. Na Na Na Na Na…Give me some sunshine…