“If I wasn’t a singer I would be useless!” – Mahalakshmi Iyer

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Her magnificent voice has been heard on over 40 Bollywood soundtracks that include some of the best songs in Bollywood, such as ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ (Don-The Chase Begins Again), ‘Chup Chup Ke’ (Bunty Aur Babli), ‘Bol Na Halke Halke’ (Jhoom Barabar Jhoom), ‘Des Ranglia’ (Faana), ‘Marmari Baahen’ (Maan Gaye Mughal E Azam) and ‘Jo Gumshuda’ (Mission Istanbul). Mahalakshmi Iyer is one of THE stars of the playback-singing world, and has performed with, and for, some of the biggest names in the industry. Her voice has been heard on songs by AR Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Anu Mallik, Himesh Reshammiya, Mm Kreem, Vishal Shekhar, Anand Raaj Anand, and Pritam, just to mention a few. Her voice is superb, not only for its range but for the wonderful quality she brings to each performance. Recently, I got the incredible opportunity to speak with her on the phone about everything gaane!

Was singing something you always wanted to do?

Yes, as long as I can remember since childhood, since my whole family was into music. My mother, my late mother, was a wonderful classical singer, and I am the last of four daughters, and all of us used to sing since childhood. So it was kind of ingrained in me that music would be a part of my life. Much later I decided to take it up professionally as well.

What was your first song that you sang?

I had recorded a song called ‘Hindustani’ for a film called Dus, which was Mukul Anand’s film. And I also recorded a small little part from the song called ‘Aye Ajnabi’ for the Dil Se, for A R Rahman. In the same week, so it was sort of a double debut. Unfortunately, the film Dus didn’t release because Mukul passed away during the making of the film, and though the songs were recorded the film was incomplete. We later released all songs as a tribute to Mukul. There was also a video that was shot of the song ‘Hindustani’ which happened to be one of his favourite songs. So technically, my first debut to be released was Dil Se.

When you go into a studio to record a song for a movie what sort of brief do they give you? Do they tell you what the scene is or do they give you the script, etc. – what sort of details are given to you?

Well we, as singers, mainly playback singers, never get to know beforehand what the film is and what the song is. Only when you reach the recording studio do you hear the song; they play the song on the harmonium or the keyboard or whatever and they give you the lyrics, and they also give you a brief background of the song. If it’s a romantic song than there is nothing really to explain – it’s a die hard romantic song so you have to put in all your passion in singing it. But if there is something attached to it, for example, if the director is around and if he says there is a particular reason, if this song comes in a particular place and it is romantic but also has a little bit of an emotional undertone, then they do explain the various aspects of it. And we take it from there!

What moment in your career do you think catapulted you to the top?

I definitely think the song ‘Chup Chup Ke’ from Bunty aur Babli . That song I think really became very, very popular. Also in India, if the film is a hit, then everything associated with the film finds a lot of mileage. So I think Bunty aur Babli was a huge blockbuster – all the songs in the movie did very well and this song was probably the only romantic song in the album and it really catapulted me. But I’d like to mention that the first song that got me acclaim and that got me noticed really was ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’ from Sur . That song I would say was a feather in my cap because it really got me noticed, and people were talking about it all the time. Though the film didn’t do well but the songs again did very well. It got a lot of airplay, etc. People from smaller towns and even abroad, people who had heard the song on the radio, whenever I would travel would keep on requesting for it so much so that I got nominated for the song in all the award functions that particular year. (Bollywood Movie Awards for Best Upcoming Female Singer). I think it was 2002/2003 if I am not mistaken. So yes that would be the song that got me noticed. But definitely ‘catapulted’ to use the word would be ‘Chup Chup Ke’ from Bunty aur Babli .

Of all the songs you have sung, which has been the most challenging?

Definitely ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’. Definitely, because it came very early in my career and as I said before, it was one of the kind of songs that usually does not get offered to a newcomer. It requires someone with a lot of expertise to perform that kind of a song. One would only imagine a Lata-ji or even a Asha-ji to do that kind of a song. I was very pleasantly surprised, and also a little, I would say, apprehensive, how I would be able to pull off the song, as it was very high pitched and it had a lot of work even in the interludes and prelude, etc. The whole song had a lot of voice in it, so that was definitely challenging. And more recently I would say ‘Bol Na Halke Halke’ from Jhoom Barbar Jhoom was a little bit challenging, because I had to match up to Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. While I was doing the song, Shankar [Mahadevan] told me that Rahet-ji would be performing the song with me, and I was excited and definitely a little nervous.

What’s the worst song do you think you have ever sung?

Worst? (Laughs) Ummm…no not really. I am not trying to be proper or anything, I just don’t think I have really sung bad songs. I would just like to say that I have been disappointed some times that I have not been given songs that I feel I could have done something more with. Sometimes I have just done songs where I have just had three or four lines, and I just come and go, and I just feel that I didn’t get the chance to prove my potential in the song.

What do you think is your best song, is it the most challenging song?

Yes, my best song is ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’.

Who is your favourite person to sing with?

As a co-singer…hmm…no favourites because I have sung a lot with Sonu Nigam, I have enjoyed every song that I have done with him. I have sung with Rahat-ji. I have sung a lot with Shaan, Kay Kay and with Shankar. I have pretty much sung with all leading male playback singers and even with upcoming ones like Javed Ali, etc., but I would definitely like to say that I enjoy singing with Shankar a lot because I considered him like a guru also. I have learned a lot from Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy and especially from Shankar because he is, I believe, a divinely gifted singer. So, I definitely would think that when I am singing in the studio under his baton I definitely feel that, as a singer, I am able to give a little more than I probably would have done. And another person, even though I have not sung with Mr. Rahman, but singing under his baton is also very, very challenging and very inspiring because I think Rahman-ji is one of the most spontaneous music directors of all time. I mean, I have worked with some of the erstwhile music composers like Laxmikant-Pyarelal-ji from the yesteryears and right up to composers such as Pritam. But I feel Rahman-ji is the most spontaneous of them all. He just gives so much space and freedom to the singer to his or her own thing. And he does not believe in sayings such as “This is my song, this is how I have composed it and you cannot deviate”. No, he has no preconceived notions about any song of his and I love that a lot as a singer. I love it when a composer says to just take the song and make it your own. In other words they give you the freedom to be who you are completely.

Of your colleagues, which female singer’s voice do you like the most?

I personally think that Sunidhi Chauhan is really doing some incredible work. I think she is wonderfully talented and she has explored all the facets of playback singing, and has really done it very beautifully. She has done romantic as well as fun, and every kind of song, and she has great finesse. She executes each and every song with 99% to 100% perfection. I also like a lot of Shreya Ghosal’s songs. I personally feel she is a very cultured playback singer. Her voice culture is very beautiful and she’s done some amazing songs. I also like a lot of Alisha Chinoy’s songs, and a lot of other singers, however at the moment I would rate Sunidhi Chauhan a little higher than everyone else.

What is your favourite genre of music to listen to and to sing?

As a playback singer, I like to sing and listen to all genres. I listen to a lot of pop, rock, jazz, and fusion. I listen to a lot of ghazals. I have always loved ghazals since childhood. And, of course, film music. And any alternative kind of music I listen to a lot. As a playback singer, I like to dip my foot into everything. And I think I have also done that. I have sung ‘Aaj Ki Raat’, which had a very peppy up-tempo. I have done songs like ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’ and a lot of romantic songs too, which I think is my forte. And also the adventurous songs like ‘Husn Bhi Ishq Bhi’ from Charas and ‘Jhoom Barbar Jhoom’, which was a little different texture. So as a playback singer I’d like to try everything. And I listen to a lot of music, but personally speaking, I love to listen to ghazals a lot because I feel it is a very complete form of music. It has beautiful music, great poetry, and requires fantastic skills. I mean I am a huge fan of Ustaad Ghulam Ali Saab and Hassan-ji, so I am slightly partial to ghazals.

What do you think of the quality of Hindi film music today?

I think it is really, really, really improving. There was a time, in between, during the mid 80s up till early 90s, where I’d say music suffered a bit because there was too much accent on the peppy and the disco and that kind of music. The soul was missing somewhere. So I am very happy currently. When Rahman came and the new lot of music directors we have now, they have not only come in with some very fresh sounding music – very fresh tunes – but they all have kind of revolutionized the sound aspect of it. So you have great albums, great products. The sound design especially is a concept that has just come in the last ten years, and I would say that has worked in favour of Bollywood music reaching international standards.

What is your favourite album?

That is going to be tough. (Laughs). That is really, really tough. I’d like to pick 2 or 3 albums. I would definitely pick Rock On!! right now. I love it and it’s trendy and hip. I also love Omkara a lot, it was fabulous, it had great music. There are a lot of albums out there – this is difficult! I think Taare Zameen Par was also beautiful. It came at time where fun music peppy music was going on and suddenly here was an album that had all these soft melodies and it worked very well.

If you were not a singer what job would you like to do?

I’d be useless. (Laughs) I am so unqualified for anything. I am asked this question often and I really wouldn’t know what to do. I was very keen about sports in school and college, but my figure and height doesn’t really permit me to be a sportswoman of any kind. So I don’t know. God forbid. Thank God I am a musician. This is what I love. This is what I have done my entire life. So, I really really don’t know. But maybe I would have been a teacher because I would be a music teacher or in a school but thank God!

Have you ever written or composed any songs?

Yes, great question. In fact, recently I was part of a television show called Mission Ustaad. The concept of the show was about UN and its millennium development goals, which we are to achieve by 2011. And there were themes based on that, which was about maternal welfare, children welfare, about nature, and lots of things – they had about 12 or 13 themes. We were four pairs. My partner was Kailash Kher and we were given these themes and asked to come up with original tunes based on these themes. We had to write and compose and record these songs. All four teams were given the same theme, and the judgment was which song worked out the best for which team. On the panel of judges were A R Rahman, Lara Dutta and Javed Akhtar. I am very proud to say that was the first time I tried my hand at composing and I composed two songs and both won a place in the album. When I say album, I mean all 11 themes, whoever won, were part of the compilation. I won two themes, one was called ‘Roshini’ which was the light of education, and one was ‘Socho Zara’ which was think of a better tomorrow. I am very happy and feel very proud that I managed to do that because I was very nervous; because it was something I had not done before and to be judged by you know who…I am very happy.

What do you think about all the reality TV shows for singers these days?

My take on it is two things. One is I definitely support reality television music/singing shows, or any show for that matter, which brings up new talent. Because I feel earlier when we started out singing, people would come from smaller towns, smaller cities. They would come in search of work in Mumbai and find it difficult. Because in this industry the mentality is such that the more established, the better. They try to play it safe with whatever works. And not all the time does a new artist get an opportunity. That’s why now we see a lot lot more newer singers. Thanks to reality television, the music producers, directors, production house, etc., have a chance to look at and hear new voices and judge them on the basis right away. They get a lot more opportunities now. So in that respect, I feel that reality television is welcome, because it has thrown up a lot of wonderful talent that would otherwise not be known. But the flip side to that is that the concept of reality singing shows is getting weirder. I don’t support such shows any longer because I feel that the deserving ones don’t win. I also feel the whole system is flawed, and it’s more about emotions than talent. It is all about ‘oh, my child’ or ‘the child from our region’, etc., rather than placing emphasis on talent. In other words, the voting procedure is not adequate. I think if we have a qualified panel of judges why entrust the job to someone else.

How was your experience on Jo Jeet Wohi Sikander earlier this year when you sang with all the contestants?

That was great fun because they were singing stars from various reality singing shows, which they had won. So they were best of the lot and they were very good, all of them. It was great fun to sing with them because all had proved their potential. It was wonderful and really nice. And I feel the final 8, all of them, have great potential to make it in the world of music as Bollywood singers or singers, whatever they choose.

When a song becomes a hit, the actors get most of the attention while people often forget that it is the singer behind the magic. Do you ever feel playback singers don’t get due credit in the films?

Yes, I do feel that sometimes when a song is a hit, and if article is written about the song its says ‘so and so actress in this song was sounding or looking so good’ or whatever, but there is hardly a mention of the singer. For example, Sunidhi Chuahan was the hero of the ‘Beedi’ song from Omkara. For me personally, I think she was the hero and heroine and everything in that song and until this day, even though she has gotten due recognition for the song, I feel people still talk about the actress, etc., more. I think that’s a little unfair. However, fortunately, radio has made a lot of difference in our lives. Earlier on when a song would release, if the film did well, the song would have a little life; if it didn’t the song would be obscure. It would just be gone. But now with radio – radio is so huge outside India. Whenever I travel outside I get requests for songs I can’t remember singing. I had people tell me that that a particular song is number one out here. There was a film called Rishtey in which I had sung a song with Shaan, which didn’t even run for two days, but apparently this song was on the countdown for 25 weeks I believe, in the number one position in Holland and Suriname. So when I went there, they said you have to perform this song, you just can’t not, and I said I couldn’t remember the song for the life of me! They said, “But ma’am you just don’t know – ever since we have been promoting the show, we have only been promoting this song, as Mahalakshmi Iyer singer of…”. And my reaction was ‘wow’. So then I bought the CD there, heard the song, gave it to my musicians and did it almost impromptu, I would say. So I think radio has really turned it in our favour, and in India also, because there is a lot of radio channels right now and when they play our songs most of the time they announce our names. They don’t say things like ‘Bipasha Basu of this film’, no, they say OUR name. That’s huge. Things are slowly changing and singers are getting their due recognition. And also with reality television shows and with a lot of music based shows and with videos and albums, etc., I think we are definitely making our mark!

Would you ever be tempted to go in front of the camera or strictly singing for you?

Nope. Nope, Na na na. I just don’t have the face or figure. I would not be able to stand in front of the camera and emote like they do. I think it’s a very tough job. I really doff my hat to all those people. It’s very hard work, I know, because I have done the reality television show now and to sit in the studio under the arc light for about 8 to 9 hours – it’s a very tough job, and I really think it’s not my cup of tea. I’d like to do a small role in a film, which perhaps pertains to me as a musician or a singer or something like that. But definitely not a full-fledged movie that required me to shoot for 30 days a month, I don’t even imagine that.

Do you have any regrets so far in the industry?

Small ones. Though I have done very, very good songs, and I have been appreciated a lot, and people know my calibre and recognize my talent, I still feel I haven’t been give meaty songs. I have not yet gotten very many opportunities. I would say I have 7 or 8 songs which I can rattle off, and people can say ‘ah, yes, lovely’, but I am still looking for more songs that I can just go in and sing my heart out. So qualitatively I am looking for a little more. I have never been a quantity-based person. I don’t believe in singing 6 songs in film or 3 or 4 songs. I don’t believe in numbers. I believe that out of the 10 songs I do in a month, if I sing 6 good songs and give it my best and come out feeling good I will be a happy person.

For you, what is the greatest thrill about singing?

First of all – I am really, really saying this from the bottom of my heart – I really consider myself very fortunate to have being bestowed with this talent. I think music in itself is a divine gift, and to be a singer, even more. I believe you make the direct connection with the Almighty. We have heard this, but I definitely feel that whenever I am in a studio or singing a song, whatever kind of song it is, I feel there is some connection. You know like with an instrument, when you play it you know where to hold your finger or where your hand has to go or how it has to move, but with singing it’s just your throat. You can’t tap anything or touch anything – it all has to come out. So I feel that’s a gift, and I am really fortunate to be amongst those who have this gift. I always say that when I am singing if I can manage to get an ‘ah’ from someone it makes my day.

What’s coming up next for you?

Mainly Bollywood right now. I am doing a lot of Bollywood films. EMI is just releasing. I don’t have much. But I have also sung a song in Yuvraaj and hopefully it is there in the final version of the film. I have also sung in Luck by Chance and I am singing in quite a lot of Bollywood films. I have just sung in A Wednesday, it doesn’t appear in the film – it’s in the soundtrack. Lot of films. There was Mission Istanbul; there was Maan Gaye Mughal E Azam. Forthcoming would definitely be EMI, Yuvraaj, Luck By Chance and quite a lot of Bollywood films, names I cannot recall.

Any messages for your fans out there and especially at BollySpice?

I’d like to thank all my fans for writing to me. I keep reading sometimes on the Internet or wherever that they appreciate my songs and they are really nice. I can’t answer to all of them personally, but I’d like to thank all my fans for their appreciation, and I’d like to ask them to write and tell me what I can improve on. I’d love to be a disciple and learner all my life. So I would like to thank all of them. I’d also like to implore them to listen to a lot of good music so we can keep producing that.

It was a wonderful experience interviewing Ms. Iyer, and we would like to thank her for taking the time to give us such fabulous answers. She is truly one of our favorite singers and we can’t wait to hear even more of her incredible voice. We wish her all the best, and hope one day soon we will hear her on a song that she feels gives in to her full range of voice and talent.

Keep checking back at Bollyspice for more exciting interviews!

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