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The playback singer was once a superstar of the Hindi film industry. Now, she is someone whose name you are unlikely to remember, a voice to be polished in post-production. How technology and a new idiom of filmmaking has transformed an icon of popular culture.
The room fills with a rich melody, the strains of Bhairav and Abhiri melding in a woman’s voice that has the unmistakable stamp of yesteryear. Sneha Pant, who came to Mumbai 15 years ago from Delhi, had everything that a classic playback singer needed. Years of training from the gurus of Kirana gharana, a patli aawaaz that could scale the lows and highs of three octaves, making veteran composers like Kalyanji-Anandji nod in approval, and the feat of winning a popular reality show (in 1998, she had defeated another girl with a honeyed voice, Shreya Ghoshal, to win Sa Re Ga Ma Pa).
For the years she has spent in studios and recording rooms, Pant has one song to show, which she sings for us — Aye dil dil ki duniya mein from Subhash Ghai’s 2001 film Yaadein. Anu Malik, the composer for the film, remembers her as a “brilliant singer who sounded perfect for that song.” But, as Hindi film music has opened itself to newer voices and unconventional timbres and textures, singers like Pant, identified with an older tradition of playback singing, have found it difficult to make a mark.
“Playback singers were, at one time, the superstars of the industry. Songs were tailormade for them. Their names were a prominent part of a film’s credits, sometimes even the posters. Today, I don’t know who is singing for whom,” says Pyarelal Sharma, who with Laxmikant Kudalkar, composed music for three decades from the 1960s.
If Hindi films are the opiate to India’s masses, the soundtrack to their lives was its music. The audience formed an emotional connection with the singers: you were either a Rafi believer or a Kishore Kumar acolyte, and who did not fall into worshipful silence while listening to Lata Mangeshkar? Even before her, Suraiya, famous for songs like Tu mera chand, main teri chandni (Dillagi, 1949) and Dil-e-nadaan in Mirza Ghalib (1954), had fans queuing up outside her house on Marine Drive every day. It was because of her popularity and the value she commanded in the industry that Mangeshkar could take on leading filmmakers over the issue of royalty payments. Grounded