Tales from across the border

September 18, 2016

Shilpa Rao talks about Bollywood, Noori and the changing landscape of the Indian music industry

Tales from across the border

As glamorous as Bollywood appears from a distance, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and Shilpa Rao helps us demystify that world of fantasy by making it more real for us as she talks about Bollywood in detail, sharing the highs and lows of an industry that is home to some of the best musicians in the world.

Born in India, Rao is the melodic voice behind songs like ‘Khuda Jaane’ from Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), ‘Mudi Mudi Ittefaq Se’ from Paa (2009), ‘Ishq Shava’ from Jab Tak Hai Jaan, in which she teamed up with AR Rahman and ‘Malang’ from Dhoom 3 (2013) amongst other songs that brought her recognition along with numerous Filmfare nominations over the years. Rao made her Coke Studio Pakistan debut with the song ‘Par Chanaa De’ with Noori in Episode 4 of the current season. And it was a smashing hit. The collaboration proved successful as the song has reached nearly two million views on social media and has largely received positive reviews from both sides of the border.

"I am a huge fan of their music," Rao spoke to Instep in what was initially supposed to be a Skype interview and ended up as a Whatsapp call instead. The fact that she’s a Noori fan was one of the reasons behind the much talked about collaboration on the song they performed together. "We met at a friend’s place by chance. At some point, everyone was singing there, so I sang too. Noor and Hamza weren’t familiar with my work then, but when they heard me sing, they told me ‘you have to come to Pakistan.’" Naturally, Rao was also very keen to work with the brothers and thus she ended up in Lahore, her first visit to Pakistan.

It turns out that India is just as obsessed with Coke Studio Pakistan and all of our musicians as Pakistan is with Bollywood. Speaking of comparisons drawn between Coke Studio in Pakistan and India, where people mostly agree that Pakistan’s version of the show is far superior, Rao clarified, "In India, Coke Studio is one of many things happening. In Pakistan, it is the biggest musical occurrence of the year. All the best names of the industry are dedicated to it, everyone looks forward to the show."

Back home in India, having four Filmfare nominations and hits like ‘Khuda Jaane’ to her name, Rao is deeply involved with Bollywood as she continues to release at least one major song a year.

"People ask me for tips all the time. They ask me ‘How does one sing like a Bollywood singer?’ I honestly don’t know what to tell them. I don’t know what the formula is," she says, adding that it’s very important to have a distinct style to stand out and be memorable. "It’s a lot of hard work. Firstly, you have to stay relevant and be updated with what’s happening around the world." She eventually ends up giving tips, stating that it’s also very important to "keep your voice in shape" by constantly training and practicing.

But Bollywood has been very kind to Rao, as she has had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest names in the industry. She briefly explains the process of making music for a Bollywood movie. "Producers and singers are usually in sync with each other so there isn’t much of a difference in their visions. Thankfully the producers are very open to suggestions by artists because they also realize that it’s the voice of the artist that becomes the sound of the song." Therefore, artists are able to add to the sound design of the music. She speaks of her experience with Pritam Chakraborty and Vishal-Shekhar, two names in Bollywood who have delivered some of the biggest hits. "Pritam and Vishal are both so much fun to work with. Pritam will chat and talk to you first about the song and ask for your input. He gives you space to figure out how you want the sound to be. Vishal is also very open to new sound."

While Rao may believe that the voice overpowers other elements of the song, in Bollywood it is indeed the image of Kareena Kapoor or Deepika Padukone dancing to the beat that stays in the minds of the audience. A playback singer is behind the scenes in such a scenario where people think of ‘Sheila Ki Jawani,’ they will recall Katrina Kaif’s dance moves and not Sunidhi Chuahan, the voice behind the song.

But all this doesn’t bother Rao. "Nobody is taking anybody’s credit. It’s not like that here. Everyone is just doing their job."

The pace may be picking up for Bollywood with the passing of every year but it seems that all is not the same for the Indian pop music industry. Things have changed drastically from the ‘90s where pop singers had their own identities and would release independent music, outside of Bollywood, and also have fans across the border. Rao believes the industry went into a decline when the music formats changed.

"When music went to the digital format, the record labels did not know how to deal with this as much of their revenue came from CD sales, and  all that diminished with the mp3."

She added that labels started picking up Bollywood film music and investing in that instead, to be safe. "Investment in artists just wasn’t the same then. I guess there was a lot of difficulty is making sales." That is when the pop music scene became largely independent, with exceptions such as Indian Ocean, a well known band in India that managed to ride out the storm.

"Change is happening. It’s a much better time for independent music in India. Now, musicians are making their own music videos and concerts have started happening again. The pop industry will be back on its feet soon," Rao ends the discussion on a hopeful note.

"At the end of the day, we are all the same," Rao concludes with an observation she made after working together. "In my trip to Lahore, I couldn’t help but notice that there isn’t much difference between us. Pakistanis are also amazing with their hospitality; I felt so welcome!"

Tales from across the border