Thursday August 15, 2013

The curious case of a singer-as-a-hero in Indian films

Posted by Karthik

Last week, as I was lazing in Coimbatore on a short holiday, I watched an old Ilayaraja song on Jaya Max, one of those channels that nobody seems to be watching.

It was ‘Sangeetha megham‘ from Udhaya Geetham, starring ‘Mike’ Mohan as a singer, like he has been, for most of his films. Mind-bogglingly beautiful song, by the way.

Now, we have seen ‘singers’ as heroes in Tamil and Hindi films (and I’m sure many other languages too, like Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada etc.). Rishi Kapoor was one, in Deewana and so was Amitabh in Yaarana, Rishi Kapoor in Karz, Rajesh Khanna in Anurodh or even Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan in Abhimaan… to name a few. I can’t list them all, but I’m sure you get the drift – almost every hero (and many heroines too!) in any language worth his name has played a ‘singer’ on screen.


So, here is the question – can you name one non-film singer who was mobbed for autograph and who had a full house for songs that he sings for the first time on stage?

I mean, where did the inspiration for this singing career come from? We had standalone (that is, non-film) singers in non-light music categories – ghazals, classical music etc. but the kind shown on screen was akin to film songs – light music that did not fit into classical or ghazal or even folk music scenario. Add to it, most of this ‘singer-as-hero’ films were in a period when mass media reach was rather limited – there was no TV (which arrived in 80s), radio was more powerful and was playing film songs and classical music, primarily, besides folk, leaving no space for light music. I’m not entirely sure about stage shows where non-film light music was sung/performed – from what I could recall, stage shows were more about recreating film songs with an orchestra.

Back then, films was THE media to reach people with either music or dance. The independent (that is, independent of movies) music/dance scene arrived much later in the 80s when we started aping the West from their pop/rock scene.

But still, you saw some of these on-screen singers’ music take the form of a record and being available in stores, which the film’s heroine eyes excitedly!

There were very few films that actually showed the actor playing the singer to be a playback singer (in films) – like Rahman’s role in K.Balachandar’s Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal, where he is seen singing for music directors, in a studio and hence is popular as a playback singer. This is a most feasible possibility in India – film playback singers in India are revered more than music composers, much to my personal annoyance.

Would it be wrong to assume (and claim) that India never had a non-film singing career/option till the late 80s pop scene happened? This too happened as an offshoot of the pop music career from the West (and outside India) is another assumption.

Am I missing something here? Have you heard a non-film, non-classical light music singer clocking full house in an auditorium in India? And people enjoying/appreciating his/her new songs when they hear it for the first time while he is singing on stage?



  • Sharanya Mohan Bala

    I get what what you are saying. But I have heard my uncles and aunts in my extended family who can recognize regular light music orchestra singers like Malathy for Laxman Sruthi for instance (prior to her film career that is). But would doubt their popularity to the extent of seeking an autograph though. Also might not be the ones who become ‘wanted’ immediately after their first performance. It was more like familiarity or name recall.

    • milliblog

      I did have Laxman Shruti in mind while writing this. Just that they are known for recreating popular film songs – lack of original content (like Western pop singers). Two, how would Indians react to a new song being sung for the first time on stage… is something I’ve always wondered. Our (Indian) consumption of new music seems always through either films or CD/tape… or at best radio.

      Musicians like Raghu Dixit are changing this a bit, though.

      • Sharanya Mohan Bala

        I get the point now. So, it was about debut non-film performances (stage) by non-film singers. Interesting. You got me curious.

  • shaanse00

    In last couple of years, the duo of sandeep khare (poet & singer) and salil kulkarni (md & singer) have been performing live their songs, released on des as well as fresh unreleased songs directly on stage..and both these songs are receiving applause.. I am not fond of the music, which is simple..but definitely credit to them to revive the bhaavgeet (non film music) tradition of Marathi music scene. Their shows run to packed auditoriums.

    • milliblog

      The last line – their shows running to packed auditoriums – sounds wonderful to me! As others have commented on this thread on Twitter, Punjab and Bengal seem like two states where non-film music has traditionally trumped film music and they sell more tickets to offline events than film songs.

      Just that… I still haven’t pinned the reason why Hindi films had heroes who had a stage-singing career (successful one, at that) even back in 50s and 60s when this was not a national phenomenon (but was, internationally). I guess directors and script writers just had the Beatles and other rock/pop groups in mind when creating these characters!

  • Kaarthik Arul

    Interesting! Similar thought came to my mind while watching the original version of enakkoru magan piRappAn in Malayalam Aadyathe Kanmani

    Ramki is an orchestra singer who sings in Weddings. In a wedding when the female singer was not available Khusboo sings a non-film song. But this doesn’t happen in reality. (If I’m not wrong the song is jam jam jam poomanjam composed by Karthik Raja and sung by Bhavatharini)

    But in Malayalam, the hero and the heroine sing the evergreen song akalE akalE neelAkAsham. I realized how Malayalam films are close to reality. But instead of the original voices of Yesudass and Janaki, if they had used some other singers, it would have been much better and more real.

    Not only singers, even if a film has a competition scene, the actors sing non-film songs. But in Balaji Sakthivel’s Kalloori Tamanna sings ‘un pArvaiyil OrAyiram’ (not sure whethere it’s competition) which was lovely!

    K.Balachander has shown many of his characters as singers, As you have mentioned, Rahman was shown as a playback singer in pudhu pudhu arthangaL, but in Duet, Prabhu & Ramesh Arvind perform non-film songs on stage. JKB sings popular Carnatic Krithis on stage in Sindhu Bhairavi (except kalaivANiyE which also has a justified reason) but Bhairavi of Aboorva rAgangaL doesn’t. Even in unnAl mudiyum thambi, udhayamoorthy changes the lyrics of a krithi and sings mAnida sEvai dhrOgamA. Chellamma of Kalki, the women troupe of kalyANa agadhigaL also sing non-film light music.


    • milliblog

      Good points and observations. I don’t recall Duet that well (been ages since I saw it), but I don’t recall seeing a scene in Duet that has Nanjil Brothers performing on stage with a song – whatever we saw was montages, if I recall right. Even Anjali Anjali was someone’s party (Prakash Raj’s?) if I recall right. In such situations where the audience has not come to watch the song/performance (primary objective being to attend the party/socialize, could even be a wedding – like your Ramki example), singing a new song somehow makes sense to me.

      It’s almost like a great excuse to sing a new song since the audience there is present for a different reason. But in case of a stage show/auditorium, the show is usually (in films) advertised (like Mohan’s show in Udhaya Geetham) with the non-film singer in the lead. Imagine a show being advertised for AV Ramanan where it says he’ll regale audiences with his original songs and not recreations of film songs. That was my point anyway.

      Good observation on Kalloori.

      In Sindhu Bhairavi and Unnaal Mudiyum Thambi, I’m guessing KB was using the characters to express a point of view with their original songs, where the tune was carnatic in nature (thereby adhering to raga expectations of the audience), but the lyrics were modern and took a stand (example: Paadariyen and Maanida sevai). That is a very competent middle-path/compromise (brilliant nuance by KB) I felt.

      • kashyap kothakothaga

        please review manasunu maaya seyakey by manikanth kadri.seems interesting…

      • kashyap kothakothaga

        please review manasunu maya seyakey by manikanth kadri

  • Lego2317

    Ha! Wonderfully captured! 🙂
    My opinion is that the entire singer profession back in the 80s movies was somewhat aspirational for the aam junta!
    Before the wave of singing reality shows hit us weren’t stage singing and dance performances was the biggest public expression of art?
    I’m guessing some of it was driven by the Mike Mohan and pop era or maybe the other way around!
    And not that you mention, I can see how all the 80s heroes, especially in Tamil, tried to visit the glamorous on-stage singer role at some stage in their careers. 🙂

    And to this day, the violins in the second interlude of Sangeetha Megham give me severe goosebumps!

  • santhoshr

    Agree, the mindset of Indian directors is all about some timepass filmy story, heroes profession is more like expensive suit, he just wears it and he is popular. Mostly they are poorly researched and don’t impact the story as well!

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