It’s never a good idea to meet a tired artist eagerly waiting to grab his afternoon nap. But my 4 pm interview appointment with Kumar Sanu has precisely made sure of that very thing! Yes, on that day Sanu has been up from 6 am; he has travelled sizeable distance to-and-fro and has already given a couple of radio- interviews. He looks tired and haggard.
At the time of my entry into his room, he is busy discussing the final preparations for his show Xpress Money Prriceless Moments, which is scheduled to be held at the famous Sharjah Cricket Stadium the next day. For a while I have to sit through those chaotic last-minute discussions about the venue, stage, mikes, musicians and other arrangements. As Sanu keeps reminding the organizer about the need to ensure hot tea for everyone in the rehearsal, I jog my memory about what I want to ask him.
I remember his heyday innings in the 90s, when he was practically the master of all he surveyed. Then he was literally the king of Bollywood playback singing, with super-hit songs like Ab Tere Bin, Dil Hai Ki Maantaa Nahee, Meraa Dil Bhee Kitnaa Paagal Hai, Kuchh Naa Kaho, Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen, Jab Koi Baat Bigad Jaaye and Do Dil Mil Rahe Hain. His presence was then considered a guarantee for the soundtrack’s success. Forget composers; even the producers and actors then made a beeline to seek his audience. But then came the decline and fall, which was rather unexplainable, even by Bollywood standards of vagaries. What could have gone wrong?
My chain of thoughts is broken as the other people disperse and I get a chance to sit next to Sanu on a sofa. His already bored look carries the typical ‘Oh, yet another interview!’- expression.
I start off with a basic question: “How did you develop the urge for singing?” With a ‘Not again’-expression on his face, Sanu begins: “I came from a musical family where practically everyone used to sing. I feel an artist is born and I always felt I could sing well. For a brief time, my father tried to teach me the basics of music but mostly I learnt by listening to film-songs. From 1979, I started singing in the shows.”
“You have modeled your style on Kishore Kumar. Why did you decide to emulate Kishore?” While answering my question, Sanu still is in his pit-pat rote mode of answering. He says: “I used to listen to everyone’s songs- be it Rafi-saab, Mukesh, Talat or Hemant Kumar. But I always felt that Kishoreda’s songs had so much more energy and expression. I was attracted by that style and started to emulate it. I was further encouraged when people started saying that my voice resembled Kishoreda a lot.”
“Were there any particular songs of Kishoreda that influenced you in that phase?” With this question, he wakes up from his slumber. “Oh yes, you could say that. I especially liked his sad songs. Songs like Dukhi Man Mere, Koi Humdum Na Raha, Koi Lauta De Mere Beete Huye Din and Jab Dard Naheen Thaa Seene Mein influenced me a lot.”
‘Did you ever get to meet Kishoreda?’ He ruefully shakes his head and says: “No- unfortunately never!”
Struggle-Chance- Break- Hit
Then I ask him about his struggle-phase. His answer is thoughtful and interesting. “I started off by singing in the hotels of Kolkata. Then I decided to move to Mumbai as I wanted to try my luck in playback singing. There too I started singing in the hotels. As I was earning well there, the money was not a problem. I had prepared a dummy CD and with that I used to roam around in taxis meeting various music-directors. But I don’t really look at that phase as a struggle. My struggle was different. Back then, I would repeatedly listen to Kishoreda’s songs. I always kept trying to analyze why particular notes or particular portions in songs become so heart-rending. I always kept trying to identify such key phrases in each song. I think that was my real struggle and even now it has been going on. Even now, while singing any tune, I always pick up such key-notes, which serve as my ‘hammer’!”
So how did he get his first chance? “I was given my first chance to sing a film-song by Jagjit Singh. With lyrics like ‘Karke sagaai, ab karne chale ladaai’, it was a song of an army-soldier in a film called Aandhiyaan. It was a film featuring Shatrughan Sinha and Smita Patil. Unfortunately it never got released. But Jagjitji was so impressed with my singing that he himself took me to Kalyanji- Anandji, who were then looking for some singer for their stage-shows.”
“Then Jaadugar happened. Kishoreda had passed away and Kalyanji-Anandji were looking for a suitable replacement to sing songs for Amitabh Bachchan. Actually then there were many singers in the Kishore-mould. There was Abhijeet, there was Vinod Rathod, there was Amit Kumar and there was also a singer called Mehboob. ”
“A big break like Jaadugar must have come handy.” On my observation, Sanu shakes his head and says: “Actually not much. The film flopped badly and the songs too did not do too well. But yes, it made the film-industry aware that there was a young singer called Sanu who could sing well.”
“My first real hit was ‘Tere Hum Aye Sanam’ in Gulshan Kumar’s Jeena Teri Gali Mein. I must say a few words of Gulshan Kumar here. Let anybody say anything about the man, I think it was he who really changed the equations of Hindi film music. He brought in new talents and packaged and marketed them brilliantly. In his days, producers could get half their money back just by selling music-rights. Today the producers have to pay the music-companies money to market their music!”
Then and now
Then I ask: ‘With mega-hits like Aashiqui, Saaan, Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahi, Phool Aur Kaante--- you had totally dominated the 90s. So how does the era of the 90s compare with current day era?’ By now Kumar Sanu is in full stride. He has strong opinions and he doesn’t mince any words. He says: “I would say it was heaven then and hell now. Good music happens when good lyrics, good tunes and good voices come together. Today anybody and everybody can come and write any sort of lyrics. The composer just has to sit in tiny studios with the latest imported CDs of loops to make their tunes. In our era, you could easily say whether the song was sung by me or Udit (Narayan) or Alka (Yagnik) or Anuradha (Paudwal) or Kavita (Krishnamurthy). Today, you are hard-pressed to identify a singer in a song.”
When I ask Sanu what exactly has gone wrong in today’s music, he elaborates further. “Today melody and creativity- both have gone out for a toss. Panchamda composing; Gulzar-saab writing; Kishoreda and Lata Mangeshkar singing --- for me that was creativity. Just lifting famous folk-songs or western songs from somewhere and then presenting them with slight changes is not creativity. Before, there used to be one Punjabi song, one vamp-song and rest were romantic songs of different moods. Today the entire album is filled with Punjabi numbers and item-numbers. Romantic songs are becoming extinct.”
“But then the film-equations themselves are changing.” Nodding at my observation, Sanu adds on to his ongoing tirade. “Yes, before, the hero was supposed to be tall and handsome; the heroine was supposed to be beautiful and well-mannered. Today, the heroes are five-footers; the heroines dress and behave like vamps. Naturally for them, the singers have to be such that they suit them!”
“Today there is no star- singer identification either.” My rejoinder provides Saanu with another point. “Yes, take any star of the nineties. Be it Ajay Devgan, Rahul Roy, Sunil Shetty, Saif Ali Khan, Salman Khan, or Shahrukh Khan. None of them can deny that my songs have played a major role in making them stars. If anyone denies this claim, then let him come and I will count for him the songs that made them!”
Work with legends
“You were fortunate to work with many legendary artists.” Sanu accepts my verdict and says nostalgically: “Yes, indeed I was. Working with great composers like Naushad, R.D. Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal and Kalyanji Anandji was an unforgettable experience. That way I have worked with practically every composer of the last two decades- from Nadeem Shravan, Anand Milind, Jatin Lalit, Ismail Darbar to A.R.Rahman- but the old masters were simply awesome.”
I further venture: “Your teamwork with Panchamda in 1942- a love-story was superb. Can you share some memories?” Sanu fondly reminisces: “Panchamda had a unique way of composing. He would tell me- ‘Now, you know my composition. So add your own colour as a singer.’ He gave complete freedom to the singer and that really reflected in his music.”
The topic of legends brings to my mind another question: “You also sang a lot of popular songs with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. How was that experience?” Sanu is reverential. He says: “What can I say? They were the singers whose songs I used to listen to as a boy wearing half-pants. Just to get the opportunity to sing together with them was unbelievable. When they complimented me as a Sureela (tuneful) singer in their interviews, I was very happy.”
The reality of today
Leaving the nostalgia behind, I remind him once again of the stark reality of today and ask his opinion about musical ‘Reality shows’. Sanu waxes eloquent on the topic: “You know- earlier there were people running Chit Funds. These people used play with people’s money and finally cheat them! Reality shows play with people’s emotions and finally cheat them. Long before, the Saregama used to be a real talent-hunt show. But over the years the nature of these shows has changed for the worse. Take any such leading show- be it Saragama, Indian Idol or Voice of India. In recent years, none of them has produced a singer who would go on to be a real winner at Bollywood stage. Nowadays, the ex-winners of these shows are seen anchoring TV shows. I have even seen that boy Chang work in some film. Arre Baba, you are a singer- so sing. Why go on doing these peripheral things like anchoring and acting?”
“But didn’t you also once dabble in acting?” I pose a query, which is nonchalantly brushed off. “Oh, yes. I also did once a Bengali film. By the way, it was a hit! But I did not enjoy doing that. For that matter, I have also produced a film Utthan and yet another produced film is almost ready for release. But still essentially I am a singer and I am well-aware of that fact.”
I then ask him pointedly: “What exactly happened that we don’t see you singing much?” He explains: “Nowadays the music industry has changed a lot. Before, there was value for good singers. I remember the old times when I used to enter the recording room and people used literally scramble to get everything ready. I am very punctual – just like Bachchhan! If I came for my scheduled recording and if everything was not in order, I used to make life hell for that composer. Today there is no value for any singer. There is no room for discussion. The industry is now full of camps and groups, each having their own set of favourites. To survive in this setup, one has to butter his way up and I am not fit to do that!”
As a parting shot, I just ask him curiously about his famous rivalry with Udit Narayan in the 90s. That ruffles his feathers and he growls, “Oh, don’t go fishing for gossip. I am not that kind of a person. Why should I talk badly about other singers? Whether it is Udit, Abhijeet or Sonu (Nigam), they have achieved their success on their own. If God has been kind to me, then why should I feel jealous if He has been kind to them also? You can go and call anybody in the film-industry. Just ask him – how is Kumar Sanu as a person? They will tell you that he is khadoos (difficult), they will tell you that he ticks off anybody on face and they will also tell you that he is good at heart!”
So doesn’t that make him the ‘Dabangg’ of playback singing? My remark brings back a smile on his face. He just mutters – “Hmm, Dabangg! What all new words they create nowadays!”
I leave him to ponder upon that word!