Even though more than 25 years have passed since Salma Agha made her sensational Bollywood debut in Nikah, no fan has ever forgotten the Pakistani cat-eyed beauty with a sensuous husky nasal voice. After Noor Jehan, she was the only singing actress who made an impact on both Indian and Pakistani film and music industry. Agha’s colourful and often controversial life has taken her to all corners of the globe but since last 3 years, she has come to settle in U.A.E.—a place which she calls ‘the most ideal, beautiful and peaceful country to live in’! From here, she keeps herself busy shuttling between Sharjah, Mumbai and Karachi and planning a grand comeback into films and music.
When a common friend telephonically introduced me to her, the first thing I immediately asked was an interview appointment. After a long wait, finally the date was set. As she was to travel to Mumbai the next day, the interview was scheduled in the night. When I expectantly walked into her spacious villa, it was almost 10 p.m.
The strains of Salma’s first major hit- Dil Ke Armaan Aansuon Mein Bah Gaye immediately greeted me but they were in a newer, racier remixed format. Instantly it was apparent how the passage of time had changed everything! The house attendant ushered me into the hall and helped me settle on a sofa. Sitting there, I soaked in the old world charm of the house. Just as I was turning my attention to an impressive array of framed photographs showing Salma posing with various celebrities, the diva walked in. Even while wearing a simple salvaar-kameez and sans any make-up, she still carried her aura around. Totally informal, friendly and without any starry airs, Salma was a delight to talk to. Here are the excerpts of an exclusive interview.
Your mother was your first mentor. Tell us something about her.
My mother (Zarina Agha) was my inspiration and she was also my greatest teacher. She had taken a formal training in Kirana Gharana musical tradition and she wanted to be a classical vocalist. But the family pressures did not let her fulfill her ambition. She was the leading lady in the famous 1946-film Shah Jehan. It was my mother who really groomed and supported me in my career all throughout.
One article had mentioned that you started your singing career by singing ABBA- hits.
Actually even before singing those pop cover versions, I had cut my first album ‘Jalwa-E-Ghazal’ which was composed by my mother and where I had even written one of the songs. The compositions in those albums were quite challenging and in the classical ghazal style. I was just about 16 years old then.
How come you dabbled in both, Indian and Western songs?
While taking training for Indian classical music, any singer has to learn and master the basic 7 notes. Once those basic notes are mastered, then it doesn’t become too difficult to switch between any musical styles.
How did you enter into Hindi films?
It was through my music. I had come from London to Mumbai to record a song for a film called ‘Chanakya Chandragupt’, where Naushad-saab was the music director. Unfortunately that film got shelved. Meanwhile, Raj Kapoor-saab who was a distant cousin of my mother, introduced me to B.R.Chopra-saab, who then offered me a role in Nikaah. Actually I always wanted to be a singer and I was told that if I act in the film, then I would also get to sing my own songs! That way it happened as if a child is made to do a certain thing by promising to give her a favourite toy!
What was the role of director B.R.Chopra in shaping your career?
When I acted in Nikaah, I had no previous formal training in acting. Chopra-saab was my first mentor in this field. He was a very nice and patient man, who would himself act out each and every scene to me. Even before the shooting began, we worked a lot on the scenes and dialogues. For a newcomer actress like me who was facing camera for the first time, saying three page-long dialogues was a stiff challenge.
Tell us about the experience of recording ‘Dil Ke Armaan’- the song that catapulted you to fame.
I was really fortunate to get such a lovely composition from a senior music director like Ravi-saab but one thing is there, thanks to my classical training, I was quite confident of carrying off that song well! People accepted my voice right from the first song. That song won the prestigious Filmfare award that year, even when established singers like Asha Bhosle were in contention. Later on, I even won the National Award in Pakistan for another song- ‘Ik Baar Milo Humse’.
How was your experience of working with different Indian composers?
I was lucky to have worked with major composers like Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji, Bhappi Lahiri, Khayyam and R.D.Burman. Even though today’s composers are also quite talented and popular, I don’t think anybody would be able to ever replace those veterans. They were really different!
I can still remember the recording of my song- ‘Pahla Pahla Pyaar Na Bhoole’ for the film ‘Mazdoor’. Hassan Kamaal-saab had written that song. R.D.Burman first taught me the tune on harmonium and then just told me to sing it the way I felt right. That was the first time I realized what a real composer does- he understands and utilizes the singer’s strengths.
Did you experience the so-called Mangeshkar Monopoly in Bollywood?
No- never! Lataji is a very graceful lady and overall, in Indian film industry they are quite fair. They do respect talent and good work.
Your voice sounds a lot like Madam Noor Jehan.
(Smilingly) When I was a new singer, many people thought that I was Madam Noor Jehan’s daughter! Both of us were classically trained and such voices are always more detailed and different in texture. Pitch and tonal quality of my voice quite naturally match hers and that’s why we sound so similar. It is natural and not deliberately done.
What is different in yesteryear singers and contemporary singers?
In yesteryears, it was necessary to have musical training for any singer. The song used to be recorded in a single take. You had to weed out your vocal flaws through rehearsals. Now the song is recorded in patches and the voice can be tuned and modified electronically. That’s why most of the new singers are untrained and their vocal flaws practically remain life-long.
You have successfully worked in both, Indian and Pakistani film-industries. How would you compare the two industries?
Indian films are technically advanced and much more polished as compared to Pakistani films. But a lot of that can be attributed to the financial factors. Pakistan has two and half film-territories to sell whereas India has 19 territories! That does make a big difference.
Tell us something about your new ventures.
My new music-album is a perfect fusion of notes, rhythms and languages. Tentatively it is titled ‘East and West’. It is a blend of Punjabi and English, raga and rhythm. Somebody asked me why I am doing a pop album. Look at Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-saab. He made the West accept our tunes but he did that by doing it in the musical language they would understand. I am doing the same thing. We have recorded this album in a Canadian studio where Mel Gibson had recorded for his film ‘Passion of Christ’. We will be releasing the album soon from Mumbai and also will shoot the music videos there.
I also have an interesting offer to act in a Bollywood film, which will be a sort of a comeback for me. But the details are yet to be finalized. My daughter Zahra is also making a music album and she has also got a film- offer from Bollywood. After my grandmother (Begum Paro), my mother (Zarina Agha) and I myself, now Zahra will Insha-Allah be our family’s fourth generation into films.
How do you look back at life?
I have been a rebel all my life and have always done what I wanted to do. I don’t have any regrets. Life is a continuous journey and you take the good with the bad. They say you learn from your mistakes- I don’t believe that! You don’t learn from the old mistakes but rather just go on to commit new mistakes!