Monali Thakur is a critically acclaimed Indian singer and actress who has won numerous national and international accolades. She won the National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer for the song “Moh Moh Ke Dhaage” from the film Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) and the Filmfare Award for Best Female Playback Singer for the song “Sawaar Loon” from the film Lootera (2013). In conversation with PEERZADA MUZAMIL, Monali Thakur talks about independent music, values, uncanny struggles of an artist, and why the gender related stereotypes that swarm within the higher circles of the industry disillusion herMonali Thakur’s latest track, released last week, is the romantic number ‘Dil Ka Fitoor’.
Q. Your beginnings were seemingly easy because you belong to the musical family, was it a privilege, or did you have your own share of struggles?
A. I belong to a musical family and I do feel privileged that I got to learn from an early age. I wasn’t enrolled in a music school, though the environment at home around was creative and musical, helping me to mould myself as an artist. Because of that, I knew from an early age what I wanted to do. I knew that I would never do a nine to five job. I started exploring more, and eventually, over the years, I learned a lot of new things. I learned a lot of things from my father, mother, and sister; all of them are great musicians.
For the first time, I was inspired was by my father’s jaw-dropping performance. Everyone in the audience was mesmerised. I remember I was very young, I felt inspired. Then it was my sister; she sang like a dream. Eventually, I was introduced to several artists and that’s how my voyage started.
Q. You did a song with Anu Malik, who was your judge at the Indian Idol years before you launched yourself into mainstream music. Moh Moh ke Dhage, composed by Anu Malik, was critically acclaimed and fetched you numerous awards. Tell us about your journey into Bollywood.
A. I wanted to record my songs and become a performer. I think Anu Malik has given some fantastic compositions over there years. I believe “Moh Moh K Dhhage” is his finest. I am still thankful to the entire team for choosing my voice for the song. I don’t think there could have been a better song to get acknowledged for. The lyricist Varun had written so exquisitely. Everything fell in place— Anu ji’s composition, Varun’s lyrics, and my voice.
Q. What did you do in the period between Indian Idol and Bollywood
A. I was struggling like a maniac. We didn’t have money to eat. I had to think about earning money and I didn’t want to go for any reality show which everyone forced me to. Our family was bankrupt, and there were severe financial stringencies. We didn’t have money to pay my fees at Xavier’s College, Calcutta. I had to keep struggling and my parents believed in my sensibility as a musician. That gave me a lot of confidence and I somehow followed the struggling bit of it. I got to know about different kinds of people, nice ones and the opposite. It was a learning experience, however, I think that the struggle continues. I have an itch for learning, and I will hopefully keep on learning till I breathe my last.
Q. We lost Irrfan Khan recently and you have worked with him in “Billu Barber” and “Dil Kabaddi”. Have you met him on the sets and what was it like?
A. Irrfan Khan has always been my favorite actor. Whatever little acting I have done I have learned that from him. I felt very proud while talking about him to people from outside about his genius and versatility. However, when we sing a song for a film, we usually don’t get to meet the actors, hence I never met him in that capacity. Nonetheless, I have met him and his wife at a couple of events. They were so humble. Irfan Khan has done quality work, his performances were divine, yet he was an amicable person with a humble demeanor. That says a lot about him. The industry has lost a gem.
Q. Who is your favourite female contemporary voice from India and why?
A. Sunidhi Chauhan, I have always admired her. I think she is an incredibly talented singer. Though she has been here for many years, I think she is fantastic. Meanwhile, there are so many young and fresh voices that are worth listening to, especially from the independent scene. The other day, I heard Lisa Mishra on Instagram, I really liked her texture. I like the vocal texture of Jonita Gandhi and Nikita Gandhi. Their voices are not like the stereotypically Bollywoodish thing and their work is refreshing.
Q. There is a strange problem of stereotyping in the mainstream industry. Female musicians do not get much space, even the songs that should be essentially sung by female singers are given to males. What are your thoughts about that?
A. Yes absolutely! However, there are many good things as well, but I feel that the music industry nowadays is becoming too light as compared to what is going on in the rest of the world. Female songs are hardly made, you are absolutely right. The problem is systemic in developing countries like India, women do not get equal opportunities. Women are not given much opportunities, and that is the problem within the underlying power structure. Industry is dominated largely by men. How many female music producers are there? This is the reason why I don’t quite feel like working there. I am trying to be as independent as possible, because I don’t like the eco-system of the industry at all. Female singers usually get a couple of lines to sing, and that’s it. People in the position of power have to change it.
Q. There’s a similar problem that recording artists face, irrespective of their gender. An artist sings a song but once it comes out, it turns out the song is dubbed over by another artist. Have you been dubbed?
A. Yes, it happens a lot, there is no problem in dubbing, but the way it is done is very unethical. Sometimes the artists are not even paid. I don’t sing anymore like that, because of this situation. I do not appreciate the way it is handled. My songs have been dubbed too, and I knew it, though I couldn’t stand up against certain things which were “disgusting”. We live with it because the people on the top misuse their power and use it as a leverage to take advantages. Nonetheless, we are also aware about the Judicial process in our country, it is slow and slouching. Where will the artist go, especially when he is budding, and is not profoundly aware of these industrial plots?
Q. Do you feel the commercialisation in the mainstream industry is sidelining the Indian classical music?
A. That’s not because of the commercialisation. It is the problem in the dexterity and the demand. The people who make good music are seldom received by the audience. This stems from the demand, all the people do not like classical music as such, they want a poppish feel, and somehow, I don’t know, such songs are too light. Nowadays, tell me, how many songs are staying in people’s minds? The life-spans of these, sorry to say, silly songs are limited to the dancing in festivals and parties. However, there are educated musicians too— I know a lot of them— but unfortunately, they become overwhelming for the audience and in the process they don’t even understand what the musician has produced. Therefore, the lack of good quality music stems strangely from the popular propensities.