With the two songs she has written and sung in Baar Baar Dekho— Kho Gaye Hum Kahan and Nachde Ne Saare—Jasleen Royal has delivered both the quietest and the loudest songs of the album. The former, a mellow, easy track sung in whispering tones, could be the perfect soundtrack to a breezy afternoon drive. It also inspired the best sequence in the film that encapsulates the growing up of the two lead characters.
Nachde Ne Saare is a Punjabi wedding song, a subgenre of Hindi film music stuck in creative limbo. Royal infuses it with the sweetness of a song sung at a ladies’ sangeet, without losing the genre’s trademark energy. Her singularly off-kilter, almost adolescent voice adds to the experience of listening to both the songs.
It is an unlikely turn by someone whose breakout song was a low-budget music video based on a poem about freedom by Shiv Kumar Batalvi and sung in chaste Punjabi. Panchi Hojavan was a hit on YouTube and gave Royal—who prefers to be called a singer-songwriter rather than a composer—her first taste of success. The philosophy of her music, she says, comes from “a very personal space”. “For Nachde Ne Saare, I drew from the folksy melodies I have grown up listening to, seeing people dance at weddings in Ludhiana (her hometown),” she says.
She was jamming at a friend’s house party in Mumbai when one of the guests, who worked at Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, suggested that she approach Baar Baar Dekho co-producer Karan Johar with her song (which later became Kho Gaye Hum Kahan). Before she moved to Mumbai two years ago, actor Irrfan Khan, impressed by Panchi Hojavan, invited her to a gathering at his place. She flew down from Delhi for the party, where she was approached by the makers of Shivaay. “Bombay is random that way,” she says, as we chat in her Malad apartment. Royal doesn’t follow the industry norm of sending “scratch” versions while pitching to directors and producers via email or WhatsApp. She requests a meeting with the person so that she can play the songs live. Ajay Devgn (Shivaay), Anushka Sharma (Phillauri), Anurag Kashyap or Vikas Bahl of Phantom Films (Haraamkhor, Ghoomketu)—it has worked so far. “It’s what people used to do back in the day,” says Royal, who graduated from Delhi’s Hindu College.
Her work as a composer includes three independently produced singles, Maye Ni with Swanand Kirkire and a number of ad jingles, including the catchy Paytm Karo. Royal believes a singer’s imperfections make a song. “Composers live with their songs and there is so much they add when they sing it themselves. My favourite Indian artistes are A.R. Rahman, Amit Trivedi, Lucky Ali, Rabbi Shergill. They may not be technically the most perfect singers but there is a lot of honesty in their voices,” she says. Her other favourites include Cat Stevens and Eddie Vedder. Besides her own compositions, Royal has sung for Sneha Khanwalkar (Preet from Khoobsurat) and Sachin-Jigar (Badla Badla from Badlapur).
At 25, all this can be overwhelming, but Royal started young. She began giving keyboard lessons in her hometown when she was 14—teaching children nursery rhymes and middle-aged women choir songs she had learnt from her convent school music teacher. “I didn’t enjoy it. But being from a middle-class family, I couldn’t ask my parents to buy me an expensive keyboard, or to pay for what I wanted to learn at Trinity College (she went on to take three of the London college’s eight grade examinations in Delhi).” Long before it became a fashionable term, she had become an independent musician