Aapki awaaz playback ke liye bahut suited hai" which, roughly translated, would mean that your voice is eminently suitable for playback singing. We hear this declaration every now and then, especially on the ever-popular reality shows where celebrity judges pontificate on the merits of starry-eyed contestants.

What are the characteristics of voice and musical sensibility that go into making a successful playback singer? Have these remained unchanged over the decades during which film music has held sway over the musical tastes of the masses? I suppose the answer to that question should be articulated by the musical pontiffs of the film industry, but I attempt to present an outsider’s humble observations.

While the history of playback singing in Indian films has a couple of decades or so to go before it reaches the 100-year mark, we do have a record of approximately 82 years of film music to study and analyse.

The archetypal playback voice that our talent show judges refer to these days has nothing in common with the voices of singers from the early days of the talkies. Judging from the repertoire presented by contestants on most television shows, few emulate the singing styles of the legendary Kundan Lal Saigal, or Khurshid and Suraiya. Arguably the benchmark for playback singing is firmly anchored in the era that saw the rise of the great playback stars like Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, Mukesh, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, among others. In a sense these were the voices that set the standards and established the parameters used today to gauge whether or not a singer’s voice is appropriate for playback.

What are those parameters?

The one quality common to all these voices is their ability to take on the identities of different actors enacting varied situations within the narrative of a single film. These are, therefore, voices that express and represent myriad emotions and responses. An actor in an Indian film sings and dances in every conceivable situation—in joy, in grief, in the throes of love, lust, in the streets, on rooftops, just about anywhere. And the off-screen singing voice of the playback singer becomes for the length of the tracks the on-screen singing voice of the actor. The voice of Lata Mangeshkar, even while retaining its unique identity, becomes the voice of Waheeda Rehman as she sings Rangeela Re in Prem Pujari, or Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hai in Guide. And the same voice becomes the voice of a pious Meena Kumari when it sings Lau Lagaati Geet Gaati in Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan. This ability to subsume one’s own identity into that of the actor is an essential quality for the making of a good playback singer.

Most women singers in the Indian film industry have light, high-pitched voices. Full-throated, heavier female voices have, for the better part, not found success in the last five-six decades of film music. The reasons for this could be manifold. The standards set by Lata Mangeshkar and her brilliant star sibling Asha Bhosle, both gifted with high-pitched, expressive voices of tremendous range and the ability to negotiate the most complex melodies, forms and styles effortlessly, influenced generations of subsequent female playback singers so significantly that they consciously modelled their voices on the Mangeshkar siblings. The inclusion of duets between male and female singers also demanded voices that were comfortable singing in keys that allowed the female singer’s voice to appear more delicate and girlishly feminine in contrast. You couldn’t possibly have a Big Mama voice boom out in a duet, reducing the male singer’s voice to a puny shadow.

Further, the orchestration for film songs often used instruments that sounded better in higher keys. It could, of course, be argued that an accomplished composer could create a duet for a heavy, husky female voice and a regular male voice, and an imaginative arranger could score the instrumentation accordingly, but this is a challenge that composers of film music have refused to take up. The archetypal girlish voice is so deeply entrenched in film music that even when actors like Tanuja, with her husky, smoky voice, Rani Mukerji, with her sandpaper timbre, or the gruff Hema Malini sing on screen, the playback for them is always in the clear, tinkling voice that has come to represent aural femininity. Good girls in Indian cinema could only possibly be endowed with clear, pure voices. It was only the lusty vamp whose voice could thicken with vice.

But times change and so do perceptions. No longer is the raunchy number reserved for the siren or the trollop. Today, successful female actors in lead roles must bag an item number, and correspondingly, successful female playback singers must dub a generous portion of raunchy item numbers. The voices still remain high-pitched, but no longer girlish. Instead, they train themselves to ooh and aah, either brazenly or seductively.

Comments on the male of the species are reserved for my next column.

This is the second in a series of Shubha Mudgal’s columns on Hindi film music.

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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