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Much like actors who constantly observe life and people around them, and draw on their observations to portray different characters when required, the playback specialist possibly draws on a bank of keenly-observed nuances of vocal styles and genres for adaptation at a later date.

This ability to observe, imbibe and adapt perhaps assists in giving the playback singer the versatility required to be the singing voice of many actors playing different roles in their acting careers. This is, of course, a gift but one that needs to be cultivated either by undergoing training with the masters of different styles and genres or, in the case of self-taught artistes, through individually innovated methods of learning and adaptation. In some instances, a mix of the two methods is also employed.

There are ample and abundant illustrations of the versatility of the great playback legends of Hindi films but only a few are quoted here. Nonagenarian Manna Dey, a legend in the world of playback singing, was able to caricature the gamakas of Carnatic music in Ek Chatur Naar Badi Hoshiyaar for R.D. Burman in the film Padosan (1968) and was also able to effortlessly render the thumri-inspired Aayo Kahan Se Ghanshyam, also for R.D. Burman, in Buddha Mil Gaya (1971). Mohammad Rafi, yet another legend in the world of playback singing, could cruise from the rustic tone and voice projection he adopted for Nain Lad Jaihen for music director Naushad in Gunga Jumna (1961) to the gentle intimacy of Tere Mere Sapne Ab Ek Rang Hain for S.D. Burman in Guide (1965). It would be irresponsible, though, to leave unacknowledged the contribution of the respective music directors in creating these all-time hits, because the unquestionable skills of the playback singers would have been wasted without their having been given a good song to render in the first place.

Hit songs often tend to become inextricably associated with the singer or with the actor with whom the song was filmed, and the music director, lyricist, arranger and other integral members of the music ensemble often remain in the memory of relatively fewer music lovers and film buffs.

The playback singer’s skill also lies in being a good team member, with the ability to melt into more than one team with an equal degree of comfort. Singing under the baton of more than one music composer, each with his own sensibility, temperament and method of working, the playback singer must be adept at giving voice and realizing someone else’s composition. In a sense, he brings up someone else’s baby, but does it so well that often the baby is mistaken for his own and the true parentage becomes blurred or
even forgotten.

Successful male playback singers for Hindi films have all usually had definitely macho voices, with no acceptance for higher-pitched, androgynous voices. Other than Talat Mahmood of the “gentle tremolo", the voices of most playback singers matched the virility of the heroes they sang for. When singing duets, their voices thus provided the perfect foil for the clear, tinkling, girlish voices of their female counterparts.

And with regard to this one aspect, Hindi film music remains unchanged. Today, you can sing off-key and still be a playback singer thanks to auto-tuning software like Melodyne. You can warble, or be abominably nasal, but just sound like an off-key, nasal, warbling man, for heaven’s sake, if you want to sing for Hindi films!

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

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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