A Paean to Imperfection: Memorable Singing Performances by Bollywood Stars , Film Companion

The other day I happened to watch Tiger Shroff’s Casanova, a non-film single that he has sung and stars in its video. It would be impossible to tell who had sung it if it weren’t for the knowledge beforehand that’s a given when big stars wield the mic as a one-off event, riding a lot of publicity: Shroff’s voice is auto-tuned beyond recognition. Styled like an international hip-hop number, with impossibly smoothened vocals laid over a track of easy beats, the actor’s digitally processed singing is best likened to an app that has a human voice option, rather than the real thing. 

Not that Shroff has an instantly recognisable voice, and the song glosses over its shortcomings with software plug-ins. But Casanova made me miss the times when stars would sing without shame, imperfections and all, and it didn’t need anybody to tell you who had sung it: the voice was enough. Their flaws were precisely what made them recognisable, even if they would rarely pass a basic music test. The actors featured in the list are strictly non-singers — that leaves out the Ayushmann Khuranas and the Farhan Akhtars, the Shradhha Kapoors and Parineeti Chopras; no rappers either — but whose singing bears the unmistakable stamp of their personality.  

1. Amitabh Bachchan

Is there a kind of song Amitabh Bachchan has not sung? You have song as storytelling in “Mere Paas Aao Mere Doston Ek Kissa Suno”, from Mr Natwarlal, his first as a singer, where he is entertaining a group of children. There is the comedy song in “Mere Angne Mein” — now entertaining a group of grownups in a party with nonsense verse on wives fat, tall and dusky. You have the drunk on bhaang tease “Rang Barse”, a timeless Holi anthem.

Two decades later he is serenading Hema Malini on the phone from a booth on a rainy night in “Main Yaha Tu Waha” from Baghban, filled with romantic longing. It’s far from perfect, but it doesn’t matter. Notice the shaky notes at the beginning of “Rozana” from a film where Bachchan’s 60 year old is infatuated with an 18 year old. As the song gains momentum, his singing assumes a velvety pleasantness. I bet composers have a ball designing songs for him. For Bachchan’s voice is not just merely an actor’s voice — it’s a cottage industry, spawning sutradhar voiceovers and mimicry singers, and even a film (Shamitabh), where he collaborates with Ilaiyaraaja on the funky “Piddly“. His remains the big daddy of all singing performances by stars. 

2. Rekha

It might be a stretch to call Rekha a non-singer, if you’ve seen clips on YouTube from her BBC interview where she is singing a Mehdi Hassan ghazal with a simplicity and ease (allegedly, as per the video description, for Amitabh Bachchan). But it may be of some significance that the only time she sung in a film was in Khoobsoorat in 1980, a year after Bachchan made his singing debut in Mr Natwarlal, a song where Rekha was a part of. As if following his footsteps, Rekha stars in “Kayda Kayda”, composed by RD Burman and lyrics by Gulzar, also a song about entertaining a group of children, which imagines a fantasy world of toffee-laden trees and unlimited taps of coffee. Getting the actor to sing doesn’t seem forced or gimmicky because the song — along with “Sare Niyam Tod Do” from the same film — play out like musical numbers, alternating between dialogue and simple melody lines. 

3. Sridevi 

If you’ve ever wondered how actors like Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee would’ve sounded as singers — actors with voices far off from the minimum cut-off required to present a melody — try Sridevi in the Chandni title track. It’s annoyingly screechy, unbelievably out of tune (done under the music direction of Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma no less) and especially cringeworthy when you listen to it today, punctuated by expressions like ‘Bolo, bolo bolo na’ and ‘You fool’ — but it’s unmistakably her: nervous, giggly, dramatic. And that’s perhaps why it was such a big hit. 

4. Aamir Khan 

Trust Aamir Khan to be the first among the Khans — always the most ‘experimental’ of the lot — to have tried his hands at singing. And it’s perhaps the most iconic star turn as singer after Bachchan. “Aati Kya Khandala” was also characteristic of Aamir Khan in that it was not just a star vanity project, it was him in character, as the tapori in Ghulam, singing in that tone and accent. Khan’s distinctness was on display, yet again, when he rapped for the “Dhaakad Reprise” from Dangal, this time spitting words in Haryanvi. 

5. Sanjay Dutt 

In terms of possessing a voice that needs no introduction, Dutt’s the closest to Bachchan. Jatin-Lalit plundered it to the hilt in the playful “Ae Shivani” from Khoobsurat, but the cool swagger in “Rama Re” from Kaante is something else. Singers like Shaan and Zubeen Garg join in as well, but Dutt’s booming intro drips with style and attitude. 

6. Salman Khan

The voice correction syndrome among composers and singers is a more recent fad, abled by technology. The more we move forward, the more we will go away from the ‘imperfections’. A good study in contrast is the two songs by Salman Khan. Compare “Chaandi ki Daal” from Hello Brother from 1999 with “Main Hero Tera” from the remake of Hero in 2015 and you see the difference. You don’t have to be musically gifted to tell how off-tune he is in the former, but there’s an honesty and a whiff of the star’s charisma, whereas the latter is a proto model of Shroff in Casanova. 

7. Shah Rukh Khan 

As if taking a cue from Aamir’s tapori act in “Aati Kya Khandala”, the much less successful “Apun Bola Tu Meri Laila” from Josh remains Shah Rukh Khan’s only singing performance. And it’s appropriately full of his mannerisms, characterised by the the trademark vocal quivering. If you’re making a star sing, you want it to sound like him. That’s kind of the point of it. 

8. Kareena Kapoor

Once upon a time, Kareena Kapoor not only acted in a Govind Nihalani film, she even sung in it. Composed by Aadesh Srivastava, the song lets Kapoor’s voice play as it is: plain, unadorned — she sounds like a shy girl who has been asked to sing in front of her would-be in-laws. There is a purity that’s remarkable, especially in an age where it’s too easy to smoothen over the flaws in one’s singing. 

9. Hrithik Roshan 

Hrithik Roshan may not have an ‘iconic’ voice, but he has a typical manner of speech: the extra stress on the syllables, the voice quality being on the heavier side, and he’s probably even a half-decent bathroom singer. He has sung for composers like Rajesh Roshan (“Kites in the Sky” from Kites), Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (“Senorita” from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) and Ajay-Atul (“Question Mark” from Super 30), and a Louis Armstrong cover (“What a Wonderful World” from Guzaarish), the first few lines of which are almost without any music but full of feeling. 

10. Alia Bhatt 

Bhatt has sung a reprise version of “Samjhawaan” from Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya and “Sooha Saha” from Highway, where she shares credits with Zeb Bangash. You’d think that the former will be a better showcase for her voice, given its a solo, but these things also depend on the music director. AR Rahman excels in tapping into the core character of the singers he uses, and he does it beautifully in “Sooha Saha”. He uses voice correction where needed, but retains her peculiarities in pronunciation and nasal-ness, along with the naïveté and innocence inherent in her voice. 

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