Benny Dayal started his career as a Hindi film playback singer in 2008, singing parts of “Pappu Can’t Dance Saala” and “Nazrein Milana” from Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na. But he really got the chance to showcase his talent in the other two AR Rahman compositions from the same year: the seeming ease with which he soared the high notes in “Tu Meri Dost Hai” from Yuvvraaj, and the soul-shattering depths he gave to “Kaise Mujhe Tum Mil Gayi” from Ghajini.
Dayal’s vocal flexibility—a cocktail of musical styles, owing to his exposure and training in Indian classical music, R&B, soul and funk, characterised by a distinct nasal twang—soon became apparent. He could pull off the tricky, nonsense rhyming “Badtameez Dil” with the same ease with which he would sing the twisty, folk-infused “Tauba” from Coke Studio @MTV Season 3, or a ‘filmi’ number like the title track of Shuddh Desi Romance.
Meanwhile, Hindi film music was taking a turn for the worse, increasingly leaning towards a music-making culture that favours remixes to originals and giving work to singers and composers contractually signed with labels. For the past 5 years or so, it has been mostly terrible to skilful singers like Dayal.
Bollywood music’s downward spiral has reached a stage where, now, it has become the subject of a song. Dayal’s new single, “Besura”, is an ironic commentary on the music industry. It’s melodious and pleasant-sounding, but the lyrics are direct barbs at paid views on YouTube and out-of-tune singers, labels calling the shots as well as a lament on genuine musicians being forced to take a backseat.
The tastefully done video has Dayal and Raajeev V Bhalla (who has played the banjo and bass) put up a mock, deadpan performance in a neighbourhood park in New Jersey where the singer is living with his wife, Catherine Thangam, for the past few months—she shot it. It’s the first of the four tracks from the slyly titled Soshal Media, an album that has got “to do with whatever is happening right now.”
Apart from working on these, the singer has also been putting out fun cover versions of songs as different as “Lamborghini” and “Uyiril Thodum” from Kumbalangi Nights, besides Rahman favourites like “Dil Se re” and “Ennai Kaanavillaiye”.
Dayal spoke over the phone about “Besura”, why singers from his generation are getting less film work, how analytics is ruining Bollywood music and why he changed a word during the recording of “Rappan Rappi Rap” from Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.
The first line of your new song goes ‘Besura gaata hoon, main bhi singer hoon…’ Taking off from that, what are your views about the general standard of singing today?
A huge chunk of the younger generation who are on social media making music doesn’t seem to work on the aspect of singing in key. And there are a lot of people who are loving these musically wrong things. And it bothers me.
We’ve all become serious musicians because we’ve all have had some kind of training, and it has to do with these 7 notes and singing them and playing them in key. Why do we love singers like Kishore Kumar, Mohd Rafi, Lata ji and Asha ji, and Shreya Ghoshal, and Sonu Nigam, and Arijit Singh? Because they all sing in pitch and feel and emotion and they blend it so well. It’s not a joke. It comes from years of practise, hard work and effort.
I see a lot of young musicians who don’t pay heed to all of these things. Most people who want to make music today are not learning instruments, they are buying laptops to make beats. Everybody is making music to become famous in no time.
In the song you also speak about labels being complicit in it.
They will say things like make it more ‘simple’, ‘this is working’. The feeling that a musician feels in the ten minutes that leads him to write a song, that is getting lost now. Because everything is being asked to do, or forced to do. Everything is about numbers. What happens then is it becomes like a corporate job, where you are given sales target in the beginning of the year/quarter. (Laughs).
There are interesting things happening, like Yashraj Mukhate, who released his song during the lockdown, is a great example. When you listen to his stuff, there is a mastery to it. I am also listening to musicians nobody is listening to. If you go to Soundcloud and Spotify you’ll find a lot of indie artists from India like Aditi Ramesh, Kamakshi Khanna, Abhilasha Sinha, Saptak Chatterjee, Arunaja, Sanjeev Thomas, Brodha V, some of whom I’ve collaborated with. The quality of music is so good that they can easily find a place in an international radio. If the labels are playing a part in the distribution, they can definitely push these works and say ‘This is ALSO our music that exists in India’ because it’s important to give all kinds of music a platform.
But there are no platforms. Which is exactly why everybody is releasing songs independently. They are making videos on their own budgets and still trying to make it look beautiful by pulling in favours from everyone. We have have our own label. I am extremely humbled that I have 20k views in “Besura”. It’s not a million. On the same day some other song released and in 8 hours it crossed 7 million. I was like ‘Wow, this is really fast. How’s it happening?’ It’s crazy. I still haven’t cracked it…
It’s easy to get lost in the noise because there are paid views, boosts.
Yeah, I think everybody knows that by now. Even when you get those numbers, it is questionable how many people really heard the song. But a huge percent of the audience don’t know that. ‘Are yaar this song has got some 25 million, it’s crazy no?’ Views and subscriptions have become the new currency of social media.
Let’s talk specifically about Hindi film music. One of the lines in the song go ‘Originals mat banao, remix banate jao.’
I write that out of pain because there was an era, till 2012, where every movie had original songs. But starting 2015 it started moving towards more remixes. “The Humma Song” was the beginning I suppose.
An example of an original song smashing every other remix out of the park is “Channa Mereya”. That song was huge. It didn’t need any push, just the song in itself was good enough.
An example of an original song smashing every other remix out of the park is “Channa Mereya”. That song was huge. It didn’t need any push, just the song in itself was good enough. Similarly, last year’s “Ghungroo” was nicely done and the whole world is enjoying it. I am saying it’s possible.
Tanishk Bagchi gets a lot of slack for making the remixes. But he’s a damn good producer and I hope he gets the opportunity to prove everyone wrong. He’s produced some songs like “Banno Tera Swagger”, which was such a revelation.
It’s like anything outside the template will not be encouraged.
They believe the audience will not get it. I think the audience will get it. If the same amount of marketing goes into something they haven’t heard before, it’ll work. This is exactly how music has worked in all these years. Every film had a new song. Whether it was 1942 A Love story, whether it was Taal or whether it was Dev D, or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, or Tashan. Amazing new music came and worked with the public and people still sing the songs.
I have been singing since 2008 in the Hindi industry and the only remix I sung was one line in “The Disco Song”. Everything else is an original hit. I believe our music industry can produce original hits if they give them the right marketing.
Have you had any bad experiences?
No, but there is an emphasis on ‘keeping it simple’. But how simple? I don’t know about everybody, I speak for myself but when I go to the studio and I am not facing a challenge I am not learning anything. People might say ‘Itna baat kyun kar raha hai, paise mil raha hai na’, but we have to grow as musicians also.
I think the last time you really got to flex your vocals were “Rappan Rappi Rap” from Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.
I really have to thank Vasan (Bala) and (composer) Karan Kulkarni. I kept saying Can I do this? Can I do that? and they were always open to it. I went into deep character mode, because it had all era references. I got the freedom to change things. Like there’s a line ‘Tu Kiss mera bata ko kar’. It was ‘reebok’ originally, but ‘bata’ sounded more relatable. Also I wore Bata to school. Karan was cool with it. It’s also such a mad film.
Has Hindi film work thinned down?
Definitely. I am literally doing more work in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. In Hindi, I did a song from Shakuntala Devi for Sachin-Jigar. My last massive song was “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” from War. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with working with some amazing composers and films with great casts.
What about other singers of your generation? Are they also getting less work?
Yeah, definitely. But nobody wants to talk about it… Everyone is feeling the tension. It’s not an easy thing. Everybody wants to do great work.
Does that mean that now you have more time for independent, non-film music?
Yes, but I have been writing my own stuff since 2011. I have always been putting out something or the other, here and there, almost every year. It has been a little bit more since 2018-2019. I have been doing a lot of traveling and gigging. We released our first EP for my band Funktuation.
I don’t understand this pattern. Sometimes you are given a song to sing, and when it comes out you find out it’s not your voice. How did it change? Can’t question anything. You don’t know how to question, who to question why to question.
Film work is there; just that it’s not in the frequency of how it was 7 years ago. It’s also maybe because am not signed to a label. Maybe it’s a new pattern of making music now. But whenever I am called, I try to do my best.
Does the current system favour certain singers and composers to others?
I don’t know. I don’t know what the favouring is. I don’t understand this pattern. Sometimes you are given a song to sing, and when it comes out you find out it’s not your voice. How did it change? Can’t question anything. You don’t know how to question, who to question why to question. It’s eventually the call of the higher authorities, we don’t know who they are. And during the recording there is a lot of exchange with the composer, where they’ll go ‘Oh wow this is amazing’. That gives you a lot of hope, so you feel crushed.
Would you say that the transition from physical sales and consumption to digital has screwed Bollywood music?
Numbers, analytics, what’s ‘working’, in this region that region, this age group…
You enjoy performing. But because of the lockdown it might be the first time in your career that you haven’t performed on stage for a long period.
I am a constant traveller, constant performer, always going city to city. It’s a huge high for me. I am channelling all this energy into creating music from home, which is why all this music is coming out. I recorded ‘Besura’ from the basement of my wife’s house in New Jersey, where the recording is clean and the quality is great. We came here in August when the international flights opened because we thought it’ll be a good change. But I’m going to be back in Mumbai in October. I need to quarantine and then go to Chennai to work with band because we need to do virtual concerts and write new songs. Then there are other recordings in the South.