AR Rahman’s music in Ponniyin Selvan I brings the world of Mani Ratnam’s epic to life. And a headturner in the playlist is 'Alaikadal', which portrays the love and pain of a boat woman Poonguzhali, played by Aishwarya Lekshmi in the film. The melodious earworm has been receiving so much love, and the voice behind the song, Antara Nandy, cannot contain her enthusiasm.
The song is the culmination of a dream come true for Nandy. “I had a dream to do playback singing for a movie. And then, there was a dream within the dream — I wanted to sing for a movie with AR Rahman’s music someday. But the fact that I am making my playback debut in Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan I with Rahman’s music has still not sunk in for me. I cannot wish for a bigger debut than this.”
Nandy, who hails from Assam, has been learning music ever since she was four years old. The 20-year-old later went on to become one of the top three finalists in reality music show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa L'il Champs in 2009. But it was during the COVID-19 lockdown that she rose to fame. During this period, Nandy and her sister Ankita Nandy started an Instagram reel series called “balcony concerts”, where they attempted unique covers of famous songs, accompanied with the ukulele.
Singing abilities apart, their eye for coordination, and respect for various languages and cultures caught the attention of social media users. One of their first hits was their cover of Rahman’s ‘Humma Humma’. “Somebody told me that you make your work so loud, that you don't have to approach people and instead people approach you. That is actually why I started posting videos on social media.”
Whatever Nandy speaks about, her conversations invariably come back to AR Rahman. From doing agarbatti to the posters of Rahman on the wall to making her debut under his composition, the legendary musician has played a major role in her playback journey. At the age of 14, Nandy recalls going through a period of voice change. That is when she joined Rahman’s institute in Chennai (KM Music Conservatory), where the faculties helped her get back her voice.
In 2019, she was a part of a YouTube reality show called ARRived. Nandy says, “A couple of days before the finale, I was rushing to write my second-year final exams. That’s when I received a call from AR Rahman Studio who sent me a ticket to come to Chennai. My parents told me that exams may come and go but I should catch the flight.” That’s how she got her first chance to sing alongside Rahman. It was for a song called ‘Nis Din’ for the show Jammin.
Until a week before the audio launch of PS 1, Nandy was unsure of what her future in playback singing held. She had been singing scratches (when a new song is composed, singers record a rough guide before the final singer sings it. This rough structure is known as scratches) for Rahman prior to the lockdown.
In the first week of September, she got a call from Rahman’s studio, informing Nandy that her version had been finalised for 'Alaikadal', a song that she sang two years back. “I couldn’t immediately remember what song they were talking about. It was two years back and whenever I go to Chennai, I sing a lot of scratches within a stipulated time. The sound engineer told me that I had sung this song in forty minutes. I was panicking because generally, an original song takes two to two and a half hours to record,” says Nandy.
Mani Ratnam, who was also present at the time of recording, briefed her on the song’s scenario — “She is a boat woman and she is rowing in the middle of the water body as she sings this song. She is in love with the prince and she is a very strong character. So, the song has to bring all the feelings of love and pain, and there has to be some strength in the song,” Nandy recounts the filmmaker’s brief.
The young singer remembers wondering how she could pull it off as she had not felt the extremes of any of these emotions in life. She recalls, “Rahman sir said “Whether or not you have experienced it, your job as an artist is to make the audience believe you. And that's the trick.” After the first take, he told me that I was singing the song technically right, but not putting my heart into it. He explained the lyrics line by line and guided me to sing it with emotion. He told me, “the song is like the waves of the ocean.” When I hear all the versions today, I think the Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi ones are more technically sound. But the Tamil version has a lot of emotion, thanks to Rahman sir.”
Within three days, in the first week of September, Nandy completed singing the Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi versions of the song. Cut to September 6, it was time for the film’s audio launch. “I was a part of a mega album that had amazing artists. I am a newbie and I was insecure. But I also wanted to leave a lasting impression at the launch so that when my song ended, I wanted people to go back and look me up on the internet. When the music started, I just looked at Rahman sir and sang. I think he sort of understood that I was nervous so he kept nodding throughout. When I finished singing, I received a standing ovation and that felt like a huge validation.”
She looks at this debut as a victory for her parents, more than anyone. “This is a huge victory for my parents more than for me because they were always two steps ahead of me to clear my path. They have worked harder than I have. I have often been told I would never be able to make it as a singer. From that point to inching closer to the day where I'm going to sit in a theatre and listen to my voice in one of the biggest releases of this year, is such a huge moment. And I can't wrap my head around it,” Nandy says with a smile.