She sings in more than five regional languages - and she is already taking the playback world by storm! The sweet voice behind Rani Mukherji's Chupke Se in Bunty Aur Babli is the talented Mahalaxmi Iyer. Read on, as a sugary-voiced Mahalaxmi relates to IndiaFM on how she went on to becoming one of Bollywood's hottest playback singers.
Your first song was Aye Ajnabi from Dil Se, where you have sung the opening interlude and perhaps weren't credited for the song...
I was. All the CDs and tapes have my name on it. It is a small part (Pakhee pakhee pardesi...) and doesn't appear in the film as a complete song. It comes in as little bits in the film.
How did you feel like starting off your career with a composer like A. R. Rahman?
Actually, fortunately for me in the same week, I had also recorded with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for Mukul Anand's Dus. That was their debut film and mine as well. So I had a wonderful debut, working with two of the greatest composers - a trio and of course a maestro like Rahman. It was wonderful working with Rahman because he is very spontaneous and a very candid kind of music director. He allows you to do many things and also accepts your candid takes also, and then tries and puts them in the song. For a lot of takes that I had done during this song and many other songs I had sung, there have been these candid takes which I have sung on the mike, and Rahman has used them in the song somewhere.
And you have been a regular with A. R. Rahman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Is it just the voice texture or also the working relationship that that they have you sing their songs so often?
I think it's a bit of both. Voice definitely matters because I think every music director wants a good voice and a good talent. But now-a-days I won't say that voice is really the criterion for playback singing. A different kind of voice and a different kind of singing ability is also being appreciated. Earlier the regular voices were either the Lataji kind or the Ashaji kind. Lataji's voice was sweet and soulful, whereas Ashaji's songs were sensuous, tending towards more of masti and mischievous songs. But in the recent past I think new voices have come in from all these music directors. Rahman has to his credit launched many-a-voices which otherwise would have been unknown. And working relationship especially with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy has been brilliant because my association with them goes back a long time ago. With Rahmanji, as people know he is not much of a conversationalist. But I remember having a lot of chatter with him while recording songs. So it helps if the working relationship is also very good because there is no stress or tension while doing the song.
How has the journey been so far?
The journey has been wonderful. I have been extremely fortunate because I have worked with some of the best music directors - some of the biggest, and also some of the youngest, who are very talented. I have also been fortunate to have sung for big films like Dus for Mukul Anand, Dil Se for Mani Ratnam, and then I did Mission Kashmir for Vidhu Vinod Chopra. I have sung for a film called Rahul and Yaadein for Subhash Ghai. In the recent past, I have sung for all of Yash Raj's biggest films like Fanaa, Bunty Aur Babli and Dhoom. So it has been a great journey so far.
Do you feel the need to modify your voice, as per the personality of the actor you are lending your voice to?
If you know who is playing the lead role, rather, the character in that particular song, it does help because then you get to intonate and modulate your voice accordingly, as much as you can. It is not possible to completely match the voice of the actor or the actor's on-screen persona. There are very few voices that can do so... Helen and Asha Bhonsale is one such example. But I think more than the actor, you sing for the character that the particular person is playing. So it is like singing a very sweet, mellow song for a shy girl, take for instance Rani Mukherji in Bunty Aur Babli. Although she is a very bindaas character, when she is just-married there is a hint of shyness in her, so that we tried to bring across in the song Chup Chup Ke. When we did Aaj Ki Raat for Farhan Akhtar's Don, we knew that both the girls Priyanka and Isha played ultra-modern mafia girls. So we tried to bring about a little more sensuality because they played the carefree type of girls. So we try to modulate our voice according to the actor playing the role. But many times it is not possible because by the time the film is made, the actors change.
Did you take any formal training in singing?
I am a trained Hindustani classical vocalist. I have learned Hindustani classical music for about six-seven years.
Is Gayatri Iyer your sister?
She is not at all my sister; we are not even remotely related. Iyer is the common ground between us but we are not related. However, she is my very good friend.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes. My mother is a wonderful Karnataka classical singer. I think my sisters and I have got this gift of music because of her. I have three older sisters - Arpana, Padmini and Shobha. Padmini and I are the only ones who are taking music seriously. We always wanted to pursue it professionally so we are doing that. We are still students and still learning and hopefully we will be able to achieve whatever we have thought of.
So have you sung any commercial songs with Padmini?
Not in films, no. But we have done a lot of jingles together, a lot of television too.
In how many languages have you sung?
I have sung in many Indian languages. I have sung for a lot of feature films in Assamese, in Bengali, in Oriya. I have sung nearly six-hundred songs in Assamese language. I am known as Mahalukhimi there, and in Calcutta, its Mahalokhi. I am considered as a native in Assam, and I have heard stories where they have asked people that when did she move to Bombay? So apparently, my diction is as perfect as it can be. I've also done Gujarati and Marathi films. I have won awards in Gujarati and Marathi. I have won the Alpha award for Best Playback for a film called Adhar. I have won the Maharashtra Kala Niketan award for a film called Suna Yeti Gharaat. I have also won an award for a Gujarati film. I have sung a lot of Marathi and Gujarati titles for television.
You've done so much! When did you start singing?
My first foray into singing was doing ad jingles, which I started in the year 1993. By 1995 I was firmly entrenched into singing and that's when I became a professional singer you could say. In the year 1995 I started doing a lot more ad films and serials and media was just beginning to open up. A lot of channels came about so a lot of television serials happened at that time. Around 1997-98, I got my break with Dil Se and Dus.
How important are awards to you, as compared with recognition?
Awards are just another way of getting recognized. I think if I may say so, I am already recognized as a singer. But I think an award will only add a feather in my cap. I think awards are another way to inspire myself to do better. Since the best in the country are judging you, then you want to give your best every time. It's a motivation, definitely. So I am neither for it nor against it. So if I win an award today I will be very happy because it will be like a pat on my back.
Who would you say is your favourite singer in Bollywood?
Since childhood Lata Mangeshkar has always been an inspiration. Listening to her perfection and divinity that she brings in her singing has always inspired me. But I must add that after I became a singer, the contribution of Ashaji has greatly inspired me, because when you are a playback singer, you realize how important it is to be versatile. So I would say that these two prima donnas have had a fantastic contribution. It is very difficult to choose between them.
What do you think of Himesh Reshammiya as a singer and composer?
Himesh is a wonderful composer. Unfortunately the trend of the Indian film industry is such that if something works, people like to milk it till it is dead. I think that is what has happened with Himesh's music. There is a very play-safe attitude in the industry. So if anyone says lets try something else, people say no, lets not. So I think somewhere he is stuck in that. But I must say that he has given some good songs in his earlier films. I have sung for him and I do know that he is capable of doing very different music as well.
Which song have you sung for him?
I have sung in a film called Chura Liya Hai Tumney.
You have already worked with many established music directors now. Anyone else you'd like to work with in the future?
My wish-list right now includes Vishal Bhardwaj because I had worked with Vishal in a lot of ad films when he had come down from Delhi. But somewhere he got lost for sometime and then got into direction. After that I have not been able to get in touch with him. So my wish-list includes him. There is also a new music director called Mithoon. I am highly impressed with his work and I have heard a few songs that he has done...I think he is brilliant. I think the new lot that has come is really showing good potential. And also I believe Monty Sharma who has done Saawariya for Sanjay Leela Bhansali has done some amazing work. So if I hear anything new and exciting, I am dying to hear that and then work with that person because obviously as an artist I'd like to see what I can do with a new music director.
Three songs of yours which are favourites...
Kabhi Shaam Dhale, is my favourite because it was my first challenging song. Such songs are kept aside for the established singers. Then I would say Chup Chup Ke, because it got me a lot of recognition. I got the tag of a very capable singer. And finally I would choose Aaj Ki Raat because it has given me mass popularity.
What are your upcoming projects?
There are lots of them, but the one I am really looking forward to is Jhoom Barabar Jhoom where I am doing an item-number song and a romantic song, so it was like two different styles of singing for me in one film. There is a beautiful song in a film called Kabhi Up Kabhi Down which is more like parallel cinema. Then there are movies like Tara Rum Pum, and Life Mein Kabhi Kabhi which is just releasing. And I am also doing a very nice song in Just Married. So there are a lot of projects but I am hoping that one of them could become a big hit.