When he recreated old songs, Lata Mangeshkar expressed approval. Today, Neeraj Shridhar is the hit-machine of Bhagam Bhag, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Billu and Kal Kissne Dekha. Obviously, the man has carved a niche for herself
You are probably the only successful name to move from remixes and re-creations to being an in-demand playback singer.
In those times my struggle was about when and which would be my next song. But let me tell you that the nervousness is far more now than it was at that point!
It is more than a decade since Lata Mangeshkar, no less, praised you at a concert in Mumbai.
How can I forget that evening? I was not at my best, and still Lataji made it a point to tell me, "Mujhe pasand aaya" about my recreation of her Padosan song Main chali - and it was at her own concert! That was such a privilege! The old songs have a charm that cannot be described. I know that music cannot stay the same, but the old style of knitting the film and the song together cannot be matched.
You were known as Bombay Vikings before. Please explain.
My parents moved to Sweden when I was about fourteen. I formed a band there - I was the leader but also the only one who wasn't a gora. I needed an apt name for my band and went through the usual kind of ethnic Indian names like Om, Shivam, Delhi Vikings et cetera and then thought of Bombay Vikings, which sounded nice. By the way, very few people know that music is the second-largest export of Sweden.
As a band, we did gigs in Germany, Holland, Austria, Chicago and other places. We would sing Hip-Hop, Soul, Funk and Rhythm & Blues in Swedish and English, but with my strong Indian influence. We finally dismantled the band in 1995.
How did Kya soorat hai, your maiden re-creation, happen?
I was always fond of Hindi film music. My mother sings and I have inherited the gift. I was travelling by train to a German town when I looked out of the window and saw a car travelling parallel to the train, just like in the song Mere sapnon ki rani from Aradhana. Suddenly, I began singing aloud in the empty carriage and that too in English to fit the tune. When I reached my studio, the musicians just loved the song's unique flavour and began to play it on their guitars. That was the genesis of what ultimately became my first-ever album, Kya Soorat Hai, my version of Zaroorat hai. But this happened after I had kept the project in the closet for five long years!
So you too had to go through the classic struggle in India.
Yes, Sony-BMG, then called Sony Music, was the only company to take my album as it was. So many music companies turned me down, saying,"Yeh nahin bikega" (It won't sell). They wanted changes. After that, of course, I got an offer from Universal Music. The album Woh Chali Woh Chali was released in 2003, with four remixes and five originals, followed by Chhod Do Aanchal Zamana Kya Kahega and Zara Nazron Se Keh Do in 2004 and 2006 respectively. The song Angel eyes in Hindi and English became a rage and was performed in countries like Trinidad and Tabago to an audience of 35,000!
You are seen as a trendsetter.
(Smiles) There was another side to my struggle too - I had to face immense criticism then for mixing English with Hindi! But today, things have changed. I am thought of as a man who changed the look of music! My forthcoming album with T-Series is an original soundtrack of what I always wanted to do and Bhushan Kumar insisted that I do whatever I feel like doing, so it does seem that I have come a long way! I am happy that though it took a long while for the industry to digest my voice, it has happened.
And which was your first song in films?
My first break in films was Pyar ke naam pe in Rules - Pyaar Ka Super-Hit Formula (2003) with music by Sandesh Shandilya. I also sang Dil di nazar for Himesh Reshammiya in Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya. But yes, the good times began with Bhagam Bhag. Pritam, in that sense and more, is my mentor. Someone has to give an opportunity to an artiste that takes him to big-time and for me that was Pritam!
Most of your post-Bhagam Bhag work has also been for him.
Yes. all of Pritam's songs with me have been hits, whether it was Ishq da kalma in Goal, Baat pakki in Just Married, Race saanson ki from Race, Ae pappi from Kismat Konnection, Tha karke and Vacancy from Golmaal Returns, Talli hua from Singh Is Kinng and Love mera hit hit from Billu and the biggest of them all, Hare Ram Hare Ram from Bhool Bhulaiya, which was huge.
But this song was more about a hook-line than the composition itself.
As a song, I agree that anyone could have sung it. But it had this strange X-factor that caught on. I also worked on the English portion of the lyrics and had a great time working with Sameerji.
Who are the other music directors you have worked with?
The list of music directors who are calling me is widening, thankfully, and their songs too have been mostly popular - Rajesh Roshan's O re lakad in Krazzy 4, Vishal-Shekhar's Halke halke from Honeymoon Travels Pvt.Ltd and Salim-Sulaiman's Aaja maahi from 8X10 Tasveer were also appreciated. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Sajid-Wajid have also been very supportive. When I heard Shankar sing out Ticket to Bollywood in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and the title-track of Chandni Chowk To China to me as playback assignments I asked him why he wanted me when he was singing so fabulously himself. But he insisted that they were songs best suited to me! JBJ was a very big song for me at that time, with a combination like Yash Raj Films with Gulzar! And when Shankar told director Nikhil Advani of CC2C that only I could sing the song, it was nothing less than an honour. I also sang for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in Heyy Babyy.
I have now recorded for Anu Malikji in Kambakkth Ishq. And let me tell you that it was a truly wonderful experience!
What else is coming up?
Pritam has given me an extraordinary song in Imtiaz Ali's new film. Pritam always gives me a lot of freedom. He believes that a singer should come up with his best.
How do you see this trend of non-singers singing more as a novelty, genuine playback singers singing far less and the general trend of ignoring the basics of good singing?
You see, what's happening in the West is beginning to happen here. A fresh voice with an attitude is needed! Till a few years go, it was about not singing even one note wrong, but today you can go and do it. In punk rock, for example, you are not supposed to sing properly - they call it "singing loose"! Changes are bound to be there, I guess.
What is the kind of music you yourself love to listen?
Among my prized possessions is a CD of Ustad Allahrakha and Zakir Hussain. And I adore Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar.