Monday, August 29, 2005

We totally have Justin in da house!

Funny, that I was alerted to this by a rather disparaging post about the person in question, but I think we may be finally witnessing the emergence of a genuine home-grown Indian "popstar" in the Western sense of the term. To make sense of the point I'm trying to make here, we'll have to step back a bit and assess the history of Indian popular music over the last 4 decades or so. Indian popular cinema has always given pride of place to music, barring only a few exceptions. In days when dubbing technology was still not very well-developed, Hindi films used a workable compromise to cast actors in movies, those who had charisma, screen presence and acting skills, who also had moderately good voices that would pass muster in popular music. Sometimes someone was a better singer than an actor, a la KL Saigal, but mostly singing beauties like Kanan Devi and Noorjehan made it a fairly happy compromise.

As sound technology developed in the late 1940s and with it the possibility for playback singing, the connection between on screeen presence and singing ability became increasingly uncoupled. So now, it became possible to have an actor/actress who was good looking and could act well on screen and have their songs dubbed by those whose sole talent was a superb singing voice. And thus, even though divas like Lata Mangeshkar (and I do mean diva in every sense) started their film careers as singer-actresses, she quickly moved on to become exclusively a playback/dubbing singer, heard universally, rarely seen. This arrangement continued for decades, and as a result in Indian public consciousness, there was a neat demarcation between visual appeal and charisma and a mellifluous voice providing aural pleasure.

Sure there were the Usha Uthups, dashing live performers with fab voices, but Usha was always at the margins, and never had much mainstream appeal (except in Bengal I guess). And then there was Kishore Kumar, brilliant singer and immensely entertaining as a live performer, but certainly no one expected him to have charisma (it was a bonus), and the fact that he had such a wonderful singing voice was enough. So of course, when pop music as a genre separate from film scores started in the early 1980s (Nazia Hassan's Disco Deewane was a pioneer), it was initially fairly hard for the Indian record-buying public to reconcile the dichotomy. One of my uncles loved Nazia and had her LPs (it helped that she was stunningly beautiful), but for a lot of members of my family, Nazia was just not talented enough. "Can she sing like Lata Mangeshkar?" was the constant refrain. Never mind that not everyone needs to be a singer in the Lata mould, technical virtuoso with the charisma of a wet blanket. Nazia was beautiful and could sing passably well. The young adored her, but the older generation still frowned. But Nazia was a flash in the pan and for years Indian pop singers had to struggle with a valuation system that was hypercritical of their singing abilities without taking into account their sex appeal, stage presence, situation in a certain musical idiom etc. Let me tell ya, Bob Dylan could have never, ever made it if he was born Indian.

That perception has been changing in recent years, and if we needed proof that this is the case, it is here. This is a new reality show meets Pop/American Idol on Indian TV called Fame Gurukul, where a bunch of contestants are made to undergo a random set of training sessions under the tutelage of singer Ila Arun, and then presented to a live audience to do their thing. They are rated on their performance by a panel of judges as well votes by audience members calling in. The winner of the show gets a recording contract with Sony Music, and of course the publicity and national recognition is good too. The show has been going on for a while now, and I haven't really watched any of the episodes, though I've seen a few video recaps online on the show's website. The curious phenomenon in the show is the case of Qazi Touqeer, a 19-year old boy from Srinagar, Kashmir with a flamboyant personality and effortless charm. The judges seem to think he's a mediocre singer, and put him in the bottom heap in every single show. But voila! what do you know, the voting audience keeps bringing him back on. This has apparently happened 5 times already, and as I write, I don't know if he's survived on the show or finally voted out.

Obviously the viewers of the show have a very different view of his potential as a "pop star" than the judges. None of the other contestants seem to have the audience appeal that this boy has, and he seems to revel in the spotlight like no other. His clothes, gestures and dancing are all brash and Bollywood, but in conversation he comes across as a genuinely likeable homeboy. Music companies would be foolish to not offer him a record contract, talent or no talent, because rarely have I seen a subcontinental performer strut on stage like he owns the place (I can think of Ali Azmat from Junoon, and Ali's voice and this boy's voice are at about the same point on a talent scale, don't get me wrong, I love Junoon). Sure he's cheesy, totally enamoured of Bollywood heros and his style is derivative of them, but he is a pop eye candy package in the way someone like Shubha Mudgal isn't (and I absolutely adore Shubha Mudgal, and would rather listen to her than Qazi anyday). Point is we need a desi Justin Timberlake, an Indian Britney Spears, heck even a subcontinental JLo. We just need to stir things up a bit. And Qazi may just be the answer we are looking for.

And no, I don't think people are voting for Qazi because he is a Kashmiri Muslim and the Muslim members of the audience are jamming the SMS lines, as the original poster alleges. Sure being Kashmiri adds to the appeal, but in the end Qazi brings a very fresh approach to pop music in India, one where we don't obsess over the technical perfections of the voice, but enjoy the performance as a whole. And he is definitely very easy on the eye, and I can see his appeal with teenage girls. You go boy!

17 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,
I glanced through your blog. Unlike mine, it's systematic and detailed. Nazia Hassan died at a very young age; but she faced her illness with bravery and did her bit. I think we need all, be it Annu Malik, Zohrabai Ambalawali or Nazia Hassan. I like them all (though some of them steal!).

-Catgunhome!

9:56 PM  
Blogger Sinfully Pinstripe said...

Precisely the kind of post I like. Unpretentious.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous AB said...

I just watched Indian Idol. I thought Fame didn't have half the charm. But I guess for those who watch it, it must be interesting. The other day I saw this overfed boy on MTV with Pooja Bedi from Fame. Also Ila Arun and KK justifying why they bring in twists in the show.

2:46 AM  
Blogger K said...

Don't you hate it when the words in 'Word Verification' look like they've gone through the San Andreas fault? Anyway, the linked poster seems to be a bit - dare I say it - xenophobic - similar theories would have come up if a red cheeked North Eastern christian girl was doing well, I'm sure. Anyway I don't watch Fame Gurukul, because I think Sony's trying to fill in the months between Indian Idol (which is a very good show) with something different - but this isn't that good. Better than the 'Dance Dance' concept they started though. But when it comes to musicians and singers - and I will be my parochial bong self here - there is nobody better than Bappida. Heck, how many Indian composers can claim that their songs were ripped off by hip hop subculture! And Bappida is the man who introduced the world to bling! Bappida is the Nigga!
Go Bappida!
I have no clue what the point of this comment was!

4:50 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

@catgunhome: I remember thinking how cool corduroy overalls were after seeing Nazia wear them on her album cover (ok I was like 7). Yes, she was very special.

@sinfully pinstripe: Thanks!

@AB: I haven't seen Indian Idol either. But I did see pictures and heard the album of Abhijeet Sawant. He seems to be stuck in the same mould as our playback singing though. I thought things would change after Sunidhi Chauhan. Guess not (too many Kishore clones).

@K: Yeah, I do. So a straight line is not enough to throw off spambots? I think you are right about the linked poster being a bit xenophobic, people come up with outlandish arguments to justify their biases. Again, haven't seen either show.

I think Bappida was definitely ahead of his time. Sure the plagiarism was pathetic, and some of the music was just plain wacky, but oh the bling bling! If the man had been born in the US, he would have pioneered the hip hip genre.

11:29 AM  
Blogger www.gypsynan.blogspot.com said...

random comment: when oh when will the Indian female singer be permitted to have a voice that is not reminiscent of lata, thin, high pitched and same old same old. Ever heard traditional chinese songs... we are barely a step ahead. Usha and Asha and Geeta dutt and salma agha and ila arun, diversity please!

5:45 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

@gypsynan: Oh thank you, thank you, for voicing the sentiment that I dare not pronounce for fear of being lynched. Yes indeed, we've lived enough in the shadow of helium grandma. I mean she may be technically flawless and all that, but boy is she shrill in high notes. Meanwhile gorgeous voices like Jagjit Kaur, Chhaya Ganguly et al. wilted away. Sadness!

11:31 PM  
Blogger K said...

I still laugh at 'You are my Chicken Fry'... Anyway while I agree that Lata's voice has become a kind of template and boring, I think it is a joy to hear good RabindraSangeet sung by a woman with a deep husky voice. And talking about music have you ever heard a Cal based band called 'Cactus' They are a mix of hip-hop, rap, rock all in Bangla. Quite entertaining!

6:24 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

@K: The joy when Suchitra Mitra sings! And though the latter day Kanika Bandopadhyay became a bit too nasal for my taste, she sounds divine in many songs.

I've heard a few songs by Cactus, and am fairly optimistic about the Bangla band scene. Let's just hope it's not a flash in the pan!

3:01 PM  
Blogger K said...

Interestingly Suchitra Mitra stays in the same building as my maternal granny. If you like Bangla music there is Floyd-esque band calld 'Poros Pathor'

4:30 AM  
Blogger Sinfully Pinstripe said...

That was the Shantiniketan way of singing Rabindrasangeet. As in, what is called the 'Khola-golay-robindroshongeet?-Kee-shanghatik!' way of singing Rabindrasangeet.
And Konika Bandyopadhyay is amazing. Just Amazing.

7:02 AM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Hey!

Qazi seems out. Checked the website.

But, it is impressive that you are on top of some show back home. I don't have a clue!

Hmm... kvvgxbuq

1:15 AM  
Blogger Urmea said...

Busy busy? Do post...

2:17 PM  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

Lata's voice is high pitched to the point of...fingernails on blackboards. Eek. I don't care if she's technically perfect, she's hurting me!

11:57 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

@k: You're so lucky! Have you heard her sing in person?

@sinfully pinstripe: Yes very aware of Mohor-di's Shantiniketan connections. I love her voice, but I think I do have a slight soft corner for Suchitra Mitra.

@sanity starved: I checked and it seems Qazi is still hanging on, actually it's hard to tell. To tell the truth, I don't follow Indian TV at all. I just randomly came upon a reference to the show on a blog. Actually, I don't watch much TV, period.

@Urmi: Not so much busy busy as.....well, dactile-impaired. My keyboard got fried, so had to wait a while to get a new one.

@Aishwarya: Again, I salute your courage to say what I'm usually wary of saying in Indian company. But yes, Lata's voice is painful, and there are times when she has these duets with Mohd. Rafi, when I so so wish her voice would sort of recede in the background and just let Rafi take over.

12:41 PM  
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12:02 AM  
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