’Mahalakshmi Iyer has been singing for the movies for more than two decades.
Trained in Hindustani music, she has songs in different genres, different languages.
She has even got an Oscar-winning song -- Slumdog Millionaire’s Jai Ho to her credit.
She looks back at her career,
You are trained in Hindustani music. Was the atmosphere at home a musical one? Is that what made you take up singing?
Yeah. My mother was a wonderful Carnatic singer.
I am the youngest of four sisters.
There was so much music in the family, so much music playing from morning.
Everybody had varied tastes.
Automatically, I would start singing. Everyone was singing, of course.
Somewhere down the line, my parents, like the quintessential south Indian parents, decided one must learn music.
They decided Hindustani would be better because we lived in Mumbai and sang a lot of Hindi -- mainly north Indian music.
Also, my father was a keen listener of Hindustani classical music.
The mahaul (atmosphere) was so music-dominated that I had no choice but to take up music later.
I learnt from the time I was 10 years of age.
How did playback singing happen? You made your debut in 1998 with Dil Se..
I sang a lot of jingles.
Television was big at that point of time, so I sang for a lot of serials.
I was working with a few musicians who were working with Rahman sir. So someone mentioned about me.
When I met the musician Ranjitji (Ranjit Barot), he told me, ‘I thought you would be recording in Chennai.’
I said I haven’t received the call.
He said, it will happen.
I was very excited.
Unfortunately, it did not happen then.
Much later, Rajiv Menon mentioned that he wanted me to do a song for a film which did not materialise. I was still waiting.
A close friend -- I call him my mentor, Brij Bhushanji (voiceover artist Brij Bhushan Sharma) -- was a close friend of Rahman sir. He had mentioned about me to Rahman sir, but he said he did not have any songs for me then.
Somewhere an opportunity came up and Brij Bhushanji called and said why not try her?
Rahmanji said there is not much for her in this song.
Brij Bhushanji told Rahman that he could at least check her vocals and her texture.
So Rahman sir called me and I sang that little part in Dil Se..
I think he liked it and within the same month, I went back and did a few more songs for Rahman sir.
That set the ball rolling.
You went on to sing many songs in different languages and under different music composers. Could you talk about your association with different composers? You seem to have collaborated more with Rahman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
I recorded for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s first Hindi feature film Dus and Rahman sir’s Dil Se.. in the same week.
Unfortunately, Dus did not release because we lost the film’s director (Mukul Anand) during the making of the film.
The soundtrack was recorded and released as a tribute to him and the song (Sonu Gaur Se Duniya Walon) became very popular.
I have been fortunate to work with the top notch music directors of this country from Raja Sir (Ilayaraja), Harris Jayaraj, Murthy or Guru Kiran in Kannada or Deva Sir, D Immam.
In Mumbai, I have worked with Vishal-Shekhar, Salim-Suleiman, Annu Malik...
I am close to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy because my association goes back to them from my first jingle. I started with them and did a lot of jingles with them.
Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy know my style.
They even give me against my type.
I was typecast as this sweet, soulful, melodic voice singer, but they gave me unusual songs like Aaj Ki Raat and Jhoom Barabar.
Shankar-Ehsaan Loy have always made me push my own boundaries.
Rahman sir has also given me interesting songs.
Chalka Chalka Re is one song where he pushed us saying I want you to sing like this -- sing like a goat, sing like an old woman sings to make the song interesting.
Rahman Sir would say just take this song and make it yours. Just sing it.
Raja (Ilayaraja) sir is a very text book kind of a music director who will give you the song, give the lines and you just have to go behind the mike and execute it as best as you can.
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