Pop! Goes the wannabe

Bollywood may have killed Indipop but a small group of musicians are refusing to give up the dream, says Aastha Atray Banan

All in one Meenu Singh
All in one Meenu Singh

IN OSHIWARA, they still have popstars. The Made in IndiasMiss Indias and Bolo Ta Ra Ra Ras have faded out of our lives. We don’t dance anymore to Malkit Singh’s Gud Nal Ishq Mitha or Baba Sehgal’s Manjula during a sangeet ceremony. But in Oshiwara, they still have popstars. Record companies are no longer looking for new talent and music channels are not trying to find the Indian Spice Girls, but the popstar dream has not faded for a handful of singers, many of whom live in this suburban Mumbai neighbourhood. Take Nandini Jumani. A few months ago, 20-foot billboards sprouted across Mumbai advertising Krazy Kool Kat’s new album Krazy Kool Kat Been Bajake. Most people reading this would have never heard of Nandini aka Krazy Kool Kat’s album. As Amit Gurbaxani, music writer and senior editor at Mumbai Boss, says bluntly, “Not a single person I know listens/buys/ watches this brand of Indipop.” But Krazy Kool Kat occupies a small ecosystem of celebrity of her own, with her own screaming fans and her own idea of what a popstar should be.
She has released five albums and performs the songs from those albums all year round in B-town India. In a slow month, she does at least seven live shows in small towns such as Nagpur, Sholapur and Sangli. In a better month, she is touring overseas — for corporate shows, cruises and weddings. For each show, she earns around Rs 2 lakh. Jumani has an extensive wardrobe of mini jumpsuits, hot pants and bikini tops — all “sensual”, not “sexual”, she insists. Her videos (which flit by on Zee and ETC) are raunchy with lots of gyrating and writhing. She largely sings remixes like Yama Yama, Kaante Nahin KatateSapera Been Baja Mein Nachoongi.
For someone who goes by the moniker Krazy Kool Kat, Jumani seems sane. Her Facebook status messages are unlikely for a steamy video queen but let us say, topical. “I am with Anna Hazare, but why isn’t Kiran Bedi in the public committee” and “Bhag neta bhag, Anna aaya”. No make-up, except a hint of kajal, dressed in gym clothes, with diamonds sparkling in her ears, she looks like a Bollywood wannabe who could possibly just make it. But Jumani has already made it.
The scenes at her live shows are more often than not chaotic — the largely male audience (businessmen, local traders or junior executives) doesn’t hesitate to express their affection for the performer and scream “Nandini, marry me” or “Krazy Kat bas meri hain” . Her lyrics are intended to cause a faint breathlessness. Sometimes her fans do get close enough to even touch her but her bouncers ( “I have 30 bouncers sometimes,” says Jumani with wide-eyed pride) are prepared for the jostling.
JUMANI IS just one of the handful of practitioners of Indipop who are still splashing around trying to survive the tsunami called Bollywood music. Indipop has been dead and cremated long time ago. Today, record companies ask you to make your own album and a video before you approach them, and you still have to pay them to release it — the musical equivalent of vanity publishing. Their logic: pop doesn’t sell. Bollywood music rules the roost — at discos, weddings and even cricket matches. Bollywood killed pop music and, in effect, our many popstars, many of whom got forced into playback (Sonu Niigaam, Alisha Chinai, Daler Mehndi), or into judging reality music shows, and many who just withered away. What’s left are the likes of Jumani who admit they continue to struggle not only because they love pop, but also because they don’t really know what else to do.
Like every popstar, Jumani has a story of how her stardom was meant to be. This Assamese girl has an MA in history and comes from a family of professors. She wanted to be an IPS officer. “It seems so funny I ended up in this profession. My mother was shocked. I did a few ads and then realised I loved the camera. I am shy but in front of the camera, I transform. Maybe because I am super ambitious, and I know being sexy and wearing sexy clothes is what sells. But then what are our top heroines doing as well? I like being looked at when I am on stage. And I am confident of my body,” she says matter-of-factly. “What hurts me is that people think I am like my image. They think I’m easy, and don’t take me seriously. I’ve lasted all these years because I took the right steps.” She has been around for six years now and has rock-steady confidence. “I am Kareena and Priyanka rolled into one. I’m the ‘It’ girl,” she adds.
Not everyone is as lucky as Jumani, but that hasn’t stopped them for giving pop a shot.

As Shefali Jariwala was making a sensation with her blue thongs in Kanta Laga, poor Shashwati Phukan did the actual singing

Devashish Sargam, who released his first album under the T- series label in 2008 after seven years of struggle, is now waiting for his second album to surface. The 33-year-old Bengali thanks his parents for helping him survive all these years. “Music producers forget their own days of struggle when they see new people like us. It’s been a hard road. I was going to be a CA but I knew singing was my passion. And I didn’t want to give up. I have been told not to release an album. But I think if you are talented, your album will work,” he says confidently. His first album, Bewafa Yaar Tha, was a hit in small towns because of the one “sad song” T-series advised him to sing. “But my new album will only have peppy songs. It’s called Sorry Tujhe Salam. Great name, right?” he asks as hopefully as a child.

A shot in the dark Devashish Sargam
A shot in the dark Devashish Sargam

SARGAM IS inspired by the romantic greats such as Sonu Niigaam, Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan. His next album (self-produced), has the kind of music he likes — romantic peppy tunes with danceable beats. He has composed and written three of the songs in the album. Now T-series will release it. “Usually albums don’t use acoustic sounds but we have used trash cans to give a new texture to the album. The lyrics are all about love and there is a mix of Hindi and English — that’s what I want to be known for.” Sargam hasn’t done many shows till yet, and doesn’t even know how much his first album sold. “Record companies will say it didn’t sell anything!” But he is sure he doesn’t want to give up just yet.
Much like Meenu Singh, who released her debut album Dhol Vajda in January. The spunky mother of one sits in her Lokhandwala flat, advising a producer couple about how to make a movie. Meenu came to Mumbai 15 years ago, first to become an actress (she landed a bit part in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat), then got married. She had always loved writing, so she started by writing a song for singer Bali Brahmbhatt. Soon, she found herself writing hit songs for Daler Mehndi and Mika. But Meenu couldn’t ignore that nagging feeling inside her. “I always wanted to be famous. Money doesn’t matter but I wanted to be in front of the camera.” And so, she decided to release her own album, which she has produced, financed, composed music and written lyrics for. “I even made my own video and then T-series released it.” In her hip-hop styled video, Meenu has lots of bling and fur. One song goes “India ho ya London shondon ya ho Amrika, bin tere sanu na sanu lagda sab hai fika fika” — lyrics she describes as “elegant”. She describes her style in a marvellously simple way: “I look like a foreigner.” She would rather perform in the UK than India and will keep releasing albums till she has the money to do it. “It’s my passion and I am just getting started.”
Crooning queen Nandini Jumani aka Krazy Kool Kat
Crooning queen Nandini Jumani aka Krazy Kool Kat

But not everyone has the money or indulgent parents to fund their dreams. Live performer George, who has been dancing and singing Bollywood and Punjabi hits for eight years, is a steward in an airline. The Delhi boy says he is ready for the struggle. “I’m trying to save enough money to try and release an album. I do live shows whenever I can and my friends help me get corporate events. And thanks to my cabin crew training, I am super confident. It’s a very tough industry and I shouldn’t even be wasting my time. But singing and performing is my passion. I am an artiste. Where do you go when that’s your scene?”
AN UNEXPECTED twist. Krazy Kool Kat, the It girl of B-grade pop, informs us she doesn’t sing her own songs. She lipsyncs. “I don’t sing my songs but I do decide what songs we should remix as well as the styling of a video. While we process this information, she defends herself, “But I sell the album. Everyone wants to see a beautiful girl. I do feel bad for the singers, though,” she rues in her soft voice and then flashes a brilliant smile. She lipsyncs. So who sings her songs?
Enter Shashwati Phukan. Thirty four- year-old Phukan is the singer of many remixed Indipop songs, but nobody knows she even sung them. She has sung many of Krazy Kool Kat’s songs. What you will remember is the sensation- causing video of  Kanta Laga with Shefali Jariwala. While Shefali was making a sensation with her blue thongs, poor Phukan did all the singing. As she says sadly, “Being beautiful is very important here. If you are not stunning, well you can sing as well as anyone fipossibly can, but you will get nowhere.” The Assamese singer, who has been in Mumbai for 15 years now, sees no point giving money to record companies. She’d rather wait it out. “My husband is a programmer and one day we will release an album,” she smiles.
JUMANI WOULD be considered a Bgrade performer by most. Many industry insiders were horrified they would be featured in a piece that even mentioned Jumani. The Indipop industry itself is confused about how it got to this point. For instance, popstar-turnedplayback singer KK says, “Pop music needs to get back its lost glory.” On the other hand, KK also says that real popstars like him and Alisha Chinai were absorbed by the playback industry because they were talented and lucky. Jumani and the second rung, he surmises, just can’t break into playback singing.
Tulsi Kumar is 25 and strangely placed in this strange world. The hip, young daughter of the late Gulshan Kumar, and a part of the T-series empire says, yes, Bollywood music is the only kind of music lucrative for record companies to sell. Yes, you could blame the radio, which gave no air time to pop songs. And audiences so star-struck that a song or video without Shah Rukh doesn’t work for them.
Tulsi loves pop but can’t see a revenue model in it. “I took the reverse route. I did Bollywood singing first and then released an album as I didn’t want people to say ‘she released an album only because she can’,” she says, “but even that didn’t work. We just released around 36,000 copies, and that’s a very average show. People told me I should have had a star in my video and then maybe it would have worked. But is that what pop music has been reduced to?”
Tulsi went back to playback. She has faint but damning praise for other pop wannabes. Much like KK. “It’s really hard to break into Bollywood. Playback is cut-throat competition. So it’s great they are doing what they can to make their living. I am not planning to release an album anytime soon but will try and introduce the single concept in India. I hope it works.”

Meenu Singh has produced, financed, composed music and lyrics for her album. She says she’d rather perform in the UK than India

Harmeet Singh, part of the production duo Meet Brothers, who gave music for Do Dooni Chaar, has been on the Indipop bandwagon for a long time now. You may remember them from their super hit song, Mika’s Aye Bhai Tune Pappi Kyun Li, inspired by Mika’s real life kiss episode with Rakhi Sawant. Harmeet is completely dismissive of the genre now but he is also one of the few people who get what drives the pop wannabes. “Honestly, pop is dead and in the coffin now. I blame it on piracy, free radio, MP3 formats and the Internet. Why these guys are still surfacing is because they have a keeda,” he laughs. “They need to be out there. But I advise all my brothers and sisters who want to be in pop music, don’t do it. And if you do, have a back-up profession to rely on.”
That is something Jumani and gang knows well. But as Harmeet also pointed out, the keeda is an itch you just can’t ignore. “The camera and I have a relationship,” says Jumani, “I can’t even imagine not being in front of it. I love seeing myself on tape. I dance in front of people and see them go mad about me, what more can I ask for?” Meenu answers in a dreamy tone, “I was tired of my songs being sung by different popstars but I got none of the starlight. I’ll repeat it again: I want to be famous.”
Aastha Atray Banan is a Senior Correspondent in Mumbai with Tehelka.