The rules of Hindi cinema rarely change. In every field, there are always decisive leaders in each era, whether it is actors, filmmakers, composers, singers or even choreographers. In the field of female playback, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle ruled for decades, and Alka Yagnik and Kavita Krishnamurthi dominated from the ’90s to the early millennium. Sunidhi Chauhan and Shreya Ghoshal are the new divas of the ditties, and simply do not have worthwhile challengers.
Today, Sunidhi, who started out as a child singer with Aadesh Shrivastava’s Shastra (1996) and swiftly graduated to a decisive ‘adult’ break with Sandeep Chowta’s Mast (1999), recording the sensuous song when she was 15, and Shreya, who came in with Ismail Darbar’s Devdas (2002) at the age of 17, are the reigning queens of ‘playbackdom’.
Shreya got a dream break, singing all the (hit) songs for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. But dream breaks do not translate into sustained runs unless they are backed by key factors like consistency, hard work, and the ability to adapt and reinvent when trends change.
Success in Hindi film playback scene is primarily about just two Vs — vocal quality and versatility. Apart from these two aspects, however, there are some unique common grounds the two songstresses share: composer duo Kalyanji-Anandji.
When Sunidhi was less than 10 years old, she caught the attention of actress Tabassum at a Delhi gathering. Tabassum convinced Sunidhi’s parents to shift to Mumbai and introduced them to the maestros, who began her training in film singing. In a matter of months, she became the star of K-A’s Little Wonders troupe, her coup being singing the Lata Mangeshkar-Ila Arun duet Lamhe hit, Morni Baaga Maa Bole, in both the voices. She then went on to grab the top prize at the talent contest, Meri Awaaz Suno, on DD.
While Sunidhi was the daughter of a small-time theatre artiste from Delhi, Shreya’s parents were from a different background — her father being a nuclear engineer.
Shreya trained under her classically-trained musician mother. As a child, she also won in a talent hunt show — Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on Zee TV — and Kalyanji, who was one of the judges, convinced her father to move to Mumbai, where she continued training under the composer in the specific art of playback.
For Sunidhi, lucky breaks came from singer Sonu Nigam, who introduced her to Sandeep Chowta, who signed her for Ram Gopal Varma’s Mast, where one of the songs, Ruki Ruki Thi Zindagi, got her instantly noticed, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who watched Shreya perform on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa for the second time as an adult, traced her. Bhansali loves to narrate how the old Laxmikant-Pyarelal classic, Jeevan Dor Tumhi Sang Baandhi (Sati Savitri), was playing on his lips the day he met Shreya, and when he first asked Shreya to sing any song, she sang the same one!
Shreya’s Bairi Piya also saw her achieve a rare feat — the first of her five National awards. Shreya’s other National trophies are from Dheere Jalna (Paheli), Yeh Ishq Haaye (Jab We Met) and as a tie with herself for Jeev Rangala from Jogwa (Marathi) and Pherari Mon from Antaheen (Bengali) in 2008.
Of late, the two girls are also concentrating on non-film work — Sunidhi has been attracted to singing Rabindra Sangeet, while Shreya wants to try her hand at pure ghazal besides increasing her Bengali output to “more than just the obligatory annual Durga Pujo album.”
For better & for vers(atility)
But the foremost weapon in the Chauhan-Ghoshal armoury is their versatility. Opportunities form a part of this, and Shreya’s own take on it is: “I am very lucky that my second major film was M M Kreem’s Jism, in which my songs Jadoo Hai and Chalo Tumko Lekar Chale were seduction numbers, as opposed to the traditional romantic numbers of Devdas,” she said. “They prevented me from being branded. I also got a lot of variety through Anu (Malik)-ji.”
Sunidhi too feels that Anu played a major role in her evolution. “If Anuji gave me item numbers after Mujhe Mast Mahoul in Fiza, he also fought with the producers to give me Meri Zindagi Mein in Ajnabee, and because of that I was accepted in typical heroines’ romantic numbers,” she stated.
In the last three years, with melody making strong inroads post-Dabangg, Shreya has had a distinct edge over Sunidhi, because she has even managed ‘item’ songs.
By the same token, Sunidhi has made it a point to score with each song of calibre. From re-creations like Parda (Once Upon A Time In Mumbai) to Seekh Le (Munna Bhai MBBS), and Sheela Ki Jawani (Tees Maar Khan), it’s been a journey of excellence and innovation more than just about busting charts.
Today, a Shreya sings an Ooh La La (The Dirty Picture), Balmaa (Khiladi 786), Radha (Student Of The Year) and Chikni Chameli (Agneepath) with the same expertise as her soft and soothing Chandaniya, the lullaby from Rowdy Rathore and the staid Dagabaaz Re (Dabangg 2). And Sunidhi soothes with the serene Udi (Guzaarish) and delivers the rousing number Aa Zara Kareeb Se (Murder 2) with as much panache as Jabse Mere Dil Ko Uff (Teri Meri Kahaani).
However, the perception that Shreya is more ‘Indian’ and Sunidhi a shade ‘international’ still persists, as evidenced in the forthcoming Himmatwala wherein Shreya shoulders Naino Mein Sapna and Sunidhi gets to belt out the disco-oriented Thank God it’s Friday.
The two singers have collaborated on many songs, but they have all been multi-singer songs except for the splendid Imaan Ka Asar (Dor). But rather than with each other, today Sunidhi and Shreya are only competing with themselves, setting a kind of benchmark for singers to aspire to, standards so high that no one is coming anywhere close.