Singer-actor Monali Thakur is a welcome addition to Bollywood’s growing list of multitaskers.

Monali Thakur is tired of answering questions about her first love. “I am acting since I was a kid and I come from a family of musicians. So it is hard to figure out what came first. The only difference is I had to struggle to become a singer in the industry while the offers for acting came on their own.” Monali, 28, is in the news for playing the child sold into prostitution who then takes traffickers to court in Nagesh Kukunoor’s “Lakshmi”. The film is coming a couple of months after she won the Filmfare Award for the best playback singer for “Sanwaar Loon”, last year’s soothing melody from “Lootera” that continues to be the balm for everyone hurt by Honey Singh’s rage.

“Filmmaking is a collective art form. So a degree of multitasking is always required,” Monali underplays her achievements. “I admire Farhan Akhtar playing different roles with passion. And who can forget Kishore Kumar. He is my benchmark,” says Monali when one offers Suraiya as an option. She quietly adds that she has just recorded her first song for Vidya Balan for “Bobby Jasoos.” “I love to sing for myself but it is not a precondition.”

After acting in a couple of Bengali serials, Monali emerged on the scene as a chirpy teenager when she participated in “Indian Idol”. “I didn’t actually want to participate in ‘Indian Idol’ but at that time my family was going through a financial crisis and I had to stand up. The experience didn’t help me in becoming a playback singer but it did help me in getting stage shows and live performances where I could earn and improvise. Still I had to do my share of rounds of composers with CDs where I used to record original compositions and old hits sung in my style. I was noticed by Pritam and he gave me sensual numbers like “Zara Zara Touch Me” in “Race”. They gave me a sense of belief that I can sing different kind of songs, but as you know they typecast me as a young sensation. I was eager to sing something in the classical mould.” Something befitting her training under Pandit Jagdish Chandra Sharma and Ajoy Chakraborty.

She gives credit to composer Amit Trivedi for giving her songs that were against her image. “First he gave me a jazzy thumri in the form of “Aga Bai”. I had asked him once that if he has something in the semi-classical mould he should give me a chance. So when he came up with “Sanwaar Loon”, I was elated. It has an old world melody, something Lataji used to sing. Thank God I got the Filmfare for the best playback singer before the release of my first Hindi feature film. Otherwise, people would have said that the actress must have pulled the right strings to get the award,” Monali quips. She says the song is written, composed and sung straight from the heart. “Zyada harkatein nahin hain. Amit kept the first version that I recorded. It took 25-30 minutes.”

Monali feels these days technology makes many a young singer sound good during recording. “But such people can’t expect a long shelf life. They are found out in live shows.”

Acting came to Monali by chance. “I was offered a role when I was judging a Bengali reality show. I was asked to shed 20 kilos for the role. Unfortunately, the film was shelved but Nagesh got to know about it and he saw me at a party hosted by Abbas Tyrewala, whose wife Pakhi is a friend. Abbas had already shortlisted me for a role in his next film ‘Mango’. Nagesh asked me to go for audition and after a comprehensive process cast me as Lakshmi. He asked me to put on some weight to look like a chubby 14-year-old girl with a double chin. Pakhi got to see the audition tape and she made Abbas change his mind and cast me as the lead in ‘Mango’ despite the fact that the character is totally different from what I am doing in ‘Lakshmi’. In fact, the joke on the sets is in ‘Mango’ Lakshmi takes her revenge because it is more of a rom-com where I get to hoodwink three men in love.”

Coming to enacting the complexities of Lakshmi, Monali says, “It was always at the back of my mind that I am playing a real person and have to justify not only her courage to live but also the courage to take her traffickers to court.” Thankfully, she says, the film was shot in one schedule of 21 days, for otherwise it would have been difficult to take the character out of the system. “I have yet to learn how to switch on and switch off like professional actors.” Nagesh made her task easier. “He was so clear in his head. It seemed like he brought a measuring tape of emotions on the sets. He would take note of even slightest of exaggeration and politely say ‘I want ek paisa zyada’ or ‘ek paisa kum’. He said there is so much on paper that the more you underplay the greater will be the impact. In fact many times Lakshmi’s silence and her softness is her strength. It sounds more believable because you don’t expect a girl to forego her basic traits.”

Monali notes in the last few years the casting process has become very professional in Hindi films. “It is a good thing that we have learnt from Hollywood. Increasingly, the suitability of the actor to play the character is becoming more important than his reputation at the box office. More and more filmmakers don’t cast actors out of friendship or for long-term relationship. They go for an actor who suits the particular character even if it means that they work together only once in their lifetime. Here executive producer Elahe Hiptoola worked tirelessly only on the look of the character. How will Lakshmi tie her hair into pleats, how the ribbons will be used….”

Nagesh on the casting process

“I don’t involve myself in the audition process. The assistant director conducts it. I take the CDs home. I don’t meet actors personally. I only meet them after I cast them because your perception can influence everything. You like somebody’s personality or demeanour and suddenly you realise at a subconscious level that yeh achcha banda hai and then the film suffers. The whole story is told through Monali’s eyes. When I saw her in a party I immediately sensed with that face she is my Lakshmi. But it was the audition that sold me. Many times I get an actor, who looks the part but in the audition he turns out to be terrible. I still need actors to get the job done. I can develop on their talent but unlike many others I can’t create actors during the shoot!”