The indefatigable Runa Laila does not rule out a return to playback singing in Indian films
Staid and sedate, Runa Laila’s voice on the telephone, carried forth from Bangladesh, is in sharp contrast to her mesmeric playback singing. Best remembered for songs like “Damadam mast kalandar” and “Mera babu chail chabila”, it is a voice that has voyaged continuously over the last four-and-a-half decades, between genres and through the Subcontinent.
Her latest voyage brings her to India, as one of the judges of talent hunt show “Sur-Kshetra”, to be telecast on Colors TV and Sahara One channels. The show features two teams of eight members each, representing India and Pakistan and led by Himesh Reshamiya and Atif Aslam respectively. The patriotic schema is followed even in the way the show is judged, with Abida Parveen representing Pakistan and Asha Bhonsle representing India. Runa Laila figures as a neutral judge.
The combative vocabulary of the show is incidental, Runa insists. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the singer is from India or Pakistan. There will be no bias.” It was a unique challenge for Runa, not only because it represents a departure from singing, but also because of the marking scheme, which necessitates either full or no marks for performances by contestants.
Recently, the show became the object of MNS chief Raj Thackeray’s railings, who complained against the presence of foreign nationals on the show. He cited Pakistan’s recent ban on “Ek Tha Tiger” to further his case, threatening to disrupt the shooting of the show.
Although Runa declines to comment explicitly, the controversy shadows the rest of the conversation. Recalling her first visit to India, Runa says, “I’ve been coming to India since 1974 but I have never felt that I have come to another country. I have no complaints whatsoever. On the contrary, I have only got love and respect and it has grown with each visit. The Indian artistes who travel to Bangladesh receive an equal amount of love and affection, if not more.”
Runa started her career in pre-partition Pakistan, where her father was posted as a civil servant. Her first break came when she was nine, after winning a competition organised by Radio Pakistan in Karachi, following which a producer offered her to sing in the movies.
In 1974 she moved to Bangladesh, and later in the year was invited by the India Council for Cultural Relations, Government of India, to sing at Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. These performances were noticed by producers, and led to a brief career as a playback singer in Bollywood, starting with “Ek Se Badhkar Ek”.
The promising career was abruptly curtailed, however. “It was not easy for foreign artistes to come and sing in Indian films in those days. A lot of permissions had to be taken. It tended to slow things down and proved to be a deterrent for producers. Barring a few incidents, it has become very easy now for artistes to come and perform in India,” Runa explains.
Although Runa has returned frequently to India, with three visits this year itself, most of them have been for concerts. She doesn’t rule out a return to films however. “InshaAllah I’ll be doing more work now.”
In her absence, however, the music industry has changed irrevocably. Composers of yore such as Jaidev, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji and Bappi Lahiri whom she worked with don’t make music anymore, and the music industry has oriented itself towards a radically different sound since. “The new lot prefer to work with younger voices,” she says quite matter-of-factly.
“I have paid close attention to what is going on and want to integrate myself into this sort of setting. I can fit in with the young lot,” she adds. The conviction isn’t misplaced; Runa still sings for the Bangladesh film industry.
It also derives from her having delved in a variety of styles. Although best remembered for her pop sensibilities, Runa remains partial to songs on the classical side. “I received training in classical music and dance when I was a kid. But since I am a playback singer, I am quite conversant with other styles. I also like doing songs on the light-hearted side.”
The training in dance found expression in the signature jiving of Runa. On the threshold of 60 now, the performative remains a strong aspect of Runa’s concerts. Although opportunities to perform will be scant in her role as a judge in Sur-Kshetra, one hopes, at the very least, that the show isn’t called off.
“Sur-Kshetra” will be hosted by Ayesha Takia and features stalwarts such as Ghulam Ali, Hadiqa Kiani and Sajjad Ali from Pakistan, and Suresh Wadkar, Ismail Darbar, Alka Yagnik and Sapna Mukherjee from India. Aarti Shrivastava, international documentary filmmaker, is the senior executive producer and Kshounish Palit is the creative director.