Affable Udit

Udit Narayan, the country's leading playback singer, is as refreshing as his voice, discovers DEEPA GANESH

ONE HAS these stock notions about a star, particularly about their airs and attitude. And so, every time you meet a star who doesn't fit into such a pre-set framework, you're stumped. All the websites which offered information on Udit Narayan, leading playback singer of the film industry, had said he had no image-managed guise, no conceit, no pretensions, so on and so forth. But that's what they say about everyone, I had assumed, and gone prepared to be confronted by some starry attitude.

But there was some shock in store for me. For not everyday does one come across stars who answer doorbells themselves. And then even be extremely apologetic about their busy schedules. "Sorry aa, Sorry aa," said the man (he loves saying everything twice), who has sung in some 26 languages and is known to give eight hits of every 10 songs he sings. "I came late."

He has an hour left for his show at Ambedkar Bhavan, he has a dozen things to finish, has to attend to furiously ringing phones (now landline, now mobile), and has two preying journalists to contend with! Unenviable. But the well-meaning smile on his face never fades. "Hello anna, how are you? Wait aa, one minute, one minute aa..." he rushes to his tape recorder and starts singing the Kannada film song, "Kadala Daati Banda", from the film Nandi. "Correctaa saar," he asks in perfect sounding Kannada. "What...what... ondadare ki vindadare...," he clears his doubts as he rewinds his tape and checks for correctness of tune. He rushes back to us.

Udit, the star who has given us unforgettable hits such as "Pehla nasha" was never sure he would be a singer. Hailing from the border of Nepal, his father was a farmer and mother a folk singer. As a child, he had picked up all the folk songs (both in Nepali and Maithli) that his mother used to sing. He went to college and both his parents nurtured different aspirations for their son. Father wanted him to become a doctor or an engineer, but his mother all the while knew that "God had blessed her son with a good voice", and that he should pursue singing. "I went to Radio Kathmandu and worked there for 10 years," he recalls.

Affable Udit

Even as a child, Udit always dreamt of singing like Rafi, Kishore, Lata and "big-big singers" from the South. "But for someone who couldn't even afford to go to Kathmandu, going to Mumbai was unthinkable." It was radio that came to his rescue. When he was working for Kathmandu Radio, Indian embassy officials who came on a visit liked his singing. "I asked them if I could go to Mumbai. They gave me a scholarship and I flew to Mumbai in 1978 and joined the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan."

There, he learnt music under Pandit Dinakar Kaikini. "I used to finish my class, and during my free time, I knocked the door of every music composer in Mumbai." Nothing happened. The struggle was on till he got his big break in 1988 with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.

As the story of his life unfolds, he suddenly realises that the photographer is desperate for a good shot. He can' t bear to hurt anybody. "You want fotu? Come..." and he begins to pose. "You want me to change?" he asks leaving the photographer, wordless.

The unmistakable youthfulness of this character marks his singing style too. Udit Narayan has sung such lovely numbers for Bollywood, such as "Jaddo teri nazar" and "Ae mere humsafar"? But why does the south use him for all beat-oriented, jing bang songs. Don't they tire him out? "Everywhere there is a stress on fast-paced songs. What can I do about it? Recently, I sang for a Malayalam album." "Ende manasa..." he sings. "It's a semi-classical song. I was very happy to sing it and people liked it a lot. But such songs don't come your way always. "Aajare aajare" from Lagaan, "Ey Ajnabi" from Dil Se... they are very difficult songs, but I've loved singing them."

Udit has been irresistible for most music composers across languages. Even for those who tried resisting him — Ilaiyaraja, who had a very serious problem with his Tamil pronunciation, for instance — got him to sing for the film Shiva and even a Kannada film.

Does it mean that composers, who at one point in time insisted on perfect diction, now stress only on rendition? Or has the affable Udit made mispronunciation cute, fashionable? He grins sheepishly.

"No I work very hard. I'm very conscious of my pronunciation. I'm not Tamil or Telugu by birth. But you should appreciate the fact that I'm trying," he sounds so sincere as he explains that you actually feel terrible about asking the question!

Ilaiyaraja and A.R. Rahman have become a pan-Indian phenomenon.

Every composer wants to make music the way they do. "Now what do I say to that? They have a direct recommendation from God," he says simply. "It is like diving into a sea for diamonds. But you may end up getting just stones. Its one's karma. Without talent you cannot survive for long," says Udit emphatically.

And as he starts talking about his son Aditya, there are frantic calls. Its time for the show. "Aditya is now concentrating on his studies...." And then you hear his personal secretary explaining on the phone: "Udit Narayanji nikal chuke hain, paanch minute mein pahunchenge...."

We take the hint. It is time for us to leave. He gives us his card. "Keep in touch aa. Pray for me, please." And as we turn to leave: "My Veer-Zaara song is good isn't? Did you like it?". In the big, bad, Bollywood, someone so untarnished is hard to believe. Just like his voice!

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