WHEN Shweta Shetty dressed herself in a black, man’s suit with a tie in place and crooned Johnny Joker, her red lipstick as unmistakable as that husky, dramatic voice, in a slick Ken Ghosh video, the result was over and above dance-floor fodder. It was the ’90s and a time when Bollywood didn’t qualify as pop music, when companies like Magnasound and composers like Biddu invested their time and money in unique-sounding voices, when existence without Twitter and Facebook was normal and when fax machines were in vogue.
Johnny Joker (1993), Shetty’s debut album, became the epitome of the Subcontinent pop — with its dreamy synths and saxophone interludes — alongside Alisha Chenoy’s Made in India. The song Johnny Joker was written through fax machines, as Biddu, its composer and songwriter, was in London at the time, while Shetty resided in Mumbai. “The cost of that video was barely Rs 1 lakh. But there were the mammoth fax bills that the recording company had to pay. The times were different. One can’t imagine such a situation now,” says Shetty, 47, who post some more popular albums such as Deewane Toh Deewane Hain (1998), got married and moved to Hamburg (Germany).
After two decades of being away from the spotlight, Shetty is back. This time with a musical. And it isn’t a surprise that she’s is beginning her second innings in India with a man’s role. “I play Shylock in a version of The Merchant of Venice, set in Rajasthan,” says Shetty, about Reth – Songs of the Sand, which will be staged on November 5-6 in Mumbai, and will travel to Delhi later.
Shetty will attempt to play Shylock in a way that is more challenging for a vocalist. Directed by noted theatre director Satyabrata Rout, Reth – Songs of the Sand is an operatic musical and will have Shetty singing opera in Hindi. “It sounds like a strange idea, yes. But I was very sure about doing this,” says Shetty, who began to understand the technicalities of opera after working with English actor and soprano Sarah Brightman in the last decade.
Brightman, who at that time, was married to English composer and musical theatre impressario Andrew Lloyd Webber, sang with Shetty in the album Harem (2004) and created a heady combination of her operatic voice with Middle-Eastern sounds. Brightman, who had already cast a spell on the world with two significant productions — Cats and Phantom of the Opera, was going on a year-long tour post the album and asked Shetty to accompany her.
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“To sing and travel with her was a great opportunity. She’s a five-octave singer and the learning experience was from another world. So everything I know about opera is through watching her on stage, singing to audiences of thousands and lakhs. This is when I decided that when I do sing opera, I will sing in Hindi. I’m singing it with a thick Marwari accent,” says Shetty, who never took official training in opera singing.
Growing up in a liberal yet traditional south Indian family, Shetty was exposed to Carnatic classical music at an early age. “My mother began my training early and that voice training has helped me for my entire life. But I began finding possibilities outside of just classical music. I was fond of soul and pop, and was attempting to sing on stage all the time in college,” says Shetty, who, before becoming a household name with Johnny Joker, had been discovered by AR Rahman who got her to sing Rukmani Rukmani in Roja. “Composers at that time wanted you to sing a certain way, but Rahman was taking my advice as to how I could sing the song,” says Shetty, who also sang Maangta hai kya with Rahman in Rangeela.
The live recording of Main hoon Reth, released on Twitter recently, has Shetty sounding like a seasoned opera singer with a dark, lustrous voice. The piece already has fans lining up. “I knew the old ones would come back. I always met fans from a generation that was very young in the ’90s. Now I want to cater to the audience that doesn’t know of my existence. This young audience is well-travelled, intelligent and knows good music from bad. Opera is a very interesting way of reaching them,” says Shetty.