For the female version of Jag ghoomeya, the earworm from Salman Khan-Anushka Sharma-starrer Sultan, composers Vishal Shekhar stripped the original of instruments and rustic percussion including dholak and tabla. Instead, they stuck to an acoustic guitar, a tumbi and Neha Bhasin’s bass voice for most part of it. Its low vocal range, a stark contrast to the original sung by Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, turned out to be a melodious ambient snippet and displayed artistic ambition in an otherwise extremely jarring album.
For the song, 34-year-old Bhasin recently won her first Filmfare award, and almost every music award after, that the song found a nomination for. It’s a much-needed validation after a decade of struggle, a time when she wanted to give up. “It’s been some sort of redemption. Finally, the universe called back; I was doing the right things,” says Bhasin from Mumbai.
But what led to Jag ghoomeya and Bhasin’s current popularity wasn’t her seminal piece Kuch khaas hai in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008). It was partly the success of Dhunki in Mere Brother ki Dulhan (2011), and mostly her attempt at reviving Punjabi folk and India’s pop scene through her YouTube channel. “I was born a popstar and I’ll die one. It’s like oxygen for me,” says Bhasin, who released her album Tabaah in 2010. It found takers but Bhasin wasn’t the toast of tinsel town.
When her partner, composer Sameer Uddin, suggested that Bhasin present age-old Punjabi folk her own way, she was taken aback. “I told him he had gone mad. For someone who had grown up loving and crooning Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson and Roxette, how was I to attempt Punjabi folk? It wasn’t my thing at all,” says Bhasin.
It began in 2014 on her YouTube channel with the famed Surinder Kaur-Prakash Kaur ditty Lathe di chadar — a quintessential piece sung during weddings in Punjab and north India — the story of a woman asking a man in grey cotton clothes to meet her and not angrily just pass her by. Bhasin wore a simple top, a pair of shorts, and a hat, with her striking red bangs, singing the fuzzy and unpretentious piece while riding a bicycle on the streets of Mumbai with her earplugs, while a mandolin strummed in the background.
It was minimalism at its best, something seldom seen in Punjabi pieces of today. “To set the record straight and to not take away anything from Surinder and Prakash Kaur ji, I hadn’t heard of them. I heard my mother and grandmother sing these numbers when I grew up in Delhi, and began recording whatever distorted version I knew. It’s folk, it’s oral tradition and should be sung the way people want to,” says Bhasin.
Probably because Bhasin hadn’t heard the original, her treatment of the pieces looked and sounded different. There’s the Chaplinesque video for Bajre da sitta, where everything is undercranked (in fast motion). A clarinet and guitar accompany the song — the story of a woman who speaks of bickerings with her lover while grinding a cob of millet between her palms. She also delivered the famed Laung gawacha, looking like an 18th century English peasant girl wearing blue hair. She also created Shuddai, with Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black-style, a song that was an ode to a heartbreak. She lay soaked in a bathtub, with kohl-rimmed eyes, tears and sang this one. The audience lapped it up. Bhasin attempted to be wacky like popstars once used to be. “Some didn’t like it, some loved it. But I found acceptance the way I wanted. They say internet killed the popstar. I wanted to use the same medium to become one,” says Bhasin.
But how hard could it be for someone to be a popstar who started out being one? Bhasin won Channel V’s band competition to be one of the four girls in what was called India’s first all-girl band, VIVA, that took out an album and toured the country. “It started off as being interesting. But later, it was a harrowing time. I was lonely, depressed and vulnerable,” says Bhasin, who was studying at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College then, and didn’t want fame the way some people wanted her to — by sometimes creating music she wasn’t interested in. “I wanted fame but on my own terms. Which is why I decided to reclaim it my way,” says Bhasin.
Her upcoming projects include a song in director Onir’s Shab, which has been composed by Mithoon and her version of the classic bhangra piece Jind maahi je chaleyo Ambale with a “fun video”. “I sing Chan mahi here and not Jind mahi. That’s how my naani sang it. For me, that’s the right way for folk to travel and be known to today’s generation.”