When music composer Amit Trivedi wanted a “pleasant and nuanced Punjabi gayaki” that could carry off the “layered sound” of director Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab, he chose a lesser-known singer, Shahid Mallya.
The result is Ikk kudi, a song that hasn’t been drowned in the din of controversy around the film. In the song, written by the poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Mallya’s voice finds the sweet spot between yearning and sadness. Trivedi calls it one of the more significant pieces in the album. “If you listen carefully, there is a crazy range in his voice. His classical gayaki doesn’t go overboard. All three songs he has sung are hardcore Punjabi numbers, two of which are rooted in folk styles,” says Trivedi.
In the assembly-line quality of male voices in Hindi cinema, Mallya, 31, stands out. You have heard him in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Dedh Ishqiya, in the song Kya hoga, as well as in the title song of Love Shuv Te Chicken Khurana. But it is his range in Udta Punjab, from the title song to the old-world melody of Has nach le and the trippy Chitta ve, that is getting him noticed.
Mallya grew up in Ferozepur, Punjab. His introduction to music was through the songs he heard on Vividh Bharti and from his father, who taught his children the basics of Hindustani classical music.
His father, Krishna Kumar aka Salim was also assistant to the legendary Mohammed Rafi. “But the salary was meagre and he needed more to make ends meet,” says Mallya. Salim then began singing shabads and kirtans in gurdwaras. “People were surprised that a Muslim man was singing from the Guru Granth Sahib and was so good at it. You couldn’t tell if it was a regular raagi (gurdwara singer) singing or a man who worshipped a different god. My sisters and I also began to sing in the gurdwaras,” says Mallya, who comes from a family of Mirasi Muslims, a community that converted to Islam sometime in the 13th century, having been influenced by Amir Khusrau. “My father is like Guru Nanak’s Mirasi friend Mardaana, who accompanied him on his journeys. When he sings in a gurdwara, that’s how I think of him,” says Mallya.
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Fourteen years ago, Mallya came to Mumbai with the dream of becoming a playback singer. He returned to Ferozepur in a year’s time. Twelve months later, he was back in the city, determined to find a break. After trying and failing to get past the doors of every music composer’s studio, he found himself at the doorstep of a gurdwara. Like his father, he began singing in gurdwaras around Mumbai’s Andheri and Juhu to earn a living as a shabad/kirtan singer. “I knew that I was not going to sing in shady hotels and bars amid alcohol and smoke. I would get used to the salary and never get out of the rut. Plus, I feared that the smoke would ruin my voice completely,” says Mallya.
In his free time, he would visit studios with his friend Kumaar, an aspiring lyricist, who too was trying to find a toehold in the industry. Kumaar got a break first and introduced Mallya to composer Pritam, who then gave him a song in Pankaj Kapoor’s Mausam. The film tanked, the song — Rabba — didn’t. “That one call changed my life because now at least I had a song. But it’s still taken years before I could find ‘my song’. Ikk kudi is that,” says Mallya.
“When one looks back at the struggles, it’s humbling as well as scary,” he says. He remembers wandering on Versova beach, distraught because no doors were opening. “Now I live in a house across from it. Life has changed and for the better,” says Mallya.
He is working on a couple of upcoming projects but refuses to divulge details. Playback singing in Bollywood is a cut-throat world, where no one signs a contract with a singer. “They will make five other singers sing a song and decide whose version to keep. I’m hoping Ikk kudi will change that for me. I want to be signed like Rafi saab used to be signed. Like Sonu Nigam is. That’s the dream,” says Mallya.