When composer Amit Trivedi wanted a voice with an “Asha Bhosle meets Nina Simone” tonal quality for Anushka Sharma’s performances in Bombay Velvet, he got 35-year-old singer Neeti Mohan into his Andheri studio. For a film that aims to stir fables from the Bombay of the ’60s, where jazz flourished and found an audience, Trivedi wanted to make sure that every wink and smile was “heard and not just seen”.
“The idea was to have that cabaret vibe in place. Neeti was my only choice,” says Trivedi, who arranged for dim lights, candles and a “few good men drinking” (including lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya and a couple of his assistant directors) to be in the studio during Mohan’s session. It was black coffee instead of vodka in their mugs, but just after the first rehearsal, Mohan was sent home — only to dress up and come back so that she “could feel the song”. The singer waltzed back in red lipstick and a flashy gown, and started to croon.
The result is Mohabbat buri bimari, a captivating monologue in a syrupy tone. What has worked is Mohan’s extemporisation in the middle of the song — with all the hiccups, laughs and squeals in place. The song is one of the six that Mohan has given her voice to, in Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming crime drama. “I had to disconnect with my usual Bollywood singing as it wasn’t just about rendering a song in the studio. I had to be a performer,” says Mohan.
Likewise, her five other songs in the album have also been experience-oriented. “For Dhadaam, they just shut me in the studio alone. I was supposed to cry my heart out. If you hear the song, my voice has cracked massively. Amit has kept it,” says Mohan, who made her debut with Ishq wala love in Karan Johar’s Student of the Year. This was followed by AR Rahman’s power-packed composition, Jiya re, in Jab Tak Hai Jaan and the cascading Saadi galli aaja in Nautanki Saala. She was also appreciated for her outing on MTV Unplugged’s Rahman chapter.
A visit to her minimalist (the only piece of furniture is a couch) apartment in Mumbai’s Malad, where she lives with her three younger sisters (Shakti and Mukti are prominent dancers, while Kriti plays manager for all of them), one finds Mohan busy preparing for a gig in Kochi, rehearsing and humming away. “Performing, I believe, is something I enjoy the most, sometimes even more than recording,” she says.
Growing up in Delhi in a middle-class family, where music meant bhajans and reruns of old ditties, Mohan learnt for a little over a year at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. She soon moved to a boarding school in Pilani, where her fascination with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle songs only increased. She would painstakingly collect the tapes, using all her pocket money, and sing along. “I would keep playing the tapes and try to sing like Ashaji. No one was really there to correct me. It was mostly about self-correction,” says Mohan, a philosophy graduate from Delhi’s Miranda House.
She moved to Mumbai in 2004 after being chosen for Aasma, a band created through a nationwide hunt for interesting voices. Her father, a government official, decided to move the family to Mumbai a few years later. “That phase taught me the concepts of composing, improvising and what singing on tracks meant,” says Mohan, who is currently busy recording with the likes of Vishal-Shekhar, AR Rahman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
Mohan says she is pleased by the existing soundscape, where different kinds of textures and voices are flourishing and finding space. However, she is quick to add that there is no shortcut to hard work and rigorous riyaaz.
“Texture will only take you till one point. It is a strong taiyaari which will take you a long way. And I’m ready for the rigour,” says Mohan.