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Monday, September 20, 2021

Sonu Nigam on 2 songs closest to his heart and how they were made: ‘Listen to Karan Johar or Nikkhil Advani…’

On Sonu Nigam's birthday today, the singer-composer-host sat down for a candid chat with us, looking back at his journey, the highs and lows of his career, and how he sees the current trends in India's music scene.

Written by Mimansa Shekhar | New Delhi |
Updated: July 31, 2021 9:30:35 am
sonu nigam singer careerSonu Nigam has been doing playback singing for nearly three decades now. (Photo: Instagram/sonunigamofficial)

Sonu Nigam says if he hadn’t done songs across genres, people would’ve typecast him for singing only sad songs or copying Mohammed Rafi. “After learning from veterans like Rafi Sahab and Kishore Kumar, when I got to sing an original song, I tried to put my style into it. It eventually got me out of that mould,” Sonu said.

The ace singer-composer might have crooned in almost all Indian languages, but it took him a while to prove his versatility. Sonu Nigam reveals that soon after Bewafa Sanam (1995) released, one of his first noticeable albums, he was afraid of being typecast.

“After ‘Achha Sila Diya’ people thought I can sing only sad songs. They never thought I could do a ‘What Is Mobile Number’ too. They typecast you. In 1997 ‘Sandese Aate Hain’ came and it became an overnight success. But people again thought I’ll sing only patriotic songs. With ‘Yeh Dil Deewana’ they finally took me as a versatile singer. So a collection of such hit songs catapulted me to the category of a good singer,” Sonu Nigam told

Sonu started singing at a very young age and took it up professionally in early 1990s. After years of struggle, Border, Pardes and Dil Se happened around 1997-1998. While Sonu was becoming the most sought after voice in playback singing, he also began churning out his solo albums and featuring in them. He also became India’s first singer to host a reality show – Sa Re Ga Ma around the same time. With an equally magnetic screen presence Sonu found humongous fame in no time.

Was coming in front of camera, an organic switch? “I was waiting for it! This was quite late. When ‘Tu’ released in 1998, I was already seven years old in Mumbai and my show Sa Re Ga Ma was going on for over three years with great TRPs. I was famous but I wanted to have my independent music and independent films. It finally started coming out in 1998, when I was 25. It was a long wait but I was overwhelmed with the response. Phir toh line lag gayi!”

While some of his Indie-pop albums were also written and composed by him, others had his voice and face, and were promoted in his name. “Deewana, Jaan, Yaad, Kismat, Mausam were albums which had my colour, they were created keeping me in mind. ‘Tu’ had a bit of Uzbek influence. Kismat and Mausam also had classical songs, western jazz ballets. So we were doing work according to our will. This, when I was already singing for films. As an artiste it is very fulfilling when your films, albums and TV show, everything is a hit,” Sonu reminisced, adding that the secret behind the success of each of his album was good intent.

It is difficult to select Sonu’s career peak, he’s been an integral part of the Indian music scene for the past three decades, setting benchmarks and being an inspiration for generations of artistes like Armaan Malik, Ankit Tiwari and Mithoon. He confesses that at one point of time, he used to record a dozen songs a day. “Some days, we worked on the entire album. I’ve even sang 40 Odiya songs in a month. Those were hardworking days. It’s a commitment I’ve made to my craft, that I will never take it lightly. Earlier, we worked in wholesale, today we are busy by choice,” Sonu said.

Reflecting on his two songs, which are as special to him as his fans – “Kal Ho Naa Ho” and “Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin”, Sonu marked at a similarity too. “Both songs have one thing in common. Their second attempt was approved.”

Kal Ho Naa Ho was the first time Sonu teamed up with debutant director Nikkhil Advani. He had already worked with Karan Johar in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and had his trust. “There was a dilemma about who should I listen to, Karan or Nikkhil. But soon everyone understood that they just need to leave it to me and not give a lot of instructions. I managed it in my second attempt, in 15-20 minutes. With ‘Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin’ too, I didn’t have the perfect voice in its first attempt. I requested the makers to record it after 3 days. But my voice became better the next day, and I recorded it at 2 o’clock in the night.”

Both the songs went on to win several awards and became iconic. Sonu believes the two tracks “managed to make positive dents in the hearts of connoisseurs.”

But how does he manage if he doesn’t get the tune or mood for a song right? He feels when several people in the team start giving inputs, the process of making a song gets delayed. “Nowadays people who are not related to the process of making music also pass a comment that they aren’t finding the song exciting. So a song is not difficult. Perceptions are difficult and that takes time. But that’s how a piece of art is made. When you’re making something collectively, you need to give respect to everyone’s opinion. Otherwise, I don’t take more that 20 or maximum 40 minutes to record a song.”

sonu nigam shaan Bhupinder Singh Talat Aziz Anup Jalota Sonu Nigam with other industry stalwarts including Bhupinder Singh, Talat Aziz, Anup Jalota and Shaan. (Photo: Instagram/sonunigamofficial)

Sonu has lend his voice to almost every actor today, from Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan to Govinda, Akshay Kumar and even Amitabh Bachchan. We asked him to pick an actor who he thinks carries his voice to perfection.

“If I am singing for Sunny Deol I’ll have to keep in mind his persona, for Govinda I have to enact in a certain way, for Shah Rukh Khan I need to bring that kind of romance, for Salman Khan there has to be a pinch of fun. So for all my songs, I have kept the actor in mind. Hrithik Roshan‘s character in Agneepath is different from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. So the tone will be different for ‘Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin’ and ‘You Are My Sonia.’ I’ve sung for Amitabh Bachchan also and even for Prem Chopra, can you imagine?” Sonu shared.

The singer however, continues to root for giving full credit to original singers incase of a recreation or remix, “If that singer had never sang that song, you would have never heard that song.” Sonu, also agreed that the Indian music scene has changed with time, which might have made him selective about playback singing. According to him, in earlier times, producers chose their music composers, but today music is controlled by music companies, who have their own songs, composers, lyricists and others.

“If they have their set of people, you can’t be telling them you need work. And after such a beautiful life and career, I’d rather work with people who approach me and say only I can do it. That’s more exciting. At this point of my career, I can’t be in the recording studio from 9 o’clock in the morning to 12 midnight. We’ve done that when we were young,” he shared.

sonu nigam jaani dushman akshay kumar Sonu Nigam made his acting debut with Jaani Dushman (2002), also starring Akshay Kumar, Sunil Shetty, Aditya Pancholi and Aftab Shivdasani. (Photo: Express Archives)

Sonu had sometime back uploaded a video on social media where he pointed at the monopoly of music labels in controlling the industry today. Sonu’s views even got a lot of support from his colleagues. He however clarified that he never said anything against anyone in particular.

“Whatever I told you, there was nothing negative in that. I never said this is wrong or that is incorrect. I spoke about the current business module. One has to make peace with the existing scenario. The new singers today, get a chance to get affiliated with one music company or camp. That’s good. Having said that people might think I called out the music companies. But there isn’t a single music company that has any ill-will against me, including T-Series. We are always friends.”

Sonu saw the heights of success and fandom an artiste can achieve. But his acting stint is one part of his career which couldn’t take off. Sonu, however, has no regrets. He rather sees it as an experience. “Take it this way. As a toddler we all try to walk and fall. Today when we can walk easily, do we want to regret falling as a kid?” Sonu opined.

He added that picking films like Jaani Dushman, Kash Aap Hamare Hote and Love in Nepal was neither his fault, nor his bad luck. “I choose films with as much understanding as I had, even if they were the ones I shouldn’t have. Today, when you know how to walk and then if you fall, it’s your fault. I was so young. People came to me and said ‘Sonu you are our child, please do this film’ and I did it. I had no knowledge about how the film would take shape. At least people appreciate that I didn’t sign more films. I learned from all my experiences. That was a part of my growing up. So, no regrets.”

indian idol sonu nigam farah khan anu malik Anu Malik, Farah Khan and Sonu Nigam were the first judges of Indian Idol season one in 2004. (Photo: Express Archives)

But what’s keeping him away from judging reality shows, considering he was a part of two initial seasons of Indian Idol? Sonu points that today, his instincts don’t allow him to do such shows. “I am a man of clear words. Nobody can tell me how to behave because we belong to that purest school of music and life. If I am asked to do it, I will do it. But will I really enjoy doing things that I don’t want to do on reality shows?”

According to Sonu Nigam, the boom of OTT platforms has become a roadblock for channels and programming teams in terms of TRPs. In such desperation to grab eyeballs, channels are trying different things. He said, “It’s not their fault because they don’t want their program to drown. They are justified in doing things. But if I feel I cannot contribute to all that, I’d rather stay away than disappoint them. I’m judging a show in Bengal – Super Singer on Star Jalsa. I feel it’s a show of my interest. It has Kaushiki Chakraborty and Kumar Sanu, and a purist atmosphere. I feel comfortable there and hope they won’t ask me for such melodrama. If they do, we’ll see!”


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A post shared by Sonu Nigam (@sonunigamofficial)

Sonu has been spending most of his time with his wife and son in Dubai over the past few years. While Indian audience got to watch his son Neevan sing songs like “Kolaveri Di” and “Abhi Mujhe Mein Kahin” at a young age, Sonu shared that he might never take up singing as a profession in India.

“He doesn’t sing Hindi songs. He has other interests. He paints very well, he cooks well, he is a very good gamer. His entire friend circle in Dubai is into American and western music. Even if he has to sing, he’ll sing English songs. So as a parent, it’s my duty to not tell him what to do. But never say never. Maybe by the time he grows up, Hindi songs will be made in English,” Sonu concludes with a smile.

Happy birthday, Sonu Nigam!

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