She is wary of revealing her age. But it’s not out of vanity, Smita Malhotra clarifies. Three years ago, she was called to lend her voice for the Hindi dub of the blockbuster movie Baahubali 2. In the studio, a member of the production team pointed out that the character is a young, 23-year-old girl. And then, with a note of scepticism, asked Malhotra her age. “Had I told her my age, she may have viewed my performance through that lens. And as voice artistes, we train ourselves to be versatile enough to sound six, 16 or even 60,” explains Malhotra. So she ignored the question and went on to deliver what was expected of her as the voice of the feisty Devasena, played by Anushka Shetty in the film. Based in Mumbai, Malhotra, a native of Delhi, has over 20 years of experience behind the microphone.
The world of dubbing artistes was recently in the spotlight after the film Judgementall Hai Kya had actor Kangana Ranaut essay the role of someone who dubs in Hindi for films from the South. Malhotra admits she hasn’t watched the film. “I rarely watch any, including the ones I work on,” she explains.
It’s 3.30 pm and Malhotra is on a forced break as the production team of the ad film for which she is recording a voice-over awaits feedback on the parts that she has already completed. Seated in the lobby of the Andheri sound studio, she looks at her watch. She has plenty of time for an evening tea at her Oshiwara residence before leaving for her second recording session, scheduled at 7 pm in Jogeshwari, followed by a third in Bandra at 8 pm. It will be an hour’s work before she can head home.
A graduate in Political Science (Honours) from Delhi’s LSR College, her journey into the profession started with acting and singing for theatre, leading up to Mumbai, where she moved after receiving a call from advertising guru Prahlad Kakkar.
“My then boyfriend and now husband Howard Rosemeyer was working with Prahlad and told him that I sing well. When I landed in the city after receiving a call from the adman, I realised he had not even heard the CDs Howard had left for him… He had called me from Delhi on a whim,” Malhotra says.
Kakkar, however, liked her voice and Malhotra made her voice-over debut with Pepsi’s Dil Maange More campaign. Since then, she has lent her voice to advertisements for brands such as Dettol, Google Pay, Canon, Colgate, Puma, Sunsilk and Titan, among others. She has also dubbed for actors such as Katrina Kaif, Ileana D’Cruz and Yami Gautam, apart from lending her voice to lead characters in Hindi dubs of Hollywood animation films, including Shrek and Beauty and the Beast.
However, Malhotra now prefers ads over films, often recording several in a day. She is also the official voice of a mascot for a Viacom 18 channel. “These smaller assignments allow me to play multiple characters in a single day. And what can be more fun?” she smiles.
However, unlike most others from her fraternity, Malhotra doesn’t insist on being referred to as a voice-artist. She believes it is time people moved on from calling them dubbing artist and recognised their nature of work. “We are, in fact, actors, except that we are never seen on screen. We have to express everything they perform on screen through our voice,” she points out.
What Malhotra finds taxing about films is the extensive schedule often lasting weeks, and the need to be in character for that entire duration. “To act, one has to feel and, because films have a gamut of emotions, one has to go through them all in order to lend the perfect voice,” she points out. So she lets herself feel the pain, with an added touch of glycerin, when she has to cry or feel the anger rising within her when the scene demands.
“You have to deliver that crack in the voice, the sobbing and so on. And to get those right, one has to go through the emotions,” she says. Malhotra recounts how sound engineer Resul Pookutty once made her jog on the spot till she started huffing and panting enough to record a scene that had the character running.
Films, however, have taught her a lot. The official voice for Sunny Leone over the years, Malhotra recounts this one time she was recording for Ragini MMS 2, where Leone plays a porn actor whose talent is being questioned by a bunch of young men. “In order to prove her acting prowess, the character proceeds from sounding aroused to sounding like she has reached an orgasm. At the studio where I was supposed to record, there were three production people, all men. I took some time and told myself that I can do it. When I turned around to cue them in, I saw 15 men were standing, waiting for me to perform,” Malhotra recounts, laughing.
Her range of work has given Malhotra the confidence and experience to be proficient at her job, sometimes more than the production team that sits in the studio, monitoring her performance. Around 3.45 pm, within minutes of receiving the approval for the previous recording, Malhotra is back in the live room, her headphones in place. She leans closer to the mic, script in one hand and cues in the sound engineer. Within the next five minutes, Malhotra has delivered three variations of the punch line, corrected a grammar error in another line and then gone on to voluntarily record the same punch line with a focus on the brand name because “I know how the client thinks”.