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Meet Pawni Pandey, the voice of Sunny Leone in 'Laila Main Laila'

The unheralded singer reveals why she asked to re-dub the track when she found out it was for Sunny Leone in Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees.

Mayur Lookhar

Sunny Leone seems to have the knack of helping to create singing sensations. As 'Baby Doll' from Ragini MMS 2 (2014), she redefined item numbers, but her orgasmic dance moves would have counted for nothing if it wasn’t for the powerful and fluent voice of young Kanika Kapoor.

Two years on, Leone has fans grooving to the 'Laila Main Laila' track reprise with her stunning looks and desi dance moves. And this number has brought another unheralded singer, Pawni Pandey, to the limelight.

Ironically, the late singer Kanchan, too, was an unknown before she shot to fame with the original 'Laila' track from Feroz Khan’s 1980 hit Qurbani, which was picturized on Zeenat Aman. The Kalyanji-Anandji composition was penned by Indivar; the reprised 'Laila' has musician Ram Sampath and lyricist Javed Akhtar giving it a new dimension.

Pandey was a reality TV show find before heading to Hindi cinema. She got a few tracks, but none became a chartbuster. 

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Pandey revealed that she wasn’t aware that the song was to be used in the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees and would be picturized on Sunny Leone, and spoke of how she would have sung it if she had known this earlier. Excerpts:

You were a finalist in Sa Re Ga Ma L’il Champs (2006), but today, after the Laila track, you have emerged as the little champion from Raees. How have the past 24 hours been for you?

Very exciting. Things have changed quite rapidly. Somewhere I knew the song would get good response, but I didn't expect it to have such a huge and positive response. At the same time, it has all been very exhausting because I have never experienced such a thing before. The wishes have been pouring in and I have been thanking all of them.

You were not even born when the original 'Laila' song was created. Now you have sung a 'Laila' song of your own. How does it feel?

It is quite amazing, but it has been nostalgic for my parents. They loved this track dearly when they were young. They used to dance to the original track that was sung by Kanchan. I am overjoyed just to see them so happy. Watching them now I say oh my god, this is really big. It’s really hard to sink in.

When was the first time you heard the original?

I don’t remember. I must have been 4 or 5 then. I used to dance to this track. 'Laila Main Laila' is a song that has been heard right through the 1980s and 1990s. I am just honoured to reprise it.

What was your reaction when you were offered this song? What went through your mind?

When I was offered this song, I had no clue it was going to be for Raees. One day Ram [Sampath] sir just gave me a call and asked if I know this song. I said yes. He said why don’t you come down to the studio in the evening and do a remake version. I did ask what it was for, and he said it could be for a film, but it was not confirmed. So there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding it.

I sang the version and after a few weeks, I came to know through a newspaper report that it was going to be used in Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees and will be picturised on Sunny Leone. I then called Ram sir and told him I want to re-dub the song. I felt I could do a better job now. I requested Ram sir to allow me to re-dub. He was kind enough to allow me. Now that I knew the song would be picturized on Sunny Leone, I could imagine her and sang just the way Sunny would emote on screen.

How did you go about preparing for the song the second time round?

Before arriving for the re-dub, I was constantly listening to the older version. I could find something new each time I heard it. I told myself that I need to get this expression. I have to grasp this point or line. When I reached the studio, Ram sir just told me that I don’t want you to sing the song as a remake; it has to come out as your own new song. He asked me to add my own flavour. It took me about two hours to re-dub the whole song. We recorded it after midnight.

The new song has retained the essence of the original (music and lyrics). Did that help you?

It helped me a lot. The track itself is almost the same. The only difference is the new sound they have created. It’s more of a groovy thing. The music pieces, the beats, the loop are the same. The mukhda [introduction] of the original and the reprise are the same. When a classic song like 'Laila' is made, it leaves its own mark on the audience’s mind. If you play around with it a lot, then that magic disappears.

I think Ram sir and Javed Akhtar saheb have maintained a perfect balance by retaining the originality of the song and making it sound new. They have changed some of the lyrics from the antara [verse], they have changed a few sounds in the track, while retaining the punch.

There is a certain sexiness in your voice that beats through the 'Laila' track. Did you modulate your voice to suit the sexiness of Sunny Leone? Or have you always had a sensual voice?

That was the difference I wanted to add when I re-dubbed the song. When I sang for the first time, I sang it the way Kanchanji had sung. It wasn’t sexy, but I kept it naughty and innocently romantic. When I came to know about Sunny being in the video, it was a given that this will be a sexy item number. The one I sang initially was never going to work for her. I needed to modulate a lot of things. That was the only reason I asked Ram sir for a re-dubbing so that I could add those little nuances, bring a little oomph to the song.

I was very shy while dubbing the song. I had asked our sound engineer not to look at me. I had to make faces, have the right body language, to add that oomph factor. I closed my eyes and played Sunny Leone’s 'Baby Doll' song in my mind.

What was the brief given to you by Ram Sampath before you sang the song? 

I have worked with Ram sir on a few projects. He firmly believes in what the singer has to bring to the song. He will tell us what the song is all about, a brief introduction.  Then he gives us 30 minutes to listen to the song and figure out what you want to do. He never interrupts or dictates to his singers. He not only gets the best out of his singers, but he also encourages them to bring the best out of themselves. 

Sunny Leone or Zeenat Aman, who do you think is more sexy?

Oh my god, that’s really tough.

It’s okay, you can be diplomatic.

I don’t like being diplomatic. Calling Zeenatji sexy wouldn’t be right. She’s the ultimate gorgeous diva. So, Sunny Leone has to be the sexy one. If Zeenatji listens to my song, then I would be on top of the world.

What was Shah Rukh Khan's response when he first heard the song? Has he said anything to you?

Unfortunately, not yet. I have received reactions from [Raees director] Rahul Dholakia sir. He told me the entire team is happy with the song. I have received many wishes. Sunny Leone tweeted, ‘Thank you so much for the amazing voice behind the lovely song and it’s an honour to be part of such a lovely song’. It was very lovely of her to have done that.

You have been around since 2006, but this has to be your finest hour so far. Before 'Laila', you didn't have any great numbers. How tough was that period?

It has been tough, but at the same time it has been a very good learning experience.

Did you fear that you need to get big numbers or your career would go nowhere? 

Of course I wanted a big number, but I never had any such insecurity. Neither my family nor I ever worried that if my career isn’t kicking off then what would happen. Singing is my passion. I am also doing my MBA. So, that was never a concern. Like others, I, too, aspired for a big song. I can call myself destiny’s child to have had a song like 'Laila' in an SRK film with Sunny Leone in the video. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Interestingly, this song made Kanchan a hit singer. Now, it is making yours. Can we say the lyrical gods chose both of you for 'Laila'?

Well, it is definitely an honour for me to have sung a landmark song by Kanchanji. Definitely destiny is playing its part, but for me it's just the start, I have to go way ahead and achieve further heights. At the same time, I thank the lyrical gods for giving me such a big launch pad.

So, what's next?

One of my upcoming projects is Anarkali Aravalli. We have Swara Bhaskar in the lead. I have sung two songs there. Then I have a film called Guns of Banaras, where I have a duet with Mohit Chauhan. Sohail Sen is the music director. There are a few other untitled projects.

Also see: 7 item numbers that went retro