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Interview Hindi

AR Rahman is like a kid when it comes to new technology: Singer Jonita Gandhi

A key member of Rahman's team and a leading voice in the soundtrack of films like Dangal (2016) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), Gandhi spoke exclusively to Cinestaan.com about what sets the Academy award-winner apart and the challenge of keeping up with his experimentation.

Shriram Iyengar

Jonita Gandhi is having a terrific 2016-17. Having broken out as a singer with Chennai Express (2013), she has taken her time to make her mark in an intensely competitive industry. With 'Gilehriyaan' in Dangal (2016) and the wonderfully quirky 'Breakup Song' in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), the singer has hit the big time and how. In the recent AR Rahman concert documentary, One Heart, Gandhi plays a vital role as one of the key vocalists of the troupe that accompanied the composer on his tour of the United States.

Born in Canada, Gandhi was a regular performer at several musical concerts and even had her own YouTube channel. It was her consummate performances online that caught the attention of Vishal-Shekhar, who approached her for Rohit Shetty's Chennai Express (2013). Soon, Gandhi decided to ditch life overseas to arrive in India and pursue a career in playback singing. It certainly proved to be a wise decision. Since her arrival, Gandhi has worked with a range of composers from Rahman to Sachin-Jigar and Pritam. 

Of these, the singer shares a close relationship with the Oscar-winning composer. It was Rahman who spotted Gandhi in a Coke Studio song, 'Pinjra', and approached her to sing for his soundtrack in Imtiaz Ali's Highway (2015). It proved to be the beginning of a wonderful collaboration.

Since Highway, Gandhi has gone on to sing for the 'Mozart of Madras' in films like OK Kanmani (2015) and Kaatru Veliyidai (2017), besides working with composers like Vishal-Shekhar and Pritam (Dangal and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil).

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Gandhi spoke about the joy of working with Rahman, the fears she had before arriving in India, and more.


It has been a fantastic year so far. You had a big hit in 'Gilehriyaan' in Dangal, before Mom and the Pink Anthem got you farther. How has the experience been?

Actually, it has been a great year. I have gotten so many songs in the past year, and songs that have been recognized by people. Before that, I had got songs, but none of them had got the commercial success the ones last year and this year have got. So, I am really starting to break into the market. 

I am also starting to work with a lot more music directors now. I am starting to learn a lot more. 

You started out with your first song for AR Rahman in Highway. To think that he actually spotted you on YouTube (singing Pinjra' in Coke Studio) is quite the story. 

Yeah, he actually spotted me on YouTube. He saw my YouTube videos before, but when he saw that Coke Studio video, he reached out to me. I guess that's when he realized I was in India. Before that I was in Canada.

He is really good friends with Clinton Cerejo [who produced the video] and he called up Clinton and spoke about it. 

What was that first meeting, or call, with Rahman like?

Well, I didn't get a call from him directly. I got a call from his office to come to a recording. It was actually kind of a top secret. I actually got an anonymous text from somebody I don't know saying 'Hi, you are required for a recording in Chennai.'

Fortunately, an hour before that I spoke to Clinton and he said, "I've good news, and Mr Rahman has asked for your number." I was like 'whaaat!!' So, when I got the text, I instantly said yes, I am available! 

The next day I flew to Chennai. 

You broke out with Vishal-Shekhar in Chennai Express and have worked with Pritam on two very successful soundtracks [Dangal and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil]. Plus, you have been associated with Rahman since Highway. So, what is it that separates Rahman from the others in this generation?

He is one of the composers who put Bollywood and Indian music on the global map. His reach is so widespread compared to any other composer so far. I am sure that might change, and composers will expand their own reach in some time. But with him, he is such a multi-faceted composer. Very experimental.

As a singer, I loved working with him because he understands singers really well and knows how to get the best out of someone. Everytime I recorded with him, I felt that I was given things I never even knew I could do. That's what I enjoy the most about working with him. 

What is Rahman like as a person? You keep hearing stories of his humility, but he is also one of the most radical composers with a tuning to the latest in music and technology.

It's so funny, he is like a little kid. He gets so excited about new technologies and how he can apply them to his music. Every year there is something new. It is refreshing to see how he always continues exploring new ways to make his music sound fresh.

I think that is another thing that makes him relevant every year. 

Everyone thinks he is a quiet guy, but I have seen him be really funny as well. He is a fun person, and a really warm person to have around. 

When it comes to concerts, you have been part of Rahman's NAIT tour of the United States, along with several other concerts. Knowing his penchant for experimentation, how does a performer prepare?

Yeah, we do practise. There are some things that come with a concert that are spontaneous, but that's the beauty of it. There are times when he comes up with his accordion, playing a little song just for him and his audience. He sometimes plays his famous tunes that are not even on the set list, plainly because they have requested the song.

I think that's something that people really respond well to because, I think, his portfolio of music... he has so many songs that it is hard to pack that into a concert. I think it is important for him to do that. He changes it up, or he takes in a request. 

Even as a fan, I am saying, I am such a big fan, that there are so many great songs I wish that were on the set list but are not. It is great to see that he tries to incorporate requests from the audience. 

Other than that, when you say he experiments with technology, I remember during the NAIT tour in the United States, we had experimented with this Intel real-time technology where you wear a wristband and move the hand and wrist and create a melody. 

I remember watching that video and wondering what is that thing.

Well, it was something that was developed specially for him. It was really interesting.

As a singer, what are the factors you prepare for when it comes to singing for a concert, or for a playback session at the studio?

I think they are both unique experiences. In the studio, you have more flexibility to try things. You can do trial and error. You can redo a song as many times as you need. Redo lines. You can take options and layer yourself as a singer. You can harmonize yourself. 

Live, you kind of just have that one shot. You have to perform it once in front of the audience. But there are things that are unique about that. The spontaneity that comes on the stage, I think, is unique. There is a lot more pressure, I think, when you are performing on stage. The immediate connection that you have with the audience really drives you. That's something that you miss in the studio. 

You were part of several concerts with your father [Deepak Gandhi] before you decided to leave Canada and pursue playback singing in India. Was there ever a hesitation about the decision, seeing how it is a very competitive industry today?

Yes, it is a very competitive industry. I was a little concerned about it, and was very apprehensive when I first came to India. It took me a while to actually come because of that. I thought, 'What are they gonna do with a singer from Canada?' I didn't grow up with Bollywood, and didn't speak Hindi as fluently as people here do. Things like that I had to think about before I came here.

Like you said, I used to watch a lot of reality shows. There were so many singers who were so amazing. They weren't even doing as much work as I thought they were. Watching from Canada, it is kind of misleading, you see. Over there, you only see the big films with a Shah Rukh Khan. You don't always see the rest that is happening behind the scenes. You don't see a Coke Studio or an independent type of project. You see their success based on the recent blockbuster film.

But once I came to India, I realized there were so many opportunities. Even people who I thought were not doing anything else were doing so well. There are all these shows. There is so much work happening, everyone is finding these opportunities.

So once I came to India is when I realized that there is a lot of competition, but a lot of stuff is also not so bad. 

The recent outcry about Rahman's concert, where fans complained about him playing songs in Tamil, does it bother you as an artist?

As an artist, not so much. I understand how everyone has their own opinion. I think they have an emotional connection to their language and I understand that.

But as a fan, solely as a fan, it does bother me, because if I am attending a concert of AR Rahman, I am going there knowing I am going to hear Tamil songs, I am going to hear Hindi songs. His best, which does not include only one language... As a fan, I know AR Rahman to be someone who has hits in multiple languages. It is as a fan that I don't understand why people would expect only one language.

I think people should be as open-minded as possible when it comes to music. 

What else are you up to? The One Heart documentary is already out, but are you working on some music?

It [One Heart] is already playing in international theatres since last week. I have friends and family in Canada who have already seen the film. This week is when it will start appearing in India. The funny thing is that I haven't seen it yet, I missed the premiere. So far, people have been saying good things about it.

Other than that, I have shows coming up. I am working on my YouTube channel. Collaborations and film songs are also coming up. There are two songs coming up. I have sung for Simran ['Lagdi Hai Thaai'] which released this Friday. I have also sung a song for Bhoomi, which will also be releasing this month.

Now that you have worked with Rahman, Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar, who are the other composers you would love to work with?

Oh, there are so many. One is obviously Vishal Bhardwaj. I think, Shankar Mahadevan. S-E-L, I should say, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. I am a huge fan of their work and would love to work with them. I would also mention Ajay-Atul. There are so many, but I would just mention these guys for now.