Interview Hindi

You can find scope anywhere if you create your space, says 'Behka' singer Vibha Saraf


Vibha Saraf speaks of how High Jack's 'Behka' song came about, and how she worked with lyricist-writer Gulzar and filmmaker Meghna on the 'Dilbaro' song for Raazi.

Mayur Lookhar

A conversation on Jammu & Kashmir these days usually revolves around cross-border terrorism, militancy, violence, unrest and unemployment. But the picturesque state has also given the Hindi film industry talents like director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, actor Anupam Kher and, most recently, actress Zaira Wasim.

Now you can add the name of singer, writer, musician Vibha Saraf to that list. Vibha's talent was discovered when she was just four, as she played the traditional antakshari song game with fellow passengers on a train journey.

That girl went on to sing in school and college, and later became part of a corporate band at her workplace. Eventually she gave up her job as media consultant with a multinational company to pursue her singing ambitions.

Beginning with jingles, Vibha Saraf moved on to launch a couple of singles, notably 'Dhoop', a duet with Udyan Sagar (aka DJ Nucleya). Though Saraf had long moved out of the Kashmir valley, she sang 'Sahibo', a promotional music video for her home state.

Her latest performance came in the dance track 'Behka' from the upcoming stoner comedy, High Jack. The song's popularity is growing by the day, with even actress Parineeti Chopra taking up the #BehkaDrop challenge.

In a telephonic interview with Cinestaan.com, Saraf spoke of how High Jack's 'Behka' song came about, and how she worked with lyricist-writer Gulzar and his filmmaker daughter Meghna on the 'Dilbaro' song for Raazi. She also revealed that her music is revered even by some hardliners in Kashmir. Excerpts:

It is not often that a track takes you on a higher 'plane' of existence. What magic drug did you take before creating 'Behka'? 

Wow, that is some way to put it! I didn’t take any drug. I think the idea is to be the drug, and still not know about it. Be yourself. That is how 'Behka' happened. Sometimes you create something in a very carefree manner.

Can you tell us how the song came about? 

I was returning from a Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy concert. On the way back, we saw Udyan (DJ Nucleya). There were two young boys [singers] travelling with me who were keen on meeting him. I hadn’t heard much of his music, but I knew he was popular. I introduced them to Udyan and we exchanged numbers, emails.

My friends sent their work to him, but he only got back to me. Udyan asked whether I write music. I said I write songs as well. He sent me an instrumental track of 'Behka'. I took some time to reply to it. I sent him a voicenote. The final song that you hear in terms of lyrics, writing, and melody is exactly what I had sent in my voicenote.

He loved it. It is very difficult for us to associate with something very nice that comes around very easily. We tend to think that whatever we create first is actually shit. We think that version two, three will always be better. I, too, wondered how Udyan liked something that I just gave away. He said it was exactly what he wanted. I didn’t want it to be just an instrumental track.

I went down to his place in Goa. We then recorded it in a studio. 'Behka' came about very casually and easily.

How was the song recorded?

Well, I had actually missed my 5am flight to Goa. Udyan is pretty regimented with his day. He has time for family. He is pretty disciplined. I took a later flight. Everything was running off schedule. I was supposed to catch him in the early afternoon slot. It became late afternoon, but I was able to deliver on the job pretty much on time. I thought I’ll extend my trip in Goa, but I actually came back the same day.

In 12 hours it was all done. It’s not easy to stay up all night, miss the 5am flight, fight with the airline staff, then somehow reach Goa, record the song and come back to Mumbai late at night. [But] 80% of the job was done on that WhatsApp voicenote in terms of what he liked and what I wanted to do. I don’t think it took more than an hour to record the song. He did tell me, though, that he had liked the WhatsApp voicenote better.

Over 1.6 million views for a track with no stars... credit goes to the music that has everyone hooked. It must be a matter of pride for you to have penned, sung and co-composed the song.

Well, that is the true test of a song. It doesn’t belong to a film with a big star cast or A-list filmmakers. The success clearly says that something that is very easy on the ear will find mass liking, and it will stand out.

It’s not about names, but about 'do you want to come back to the song'. The writing is very easy and the music is intoxicating. Any dance person can dance to it, I’m happy and content, but there is a long way to go. I’m only going to use this as an opportunity to push myself further, in terms of my songwriting.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that you have shot to fame with 'Behka'.  What was your reaction to Parineeti Chopra taking up the #Behkadrop challenge?

I didn’t know this till I got a notification from a friend saying 'you are all over in Parineeti’s Instagram story'. They sent me a screenshot, only then did I know this had actually happened.

Every film has a marketing strategy, but all of it will fall flat unless you actually have something that will connect with the masses.

As for stars promoting stars, I believe that in life you always try to find people who have a human frequency similar to you. So, you always carry forward people with you. You also have to understand that Parineeti is a singer.

The song is such that even non-dancers will leave behind everything and just break into a childlike dance. That’s the kind of impact the song has.

I think you have summed it up really well. 'Dhoop' [Saraf's single] also got over two million views. It was well received by the audience, especially the young audience. Nucleya’s audience is in the age group 14-24 [years]. Their response is usually very childlike and candid.

The 'Behka' song is one that is perhaps more heavy on the technical side with very few lyrics. Do such songs undermine the role of a singer? 

If you think traditionally, such songs don’t have much of a scope for singing, However, to each his own. You can find scope anywhere, if you create your space. It’s up to you. A lot of people would have said there is no space for lyrics, but I found my space. Nucleya's songs are not very lyrics-driven. Voice-processing happens with many songs today.

High Jack, a stoner comedy, courted controversy with the CFBC [Central Board of Film Certification] delaying its certificate. Though you are a singer and musician, do you think the delay has kind of diminished the buzz that was created around the film earlier?

I don’t think anybody wants a conflict, especially one where your films runs the risk of not being released. Akarsh Khurana is a good director. I don’t think a good product will go to waste. Sometimes, these problems come in between, but I believe that should only facilitate the interest about the film. At the end of the day, it’s all about the product getting out.

You have also sung the Kashmiri verse in the 'Dilbaro' song for Raazi. Can you explain what the folk song is all about? 

It is a folk song that I’ve seen my mother sing at close relatives' weddings or on joyous occasions, since I was a child. She would cry while singing it. I would wonder what is this song that my mom is crying to. The song says, ‘I’m my father’s pampered daughter and now say bye to me dear brother.' The song is about father/brother's relationship with daughter/sister. It is a proper bidaai song. The song also says, 'My in-laws place is really far, so come and see me there.' We have only used the first two lines.

Is it true that it was you who took the folk song to Gulzar? 

Yeah, I got a call from Ehsaan Noorani [composer] to come down to the studio. I had done jingles with them [composer trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy] before. They asked me if I have some idea in the folk space. During the brainstorming, Gulzar saheb and Meghna were also present.

Meghna asked me whether I have any idea about Kashmiri literature. We were just talking about eminent poetesses. It can be tough for one, especially when you are sitting in a room with such luminaries. Plus, you are representing your region. You have to give them the best output. If you fail there, then there is… (pauses).

However, this worked out, It is nice that some part of Kashmiri folk culture is out there in a mainstream film. After Mission Kashmir (2000), I cannot recollect any Hindi film that has been able to bring out the Kashmiri folk music.

But what was Gulzar’s response when you shared your idea with him?

Honestly, I first interacted with Meghna. Gulzar saheb doesn’t speak much. He asked me, 'Are you Kashmiri?' Then he told me that he has spent a lot of time in Kashmir with Meghna. I replied that 'then you would know more about Kashmir than what I'll tell you'. I told Meghna about the legendary poetesses Habba Khatoon and Lal Ded. They went through a lot of pain, so they were relevant for the Raazi song. We went through their verses to understand which couplet would really fit the bill for the film. Next day, I just suggested the folk song 'Khanmaej Koor'.

Can you talk about your background? How did you start your career? 

Well, I was born in Kashmir. We moved out of the state at the time when the whole Hindu-Muslim [civll unrest] thing happened. It was around 1989-1990. We moved to Delhi. I did my college — English honours from Delhi University. I studied science at school. I was supposed to become an engineer.

My father was the principal at the Institute of Hotel Management, Srinagar. He was instrumental in helping Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims to shift to Delhi from IHM Srinagar. I grew up on that campus. I used to sing from the time I was four years old. The singer in me was discovered when I was travelling with my parents. The boys in the next bogie started playing antakshari. I too joined them. They told my parents that your daughter sings very well. The first telefilm I sang for was Habba Khatoon. I was about 10 then.

Later, I did my master's in media from the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages. I would sing in school, college functions and even at weddings. I learnt Indian classical music during my college days in Delhi from the late Shrimati Shanti Sharma.

During my master's, I was offered a job with The Indian Express newspaper group, but I declined. Later, I took up a marketing consultant’s job at Ernst & Young. I was part of the corporate band. On Sundays, we used to jam. I felt I wasn’t getting acknowledgement for my work and my heart was aching for music.

Most Kashmiris either become doctors and engineers or they are not successful. There was no professional musician in my family.

So how did you get your break in singing?

I got my jingles to Mumbai. I fixed up meetings with music directors in studios. Advertising was my main game. People are cleaner, no one takes you for granted. I sang for about 130 brands, involving faces like Anushka Sharma, Karisma Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Yami Gautam. I also did voiceovers in 11 Indian languages. My big break came with the 'O Soniye' song with Arijit Singh in the film Story Of Titoo MBA (2014). Then came Surkhaab (2015), Dhanak (2016) and Jia Aur Jia (2017). I also sang a Gujarati song for Gujjubhai The Great (2015). I did an interesting campaign called 'Sahibo' for Jammu & Kashmir Tourism.

For decades, Kashmir has been torn between India and Pakistan. Has your music inspired Hindus and Muslims in the valley? 

The feedback from Kashmir is mindblowing. Kashmiris are essentially very passionate people. I did my first jingle for Rajnigandha in 2014 — the Dil Bada Tu Bada campaign. I went to Kashmir that year and was surprised to see everyone knew that jingle. They had downloaded the jingle on to their mobile, had it as their ringtone, callertune. My first single, 'Harmok Bartal', was in Kashmiri.

The kind of people that follow me on Instagram is scary. Some of them have a martyr's cap on a gun, and the profile text says 'pro-Azad Kashmir'. One guy writes ‘I'm 21 and want to burn India’. But when they listen to my songs, they have such nice things to say. It is astounding that a person who has such angst is responding to music so well.

In 2000, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy had composed the 'Bumbro' track for Mission Kashmir. The trio have composed for Raazi too. What did you think of 'Bumbro'? 

'Bumbro' is a folk melody too, like 'Dilbaro'. They [Shankar-Ehsaan- Loy] mixed it with Hindi lyrics. It was nice. Back then, we were in complete awe of Hrithik Roshan and Preity Zinta. She was someone who could get close to Kashmir, as she is from Himachal Pradesh. We didn’t understand what trouble was happening in the film, but it was nice to have a sound that was closely connected with the valley. 

I see you are pretty active on social media, especially Instagram....

What got me to Instagram is that there is not much of talk but audio, visual, and less text. It became more interactive for me than Facebook.

Also, I consider Instagram less professional than Facebook. If you see, I only sing songs that are similar to my style. I might sing a ghazal, an old classic Hindi film song or even a Kumar Sanu [singer and composer] track. I would sing anything that is connected with my past or etched in memory.

The kind of interaction I have had [with followers] has propelled me to put up these one-minute audiovisuals more often. The idea is to keep your art alive. If you get any work, it’s fine, but it’s not necessary that you do these things to get visibility.

You sang a few lines in the 'O Soniye' song with Arijit Singh. Recently, I think it was Sona Mohapatra who said she doesn’t want to sing few odd lines in an Arijit Singh song. What do you have to say on this? Would you be happy if you were to get more duets with Arijit Singh in future?

Not just Arijit Singh, but anybody. I think Sona spoke like an independent artiste who cares to create her own space, own brand. She is an independent artiste and she has sung for 'Bollywood' [mainstream Hindi cinema] too. There will aways be this tug-of-war between pursuing the commercial and the indie. I believe in 'to each his own'. Whichever stage of your career you are in, you will respond accordingly. I agree with both. Every artiste should try and create their own art. 

Going forward, I would like to write my own songs, but at the same time, at my level, I’m open to collaborations with as many people. The idea should be to be able to find your own self in those three-four lines, which I managed to do in 'O Soniye'. Though predominantly it was an Arijit song, there were a lot of people who noticed my four lines in that entire song. It is up to an artiste to realize how to utilize an opportunity to stem and grow from there. The growth can be as an independent artiste or a playback singer.

What’s next for you?

I am writing my own songs. I am working on that. Of course, I’m open to collaborations, film projects, ad jingles. I don’t want to be limited to folk. I am open to doing projects down South [as well]. Since I have done theatre, I am also keen to take part in musicals. However, there is no point in talking until you sign something.