Sonu Nigam, who has belted out countless popular numbers in his silky and sonorous voice, speaks to Rohan Dua, the executive editor of The New Indian, about his initial struggling days of his over 25-year Bollywood journey and about the people who played a crucial role in helping him chart his career path. First part of the interview…
Rohan Dua: As a kid and a budding journalist, I have seen you performing and becoming a sensation for us, young boys and girls during that era. You continue to be the heartthrob of India.
I still tell my colleagues that whenever we would feel sad or get bored of the news events every day, it was your songs that came as a relief to us. Besides, in those times of solitude, when we had no family to support us in remote areas where we reported from, your songs provided succour. What an incredible career that you have had over the last two decades or more: someone who has done playback singing for the Khans to the Kumars from one blockbuster movie to another.
In the 75th year of India’s independence, what is the essence of freedom for you?
Sonu Nigam: You have chosen beautiful words for my introduction. Thank you. It’s been a beautiful journey. It is still a beautiful journey. It has been about 31 years of being in Mumbai and being famous. So it’s been more than three decades in Mumbai because as you know, I was from Delhi.
But as a child, I stayed for four years and studied in Mumbai in the 1980s. But the major part of my childhood was in Delhi.
Rohan Dua: Which part of Delhi was this?
Sonu Nigam: West Delhi from Patel Nagar to Baljeet Nagar to Vivekanand Puri to Derawal Nagar to Gulabi Bagh. We have changed a lot of homes. Seven schools were changed because my family was very…they did not want to stagnate.
I have been singing professionally on stage for the last 45 years. India has given me a lot of love and respect. The country has given me so much and I am thankful for this. India is celebrating the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav and I feel proud to be an Indian. India is the world’s oldest country and a country that has been respected for centuries. People discovered the world in search of India. We not only respect other countries but also follow the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. I am very fortunate to be a part of the 75th year of Independence.
Rohan Dua: I understand your journey has been tough, but your father and your mother taught you how to fight steadfastly in your career — how to be a fighter. I have been a witness to your career since I was young. From my experience, I am telling you that your songs influenced us a lot: whether from the movie Border or Kal Ho Na Ho or the solo heart-touching albums. I feel proud that your songs touched our souls. Would you like to explain your early fight?
Sonu Nigam: I belong to a typical middle-class family. My family is very simple; my mother is no more but my father still has a good voice and sings extremely well. So, they taught us to live a simple life: be normal and reduce extravagance. I and my sister never asked for any lavish lifestyle. So we were a family which was always very balanced and down-to-earth.
Life was full of ordeals, but it was a collective struggle. It was the relay race which was started by my parents. And then I took the baton and my sisters, of course. They are very brilliant in their own ways. One of my singers is a yoga teacher, healer, and a wonderful singer. She does devotional music and concerts.
She has done so many songs and films. So my family helped us to a certain extent (stage) and never wanted to teach us anything. My mother told me to stay grounded. She restrained us from eating certain things on a particular day and visiting temples on some particular days. And we followed all of this. I visited the Shiva temple on Mondays. The time we get spiritual, we find God in every particle. It was my mother who inculcated these things in me. Both my parents visited Haji Malang Shah Dargah and Tirupati, too. It means ours was not a narrow-minded family.
Rohan Dua: Those values are still ingrained and passed on to your son as well?
Sonu Nigam: Of course. When I visited Israel for the first time in 1995, I visited Church of Nativity and Plymouth Brethren Church two times during the same tour. We were earning well in Delhi when we shifted to Mumbai. My voice matured at the age of 14, so I could do concerts. My father was always a good singer so both the men of the house were earning. My father strictly told me to do only film songs. We used to struggle while commuting on the buses. At that time, there was no concept of album songs. So, we had only one option: to meet the composer and sing the song and wait for the song to be released. It may come instantly or it could take years. We decided to do concerts and earn money in Delhi but not in Mumbai.
Rohan Dua: So where did you live first when you came to Mumbai?
Sonu Nigam: There was a hotel in Bandra called Mansarovar Hotel. Dharmendra sahab used to visit the place. My father knew this. The building is still there but the hotel is no more. At first, we spent a week in that hotel. After that, we lived with one of my uncle’s house, who was an immigration officer. Then we rented a flat in Lokhandwala. After a while, we realised that we could afford a house; then we bought a house and that house proved to be lucky charm for me. So all the albums, the Border song Sandese Aate Hain and so on, got released from that apartment.
Rohan Dua: Was the apartment lucky for you?
Sonu Nigam: I believe every part of this earth is lucky. I don’t believe in the concept that Monday is not lucky or that a particular day is ominous. If your mind is functioning properly (positively) then everything is lucky.
My journey has been very long and I will try to explain it to you in a nutshell. My parents were part of this journey from the initial stage. Even today in this house, there is no locker because we don’t believe in it. Even today, I ask my father for money. And if my wife wants money then again that money comes through my father. My father is still the boss. He is the King and all the decisions of this house are made with his consent.
Rohan Dua: You sang for superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Ajay Devgan and for other big banners early in your career. How nervous or how confident were you while singing for them? Did you approach the producer and director or would they approach you?
Sonu Nigam: Even today, it is mostly the music composer who has the prerogative to choose the singer. Sometimes, his decision can be overruled by a director or producer when they’re very sure that they don’t want a particular voice or want another voice. So, generally, it is the music composers. When I was new, it was exciting to be singing for people who were superstars at that point in time, like Shah Rukh Khan. I used to sing for Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, and others. So it was very exciting, and obviously one would want to be part of a project which is going to be marketed well and will be on a good pedestal. So it was always a challenge to deliver your best. I believe in the right balance. Never be too nervous or too confident. You have to be somewhere in between. The nervousness will inspire you to be better. The confidence will take care of the nervousness and will take care of your complexes if, at all, you have it.
So even today, when I was singing two songs the night before yesterday, even though I sang the first song in one take, I gave 45 more minutes to different options so that it can become better. We still work on a song. You are still not fully confident. And you can never be too confident or too sure. You have to give time. You have to pay attention to this. God lies in detailing.
Rohan Dua: How was your experience working with music composers like Anu Malik, A R Rehman, Himesh Reshammiya and Sajid Wajid?
Sonu Nigam: The most important part of my initial journey of music was played by Anu Malik. Anu ji is my senior and a very aggressive man with a lot of energy. It’s very inspiring to see him still hell-bent and passionate to give his best and hats off to him because he has been there since the 1970s.
And even in this decade, he’s capable of giving music. And he has done some phenomenal music. The recent music of Paltan that I sang for and Moh Moh Ke Dhage. He and I met for the first time when I was 14 years old, I was participating in a National Ghazal Competition and he was the judge. I performed there and got the first prize from him. He asked my family to bring me to him when I am a grown-up man. When I was 14, my voice was still getting matured and evolving. So, the moment I landed in Delhi after 4 years, we went to a hotel and took a bath and the first person we met was Sachin Pilgaonkar ji because he also gave me the award. He knew my father and me as well. My father was always a respected singer. Sachin ji had said, “I will launch him, bring him to me I will launch him”. So, two people said the same thing. So first we met Sachin ji and the next morning, we met Anu ji. He was very kind and very nice. He heard my voice and said, “Kay baat hai, kya baat hai” (what a remarkable voice) and the relationship got cultivated after that. He didn’t have too much work at that time. Suddenly, his popularity grew and became famous. He became the most successful composer in front of my own eyes and gradually, we started working with him. He just trusted me. It took him five years to give me Border. Earlier, we were working together but not on big projects like Border. It took five years to get Border; the struggle was not easy and also nothing came overnight. Then, I got songs from Nadeem Shravan Dil Diwana to Subhash Ghai. It was such a beautiful experience. In 1997, I also sang patriotic songs in the movies Pradesh and Dil Diwana.
Rohan Dua: I remember at that time, some of your songs became a rage whether it is Dil Diwana or Zindagi Maut Na Ban Jaye. I remember the song of Sarfarosh. Sandese Aate Hai is even today played in BSF ceremonies. And the song featuring Govinda Ankhiyo Se Goli Mare is still trending. You also picked up Salman Khan song Jine Ke Hain Chaar Din. Which is the distinct quality that you find in Anu Malik, Himesh Reshammiya, and Sajid Wajid?
Sonu Nigam: God has been kind. Music changed with time. People gave me beautiful songs to sing. See every composer has his/her own style. Whether it is AR Rehman, Sajid Wajid or Jatin Lalit, we have done lots of good work. They all have different qualities. Himesh’s voice is marvellous. Shankar Ehsaan Loy has also done memorable work. Recently, I worked with Pritam in Laal Singh Chaddha and people have appreciated the songs of the film.
Rohan Dua: You mentioned Laal Singh Chaddha. Currently, India is facing a boycott trend. Recently, people boycotted the movie. Do you agree with this boycott call or do you leave this to the people to decide?
Sonu Nigam: See, earlier I used to have an opinion on everything. Later, I realized the one who has created me has done so with a reason or purpose. He knows what is good for me and what is not. So, I surrender. Bhagavad Gita also tells us that whatever has happened is right and that whatever happens eventually will also be right. I strongly abide by this. I sang for Laal Singh Chaddha as I have surrendered to Gita.
I like to see my favourite people around me, irrespective of their relationship with religion. My idols are Mohammad Rafi sahab, Kishore Kumar sahab. My best friend is a Sindhi and one close to me is a Marathi. We can’t identify people through religion. I want to talk only about the good things about life. If I say something, it will only add fuel to the controversy.
I learnt at a very early age that social media cannot change the world, your comment will not change the world. Your opinion does not matter. If you think that your words can rectify the problem, it won’t. Your opinions never change the person who has already made his own.