Why you should care

Because this billion-dollar biz officially crosses borders.

My first assumption before meeting Shalmali Kholgade is that the girl must be a diva. She is, after all, at 25 already one of the most popular voices in the Bollywood music scene. Her home is in the filmiest of neighborhoods, Andheri, and she’s been spotted on the red carpet with glammed-up, side-knotted hairdos. Also, she sleeps through our appointed interview time.

But when we finally do sit down in a cafe — she meant to invite me up to her newly bought apartment but found she had no milk to offer me a coffee — Kholgade is dressed so down that I barely recognize her, with long, girlish hair, a crocodile T-shirt and thigh-length shorts. (She’s a hugger.) Then I quip: “Wild night last night?” “Oh, no,” she says. “I was working.” The singer keeps odd hours, recording, practicing and penning lyrics between midnight and 6 a.m. It’s the only time this city of perpetual honks and vendor cries quiets down, and without a personal recording studio at her disposal, that’s the best she can do.

Kholgade probably should be much more of a primped starlet. In the mega-competitive world of Bollywood, an industry valued at $2 billion last year, almost double from five years ago, Kholgade has soared to the top at a frighteningly young age, picking up awards from all the industry’s culture-makers like Filmfare and Zee. She’s known as a “playback singer,” meaning she populates the soundtrack of blockbuster Hindi films, which are almost always boisterous musicals, while film stars dance and lip-sync on screen. Meanwhile, Kholgade is hidden behind the scenes in a studio — unless, that is, the film is a hit. Then her voice dominates radio waves and concert stages.

That’s how it happened for Kholgade. Before she was just out of college, where she seriously tried out singing for the first time, Kholgade says she was so shy that her friends never knew she liked to sing, or could. Her first job? Touring with a Latvian cabaret and trekking to rehearsals three hours outside of Mumbai, in Pune. She did the necessary hustle, passing an audio tape through a friend of a friend till it got into the hands of producer Amit Trivedi. She got the call back … and then came the gig for her first big break. The song was called “Pareshaan,” and it was featured in the 2012 hit Ishaqzaade, a love story.

The thing about playback singers, though, is that artists like Kholgade get a contract, get amped up, learn, record and then … wait. In this case, she waited eight months for the film to come out. With no sign that it would be a hit, Kholgade spent that time applying to music schools — but in the U.S., not India. Makes sense, after all, since her idols while growing up were not the Hindi film star singers of yore like Lata Mangeshkar — she loved Amy Winehouse, and had never sung in Hindi before “Pareshaan.” So it didn’t seem likely that Mumbai would be where Kholgade made her future. But the directors of the film warned her: “Don’t do anything drastic,” she recalls. “This is a good song,” they assured her. And eight months later: voilà, an overnight success. The song took award after award, including Kholgade herself winning the industry Filmfare Award for best female playback singer. When the acceptance rolled in from the Los Angeles Music Academy, she said no.

You can tell just by looking at or listening to Kholgade — from her clothes to the rich, even slightly deep timbre of her voice — that she’s part of a new gen of playback singers. Old-school crooners in this industry were marked by extremely high-pitched voices. Modern Bollywood artists are “rock ’n’ roll musicians,” says Gregory Booth, ethnomusicologist with a specialty in Hindi film at the University of Auckland. Unlike the older crew, this group is full of people like Kholgade writing and singing, who come from a “globalized, liberal India,” Booth says. Kholgade also marks the rise of “atypical singing styles,” says Bollywood music producer Mikey McCleary, who works with her in the group the Bartender, which remixes old Bollywood songs with a modern, jazzy vibe. She’s got a kind of soulfulness, an almost “vintage” Winehousian style, McCleary adds.

Kholgade herself grew up in between eras. Though her mother taught classical Indian Hindustani music, the family had “maybe two Hindi CDs” in the whole house. The arts surrounded her in a comfortably middle-class home an hour from where we sit now: Her father, a pharmaceutical consultant by day, got home early whenever possible to spend time with the family and write plays at night.

For Kholgade, though, simply bringing a different voice to the blockbusters doesn’t seem satisfying — or perhaps she’s just afraid it won’t last. Her doll-like face is serious when she talks about her future. She’s eager to prove herself on her own terms, which is why she’s stayed up all night: She’s writing and recording independent work these days, seemingly spurred on by the sense that no 25-year-old should be this lucky. “Everything,” she says — even her unique brand of Hindi, even her sudden-onset celebrité, “has a shelf life.”

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