Bollywood singer KK on the art of playback singing and how he found his path
'Thirty years ago in India, if you told someone that you were a singer, they would say ‘oh, that’s a nice hobby. But what is your real job?' he says
When it comes to Bollywood, the talent behind the scenes is as important as the stars who appear on camera. And when it comes to KK, the singer, 50, is industry royalty.
For nearly three decades, KK, whose real name is Krishnakumar Kunnath, has been serenading film goers in more than a hundred films and in 11 Indian dialects. His art is called playback singing. A salient feature of major Bollywood productions, the playback singer is the smooth voice heard when your favourite actor is engaged in a song and dance sequence on screen. The craft also involves the singer delivering the film’s signature track.
But the job is in no way thankless. Such is the importance of the playback singer’s role in a film’s success that their involvement can, at times, get equal billing with the film’s star. It also results in a lucrative career on the road. After selling out several shows at Dubai Tennis Stadium over the past three years, KK returned with another packed show of Bollywood hits such as Zara Sa (from the film Jannat), Alvida (Life In A … Metro) and Dil Ibadat (Tum Mile) at the more intimate Hard Rock Cafe in Dubai Festival City last month. It was part of the concert series Colors LIVE.
The importance of playback singers
Speaking exclusively to The National hours before the show, KK discussed his latest playback single, Tum Na Aaye. The power ballad can be heard in UAE cinemas as part of Amitabh Bachan’s latest feature, the crime drama Badla. When KK admits his memory of recording that song months ago is sketchy, he is not being deliberately evasive. It is, instead, down to the fast-paced life a playback singer leads. With Bollywood churning out movies at a breakneck pace, KK’s professional life is governed by meetings, briefs and recordings.
KK agrees there is a Mad Men-esque quality to the playback music industry, in that it is all about the big sell. “That is really what it is. It is whether I can sell you the message and the emotion of the movie,” he says. “The place that I am now in my career, and me being blessed with a degree of success, I feel that I can sell you anything. Give me the brief and once I know what is needed, I am ready to go, man.”
One may wonder what a younger version of KK would have thought about this, as playback singing wasn’t initially part of his music plan. Dehli-born KK recalls getting the musical itch in high school and going on to win a range of local talent quests. That said, pursuing music as a career was out of the question, according to his parents. “Oh, I totally get it. Thirty years ago in India, if you told someone that you were a singer, they would say ‘oh, that’s a nice hobby. But what is your real job?’” he says.
“Now, with all these talent shows on television and the profile that you can get from music, anyone who can sing well in the shower is encouraged by their parents to try a music career. It is more respected now.”
So KK had to work his way up to gain that respect. After moving to Mumbai in the early 1990s to kick start a solo music career, the interest from the music industry was minimal.
Finding his way
It was the advertising suits who thought his voice could help sell their wares. So, as a newly-wed desperate to make ends meet – KK had recently married his childhood sweetheart – he took on the jobs as a temporary measure: “I did have plans to make a solo music career, but I thought I will give this a go and see if I could do it.” And with KK’s clear diction in 10 languages other than his native Hindi, including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, he found himself in great demand for radio and television jingles to promote everything from soft drinks to chocolates and cars.
KK admits the job was harder than expected, and more surprisingly, extremely rewarding in developing his singing craft. “The great thing about jingles is that it teaches you how to focus as a singer,” he says. “You learn to get straight to the point. Straight to the melody. In 30 seconds or so you sing all these different emotions. And that’s what it’s about, really – to make the listener feel something and to get their attention.”
It is that mixture of melodic craft and graft that historically allowed India’s advertising world to be a fertile ground for future playback singers. A long list of Bollywood music stars began their careers selling products. Shilpa Rao, known for her film hits Manmarziyaan, Khuda Jaane and Gubbare, began her career singing hooks for the Ford Figo.
Clinton Cerejo (Darmiyaan and Azmaa) was behind Coca Cola’s popular 2013 television campaign Haan Main Crazy Hoon (Then Call Me Crazy). And it was actually famed Bollywood composer A R Rahman – who before his revered status as an Oscar winner also produced and sung more than 300 jingles for everything ranging from tyres and coffee to watches and saris – who tapped KK for his first playback job.
Breaking out in Bollywood
The 1997 tracks Kalluri Saaley and Hello Dr, from the Tamil action drama Kadhal Desam, were moderate hits for KK. But it was the next single, 1999’s Tadap Tadap, from Salman Khan’s lavish drama Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, that took Bollywood by storm and catapulted him to the upper echelons of playback singers. This meant his solo career, which began with his debut album Pal (1999) and the follow-up Humsafar (2008) were permanently put on the back burner.
Now, even if I don’t like the song, I just learn to imbibe it and it will come out in a different way once I am singing it. Sometimes you get on with it
KK describes the playback songwriting process as more dynamic than sitting at home with a pen and a pad. “It’s a different style and it challenges you more creatively as there are more people involved,” he says. “Each film is different. But normally what happens is that I meet the music director of the film, I would meet the director sometimes as well, and I would even read parts of the script.
“Now, even if I don’t like the song, I just learn to imbibe it and it will come out in a different way once I am singing it. Sometimes you get on with it.”
And that is, perhaps, the secret to a successful playback singer’s career – there can be no ego involved. Unlike the pop music world, whether it is India or abroad, the playback singer knows they are part of a greater project. “I try to explain that to the new generation of filmmakers,” KK says. “I once worked with a young music director who told me it was a dream come true to work with me.
“So to make him less nervous I simply told him that ‘like you, I am also an artist. You believe in your art and I believe in mine. I am here to serve your song, not the other way around.’ After that, we got to work.”
Updated: March 14, 2019 12:33 PM