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Usha Uthup: I was never really into the rat race of Bollywood

Usha Uthup: I was never really into the rat race of Bollywood

Usha Uthup: I was never really into the rat race of Bollywood
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By Sneha Bengani  Apr 9, 2022 9:13:14 PM IST (Updated)

In this exclusive interview, Usha Uthup talks about it all—the recently published English translation of her biography, why she never trained in music, her iconic look, getting typecast by Bollywood, her latest Tamil film with Akshara Haasan, and more.

Usha Uthup is a dream interviewee. She indulges as few do. At 74, her energy and joie de vivre can give people in their 20s a run for their money. As prolific as she was when she started out over 50 years ago, she has a lot going on for her right now.

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The Queen of Indian Pop, the English translation of her authorized Hindi biography Ullas Ki Naav, released recently. Her new Tamil film, Achcham Madam Naanam Payirppu, in which she plays the grandmother of Akshara Haasan’s character, premiered on Amazon Prime Video on March 25.
In this free-wheeling chat, the much-loved people’s singer talks about it all--her biography, why she never felt the need to learn singing formally, performing jazz in nightclubs wearing kanjivaram sarees and gajra, when she sang two of Lata Mangeshkar’s iconic songs in front of her on her 75th birthday, and her acting aspirations.    
Q. Why not write your own book? Don’t you think your story would have been more heartfelt and direct if it had come from you?
A. I don’t know. Nobody has ever asked me this before. It’s such a fantastic question. I guess, I just never thought about it, about writing my own book. But I do put my thoughts down. I also used to write letters to my father which I never posted. Maybe I’ll write about something different, an aspect which I probably haven’t spoken about as yet in the biography.
Q. The book was originally written in Hindi and has now been translated into English. Don’t you think some essence gets lost in translation?
A. Anybody would have imagined that, as a nightclub singer who sings jazz, pop, and rock, I would be first written about in English. Therefore, it’s a matter of great pride for me that Vikas Kumar Jha decided to write my biography in Hindi. He’d written it so beautifully. It was very lyrical, ornamental, and aesthetically done.
It’s always difficult to do a translation. Being a singer myself and knowing how it is to translate certain songs and ideas, it’s very tough to get the right words, the right feeling. But because Srishti is her father’s daughter, she knows his style and taste, the way he writes, and talks. She’s done a good job.  
Q. You started singing young and yet you never sought any professional training. Why not?
A. Because I was born and brought up in a traditional south-Indian family, you would imagine that I would have had formal training, at least in Carnatic music. My two elder sisters Indira and Uma started learning and then gave it up in between. Also, because I studied at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, the atmosphere was conducive to loving music the way it was without any professional training. I was picking up music from wherever I could. Radio was a major source in those days. So no, it never struck me that I should learn. However, I wish I had learned sight-reading and notation reading. Because it would have helped my career greatly. But other than that, it’s no big regret that I didn’t learn.
Q. You’ve made a career singing jazz at nightclubs wearing kanjivaram sarees, gajras, and big bindis. How did this whole legendary look come about? Did you never feel that it could be at odds with the vibe of the place, the music, or that it wouldn’t be taken well?
A. No, I didn’t ever think that it won’t be taken well. But I was surprised and really happily so, that people did take it so well. It really wasn’t a big strategy or the want to challenge the establishment or make a statement or do something different. I just sang in the clothes that I knew. My mother, my sisters, and everybody in my family wore sarees. So straight after the school uniform, the saree is what I took up. I just sang in whatever I had at home. And it remained so.
Slowly, from wearing just the kanjivaram sarees that my mother and sisters had, the quality of sarees changed and soon I was wearing bigger borders. Then I realized that stores in Madras like Nalli’s or Sundari Silks were happy to dress me up. They would help me design and choose the colour palette. All these changes were very subtle because I can’t even remember when exactly I became the way I am now.
As far as the bindi is concerned, in traditional south-Indian families, all the girls wore a bindi. In those days, it used to be a little bottle with liquid in it and it had a stick inside which you dipped and put a small bindi. Then as I went on singing, I started matching it with my saree. Then the size and the designs changed. That’s how it all evolved really.  
Q. Despite being so versatile, do you think the Hindi film industry has pigeonholed you into singing only disco and upbeat songs?
A. Typecasting is one big thing in our Indian film industry. I broke that to a certain extent and then I got typecast myself. People think that’s all I can do. But that’s OK because I was never really into the rat race of Bollywood. I’m glad whenever I get a chance to sing in a Bollywood film. I always tell everybody in the film industry that I’m not asking you to give me three songs a day or five songs in a week. Just give me one hit song in about six months. It’ll give me 375 shows.
I’m a live singer, a stage performer. I’m very happy and comfortable in my space. I have no frustrations about why they didn’t give me more songs or different kinds of songs. I have sung in different languages which is good for me because I love languages and I love people. I’m totally a people’s person.
But slowly the scene is changing. It’s no more about pristine, petite, and pretty women who wear white sarees. It’s no longer like all the chaste and virginal heroines have to get Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. It’s all the bad girls who got my voice. But as I said, I’m a happy person. A song is a song is a song. For me, it really doesn’t matter who sang it before. I sing everybody’s songs--Yesudas', Kishore Kumar’s, Manna Dey’s. Because people really come to listen for recall value. They have a nostalgic side to them. Everybody does.  
Q. But whoever’s song it might be, your renditions are so different, they feel like an entirely new creation. You make them totally your own…
A. Yea, yea. I make it completely my own. Like Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh, which I sang in front of Lata Ji Mangeshkar on her 75th birthday. And I also sang Bindiya Chamkegi. Totally different take. I sang both of them as women’s songs.
They were really lucky…Asha ji and Lata Ji Mangeshkar. Because they had wonderful movies and great artistes like Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, and Vyjayanthimala, you name it, as the face of their voice. It was really wonderful. But now it’s not like that. The monopoly is now broken and there are opportunities for so many.
Q. You play Akshara Haasan’s grandmother in Raja Ramamurthy’s Tamil film Achcham Madam Naanam Payirppu, which released recently on Amazon Prime Video. How was the experience like?
A. It was wonderful working in this film and with her. We had a great amount of fun. Akshara is very professional. She has to be with a father like Kamal Haasan and a mother like Sarika. It was great fun working with her and being her grandmother. The role is just an extension of my life really. Though it’s small, it’s very meaty and asks you to not be judgmental. In the film, Akshara’s character confides more in me than her own mother. Sometimes it happens. The relationships with grandparents are so wonderful, so precious.
Q. I still remember your Maggie Aunty in 7 Khoon Maaf. You clearly love being in front of the camera. Then why not act more often?
A. 7 Khoon Maaf was lovely but so much of it was edited. I had plenty of lovely scenes. I was on the Coorg and Kashmir schedules. It was a great experience working with all of them, including Naseeruddin Shah and Annu Kapoor. They are such brilliant actors. I got a chance to learn so much. But I want to do roles that have some meaning. I don’t want to appear just as Usha Uthup. I want a character like I did in the Malayalam film Pothan Vava (2006) in which I play Mammootty’s mother. It was very challenging. I just loved it and people loved my acting as well.
Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.
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