The Vocal Vamp of Bollywood

Newsweek International, May 19, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Vocal Vamp of Bollywood


Asha Bhosle, singing for the stars, has logged more recordings than anybody.

At 75, Asha Bhosle, the "Queen of Bollywood," is the world's most recorded singer, with 13,000 songs to her credit. Rather than following after her older sister, Lata Mangeshkar, who impersonated the voices of virginal screen heroines, Bhosle, the daring rebel, became the voice of vamps. After playing to huge audiences across North America last month, Bhosle returned home to receive the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian honor. Before performing at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 17, she talked to NEWSWEEK's Vibhuti Patel about her life and work. Excerpts:

PATEL: How did you come to sing in Bollywood films?

BHOSLE: My father was a classical singer and actor. He taught me and my sisters to sing. When he died at 40, our family was in financial trouble. My mother encouraged us to sing, gave us confidence and suggested we go into films. In those days, there was tremendous prejudice against middle-class girls as performers. Singers were considered low-class. First Didi [older sister] entered films. Then it was my turn. I got a role as a child actor. Later, Didi sang sad love songs and I sang cabaret. She cornered one genre, I the other. There was no competition.

Was it hard to break in?

Very hard. As child actors it was OK, but then, in '47, with many big artists in films, it was difficult for newcomers. We'd say, "Just audition me --" We sang for the heroine, or the second heroine.

How was it being a young woman then?

I had eloped at 16! My husband gave up his job to chaperone me--a standard practice in Bollywood. By age 26, I had had three children. During my last pregnancy, I walked out of the marriage because my husband was abusive. I worked to support my children. I was criticized for singing cabaret numbers, but I had no choice--as a single mother I had to provide for my kids. I was paid only $12 a song, and they did not pay on time--often it was on credit toward the next film. Ironically, for those hit songs, on which I made no money then, I'm now making a lot in concert.

Did you go back to your family?

No, I refused to move in with my mother. I lived on my own. It was difficult to remain independent. Jobs dried up when I separated, because they thought I'd be too dejected to sing. But I needed the work, so I persevered. I was recording up to six songs a day. There was no dubbing; songs were recorded with live musicians. I encountered hardships because I was young, famous and unprotected. I took the kids to school, spent the day at the studio and stayed home when they were sick. …

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