By Kahini Iyer Sep. 03, 2019
How has singing sensation Ranu Mondal managed to defy the churn of news cycles and stay in the news? Her story endures because we want to believe in it, as much for ourselves as for the singer. Even in the bleakest situations, we think there is hope and beauty to be found. It is a welcome respite from the cynicism of our age, a straw to hold on to in the ceaseless cycle of bad news.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m certain that by now, you’ve seen the video of a middle-aged woman with matted hair, sitting on a ledge with her kurta hiked up to the knee, while swinging one bare foot, singing “Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai” with angelic sweetness. Maybe it came to you as a WhatsApp forward or a Facebook post, with a title like “WOW!! Beggar woman has more talent than Bollywood!” In the video, the cacophony of rattling trains, blaring horns, the bustle of crowds and hawkers threaten to drown the woman out at times, but she lifts her voice to compensate for her surroundings. She’s 58, looks undeniably working-class, unadorned by jewellery or makeup, and sits amid the throngs of the train station as if she belongs there.
Except, her voice does not.
It’s a compelling image, one that contrasts exceptional talent and artistic beauty with the perceived squalor of the woman’s life. It’s no wonder that it has become the perfect fodder for social media: Ranu Mondal is now recognisable to so many of us. Since commuter Atindra Chakraborty – now her manager – saw her at Ranaghat Junction in Kolkata and felt compelled to record the singer’s stunning performance and put it up online in July, Mondal has had an extremely busy couple of months. She was invited to take part in Superstar Singer, a reality show hosted by Himesh Reshammiya, and is now recording songs for his film, Happy Hardy and Heer. Just a few days ago, he even released a video of the two recording “Teri Meri Kahaani” in a posh professional studio, intercut with his own romantic scenes from the movie.
In this video, Mondal is even more important than Reshammiya’s co-star Sabita Manakchand, who ordinarily would be lip-syncing her lines. We linger on her delicate smile and the old footage of her singing in Ranaghat Junction, a world away from Bollywood glamour. It feels like a love song to Mondal and her journey, which has finally led her to a place where she and her voice fit in. Yesterday, Reshammiya shared a scratch of a confident, beaming Mondal recording a remake of his hit song, “Aashiqui Mein Teri 2.0.” The 30-odd second clip has already made major headlines and if any further proof of Mondal’s celebrity status was needed, it came in the form of Lata Mangeshkar’s attempted diss, where she said that merely imitating old songs is not a formula for success.
It’s a compelling image, one that contrasts exceptional talent and artistic beauty with the perceived squalor of the woman’s life.
Although it’s too early to speculate on the level of success that Mondal is destined for, the outpouring of appreciation for her is extraordinary. Between news of an economic slowdown, the devastating failures of the NRC, the clampdown in Kashmir, and a host of other urgent headlines, you can’t exactly say it’s been a slow news week. The national mood is rife with anxiety, as low as the rock-bottom figures of the stock market. There is too much talk of nuclear conflict on either side of the border for comfort, and even this late in the year, several states continue to be plagued by monsoon flooding.
With all this going on, the average citizen has a full plate of worries. And yet Mondal – a social media nobody without any PR machinery or high-profile lifestyle – has managed to wedge herself into the national conversation for over a month. She’s shot to fame faster than young playback singers who take part in televised competitions and feature on established musicians’ songs, only to be lost in the churn of fresh talent. How has Mondal taken such a hold over our diminishing attention spans?
Of course, her unassuming background is a large part of what makes the singer so relatable. In an industry where normal people are fed to the teeth with nepotism, the raw talent of Mondal is a welcome relief from the star kid du jour. Her story, too, is better than most Bollywood movies, so much so that some suspicious commenters have even wondered whether Mondal can really sing like a nightingale, as advertised. By now, there have already been false reports of Mangeshkar meeting with her and Salman Khan buying her a house, so why shouldn’t her voice be #fakenews too?
In an industry where normal people are fed to the teeth with nepotism, the raw talent of Mondal is a welcome relief from the star kid du jour.
Still, given the number of crackpot opinions on the internet, these conspiracy theories are rare. Mondal was born to a poor family in West Bengal, orphaned as a child, and reportedly abandoned by her daughter for the past decade. She sang at Ranaghat Junction for money before being discovered entirely by chance thanks to a passing stranger. Perhaps the precise truths of her rags-to-riches tale are not important. Her story endures because we want to believe in it, as much for ourselves as for the singer. Even in the bleakest situations, we think, there is hope and beauty to be found. It is a welcome respite from the cynicism of our age, a straw to hold on to in the ceaseless cycle of bad news and horrorshow context. Everything from the planet to your personal life might be disintegrating to rubble, so why not clutch at a sliver of goodness?
And isn’t that the great Indian dream? That destiny has better things in store for you, just so long as you repose your faith in a higher power? After all, we are a country that has learned to have little faith in our institutions, whether they are corrupt netas, inefficient governments, unconcerned police, looting businessmen or untrustworthy journalists. One thing we still have faith in, however, is the aam aadmi and his power to move beyond the circumstances that threaten to define him. In a cynical world, Mondal’s story is a reminder that no matter how dire your situation, a chance miracle might yet save you. If the news cycle continues its downward spiral, God knows we all could use one.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.