When Sonu Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Pop Culture

When Sonu Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

Iremember my father listening to a very young Sonu Nigam and saying, “Rafi aur Kishore Kumar se aage jayega ye ladka.” The album was “Rafi Ki Yaadein” and the year was 1992. Shaan and Alisha Chinai had already made their way into our collective consciousness, not so much for their music, but for the carefree attitude of their lyrics tiled to fit an open marriage with melody. But among the coterie of the ensemble of would-be stars, the exceptionally soft, grounded yet jaggedly youthful Sonu Nigam stood out.

Nigam inherited from his parents not only the powers of singing but also the persona of the middling star of Indian music. The face of Nigam’s steadily steaming forecastle had been likened to the legend that was Mohd Rafi. By the time Nigam’s album “Deewana” came out in 1999 (back when pop was still a thing and record labels still backed artists), he had already lent his voice to songs that the youth gloved their open-fisted angst and heartbreaks with. I can’t remember a boy from school, even as late as 2004, who did not know word for word the lyrics of “Yeh Dil Deewana” from Pardes. It only helped Nigam’s cause that Shah Rukh had his heart broken in the film and drove a car mercilessly across pastures in the US, serving only to pump the blood and emotion inside whosoever was listening – a glistening, grunge lolly of pop culture.

After “Deewana”, with which he probably established himself, not only as a voice, but also as a name, Nigam’s currency soared. He collaborated with the best, sung some memorable songs, and even went on to make that mandatory headway into the world stage: He collaborated with American pop queen Britney Spears. All of this, until the man inside Nigam decided to overthrow the artist.

Today, the eccentric celebrity made headlines after he said he wished he was born in Pakistan, an apparent indication that the Indian music industry was favouring artistes from the neighbouring country. He later clarified his statement and accused the media of twisting his words. But stunts like this have been a fixture in Nigam’s recent career.

Much before he found Twitter, a convenient basin to relieve himself, he had begun to make strange choices. As early as 2006, he announced that he was cutting back on singing for films to devote time to the stage. In an age where music is free, it indicated to his fans where his priorities lay. Channelling his inner child actor from the ’80s, Nigam went on to make even more weird choices for a man who once carried the monumental weight of Rafi on his slim shoulders. He hosted a musical reality TV show, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, acted in a series of horrendous films like Love in Nepal and Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, India’s answer to the Wachowski brothers.

For a man, who went on stage at the age of four, and ironically sung the song “Kya Hua Tera Vada”, the possibilities have come undone by the probabilities of life.

He began appearing in public in oddball clothing, menacingly ugly hairstyles, and a deviously driven grin. Nigam’s sense of collaboration veered away from music, to the obscenely political and commercial, and in 2015, he joined the likes of Mika and Abhijeet Bhattacharya to court the fast-chance salons of controversy with a series of outwardly brash tweets that went from defending the controversial Radhe Maa, to commenting on the clothing of Kali Maa.

Early last year Sonu expressed displeasure about the Muslim Azaan blaring on the loudspeakers near his house five times a day. A Kolkata cleric was so offended he offered a bounty for anyone who would tonsure the singer; Sonu was unfazed, and did what any sane man would have done in that situation — shaved his hair on live television. By the time he appeared on Aap Ki Adalat, to celebrate 21 years of the show, Sonu Nigam, the flashy star, had effectively overtaken Sonu Nigam, the ethereal singer.

For a man, who went on stage at the age of four, and ironically sung the song “Kya Hua Tera Vada”, the possibilities have come undone by the probabilities of life. Not only has Nigam betrayed his younger self, in siding with a peevishly, bitter adult, he has, true to life, simply grown old poorly. Instead of trailblazing through the 2000s, the way he had done through the ’90s and claiming our youth the way he had claimed our teens, the soulful singer retreated into an eternal deaf slumber while his alter ego gyrated in bizarre videos like Crazy Dil.

The story could have been different. All those years ago, when I was getting audio cassettes of his songs recorded on my meagre pocket money, I believed, just like my father did, that his destiny would be different. Sonu Nigam could have played his game for posterity but instead, he played for celebrity. He lost the plot some time ago and looks destined to lose the game as well.