When Madhuri Dixit released her maiden single 'Candle' recently, the name of the song took me back to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas. When the titular character (Shah Rukh Khan) visits a brothel, he is welcomed by Chandramukhi (Madhuri) with an ornate candle stand.
Madhuri picks the candle stand and places it between both her eyes. The flame seems to rise like a phoenix, as the two captivating eyes, with bottomless depth, stare into the camera. With renewed ferocity, the kohled eyes then stare at Devdas, determined, penetrative yet deeply commiserative. Her eyebrows punctuate the fire in her eyes with a little dance of their own, before Madhuri breaks into a peafowl-like kathak recital on Pt Birju Maharaj's vocals. And then she starts singing, "Dhai shyam rok lai," in her recorded voice.
It was a rare instance when Madhuri had taken to the mic, and made the audience take notice of her command over vocals, and not just the mesmerising dance. Like the candle in the stand, Devdas was the last life of wax left in Madhuri before she moved to Denver with her husband Shriram Nene, and quit showbiz.
Five years later, she would rise from the ashes and lead an ensemble cast in Anil Mehta's 2007 dance film Aaja Nachle. In the stunning 20-minute climactic sequence, in which she served as a narrator, she took to the mic again, singing portions of the 'Laila Majnu' medley. However, her singing would be limited to reciting poetry, as was the case in Devdas. Sunidhi Chauhan and Kavita Krishnamurthy did the heavy-lifting in both the respective songs.
Her major turn as a singer came in Soumik Sen's 2014 action film Gulaab Gang, where she crooned the folk song 'Rangi Sari Gulabi Chunariya.' She took charge here, and was accompanied by her mother Snehlata Dixit, a trained Hindustani vocalist and an MA in Indian classical music.
"She always encouraged me to sing along, get training with her all through the childhood. But I'd usually be very busy with other stuff, like dancing. So I never learnt singing professionally like my mother did. But it was always on my mind, just that I never got around to doing it," says Madhuri in an exclusive interview.
Music was nonetheless a crucial part of her childhood. She got well-versed with rhythm and swar, listening to her mother's riyaz at home. Dancing also helped her crack the rhythm of the songs she went on to sing. But she confesses singing is a different beast altogether.
"In dancing, you have the luxury of your body, face, and expressions. You have a lot of tools in your arsenal. But in singing, there's only the voice. People should connect to the expression in your voice as they will not see your face throughout the song. It's like saying dialogues, except even there, you have your face to help you. Singing is trickier. It's like dancing with your voice."
Madhuri feels 'Candle' was far more challenging than all her previous singing stints, since it was the first time she set out to be a singer primarily. All the other times, singing was a part of the larger narrative of what the film was trying to convey. Here, Madhuri had the authorship as well as the ownership. But she denies that the medium was a challenge. "When we were in school, we used to sing only in English on the stage since it was an English-medium school. So singing in English wasn't that much of an issue here."
She adds that she did not walk blindly into the recording room, and was trained by Ron Anderson, a renowned name in Los Angeles, and credited with training Ariana Grande, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. "He helped me with the intonation and all the technical details. Obviously, I had a lot of help with me, from the lyricists to Raja Kumari, who ensured the pronunciation was on point. I had a little butterfly in the stomach going into the recording room. You know, it (singing) is something you love, and yet you're apprehensive about doing it professionally. But once I went in, and I started singing in the emotion, it went smoothly," says Madhuri.
While Madhuri recorded the song in LA much before the lockdown started, she later decided to release it as an ode to the frontline warriors of the coronavirus crisis. "In every person's life, there comes a point when you feel bogged down by pressures of various kinds. So in order to express that and pick myself up again, I decided to record my first single. A candle was initially a symbol of endurance and tenacity."
But later, she realised everyone else in the world is going through the same struggle right now. Economies are on their knees, and the destruction caused by the virus is unprecedented. "So I decided to dedicate the song to the health workers and everyone who's struggling to keep their spirits high at this time. Candle then became a symbol of hope and peace. All of us are like candles in the rain right now. And whatever happens in your personal life, you have to be a beacon of light to other people in tough times," she adds.
(Click here to follow LIVE updates on coronavirus outbreak)
Since she chose to release the single during the lockdown, she had to shoot the video by herself at her Mumbai home. Luckily, she had a professional camera that she gifted to her husband on his birthday last year, and lights for the video, which she keeps at her place for regular photoshoots. "And obviously, I did the hair and makeup myself," she says laughing, reminiscing of the time it was a common fare in the '90s, when actresses of her ilk had no entourage at the peak of their careers.
"When you're on a set, you do have specialised experts for makeup, hair, lighting, and camera. But here, we didn't have all that so Ram was behind the camera as I was in front of it," says Madhuri, explaining why shooting the video was a lesson in being self-reliant or atmanirbhar.