For seven decades, when it came to voice, the industry was unwavering in its demand: more of the same. There were three established pillars—Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar—and no one looked any further. The assembly line, in fact, had started much before them. Mukesh came to the fore as a faithful imitator of K.L. Saigal. Even Kishore did a spoof of the singer-actor who ruled in the 1930s with Dheere se jaana khatiyan mein, o khatmal. Along the way, talents like Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and Hemant Kumar managed limited success, barely enough for a four-CD 'best of' collection.
In the '80s and '90s, following the exit of the three greats, the Hindi film music industry went into automatic mode, faithfully reproducing one copy after another. Mukesh clones (Kamlesh Awasthi, Manhar Udhas) were few and short lived. Rafi clones (Mohd Aziz, Shabbir Kumar) challenged our ear drums a bit longer. But it's the Kishore clones (Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet, Babul Suprio) who took ground, flourishing through the millennium.
The female voices had it worse. Despite Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum, it has been Lata Mangeshkar all the way, to the extent that sister Asha struggled until (with O.P. Nayyar's help) she developed Dutt's style into a separate genre. Suman Kalyanpur, the grapevine has it, had to go because she sounded too much like the queen. Anuradha Paudwal shone briefly since she was basically in the Lata mould and, anyway, by then the latter had begun to refuse more assignments than she accepted. Ditto for Alka Yagnik.
Which is why the last 10 years have been a watershed decade in Hindi film music. And why we should be grateful to Kher and guys like KK (Tadap tadap ke from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam), Shaan (Taaza taaza behka behka from Kya Dil Ne Kaha), Kunal Ganjawala (Bheege honth tere from Murder), Sumeet Kumar (Bandhane lagi from Naach), Amir Jamal (Kaho na kaho from Murder) et al. For now, the mould looks to have cracked.
Among the female voices, Sunidhi Chauhan looks like the future. The young lady's range—from Sur to Dhoom—does match Asha's. The competition is Shreya Ghoshal, who's more Lata-like than anyone from the last three decades and can also pull off a Jadoo hai nasha hai (Jism). Other lilts wafting in: Sneha Pant (On the roof from Masti), Madhushree (Kabhi neem neem from Yuva), Shweta Pandit (Nazaron ka from Aetbaar) and a reborn Sadhna Sargam (Saathiya). Still, this millennium break wouldn't have been possible without Bollywood opening its doors to the new breed of filmmakers. And being given free rein by a new wave of music-makers. For, today even a Sufi singer like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (Lagan lagi from Paap), who can't imagine himself doing playback ("Which hero will I sing for?") can be accommodated.
In fact, Kher says music directors now just tell him a broad framework of the song and then let him sing the way he considers fit. Little wonder then that Kher has this advice for aspiring singers: "Don't have a role model." Amen.