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Bollywood's voice, onstage and in person

Asha Bhosle, one of the most recorded singers in history, thrills fans with a versatile, personable performance in Long Beach.

June 21, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

When Asha Bhosle strolled unassumingly onto the stage at the Long Beach Terrace Theatre on Sunday, it was hard to imagine her as the world-renowned "golden voice of Bollywood" -- a woman whose singing has been a vital element in Indian musical films for more than five decades. Elegant in a sparkling gown, graceful and poised, the 71-year-old artist was a quietly self-possessed presence amid her percussion-heavy, electronically enhanced, 11-piece ensemble.

But when Bhosle sang, everything became clear. Her voice was a thing of wonder -- crystal clear in the upper range, warm and smoky in her chest tones, the notes flowing with consummate ease across the octaves. At times sounding young and girlish, she switched easily into mature, womanly tones.

Traversing one Bollywood hit after another, her program offered extraordinary testimony as to why she, like her older sister Lata Mangeshkar, has become a worldwide musical favorite while providing vocals that appear, on film, to be sung by other people.

"When I first started," she said in an interview a few days before her Long Beach concert, "I wanted to see an actress who was going to emote my song -- see how she spoke, her voice, how she talked -- get into her character. Sometimes they would come to the studio and we would interact with each other. And then I would try to sing the song so that it would seem as though she was singing it."

Playback singing has long been a common technique in musical films (and, more recently, in music videos and occasionally in ostensibly live performances). One of the most humorous story threads in the film "Singin' in the Rain" illustrated the technique of having one person provide the voice for another at the dawn of the talkies.

But playback singers in American films -- Marni Nixon, who has provided the singing voices of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, among others, may be the most well known -- have received scant acknowledgment for their efforts.

Because the Indian film industry is dominated by musicals and commercial soundtrack recordings are important ancillary products, Bhosle and her sister were able to use their success to insist upon receiving credits in their films.

"The film producers wanted to project the idea that the star was singing the song," Bhosle explained, speaking by phone and getting translation help from Anand Bhosle, her manager and youngest son.

"So in the early '50s, when my sister and I said, 'Hang on a minute -- we are doing the songs, so we should be credited,' there was a bit of a battle with the film producers. But we said, 'Look, either you do it or we don't sing.' The film producers gave in, and that was when the first credits for playback singers began to be seen."

Although Bollywood, as the Indian film musical industry is known, has been popular in England since the '80s, its American presence didn't begin to rise until the release two years ago of the film "Bollywood/Hollywood." And the current fashion rush to soft Indian fabrics, long skirts and glittering accessories -- items that were highly visible among Bhosle's fans at the Long Beach concert -- suggests even greater visibility for Indian popular culture.

Like most performances by Indian artists, the concert was attended almost exclusively by Indian listeners. Familiar with every Bhosle number, they greeted each song with rock concert-like shouts of enthusiasm. And she rewarded their responsiveness with conversational banter between numbers, bringing a relaxed, living-room ambience to her portions of the concert.

Aside from the unfamiliarity of the Hindi language in which the songs were sung, virtually every aspect of Bhosle's show, which was titled "Rhythms Gonna Get You," was appropriate for a Las Vegas stage. The two male singers who were also featured, Kumar Sanu and Sudesh Bhosle (no relation to the star), alternated big, larger-than-life belting with intimate love songs and comedy routines.

Four hard-working dancers whipped through several costume changes and choreography ranging from Indian classical styles to hip-hop. And the band smoothly covered the eclectic array of rhythms and genres typical of Bollywood musicals.

But it was Bhosle's versatility that took the performance up a level, well beyond the Bollywood pop glitz. Starting off her set with a kind of Indian rap, she moved on to incorporate gorgeous balladry, jazz-tinged scat singing and a brief foray into classical Indian ghazal singing. And she did it all superbly.

Hearing her, it was easy to understand why she and her sister have been identified in the Guinness Book of Records as the most recorded musical artists in history.

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