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Singer Antara Nandy on how AR Rahman chose her ‘scratch version’ of  ‘Alaikadal’ for ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

The 22-year-old singer describes her journey of almost losing her voice to being the lead singer in one of India’s biggest-ever films

The 22-year-old singer describes her journey of almost losing her voice to being the lead singer in one of India’s biggest films

Two and a half years ago, Antara Nandy was in AR Rahman’s studio in Chennai to sing a few scratch vocals. By then, she had already sung a few scratches (rough versions of songs that don’t necessarily make it to an album) for the composer. She was, hence, prepared for yet another day — or rather night (as Rahman is famously nocturnal). But a series of surprises awaited her.

For starters, Rahman himself was there to record her singing. “Sir usually doesn’t come for dubbing scratch tracks. When I got to know he was there, I was nervous.” 

Then, she saw another familiar face sitting in the studio: Mani Ratnam. “Now, I was panicking.”

Rahman told Antara to relax. He then asked her to talk to lyricist Siva Ananth. This, again, was unusual for a scratch song. “It was the first time I was interacting with a lyricist. I didn’t know Tamil. So, he explained the situation of the song. He told me it was called ‘Alaikadal’. It was about a boatwoman. She is in the middle of an ocean, singing to her beloved, who is a prince. He told me that I should convey the emotions of love, pain, and strength through the song. I was like, ‘How am I supposed to show love and pain at the same time?’ He smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry. You just get the lyrics and the diction right. Sir [Rahman] will take care of the rest.’ I was like, ‘Okay, cool’.”

“Though I was singing a scratch, I wanted to sound like a Tamil singer and not like a North Indian singing in Tamil. Rahman Sir was so patient with me, walking me through every single line.”

“Mani Sir was so involved too. He told me I can add some ‘intoxication’ into the song. I was like, ‘can do, can try.’ Most filmmakers I have seen don’t sit through the song-making process. They have their assistants to take care of it. But Mani Sir would turn up to the studio night after night. That was something very inspiring. During the recording for ‘Alaikadal’, he never sat down.”

A typical scratch recording with Rahman, Antara says, takes over two hours. But this one was over in 40 minutes. “Sir said, ‘Okay, that’s it. You can go home.’ When I came out, one of the sound engineers asked me, ‘Did you just finish a song in 40 minutes, without knowing the language?’ I shrugged and said, ‘It’s not going to be the final version anyway’.”

Two and a half years passed. Antara was starting to get a bit disillusioned about her dream of becoming a playback singer. Her lockdown singing with her younger sister, Ankita, earned her a lot of social media fans. But she didn’t get any opportunities to sing in films. That’s when she got a call from Rahman’s studio.

“Antara, remember the scratch you’d sung two years ago? It got confirmed for the film,” said the person at the other end.

Antara could not believe it. “What?!” she blurted out. 

“’It’s for Ponniyin Selvan, a Mani Ratnam film. It’s going to be one of the biggest releases of the year,” the person replied.

“At this point, I was just speechless,” says Antara, “It was just… too much.”

Finding her voice

Around 12, when she was serious about taking up music as a career, her voice broke. For almost two years, she could not even hum along to the songs on the radio. A composer from her hometown, Kolkata, told her, “Singing is not your cup of tea. You don’t have the voice for it.” She broke down in tears. Her mom, then, told her, “This is your first rejection. You will face a lot more in the future. You need to take it up as a challenge and prove yourself.”

Around the same time, she joined Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory. “I am so thankful to the faculty there. They identified what was wrong with my voice. When the course ended, I came home and just sang to my mom for an hour. I found my voice again. Rahman Sir, in some way or the other, has been a part of all the important moments in my life.”

A few days after the news about ‘Alaikadal’, Rahman called her to Mumbai to record the Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi versions of the song. A week after that, Antara was in Chennai, performing the song live at the Ponniyin Selvan audio launch. She sang it in front of a stellar audience, which included Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, and the main cast and crew of the film. 

“I was someone who would have been super happy to be in the back row of Rahman Sir’s chorus. To be the lead singer in one of his biggest projects — it’s not even something I dreamt of!”

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