While the diety wields a veena in her arms, she also has a microphone perched close to her lips. The Saraswati puja at Usha Uthup’s Studio Vibrations in Kolkata is over, but the lunch session for the para (neighbourhood) extends well into the evening. Uthup sits in a corner chair in the office, while acquaintances, friends and people from the neighbourhood come to greet, meet and eat. When I tell her I am there for an interview, she offers to “slap” me, and then instructs me to see the puja after which I can take a seat. “As long as you don’t slap me,” I say, trying to smile. “That’s my way of telling you I love you,” says Uthup, and then smiles that smile I know from Doordarshan days when we’d hear her sway and sing on New Year’s Eve programmes on India’s sole entertainment channel. Her two lady friends, however, glare at me and keep a watch on the stipulated 10-minute interview I have promised them. She tries to distract them by showing her thick golden bead necklaces, which she says reminds her of Bappi da. I am also offered a delicious meal of khichuri, papad, baegun bhaja and chutney, typical Bengali puja fare.
If Uthup seems particularly happy, she has reasons. Not only has she been chosen for the Padma Shri this year, her song Darling, which she has sung with Rekha Bhardwaj in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Saat Khoon Maaf, is creating waves. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering a career of infrequent but memorable hits like Ramba ho, Cha Cha Cha, Doston Se Pyaar Kiya and Hari Om Hari. But what is pleasantly surprising is that for Saat Khoon Maaf she was asked to come on board primarily for a role.
“It’s a small, yet powerful role Vishal wanted me to play in the movie. And of course I said ‘yes’,” recounts Uthup, who has also acted in Bollywood movies such as Bombay to Goa and Bombay Talkies, and the Malayalam movie Pothen vava (“I played Mammootty’s mother despite being the same age as him,” she says), Manmadhan Ambu in Tamil last year, and the Bengali movie Bow Barracks Forever, directed by Anjan Dutt.
After telling the Saat Khoon Maaf team her reservations about doing scenes in water and her fear of heights, she was assured none of that would be needed. “Shooting in the freezing cold in Gulmarg in Jammu and Kashmir was a challenge enough, though,” says Uthup, trying not to reveal too much about the movie. She then told Bhardwaj she had to sing, too, and Darling happened.
For those who have heard parts of the song in the film’s trailers will know Uthup has, yet again, created magic with that powerful, booming voice of hers. It’s a song that may not really suit her pop singer image, but will be applauded by all those who have heard Fever and Jambalaya from her Trincas days in Kolkata. Back then, she was the only one flaunting Kanjeevarams and flowers in long, braided hair, belting out the latest chartbusters while other nightclub singers dressed seductively.
It must be the silk in her voice, though, that has retained its magic on the audience, even after four decades of singing. “It’s the best time of my life,” says Uthup, “I am mellower and I feel my voice is stronger. Time has not been against me, it is my friend.” But does it not bother her that she isn’t a bigger playback singer? “What nonsense! I am a singer first and foremost. And people are still used to the sweet, high-pitched girly voice for our actresses,” she laughs.
What of the future? “Let me use the line stars repeat: I have a lot of offers in the pipeline,” says Uthup, cryptic for the first time during the interview. But maybe it’s because my 10 minutes are long over.