'Delhi’s audience is very demanding’: Daler Mehndi

Set to make his acting debut in the Bollywood film 'Welcome to the Jungle', a sequel to the action crime comedy 'Welcome Back', he talks about being an actor, his bejewelled turban and why the ‘King of Bhangra’ did not rely on dancers or oomph to make ‘Tunak Tunak’ a global hit
A still from the movie 'Welcome Back' (2015)
A still from the movie 'Welcome Back' (2015)

From music to fashion and now acting, Daler Mehndi, 56, known as the ‘King of Bhangra’ and a pioneer of Indipop, is set to make his acting debut in the Bollywood film Welcome to the Jungle, a sequel to the action crime comedy Welcome Back (2015), starring an ensemble cast that includes John Abraham, Shruti Haasan, Anil Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah.

Mehndi says he got the opportunity to act after initially turning down a film offer in 1998 to focus on establishing himself in the music industry. Starting with his breakout hit ‘Bolo Tara Ra Ra’ in 1995, which revolutionised Bhangra music, Mehndi’s music is about blending Punjabi folk elements with modern sounds.

His colourful turbans and flowing robes are a big part of his act. His songs, ‘Na Na Na Re’ and ‘Tunak Tunak Tun’ are a must at every party, so much so that he has been credited with having single-handedly placed Punjabi music on the global map.

Excerpts from a conversation:

You will be making your first acting debut with Welcome to the Jungle. What made you do so and how do you think this movie is different from others?

I got my first offer in 1998 from Rahul Rawail to work for Arjun Pandit along with Sunny Deol and Juhi Chawla. I wrote a song, ‘Kudiyan Shehar Diyan’. The director told me that he would want me to act in a new film starring Kajol in a double role. I rejected the offer as I wanted to grow and earn a name for myself in the music industry first. In 2022, I got a call from Ahmed Khan (director of this film) saying he had an acting offer for me and I couldn’t say no.

The narration had me in splits. Before we could understand and let it seep in, we were already recording the acapella (singing without instrumental accompaniment). All the actors, Akshay Kumar, Johnny Lever, Sunil Shetty, everyone showed me a lot of love. The movie will also make you laugh a lot. I often couldn’t complete a scene because Akshay’s funny faces would just make me laugh my head off. This film has one of the biggest star casts and is the world’s first acapella by singers and actors together.

Indian singer and songwriter Daler Mehndi
Indian singer and songwriter Daler Mehndi

Do you pay attention to the UK Bhangra scene?

I always want my songs to make an impact, especially on south Indians, the Mumbai film industry, Lahore, and the UK. I am glad that my songs are a hit even today, it feels like I composed it only yesterday. Bhangra Punk Rock developed out of my zeal to experiment with sounds and has seen a natural progression.

You have created your genre of Rabbabi music, which is a combination of thumri, Sufi and rock.

I was born in Patna and was exposed to the Guru Granth, which has classical raagas, words of the gurus, saints and Bhagats. It is a combination of lyrics, tune, and rhythm. Singing such songs requires a lot of training and strong vocals. I have always listened to masters such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, Mehndi Hassan, Sher Ali, Meher Ali to name a few. The folk music that I grew up listening to was of Tufail Niazi Sahab so Sufi happened naturally. It is based on classical raagas and showcases the sound of the soul and joy.

You have performed across the globe, but what is different about the Delhi audience?

It is very difficult to handle the Delhi crowd. Punjabi music is in their blood. They have a good taste for a mix of different music, and if one can make this crowd happy, then you can make everyone happy. However, if you don’t have the energy on stage, people here can even throw bottles or stones at you (laughs).

Why do you think your songs ‘Tunak Tunak’, ‘Bolo Tara Tara’, to name a few, are big global hits?

I am going to tell you something that has never come out yet. The industry used to say that my songs were a hit because there were girls in it. So, when I composed ‘Tunak Tunak’, I made sure that there were no girls or dancers in the music video. The industry said that the song has no ‘element’ and it took me a month to convince them. The song has a raaga which is a thousand years old. Today, the whole world is doing ‘Tunak Tunak’ and I am grateful for it.

Your music is family-oriented. What is your target audience and how important is it to create ‘clean music’?

My song touches the soul, not any religion or age. Be it a child, youngster, middle-aged person, or an elderly person, everyone loves listening to my songs. I don’t play with words, my focus is always on the raaga and the rhythm.

You are known for your signature style with a bejewelled turban. What was the inspiration behind your wardrobe?

In 1991, I came to India from the US to become a singer. I performed with my group for three years and became famous. I wanted to have a look that would be unique and define me. Crores of people wear a turban but my turban became my identity. I knew that my turban had to be diamante-studded and I wanted to wear those long flowing Maharaja robes. After trying different colour combinations for my turbans and styles for my clothes through the years, I came up with my final look.

You are one of the reasons behind the success of independent music in India.

I believe Punjabi music got a platform across the globe because of my songs. I am happy that my music helped the industry in a big way and carved a path for independent music. I was producing honest and authentic Punjabi music that resonated with audiences across the globe. Before ‘Bolo Ta Ra Ra’, what worked most in the industry was devotional and film music; regional music was restricted.

Any new albums or collaborations in the pipeline?

In 1997, I did a song with Amitabh Bachchan, ‘Sade naal rahoge toh’ and I am now doing it again with Rajkummar Rao in his upcoming movie.

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