The murky politics in the world of Indian music took its toll on Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila. She will never admit to it, but her debut on Indian soil was actually her swansong. When the world swayed to the scintillating Dama dam mast kalandar and Mera babu chail chabila mein to nachoongi, the established artistes here spent sleepless nights. Were Laila to have made India her home, it would have been tough going for them. As a result, producers and directors were served an ultimatum: “It’s her or us.” Producers trod the path of caution. The opportunities petered out and Laila became history for Indian listeners.
On a recent visit, however, she awakened memories of an era gone by. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee was one of those euphoric at her return. Throughout Laila’s 90-minute performance Chatterjee kept clapping.
Laila quit the Indian scene some 30 years ago. When she returned, it was like she had never left. Cutting records with Bappi Lahiri and OP Nayyar, Laila sings in 18 languages. At one point, she was working on four albums one after the other, recording up to 10 songs a day. In Pakistan her recording average has been 40 songs a week. Back home in Bangladesh she has lost count.
Had her sister Dina not fallen ill on the day of a concert, Laila may not have started singing in public at the age of six. In fact, she trained as a dancer till Dina’s Ustadji told her parents that she should pursue singing instead of dancing. What followed were performances on radio till she was handpicked to sing for a film. Her mother threw a fit and forbid her. She was finally allowed on grounds that her first film song would be also her last. That, of course, never happened.
She had a tough time in school because the nuns in her convent advised her to opt for studies over singing. A defiant Laila vowed to do both. The first time Laila was handed an ‘envelope’ as remuneration, she burst into tears. She had grown up believing that ‘money for services’ was immoral. “I was so angry that I nearly slapped the poor producer.” Once wisdom dawned, Laila enjoyed the money she earned, spending huge sums shopping: “I am a compulsive shopper. I can happily shop even in a hardware store.”
Born to Amina Laila and Syed Mohammad Imdad Ali, Runa’s mother was keen that her daughter be known by her name. “So instead of Runa Ali I was Runa Laila.” Her Indian ‘homecoming’ has, says Laila, rekindled a desire. “I lost time. I will reconnect and continue visiting and singing in India.” Bollywood playbacks, beware.