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Meet Jonita Gandhi, the original YouTube star

Jonita Gandhi’s Bollywood covers were going viral before it became a benchmark of success. At just 26, juggling playback and social media, hers is a success story every young singer now aspires for

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Nov 10, 2016 21:13 IST
HT48Hours

Jonita Gandhi strikes a pose (Photo: Vidya Subramanian/HT; Location courtesy: Monkey Bar, Bandra)

Jonita Gandhi’s Bollywood covers were going viral before it became a benchmark of success. At just 26, juggling playback and social media, hers is a success story every young singer now aspires for.

Jonita Gandhi (26) is running late. The singer’s schedule is packed with radio interviews. By 11am, she’s ticked off one, and has several more to go.

But when we meet at Monkey Bar, Bandra (W), she’s spirited, and gives us her complete attention. But she’s skipped breakfast, so she needs to eat first: “I’m starving,” she says.

A cup of hot chocolate and a club sandwich later, she’s fully recharged. So much so that she agrees to let us in on lesser-known skills: she can juggle. She reaches for what’s at hand: ketchup bottles. And then climbs and sits atop a railing at the restaurant to pose for our photographer. Perhaps it’s the sugar. Perhaps it’s just her.

READ MORE: Maati Baani’s The Music Yantra features 50 musicians from 20 countries

All we know is, Bollywood’s ultimate YouTube find is still open to trying new things. So far, the commercial success hasn’t made her guarded. So far, at least.

Spotted by Rahman

Gandhi breaks into an impromptu cover of Adele’s Someone Like You. By now, between the juggling act and her live performance, we’ve begun to gather a small audience. They don’t really recognise her, but are curious to find out who she is. They ask us in hushed tones if she is “a big shot”. Fortunately, selfie requests are not made.

The Adele cover is significant. When it first appeared on the YouTube channel, 88KeysToEuphoria (where she often collaborates with her brother, musician Aakash), four years ago, it became a viral hit (2.59 million views).

Five years back, when she started, it was still the early days of original content on YouTube. It was before the cult of amateur YouTube performers emerged in earnest with movie-style cinematography, make-up and costumes. Before it became a stepping stone to something bigger.

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Back then, most popular videos were still home-made. This is when Gandhi was churning out one cover after another. No fancy production value, hardly any money spent. She was 21. And she was shooting one video after another in the basement or her room in Toronto, Canada.

She was also pursuing two undergraduate courses — health science and business administration. Far from any conventional musician’s career choices. “Studies are taken seriously in my family. The YouTube channel was just an escape. I didn’t really see it leading me anywhere, let alone being praised by AR Rahman for those covers,” Gandhi says.

In fact, when Rahman tweeted after seeing her Coke Studio performance of Pinjra with Clinton Cerejo, Gandhi thought it was a team running his account that had posted. “I was so new to Twitter [now, she has 17.6K followers, and the verified blue tick]. I wasn’t even following him. I replied anyway. But I never thought he’d see it.”

Two years later, when the two met, Rahman would tell Gandhi that he did see her message. “It was overwhelming,” she says. They’ve gone on to collaborate on eight tracks since. Clearly, Rahman had spotted talent right away.

Online first

Gandhi may have a chock-a-block schedule now, with multiple playback recordings and gigs lined up, but she still considers herself primarily a YouTube artist. For her channel, she plans to shoot some videos with her group — The Jonita Gandhi Band. She doesn’t like the name, thought up perhaps in a moment without inspiration: “Isn’t the name kind of lame — The Jonita Gandhi Band? We hope to come up with a better one soon,” she says.

Her to-do list also features learning classical music, writing songs, and composing them. She says she’d do it if she didn’t end up spending her days off binge-watching Dexter, Silicon Valley, The Big Bang Theory and Girls on her laptop. Then again, she is just 26.

Oddly, though, she doesn’t listen to much music. Her current playlist only has the songs she is rehearsing for her concert. She also struggles when we ask for recommendations of new YouTube artists to follow. Instead, she touches upon a real problem. “There is a problem of plenty today. I got noticed back in the day because hardly anybody else was consistently making covers. Today, there are just too many of them,” she says.

Language barrier

Having grown up in Toronto, Hindi is something she still struggles with. And with her vernacular radio interviews lined up, she confesses her fear of having to interact in Hindi. “On a scale of one to 10, I would give my proficiency in Hindi a three,” she says.

However, she has been recording for multiple singles and Bollywood projects, with her latest being the hit The Break Up Song (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil). She reveals that the music directors and the lyricists often “come to my rescue”. “I understand the words. But the pronunciation needs some work,” she says.

The ‘Bollywood’ tag

While the Bollywood success has been great, she says she’s run into unforeseeable trouble because of it. After living as a paying guest with a 60-year-old lady for three years, a few months back, Gandhi decided to rent by herself in Mumbai. Her search took her to around 20 odd apartments in Andheri. And most of them looked down upon her association with the industry. “They screamed: ‘No bachelorettes, no parties, no bachelors.’ They wonder if you will be able to pay your rent on time,” she says.

Even now, she says her neighbours don’t know what she does. Sure, it makes her smile when she hears her songs being played next door. But she’s glad they don’t recognise her face yet. “I’m constantly on the move, so they mostly see me hauling suitcases, and are mildly curious. I want to keep it that way.” Let’s see how long that lasts.

Gandhi recommends:

The Piano Guys: The channel features instrumental covers of songs on piano.

Maati Baani: Their channel is loaded with fusion-folk tunes – their originals as well as covers.

OK Go: The band consists of a bunch of guys who make song videos as well as re-enact scenes from popular movies.

Don’t Miss:

What: Jonita Gandhi will perform at Jammin Live on November 11, at 5pm.

Where: Dome @ NSCI, Worli.

Tickets: Rs 500 onward on bookmyshow.com.