Honey Singh must have been about 10 when Baba Sehgal introduced India to the idea of rap with Thanda Thanda Pani (1992), clearly ‘inspired’ by Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby. Yet, today, the singer is nowhere on millennial party playlists.
Sehgal has not let go of his zany music or his loopy lyrics (Mama mia, ankhon mein cornea). Or the fixation with food in his song titles. Chicken Fried Rice and Aloo ka Paratha are now followed by Oh My Lovely Pizza. But Sehgal is smart enough to not bet everything on music.
With his shaven head and bulked-up biceps, he is now trying out as the south’s favourite screen baddie. Last week, he made his debut in Tamil films in Gautham Menon’s Achcham Enbathu Madamaiyada as a bent cop.
Last year, he played villain Naga Devudu, in Rudhramadevi, a Telugu ‘epic historical’ directed by Gunasekhar.
“I have got a fantastic response (to Achcham),” says Sehgal. “It is a full-fledged role and he (Menon) is an excellent person. Everybody knows that he makes realistic action-romance films. I have worked with Naga Chaitanya in Telugu and now Simbu in Tamil. It was a very good experience, and given an opportunity I would love to work as a villain in Telugu and Tamil industries.”
A different kind of stardom
Director Menon says that he picked Sehgal for a negative role because his comic image held the promise of an off-beat baddie. “When I saw him at a song recording for one of my earlier films, I liked the way he looked. I thought the clean-shaven cop could work. And I was sure that once he got into the movie, the peals of laughter that greet him when he first appears on screen would end. You will forget who he actually was. And he performed really well,” says Menon.
As for his music, Baba has left Hindi pop and Bollywood behind and taken to playback singing for south Indian cinema. In 2013 alone, he sang for four Telugu, two Tamil and one Bengali films, and has more than 20 south Indian film credits to his name.
Baba’s biggest Telugu film hits have been Jalsa (2008) and Gabbar Singh (2012). “Down south, the music scene is excellent,” he says. “I have worked with Devi Sri Prasad, Thaman, Keeravani, Koti and many new composers. All of them add their bit of music sense and masala in their songs. Music is changing and evolving in the south, and it’s fun to work with them.”
Gunasekhar is among those who admire Sehgal’s music and its cheerful notes. “Also, his histrionics while performing a song is also appreciated in the south,” he says.
He may not be the king of the rap circuit anymore but Sehgal is very much the star even today. In the southern film circuit, he is as known for his mercurial temper as his complete unconcern for ridicule.
Menon admits that he is mercurial. “You have to work around that but he was very easy to work with. And he can be exploited on screen. He can give you stuff,” he says.
Gunashekhar agrees that the actor can be a handful on sets: “Baba Sehgal is hyperactive. He keeps the atmosphere lively and is a very interesting person to work with. But he needs to be controlled.”
Baba counters that he got a raw deal with Rudhramadevi though he admired the director’s concept of the film. “He (Gunashekhar) edited out most of my character in that,” he complains. “I’m very angry with him. If I knew this earlier I wouldn’t have worked with him. He completely messed up. I broke my leg and worked with a hairline fracture, but the result was zero.”
The first Indian MTV star
An electrical engineer by training, Sehgal attained stardom in the early 1990s as a rap star. His ascent had much to do with the rise of MTV in those years.
“I am a Kishore Kumar fan. From my childhood, I used to dream that I want to become like him,” he says. “I moved to Mumbai from Lucknow to start my career in music. I would meet many music directors but there was no response. Then MTV started in India and I saw rap songs. We never had rap music in India before, so I started learning. That’s how Thanda Thanda Pani came about.”
Initially, he says, music company Magnasound was not keen in releasing the song. “They said ‘What’s this Thanda Thanda Paani?’” recalls Sehgal with a laugh. “I pleaded with them to give me one chance. They released it half-heartedly in the market, and it sold 10 lakh video copies within six months. Later, we created the first video album in India, Dil Dhadke in Hindi with Pooja Bedi in that song.”
He was then called in to anchor a Bollywood countdown on Doordarshan – Superhit Muqabla. The show, packed with Sehgal’s onscreen antics and energy, clicked. “Those days we didn’t have many entertainment channels,” he says. “Only Doordarshan, which had launched a new urban channel, DD Metro. I did Superhit Muqabla for two years. Later I did shows on MTV and Zee (Phillips Top Ten).”
And then, the Fall
Sehgal’s Baba Deewana (1993) was the first Indian music video to be featured on MTV at the time.Many more albums and hit film songs like Aaja Meri Gadi Mein Baith Ja (Miss 420, 1994) followed. And then suddenly, within a decade, it all came crashing down.
“Pop music thrived from 1990 to 2000,” he says. “I was very active during that period. After 2000, remixes started and I went to the US for 4-5 years, giving concerts. But I would keep coming to India to perform at shows. After 2000, the scene simply vanished, and music companies closed down except film music labels.”
Sehgal suddenly became outdated: a pop star without the pop. He was forced to be content with singing singles in films. And when Bollywood began to look elsewhere, so did Baba. Reality TV beckoned and Baba ensured that he stayed in the news.
“The first Bigg Boss was in 2006 and mine was a wild card entry,” he says. “I was there for 18 days. It was an amazing experience. I always convert my bitter experiences into pleasurable ones. When you are confined in a house for 10-18 days, there will be conflicts. Bigg Boss was like a luxury paid holiday.”
Then came films in the south. Sehgal says he is greatly enjoying his stint in films. He has done playback singing for more than a dozen south Indian language films so far. He also enjoys singing Telugu songs for his fans at live shows.
The singer has also reinvented himself as a Twitter star, with recent gems tweeted like “Weekend par zaroori hai whisky ya rum, I do not get drunk, I get awesome...” and “Mumbai mein Saki Naka hai, bangladesh mein Dhaka hai, baby are you aware ki noodles mein haka hai??”
Twitter inspiration, he says, happens without much thinking, over a cup of tea sometimes. “The current digital media caters to the 16-24 age group. My thinking is synonymous with their thinking, and that is why my song singles are famous. Trump Ka Mania, my recent album, has many views which match that of this age group.”
And more than anything, Sehgal is returning the love from his southern audiences. “It’s amazing when I perform shows in the south,” he says. “[My Telugu] songs from Gabbar Singh and Jalsa are mandatory.”
( Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)
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