Meet the social media sensations who are reinventing Bollywood classics #coverstars
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Meet the social media sensations who are reinventing Bollywood classics #coverstars

These 20-something musicians are reinventing remixes. They’re all social media sensations who have gained fame after adding an individual flavour to popular songs, making their YouTube ‘cover versions’ even bigger hits than the originals

brunch Updated: Sep 03, 2017 16:34 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
sanam,sanam puri,sanam band
(From left to right) Siddharth Slathia,Sanah Moidutty, Keshav Dhanraj, Shirley Setia, Armaa Malik, Venkat Subramaniyam, Sanam Puri, Jonita Gandhi, and Samar Puri ; Location courtesy: Fun Republic Social, Mumbai ; Make-up and hair by Baba Chourasiya(Shivangi Kulkarni)

They were nine. Nine popular singers who rose to fame on YouTube, all at one place for a shoot. Would there be tantrums? Ego hassles? Help!

Fortunately, our negative ideas of professional rivalry vanished in 15 minutes. Our photo shoot at Fun Republic Social felt something like the goings on at a college canteen. There were jokes, catch up sessions, laughter, guitar strumming, humming and singing. It was chaos. It was a blast.

These 20-something singers are not competitors. They are collaborators. “I stumbled upon Shirley’s videos on YouTube where she was covering my songs. We decided to collaborate,” says musician Armaan Malik.

Jonita found Aakash Gandhi, her regular collaborator on the same site. Sanah started off by collaborating with Sanam before finding a space of her own. And they still jam together.

What binds these musicians most of all is their brilliant covers. “It is easy to connect with viewers when they already know the song,” says Siddharth Slathia, writer and composer.

“If you are doing a cover, your video pops up in the ‘suggested videos’ section of the original, and that brings people to your channel,” says Armaan.

You’ve heard them sing. Now listen to them speak.

Shirley Setia

Age: 21
Home town:Auckland
Best known for: Bol Do Na Zara (Azhar)
Followers: 1,515,024 (as on 29/8/2017)

Shirley wears a dress from Dotti and shoes from Steve Madden (Shivangi Kulkarni)

As a dancer in high school, I had to play the same songs over and over to perfect my moves. Sometimes, my friends would ask me to sing. That was my association with singing. I’d watch various Indian singing talent hunt shows on the Internet and try to learn from the judges’ comments.

Then one day, I thought, since I’m investing so much time and effort in this, why not record something on YouTube? The song was Tum Hi Ho, which went viral after first two weeks.

I decided to take music as a minor subject at university. During holidays, I’d visit India to try and network. That’s how I met Mihir Joshi (singer), and he asked me to open his gig in Mumbai last year. It was at a mall.

That changed my life. Once I started, the area became jam-packed. The organisers asked if I had an exit plan. I didn’t! I thought I’d take a cab back to the hotel. But that didn’t happen. Also, I’ve just made my Bollywood debut with the song Disco Disco in A Gentleman (2017).


Sanam Puri (lead singer): 24; Venky S (bass): 26; Samar Puri (guitar): 26Keshav Dhanraj (drums): 26
Home towns:Delhi, Kerala, Bengaluru
Best known for: Gulaabi Aankhen
Followers:2, 540, 750 (as on 29/8/2017)

(From right to left) Sanam Puri wears a jacket and T-shirt from Zara, jeans from Lee and shoes from H&M; Venky wears a T-shirt from Scullers Sport, jeans from Jack & Jones, pork pie hat from Major Wear and shoes from Freecultr; Keshav wears a T-shirt from Jack & Jones, jeans from Provogue, cap from Zildjian, shoes from Asics ; Samar Puri wears a full-sleeve T-shirt from Zara, jeans from Superdry, shoes from Asics and headband from Noise (Shivangi Kulkarni)

Four guys who love singing came together to form a band in 2011. Today, Sanam Puri, Venky Subramaniyam, Samar Puri and Keshav Dhanraj, are inseparable. Their band, the first from India to cross one million subscribers, is the country’s biggest on the digital platform.

The first song they recorded was Teri Aankhon Se. “It was written much earlier by Samar for his ex-girlfriend,” says Keshav. Venky adds: “Having grown up watching music videos, we wanted to do a video of this once we recorded it, and we put it up on YouTube. We didn’t expect much from it.”

But the response was fabulous. Sanam has done a few Bollywood songs without the band. “It was not the same. I missed the guys so much that I decided never to sing solo ever again,” he says.

The band’s covers of retro Bollywood classics like Lag Jaa Gale, O Mere Dil Ke Chain, and Gulabi Aankhen shot them to fame. “We also did a Rabindrasangeet, Tumi Robe Nirobe, which surprisingly, went viral!” says Sanam. “I had a Bangladeshi friend who helped me with the song.”

Jonita Gandhi

Age: 27
Home town: Brampton (near Toronto)
Best known for: Yeh Honsla (Cover)
Followers: 145,244 (as on 29/8/2017)

Jonita wears a dress from H & M (Shivangi Kulkarni)

YouTube was the new, fun, exciting thing, so I shot some random selfie videos and posted them. During this time, I came across a singer Akash Gandhi who, like me, was doing Bollywood covers. We had a similar background and I connected to his music. I sent him a message and we decided to collaborate. Our first collaboration was Yeh Honsla. When we put it up, I was still in university. I couldn’t believe the response! Salim Merchant of Salim-Sulaiman, who composed the original song from Dor, tweeted it. Akash and I collaborated on a few more songs and then I won a singing contest that allowed me to go on a singing tour with Sonu Nigam. Somehow, all roads led to Mumbai!

My dad is a hobby musician. He pushed me to sing. But I was too shy. Maybe that’s why YouTube caught my fancy! After the success of Dangal’s Gilehriyaan, my new Bollywood track,Lagdi Hai Thaai for Simran, is fast moving up the music charts.

Armaan Malik

Age: 21
Home town: Mumbai
Best known for: Main Hoon Hero Tera
Followers: 314,507 (as on 29/8/2017)

Armaan wears a jacket, T-shirt and trousers from Zara (Shivangi Kulkarni)

My first proper YouTube video was a cover of Bruno Mars’ Just the Way You Are. I was just 15. The video was retweeted by Priyanka Chopra, and Universal Music India wanted to cut an album with me.

We wanted a celebrity to launch it, so I went to Salman Khan. He heard the album and loved two songs, which he kept. Later, they were part of his film Jai Ho (2014). I was 18 then.

YouTube was just a video sharing platform when it started, but look how we have put it to use!

I’ve had some bad experiences in Bollywood. When I was 10, I recorded a song for Bhootnath. But the makers had it rerecorded by another kid from a talent hunt show endorsing the film. I was shattered. Later, the composers, Vishal-Shekhar, put their foot down, and my version was retained. I learnt that in Bollywood, success is not just based on your talent. But on YouTube, it is just your talent that speaks for you.

I started doing YouTube covers because it gave me the freedom to pick my own songs and give my own spin to existing tracks. My YouTube covers were not stepping stones for my Bollywood career, but it did bring me closer to my audience. I am happy that my playback tracks are doing so well. Be it a Bol do na zara (Azhar) or a Main Hoon Hero Tera (Hero), or my most recent work Barfani (Babumoshai Bandookbaaz)…people know it when they hear an Armaan Malik song.

You might ask why I still do YouTube videos. These allow me to experiment and be myself. I’ll keep doing covers, as viewers love it when their favourite singers do covers of one another. Also, apart from doing covers, I put up videos of band rehearsals, live shows, etc. This is my way of communicating with my fans.

Siddharth Slathia

Age: 25
Home town: Jammu
Best known for: Mast Maula
Followers: 387,628 (as on 29/8/2017)

Siddharth wears jeans and T-shirt from Zara (Shivangi Kulkarni)

The movie 3 Idiots inspired me to give up engineering and study music. I started learning classical music, and created a small setup where I could record. I also taught at the Sa Re Ga Ma Music Academy in Kolkata and do tutorial videos.

Singing covers is tougher than singing originals. You have to meet the expectations of the original singer’s fans. My first proper gig was at Korba, Chattisgarh. The organisers absconded. We faced a lot of harassment. I learnt that this won’t be easy.

About a year ago, I was invited to perform at a concert in Hong Kong. The organisers had told me not to tell the Hong Kong authorities that I was there for a concert as that required special permissions. I told them I was there on holiday, and it was a one- day trip and the first ever stamp on my passport. They got suspicious and deported me. I thought being a singer was just about singing, but it is much more complicated than that. Being a YouTube star is not really a cakewalk.

Sanah Moidutty

Home town:Kerala
Best known for: Dua (Acoustic)
Followers: 83,633 (as on 29/8/2017)

Sanah wears a dress and necklace from Primark, shoes from Charles & Keith and handcuff from Curio Cottage (Shivangi Kulkarni)

I’ve been training in Carnatic and Hindustani music since childhood. I started doing shows when I was five years old. I wanted to take up singing as a career, but I saw that the trend was moving towards the digital world. So after completing engineering, I decided to come up with my own YouTube channel. My first song, Manmarziyan, was recorded on my terrace in 2013. Then I uploaded O Rangrez from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The original composers, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, really liked it, and so did A.R. Rahman. I sang three songs for him in Mohenjo Daro (2016).

When I put out my first video, I just wanted to showcase my work. I realised the potential of social media. I had sung playback when I was in college for Always Kabhi Kabhi (2011). But YouTube helped me build a parallel profile. It shows the person behind the voice and involves so much more than singing. More recently, I have lent my voice to the song Afeemi in the film Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017).

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From HT Brunch, September 3, 2017

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First Published: Sep 02, 2017 22:49 IST