Indian singer Shweta Subram, who was born and raised in Dubai, has earned a quirky moniker. She’s now called the ‘Jalebi Baby’ girl wherever she goes because her brassy and bold voice in Canadian singer Tesher’s catchy song has captured the imagination of music lovers across India and the world.
The viral song rolled out on TikTok has been used in nearly four million videos and has been viewed more than 90 million times on YouTube. Even pop sensation Jason Derulo wants a piece of it, while celebrities such as Alia Bhatt were spotted dancing at her best friend’s wedding to ‘Jalebi Baby’. Actress Nora Fatehi cherry-picked ‘Jalebi Baby’ to show off her dance moves.
“I don’t think either of us expected that kind of response … Usually you spend millions on music videos and it’s an expensive affair … But ‘Jalebi Baby’ was a lyrical video but the audiences have given us their verdict and we are loving it,” said Subram from her living room in her apartment at the Dubai Marina.
She remembers recording the song at her dining table last October and sending it over to Tesher before it became a universal rage. The sweet success of ‘Jalebi Baby’ is proof that you don’t need frills if your song is catchy.
Subram, who recently moved back to Dubai from Canada with her husband and her toddler to be closer to Mumbai (the epicentre of the Bollywood music industry), was a banker before the music bug bit her. Born to South Indian parents who valued education above all else, she’s armed with two degrees in psychology and economics. But to this singing sensation, the big, bad world of Bollywood felt more bewitching than clocking in hours at the fraud department at a bank. Here’s her take on …
Being born in Dubai and moving from Canada to the UAE:
“I was born and raised here. When I moved away from Dubai I felt I left a piece of myself in Dubai. This is a city where I want to live for the rest of my life … And ‘Jalebi Baby’ happened right here when I recorded my part on my dining table and sent it to Tesher … Honestly, my move to Dubai was prompted because Dubai is home for me. Making that shift to India from Canada might be a little difficult because living in India is a whole different ballgame, especially if you never lived there before. I have lived in Dubai and Canada all my life, so I am not sure if I am up for it. So let’s just one step at a time. Dubai is a hop, skip, and jump away from Mumbai. The idea was to be close to the Bollywood music fraternity and closer to Bollywood in general, where all the work happens.”
Breaking into the Bollywood music industry:
“It’s a very challenging journey. I’m not going to lie nor am I going to paint a rosy picture of it. It has been very tough because firstly you just have to know the ropes of the business and how things work. In the beginning, I thought it was all about talent, but being talented alone wasn’t the case. I remember going to Bombay and it was so important for me to network. Thousands can sing, but the important thing is about meeting the right people at the right place at the right time. It’s important that if you work on a project, you constantly message the team or go out for a cup of coffee or a drink. It helps in building that relationship and it often leads to more work.”
Her biggest challenge:
“Living outside in Canada… My first playback Bollywood debut was with Ayushmann Khurrana’s ‘Hawaizaada’ (2015) where I sang ‘Dil-e-Nadaan’. With him. I was literally at the airport in Canada on my way to India for a vacation when I got a call from his team saying that they watched my YouTube videos and offered me a song for his new film because my voice matched his requirements … Since I was already on my way to India, I almost walked into the studios for that audition.
"In less than 12 hours, I found out that my voice was going to make it to the song. It was an unbelievable surreal experience. After that project, many told me that the wise thing to do is actually to stay back in Bombay … But I went back to Canada. Come to think of it, I am a little spoilt because even though I didn’t shift to India, I got a lot of opportunities. But I would have done a lot more work if I had shifted to India.”
‘Jalebi Baby’ going viral:
“I don’t relish eating jalebis, but the song is a different story altogether. It went viral, exploded, and began trending during the lockdown. A week before Diwali, my friend just mentioned Tesher, a fellow Canadian singer who’s doing pretty well, and his song ‘Young Shah Rukh’. I was surprised that I didn’t know him even though we belong to the same music industry. I felt a little ashamed and set out to find out who Tesher is. I went to his Instagram, realised that he has done some cool work, and congratulated him.
"He was sweet enough to write back and told me that he has gone through my work and he was working on a project called ‘Jalebi Baby’. He was looking for my kind of voice in terms of texture and tonality and asked me to give the song a shot. Thanks to technology, I was sitting here on this dining table and I just recorded my bits. He came back saying he’s using my vocals … Three weeks later, a friend of mine brought it to my attention that this song was exploding on Instagram and social media.”
On millions streaming the song:
“I don’t keep a tab honestly because I am not much into the number game. I am not obsessed with how many likes or followers I have on Instagram or Facebook … On a side note, I see many youngsters getting depressed if they don’t hit the million followers mark. It’s worrying. I don’t seek validation from followers, but I get a lot of validation from my fans and supporters who write to me.”
Bollywood being hostile to outsiders:
“I don’t have a straightforward answer to that because I have seen outsiders who are doing pretty well right now. Perhaps, that can be attributed to the power of social media. I have found that Bollywood is very welcoming towards talents with a huge amount of followers on social media … I am not saying that they don’t look at talent, but having an army of followers matters. Packaging matters and sometimes talent can be overlooked … Fortunately, I haven’t experienced hostility.
"But what irks me is the lack of professionalism … I was speaking to a fellow singer recent and he was talking about how disturbing it can get … There’s a well-renowned music director who records the same song with 10 singers … In the end, he just listens to those 10 singers and says which voice does it for him and which doesn’t. It’s very disheartening because each singer goes in thinking that his or her voice is going to be on that big-budget Bollywood blockbuster. They don’t even get a call on whether their song will be used for the film or not.”
“I don’t mind rejection because with rejection you grow if you look at it objectively. But what irks me is the lack of professionalism and communication … I am not sure if I will handle that. I come from a working culture where the level of professionalism is on a whole new level … Many songs of Indian singers are being played on millions of radio stations but the artist cannot show a single penny for it.”
Her biggest mentor:
“Sonu Nigam ji. A few years ago, he came across my work and shared my original song ‘Rasiya’. I remember sending him an email about it, without expecting a reply from him. But he sent back a detailed response on what he loved about the song. The next day, I woke up to him sharing that song on his [Facebook] page, and then he even called me to perform with him on his tour to the US. He’s been a constant mentor and even now if I have a question about music, I send him voice notes.”