Singer Ananya Birla, who’s the voice behind India’s rousing Olympic cheer song ‘Hindustani Way’, claims it has always been her dream to work with Oscar-winner AR Rahman. And, recording that spirited song in Dubai came as a pleasant bonus.
“I happened to be in Dubai when we shot that music video and AR also happened to be in Dubai for another project for Expo 2020 Dubai. And, since we happened to be in the same city at the same time, we shot the music video together here … It was all meant to be and it came together perfectly,” said Birla in an exclusive Zoom interaction with Gulf News.
Their vibrant and energetic anthem ‘Hindustani Way’, which began trending on social media since its release on July 14 racking more than 1 million views, is meant to be an instant pick-me-up for over 115 Indian athletes who will represent their country on a global stage during the pandemic-delayed Olympics 2020 in Tokyo this month.
The music video shows sports icons such as ace tennis player Sania Mirza and badminton champion Saina Nehwal undergoing intense training for the upcoming games along with archival footage of previous games held in Atlanta (1996), Athens (2004), Beijing (2002, 2008), Rio (2016) and London (2012). The music video also reflects the never-say-never spirit behind all those Indian families who watch the games closely rooting for their country to bring home the medals.
“The Indian Ministry called me kindly and mandated the song to me. It came as a good shock and the first person who came to my mind was AR. I had met him in LA about a year and a half ago at his home … We had a vibe and I knew he appreciated me and my voice. I could be myself with him as an artist. And that was a big deal for me,” said Birla. Rahman cherry-picked the title ‘Hindustani Way’ out of her 15 title recommendations sent to him.
The multi-platinum selling singer and songwriter, who was born to one of India’s wealthiest conglomerates Aditya Birla Group, admits that she was initially intimidated by the idea of working with a musical genius like Rahman, but the fear soon gave way to comfort.
“Once you get to know him, he’s not intimidating but a beautiful human being who supports talent and artists … He didn’t have to listen to my inputs, but he did all of that. This is a huge milestone in my career … But the most special part was that I could sit in a room with him and talk about life and music,” said Birla.
The 26-year-old singer, who has collaborated with musicians including Afrojack, Jim Beanz, and Mood Melodies, wanted her Olympic cheer song to have strong Indian roots along with a global connection with the youth. The lyrics of ‘Hindustani Way’ are a potent mixture of Hindi and English words.
“Hopefully we’ve been able to achieve that … I even added a couple of lines about tiger stripes, our national animal, and put in subtle reference of our country like the Himalayas in the hook. We also wanted the song to reflect the compassion and sportsmanship displayed by Indian athletes. I want them to feel motivated,” she said.
Shakira's 'Waka Waka' and the 'Hindustani Way':
Although Rahman and Birla aren’t a fan of working with references, Shakira’s iconic World Cup song and its long-enduring appeal did spring to their minds.
“Whatever Shakira does, flies. Even if ‘Waka Waka’ was called something else, it would have done extremely well … We just set out to write a really good song that encapsulates our feelings and emotions,” she said.
Going by the numbers that have viewed and listened to their song 'Hindustani Way' in the last 24 hours, their collaboration has emerged victorious.
So how difficult is it to be taken seriously when her last name signifies privilege, wealth and unlimited access?
“Yes, it’s tough to be taken seriously. But when you have numbers backing you as platinum and double-platinum selling singer, no one can refute your work or talent. Anyone can hate on you, but I sleep knowing that I have given it my best,” she said. Just like any skilled musician out there, she does ‘riyaz’ and practices every day and is keen to polish her craft.
This singer, who proudly dropped out of Oxford to pursue her music career, is just grateful that she can make good music and is earning her living by doing what she loves.
“Work is play and play is work for me,” said Birla.
“I dropped out of Oxford for all the right reasons. I studied economics and management for a year and a half, but the biggest thing I learned at that course was during my first lecture about opportunity costs. After which, I began gaining more of just life experiences … I used to get a panic attack and was starting to get a bit depressed and music was that crutch for me,” said Birla.
During her Oxford days, she remembers going for random gigs all weekend and returning just a couple of hours before her tutorials began, signalling that her vocation wasn’t number crunching.
“I started gigging around Camden and Rixton and I would just love seeing people watching me doing covers and a couple of original songs — really bad original songs now that I hear it. But I realised that I loved music and therefore I dropped out of college.”
Striking the right mental health balance
Although she isn’t armed with an economics degree from a prestigious college, she has managed to become one of India’s most recognisable singers who perform in English. But it isn’t just music that struck a chord within her. Birla — who counts her parents Kumar Mangalam Birla and Neerja Birla as her biggest cheerleaders — is also an ardent advocate of mental health. Her philanthropy includes providing a free mental health helpline in Mumbai during this pandemic.
For a person who has battled mental health issues of her own, this cause is equally close to her.
“Mental health and mental illnesses are way more rampant than we even know … There’s this huge stigma of In India about what will people say if they know that you have mental health issue … It’s ridiculous. I have aimed to break that stigma through my music and life,” said Birla.
Interestingly, Birla — with her family clout and connections — isn’t keen to pursue Bollywood, considered one of India’s most-followed pop culture phenomenons. ‘Want to be famous, just become a Bollywood star’ is a running joke.
“But I don’t think popularity has been a driving force for me at all. I’m born into a family that’s already a household name in India, but I have never aspired for popularity,” she said. “My aim has always been to do what I love and that’s been music. Singing in English in India has been challenging, but I wouldn’t change it for anything at all.”