What do you say to a man who has produced 68 feature films, launched the careers of 206 debutants in his very first film, managed the careers of nine out of eleven national cricket players, incepted Asia’s largest and the world’s fourth largest music festival responsible for bringing the likes of David Guetta, Armin Van Buerren, KSHMR, DJ snake, Martin Garrix, Afrojack and Clean Bandit to India?
Nothing. You listen. The paragraph of achievements above barely scratches the surface when it comes to India’s first and only music maverick. There’s no dearth of online information surrounding Shailendra Singh, and yet you want to hear him tell his story, loaded with quirky and entertaining anecdotes, in his own inimitable style.
“I came from nowhere. I started out as a waiter with Shamiana at the Taj.” He laughs, “But I’ve helmed 23 startups in 23 years from scratch with no capital, only ideas. In fact, creativity has been my capital. I’ve never had much to begin with and landed up with money only much later, which I’ve given back... I gave a million dollars towards education. From day one, I've believed my destiny is to create new paths. We are a young nation and our job is to inspire the youth, not build bungalows in Juhu. Just because aag lagi hai, doesn’t mean we say chal, ussmein paratha sekh le!”
His latest single, one that he’s produced and co-composed with Anjana Ankur Singh featuring the voice of Nakash Aziz, was released just over twenty-four hours ago. With the anthem, Bharat Jeetega, he hopes to uplift the spirit of Indians as we fight the war against COVID-19 and also salute frontline workers.
"I did not know Ankur (Anjana Ankur Singh) at all. My director of photography Arshad, who also debuted with me, introduced me to Ankur. For me, these were the words I wanted to communicate - 'Haan, Corona ne hum ko toda hain, aur Corona ne hi humko Joda hain'. Dispiriting as it may be, the planet has never been more unified with a common purpose and enemy. We've always been divided by religion, maps, currencies, politics etc. Tomorrow, if there's a fourth wave in Australia, it will bother us here, if there's a fifth wave in America, it will bother the United Kingdom and so on. It is with that spirit, Ankur and I began putting a composition together. We wanted to do it in a way in which it appealed to both, the classic and the rock audience. We wanted a blend of the rhythm and melody. After shortlisting five-odd names, including Sonu Nigam, we finally went with Nakash."
Since March 2020, Singh has been busy shooting films and adverts for the Mumbai Police and frontline workers. Ten films in total.
“The lockdown and crisis has gone on for too long and there’s a sense of deep depression and anxiety. I think we’re now slowly stopping to hope, we are reaching a point where optimism and positivity with regard to the pandemic don't exist. It's like we’re going numb. So I said hang on, we’ve done a lot so far. There are people sacrificing their lives to save our lives. Yes, we are facing severe challenges, but what are you fighting this for? To eventually win, right? Hence, Bharat Jeetega.”
Singh tells me he wrote the song in three minutes, which doesn’t surprise me. By now, it’s abundantly clear that the man is a motivator who wears his heart of his sleeve. My entire conversation with him would be a series of complete stories from his life, shortened to fit into a given thought. And it’s all quite stream-of-consciousness so far, but somehow beautifully fitting together in a non-linear fashion to form his complete odyssey. My favourite being one involving Salman Khan.
“Salman is a close childhood friend. The day he told me he would work with me, guess what I went and did? I produced a movie on HIV AIDS called Phir Milenge and had him act in it for free. I even killed off his character by the end of the movie. I did not use Salman’s favour for a Dabbang, which anyone else would have gladly done. That’s not me! After all, I have to be a fire starter, aakhir behti Ganga mein toh koi bhi haath dho leta hai yaar!”
Bharat Jeetega has only just gone live, but is already generating a significant buzz around it. Over five hundred industry names have reshared the video as their own. “The song, which began with me, now belongs to everyone. It’s Aadesh Srivastava’s Bharat Jeetega, it’s Karan Singh’s Bharat Jeetega, it’s your Bharat Jeetega! People in their own home towns like for example, Allahabad or Lucknow, are posting their own photos with the flag. We, in return, are giving them customised t-shirts with their names and the tricolour on it. We must ensure the youth continue to engage in the fight against Covid-19. It doesn’t matter who you are or whom you support politically, it all goes to sh*t if you no longer have a country left!”
Remember I was talking about the heart on his sleeve? Singh, who ranked among the 50 most powerful people in EDM and is also India’s biggest music promoter, has always put creativity and cause before commerce. A testament to this is his newest venture, Guestlist4Good, the world’s largest entertainment-for-good social enterprise that raises awareness and money to ensure that every child gets the education they deserve. Along with offering fans free access to phenomenal, live event experiences, the social venture generates sufficient resources to deliver vulnerable kids from a childhood full of challenges, to a life with meaningful livelihoods. Thus far, Guestlist4Good has educated 125,000 children on a ten-year program in partnership with Magic Bus.
“We’ve completed three very large concerts where many artists including Adnan Sami, Nucleya, Hardwell, W&W and Martin Garrix gave me free time. I raised the money under the 2% CSR tax that every corporate has to pay. I went to Hero Honda and Airtel and took money from them. The result? On each day of the festival, one lakh young people were put on a Hardwell guest list for free and 125,000 kids received an education!”
Because I’m dying to hear one last ‘Shailendra Singh Story’, I probe further. How did all of this come about? What was the motivation?
“It’s actually quite a dramatic, filmy story. One night, after Sunburn Season 7, when I left the venue, I bumped into a group of youngsters at a vada pav stall in Vagator. I stopped to ask them what they thought about the festival. Pat came the reply, ‘Faadu tha, Sir! What sound! What DJs!’. I then asked one of them what they thought of the stage design, because that year I had built a retro-future stage of Natarajana, the Hindu Goddess of dance. To my surprise, he replied, ‘What stage, Sir?... We’ve been sitting outside for the last three days drinking beer, eating Vada Pav and enjoying the music.’ I asked them why they didn’t come inside. He replied, ‘Chal na Sir, the season ticket costs 9000. The cheapest is 4500 and our salary is 3000! How can we afford it? We enjoyed it from outside’. In that moment I questioned myself. ‘What have I done?’ I said. I wanted to spread love through music and socially unite the fabric of youth through music and I’ve unintentionally ended up alienating them in favour of the rich d*cks!”
It was the guilt he felt after the incident that germinated into Guestlist4Good. It’s the same Bharat Jeetega philosophy to Singh; the desire to stop wishing, explaining, complaining, intellectualising and instead to get up and do something.
Today, decades after introducing new talent (Salim-Sulaiman, Vishal-Shekhar, Shaan and so many household names were given their first breaks in his films) to the national and international stages, Singh, who works twenty hours a day, still has it in him to go back to the drawing board with complete newcomers.
“I’m happy to collaborate on more motivational, positive and confidence building music projects for the youth, in particular. They are facing the brunt of anxiety, stress and depression. This is no way to spend your formative years! I have a lot of time for these efforts and I would urge all musicians to spread happiness, joy and peace in this time because I truly believe music is the real deal and has the power to heal. Music is far more powerful than cinema. In a song the melody and sense of composition are the true soul of it, not the words.”