11/02/2016 11:28 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Meet Caralisa Monteiro, India's Jingle Queen For The Past 20 Years

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Caralisa Monteiro's voice is everywhere, even if she isn't quite a household name yet. In recent times, you may have heard her sing on the Fitoor soundtrack, where she's sung the English version of 'Rangaa Re' along with composer Amit Trivedi.

Over the years, she has lent her voice to some very popular Hindi film songs, such as 'Sha Sha Sha Mi Mi Mi' from Shamitabh (2015), 'Tumse Hi Tumse' from Anjaana Anjaani (2010), 'Phir Dekhiye' from Rock On!! (2008), and that English portion in 'Mitwa' from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006).

38-year-old Monteiro has been Bollywood's choice for Western vocals over a decade-and-a-half, albeit nowhere nearly as well known as the likes of, say, Shreya Ghoshal and Sunidhi Chauhan. In the world of advertising, however, she is an industry veteran, with an estimated 7,000 ads to her credit — a massive number, given that her work is almost exclusively in only English and Hindi. This year, she completes 20 years of lending her voice to jingles that many of us probably remember quite well, such as this one...

... and this one...

... as well as this one.

HuffPost India recently had a chat with Monteiro about her remarkable career in advertising, as well as films, stage shows, and her original songs at her residence-cum-studio in suburban Mumbai. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

How did you get into the business of singing and doing voice-overs for advertising jingles?

When I was 9, my mother was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph glands. Within a year, she passed away. Then later, when I was college, my older sister Giselle died of breast cancer before her 27th birthday. She'd been a very talented singer and used to direct musical plays in college. I had followed in her footsteps and realised that her journey couldn't die with her.

I was in Sophia College studying economics and English literature at the time, about 19 or 20 years old, and had to find something to do. I dreaded the idea of sitting at a desk from 9 to 5, so I thought of singing as a career as I would sing at college competitions and festivals. I'd realised that among my peers I was better than most. Post that, I landed a jingle with Ehsaan [Noorani] and Loy [Mendonsa], for a coffee brand that never made it to the market. I got paid ₹3,000 for that — it felt like so much money back then! Then, a friend from the circle told me that [composer] Leslie Lewis was auditioning. Soon, he started calling me for ad films quite regularly. I worked with him exclusively for more than two years — we must have done close to 500 jingles together. Then I made a cassette showreel of all my work and approached [composer] Zubin Balaporia... my journey with him has been amazing. And that's how it went.

Many of your contemporaries around that time, such as KK, also sang jingles before graduating to film songs and pop albums. What made you stay in the business?

My main priority, after having lost two people in my family to cancer, was always to be financially secure. I didn't really want the limelight to be on me. Ad work was a choice I made because it pays very well — much better than singing in Bollywood, unless you do a lot of stage shows — and it's a very protected, professional kind of a thing. They ask you to do something, you do the job, and you're out the door.

But is it creatively satisfying for you, as a musician?

Well, all ad work is about what the client wants. It doesn't matter if you aren't happy with it musically because it's about what they want. Sometimes it can get boring and mundane, sure, but another way to look at jingles is as a recording artiste in terms of how you can make this ad better. You have to be more than a singer — you have to be a voice actress, you have to make different sounds, sometimes funny sounds, you have to try different styles. That makes it interesting. And sometimes there are really beautiful [ad] films and you really want them to fly, so you do whatever it takes. But regardless of what it is, once I'm done with the jingle, I'm out the door and it is forgotten, because I never take my work home.

How often do you have recordings and how long does it take you, typically, to record a jingle?

In 2011, I did more than 200 jingles. But now I do fewer — maybe around 120, 130 a year, so that's like one every two or three days. It mostly takes me no more than 15 minutes to finish my takes because I come in, understand what I have to do very quickly — which is a very important part of the job — and go into the booth and record. Sometimes I've been done in 10 or even five minutes and have then spent the rest of the time just sitting around.

Could you tell us about times that were particularly stressful?

Well, there was one time when I was recording a jingle at 3 am and we were waiting for the film to come in. But the thing is once you've come in for the job, you can't leave until it's done. Then, I remember being made to give a lot of retakes, especially with Leslie. Sometimes there would be 9 or 10 retakes and the thing is, your voice just loses its feel after maybe two or three. So that would be quite stressful.

What about disagreements with the agencies or clients who'd be involved?

I think what I have really trained myself to do is to assimilate the brief as quickly as possible, and then just go behind the mic and deliver. But yes, sometimes there are problems when you don't quite understand what they want. I've been in sessions where everyone in the studio knows the track is going nowhere. Especially the [recording] engineers — they always feel our pain!

Music director Ehsaan Noorani with Caralisa Monteiro, holding a copy of her debut album 'Illusion' in his hand

Any particularly surreal moments you could tell us about?

This happened recently — funny story — when an agency guy asked me to sing in a 'fluffy' voice. Now, I've heard "bright", "sexy", "sensuous". I've heard that I need to sound like 'random singer name' or "more Arabic"... but never 'fluffy'!

So what did you do?

You know, I don't even know how, but I somehow got what he meant. And I went ahead and did a take and it was okayed. That's the thing — you just have to know what they mean.

Have you ever walked out of a jingle recording?

No, I have never quit. I don't believe in quitting. But there are some things I don't do out of principle, like ads for condoms. Condom advertisements portray women in bad light. Five years ago, I did an African condom advertisement and, unlike the ads which objectify women in low light (sic), this advertisement focused on creating AIDS awareness and hence I did it. I have no problem with 'sexy', like, say, the Aam Sutra ad, but I can't do anything sleazy.

How has the business changed in the 20 years you've been part of it?

Now there are many new players because basically anyone with a laptop can be a music producer and there are many recording artistes out there who don't mind doing voice-overs or vocals for one ad in a month. That kills the market for the rest of us because they work for much lesser money and clients then don't want to fork out more.

Is that why you're doing fewer ad films now?

Correct, in fact, in this financial year, I think I've only done about 70 so far. Aside from that, my focus has started shifting towards my own independent English music as well as more stage shows. In June last year, I released my debut album Illusion [feat. Vishal Dadlani and Siddharth Basrur]. The proceeds from the album [available on iTunes and] go to my charity Angel In Disguise, which aims to help breast cancer sufferers... it's dedicated to Giselle. So, yes, the focus is shifting, but I'm not taking anything for granted.

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