Sure the advent of item numbers at the turn of the millennium helped surge Sunidhi Chauhan to the forefront of Bollywood singers, but she's also made a contribution of her own - namely, she's helped draw the squeaky Lata era to a close.
The big break
As is well documented, Sunidhi started her career via singing shows, made an unremarkable Bollywood debut and helmed an independent album that tanked at the sales registers (her father maintains HMV botched the product placement). A chance introduction with Sandeep Chowta (whose career has cooled of late) via Sonu Nigam resulted in two duets on Mast and her first Bollywood success.
At the outset Sunidhi's voice and looks made her an ideal candidate to sing item numbers. In fact, her breakthrough song - Mehboob Mere - was one of the first in which a song was inserted in a movie for dubious reasons purely as spectacle. And as item numbers were supposed to, it spiraled the movie (Fiza, possibly Anu Malik's career zenith) and the song to hit status.
A quick evolution
Sunidhi's voice hadn't hit prime time yet. But her base voice was terrific - a low purr - and she brought a lot of youthful energy to her songs. She developed instant chemistry with a younger generation of music listeners but to her credit she seemed to understand the limitations in her voice.
Over the years, Sunidhi's progress took me by surprise. She steadily fixed the gaps - her live singing improved dramatically and her ability to move up and down on the scale with the speed required of a genuine playback talent got better.
Putting her divorce after an eloped marriage at 18 behind her in 2004, in a short five years since her first successes, she was hitting her straps on Khakhee (Aisa Jadoo) and Dhoom (Dhoom Machale). Some terrific singing ensued in Dus (Deedar de) Shikhar (Fitna Dil), Taxi No. 9211 (Ek Nazar), Pyare Mohan (Rabba De De Javaani), Shaadi Se Pehle (Mundiya - a personal favorite) and 36 China Town (Aashiqui Mein Teri).
The coronation is complete
By the time Omkara rolled around and Sunidhi sang the sensational Beedi the ascension to the throne was complete - and this was regardless of a little train called Shreya Ghoshal who was picking up plenty of steam.
Surprisingly enough, Sunidhi did keep challenging herself. And the second phase of her expansion can be heard on CDs today. Much of it seems tied to her fascination with American R&B and Soul (she's been known to be fond of Mariah Carey - who despite her tacky troubles and squishy song choices - has impeccable vocal credentials not to mention peerless sales)
Here Sunidhi's results have been choppy. And its a little unfair to expect her to get results immediately. Because of the scale of her speaking voice - which is ironically her strength - she can't hit the high notes without losing tonal quality. In this respect singers with thinner voices have the advantage. So while Sunidhi has tried some stuff and crashed and burned a little, occasionally she does something different with more success.
A career full of possibilities
There are several places Sunidhi can go from here. Although the magnificent Richa Sharma of late has been threatening to cut loose, most of her competition is still too stereotyped to be an immediate threat. There is, of course, Shreya but if you listen to their songs you'll see them circling each other's territory without completely encroaching on it.
There is a charted journey for Bollywood playback singers. But I think Sunidhi has enough talent to do something different. And personally my phaltu Drift advice for her would be to start talking to someone else on the bottom run of the music food chain: musicians, and putting together a kick ass band. Then take a hotshot composer with youth appeal who is struggling to get work in Bollywood (like say Raghav Sachar) and get a bunch of original songs together.
Next step, negotiate license deals for Sunidhi's most popular songs. Then book a ten city tour playing small places - probably major hotels or metro lounges in India and test out the songs. Because Sunidhi is a really good live performer and she has some famous songs, the audiences will listen to the other music just as carefully. And there might be enough immediate cash to end up with a distribution deal on the songs that allows Sunidhi to maintain control.
If the independent music scene in India won't give us a non-filmi star, maybe Bollywood can!