Runa Laila, the only Bangladeshi singer to have charmed the whole South Asia, retains her endearing demeanour. The lusty voice on the mike is actually soft spoken, with a smile that can ease anybody's nerves.
In Mumbai to launch “Sur Kshetra” (shot in Dubai, it took off on September 8 on Colors and Sahara One), the neutral judge on the show that has singers from India and Pakistan locked in a musical battle, chatted cheerfully over a cup of black tea and cookies.
Talking about her husband, Runa said, “Alamgir is an actor and has worked in a lot of Bangladesh-West Bengal (India) joint productions. We are happy together.”
She's more forthcoming about her daughter and grandsons. “My daughter, Tani is married to Arman Islam, a banker. I have two grandsons, Zain, 8, and Aaron, 5. They live in London. My daughter and I share a great relationship, just as I did with my mother. My grandsons keep me busy with their antics when I am with them.
“They are both good dancers and singers. My grandson, Zain, has been chosen by Arsenal Football Club and is currently training with them,” a proud grandmother glint lights up her eyes.
Didn't Tani want to take to the mike? “Well, she learnt music for four years but never took it up. She moved to London, did her schooling and university. She said, 'I will always be compared to you. No matter how well I sing, they will always say, she's Runa Laila's daughter. I won't have my own identity.' So I let her be.”
Runa Laila's mantra: live and let live, well-tuned and happy to flow with the times. Much like her fellow judge on the show, Asha Bhosle. Tell her that and she nods in agreement. “I love the spirit of Ashaji. You have to adapt to changing times.
“Ashaji is young in spirit and mind, the way she moves about or talks and laughs, you enjoy her company, you like talking to her -- she's evergreen and a great cook! The day I arrived here, Ashaji called me for dinner and had made bhuna gosht, chicken biryani, shahi tukda. Who does that any more? Especially someone of her calibre.”
In Dubai too, after an early morning shoot, Asha went to the market, bought prawns and got them in a hot pot for Runa.
“I've found a friend in Ashaji. She is a great mimic. On the sets, they would often offer us channa in paper cups and she would imitate how I ate them.”
Runa admits to being somewhat like her. “I ensure I am with the times even in the way I dress up. I don't dress like a young girl but just yesterday I wore a pant-shalwar and a journalist commented on how I wore fashionable clothes.”
The two ladies also bonded over diamonds. Runa sports rocks (of assorted sizes) on her fingers and a blinding neckpiece. She grins, “Ashaji and I would admire each other's diamonds. She told Latadidi that 'Runaji bahut achche diamonds pehenti hain.' Latadidi even gifted me a pearl set.”
Talk veers to the show. Producers Gajendra Singh and creative head, Boney Kapoor of Sahara One approached her to be the neutral judge. “It was a good idea to get singers, mentors and judges from India and Pakistan,” commented Runa. “I keep the tempers from flying and try to look at it from an outsider's point of view.”
Unfortunately for her, “Sur Kshetra” will also be a reminder of a personal loss. She lost her mother while shooting for it in January. “The day we landed in Dubai for our first schedule, I got a call from my family saying my mother was hospitalised. I lost her soon after. She was 87.” Remembering her mother, her 'biggest influence', she said, “She would train me, encourage me and be with me all the time. She ensured that I continued with music even when I got married and had my daughter. My sister, Dina too was a big support.
A regular visitor to India, Runa has lost count of the number of times she's been here. Keeping her on her toes are show tours all over the world, a never-ending relationship with music and… “solving crosswords,” she adds, reaching out for a cookie with a long, manicured finger.
How can the interview be complete without talking about her chartbusting number, “Mast Kalandar”? Her eyes light up and her face breaks into a proud smile. “It is a unique song, a spiritual song, it touches the heart and soul. Even when I am singing it, I am transported to another world. I discover something new each time I sing it…It's happened with me several times. When I perform at a concert, I reserve it for the finale.
“You can't sing that kind of song in the beginning or the middle, because it's a religious song and builds up the crescendo.
“You may sing 1000 songs but only a few that people remember you by… 'Mast Kalandar', 'Mera Babu Chhail Chhabila' and songs from 'Gharonda' will always be associated with me.”
Runa's only regret: if only she had done more playback in Mumbai.