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Jonita Gandhi was rejected from Canadian Idol. Now she’s behind some of Bollywood’s biggest hits

Jonita Gandhi didn’t let a Canadian Idol rejection stop her from finding her voice.

In 2006, the Brampton, Ont., singer was 16 years old when she was sent home from her audition. She was told she wasn’t an R&B singer. 

A judge told her to come back when she figured out what kind of singer she was. Seventeen years later, she is one of Bollywood’s biggest playback singers.

Now based in Mumbai, the Indo-Canadian singer’s voice can be heard in some of Bollywood’s biggest movies, like Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Dishoom.

Jonita Gandhi posing for the camera.
Jonita Gandhi, photographed on June 3, is back in Toronto for a couple of weeks to attend a South Asian music festival. (Hugo Levesque/CBC)

Gandhi says she’s been influenced by many different musical genres, singers and styles. Despite her Bollywood success, she doesn’t want to be confined to just one sound. 

“I like incorporating whatever feels right, feels natural. Bollywood obviously comes naturally to me because my family is from India and I grew up listening to Bollywood music,” said Gandhi. 

“I’m just incorporating all of those influences now. I just like it to be fluid.”

Gandhi started her musical journey recording cover songs in her bedroom in Brampton and posting them to YouTube. She then exploded to fame after being featured in the soundtrack for Chennai Express.

Last week, Gandhi was in Toronto to play for her hometown crowd at DESIFEST, a South Asian music festival. 

Playback singers rise to global fame

Playback singers pre-record their performances to be used in films. Singers like A.R. Rahman, Shreya Ghoshal and Lata Mangeshkar have become as globally famous as the Bollywood actors who lip-synch them in movies. 

In 2001, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, directed by Karan Johar, went on to become one of the internationally highest-grossing films to come out of Bollywood, according to The Indian Express. 

The film’s song Bole Chudiyan, performed by singers including Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan has more than 780 million views since it was posted on YouTube nine years ago. 

Yagnik and Narayan, who both started their careers in the ’80s, have millions of monthly listeners and their discographies consist of thousands of songs.

More than a singer

Last month, Gandhi performed for a crowd of more than 125,000 at the Indian Premier League closing ceremony in Ahmedabad, India. That mass of cricket fans was her largest live audience yet.

She performed a song called Sitara, which she co-wrote with Indian rapper DIVINE. 

“I wasn’t just the singer for my melody,” said Gandhi. “It was very special to be able to represent myself that way.”

A woman posing in a stadium
On May 28, Jonita Gandhi took centre stage at the Indian Premier League closing ceremony in Ahmedabad, India. (Jonita Gandhi/Instagram)

Her singing abilities don’t just stop at English and Hindi. Gandhi sings in several South Asian languages including Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, Punjabi and Kannada. 

She learned how to sing in those languages by listening to music. Some of the languages she didn’t even know existed, let alone did she speak them, before moving to India.

She says the reach of Indian music globally, beyond Bollywood hits, surprised her the most after joining the industry. 

“I’m now reaching audiences that I probably couldn’t even have a conversation with. But they’re connecting with me through my music,” she said.

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