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A Bollywood star is born

By Alex DeSilva
On January 30, 2012

In some ways, Nipun Marwaha '12 is like a lot of Brandeis students. He was born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., is a fan of the Giants and plays a lot of Skyrim. But he does have one thing that makes him unique among most students: Since he was 14, Marwaha has been immersed in the world of Bollywood music. He has sung in local festivals, entered into talent searches and done all he could to make a name for himself in one of the world's largest film industries.

It's safe to say that most Americans are unfamiliar with Bollywood. Despite assumptions to the contrary, the term "Bollywood" refers neither to India's entire film industry nor a specific genre. Rather, according to Marwaha, it's a catch-all term for "any mainstream Hindi movie made in Mumbai." That said, there is one thing that unites almost all Bollywood movies: music. Whether it's a romantic comedy or a heavy drama, just about every film has to have at least one musical number, if not more. It has become such an integral part of the industry that soundtracks have been known to come out months before the films themselves.

Marwaha's parents both emigrated from the northern Indian state of Punjab. He grew up in a trilingual household, learning Hindi and Punjabi in addition to English. As a result of his upbringing, he spent his childhood watching Bollywood movies. "I've honestly seen far more Bollywood films then American movies," he admits.

However, Marwaha didn't actually get involved in any type of performing until he was in his teens. In fact, he only got into it by chance: When he was 13, his mother and sister began taking Indian dance lessons. He happened to go with them one day, and the teacher ended up noticing that he had some talent for dancing and recruited him for her team.

A year later, Marwaha finally began singing. "It just kind of happened," he recalls, "between the movies and the CDs my parents had, I just transitioned to singing." From then on, he began formal training in the Hindustani (North Indian) classical style of singing, a 700-year-old style that almost all Bollywood singers are trained in before they start actually performing.

Marwaha's first performance came when he was 16, at the Nassau County Culture Show, an annual showcase of the county's different cultures. The crowd numbered over 1,000 people, but he wasn't scared. "Honestly, I was excited; it got to the point that I had to calm myself down because I was actually shaking, and that was making my voice shake. It's still something I have to do before every show."

Marwaha's longest string of shows came during this summer. His sister, who is involved in the Sankara Eye Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for cataract surgeries in India, got him a spot performing for one of the foundation's fundraising shows. From there, he was invited to perform for the India Association of Long Island's annual Culture Show. After that, he was given his biggest break yet—he's going to be headlining for the 2012 Asian American Fair this June. The fair is a South Asian cultural exposition located in Somerset, N.J. that features numerous singing and dancing talents. Marwaha was originally set to perform in August, but Hurricane Irene put a literal damper on those plans.

Marwaha hasn't kept himself to local shows either. He's been active in quite a few talent searches over the years. He entered his first in 2009, competing in the Bollystar online singing contest. He went up against thousands of other entrants from all over the country, and even though he didn't win, he ended up placing in the top 10. As if to dissipate any notions that this was purely beginner's luck, he proceeded to do the same in a contest sponsored by the South Asian Audio Visual Network. Marwaha was chosen as one of the final 16 contestants out of thousands and took part in the semifinals, which was broadcast internationally on Sony TV and is still available on Hulu.

With all these under his belt, it's no wonder that Marwaha's still been working on making a name for himself in Bollywood, though he does plan to finish his Economics degree at Brandeis before truly pursuing a singing career. But after college, the sky's the limit: "After graduation, I want to spend a year in either Mumbai or Los Angeles to see if I can get into anything."

He's knows that he's up against pretty stiff competition. Bollywood is, after all, one of the largest film markets in the world in a country that's home to about a sixth of the world's population. He's even started singing some American pop songs as well to make himself stand out from the crowd. Much like the U.S., India is a country that loves its singing competitions, and Marwaha hopes to find a place on one of these shows to get into the spotlight. Between Indian Idol, India's Got Talent and a myriad of others, he's got his work cut out for him.

"I'm not sure exactly how it'll go; I'm mostly just going to go there and see how I can do," he says. If his previous record is anything to go by, he has a pretty good shot of making it, but Marwaha's still looking to build his fanbase. He even has a Facebook page ( Who knows? With any luck, in a couple years, we could all be saying that we knew him before he became a star.  

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