Sitting in a smallish, basement studio in Gulberg, Lahore, American-born Janice Miller suddenly breaks into Ali Zafar’s cultish ‘Chano ki ankh mein ek nasha hai’. It’s rather unbelievable because she does not know how to speak Urdu.
Born in San Francisco, Miller comes from a family of musicians — her mother is a drummer and her father, a pianist. Miller, now in her mid-40s, moved to Pakistan a year ago. Her dream was to become a singer of — well — Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi songs. She has practised for more than 18 years while in the US.
In an exclusive interview with TNS, Miller claims she is more of a “phenomenon” than a “competitor.”
Miller was a child when she moved to Ghana, West Africa, with her parents and started watching Hindi films. They were a “good way to forget worries” after her parents separated, she says.
The first Hindi film she saw was at age 11. “In Ghana, Hindi films are shown with subtitles, and they are quite popular. Ali Baba 40 Chor was my introduction to Hindi cinema.”
She instantly took to singing Hindi-Urdu film numbers. “It came naturally to me,” she says. “I went on to watch a number of Hindi movies. I would go to a cinema playing a Hindi film and beg them to let me in.
“The people in Ghana love Hindi films. They love Amitabh Bachchan. Who wouldn’t love him after watching his films?”
Miller began with mimicking the songs and tried to memorise them. “There were no cassettes back then, so I had to go back to the theatre and watch a movie if I wanted to listen to its songs.”
When she was 18, Jenice Miller returned to the US. She got into a college before moving to Dallas a year later.
During her stay in Washington (state), she met some Indian people but she says she “did not find them to be very cooperative.” Later, she got a job that exposed her to a lot of Hindi film music, until she met an Indian lady at a store. The lady invited her to a Christmas party where she was introduced to a band that played Hindi songs. She ended up singing a few songs at the party. “I wasn’t prepared. I was only 19 and it was frightening for me to sing before an entire crowd of people. More so, because I wasn’t sure if I had got the lyrics right.”
Yet, she managed because the song she belted out, ‘Ae mere humsafar’ was her all-time favourite and she “had listened to it a million times.”
By 1997, Miller had made a name for herself in the Pakistani community in America. In ‘92, someone suggested that she should sing the Punjabi songs of Madam Noor Jehan. “These were people from New York and they wanted me to sing at a Pakistan Day show for 30,000 people. Muhammad Ali Shehki was also performing on the occasion.”
Since then Miller has made many Pakistani friends. “They have been very supportive,” she says. “They helped me in my singing and with the language.”
Next, Miller performed Noor Jehan’s ‘Saanu nehar waalay pul tey bula ke’ and Nazia Hassan’s ‘Teri meri dosti’. “After that, I started getting more attention from the Pakistanis.”
She says she got more and more attracted to Punjabi songs while still in Dallas. “Pakistani doctors also encouraged me. They would go crazy at the shows and were also willing to pay me well.”
In 2005, she was invited by the then president of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf to perform at a private show in Islamabad. “It was my first time in Pakistan,” she says, gushingly. “I must say my career took off from here. I would come to Pakistan every year.”
All this while, Miller has managed to meet her favourite singers Asha Bhosle (1994; Houston) and Lata Mangeshkar (1998; Dallas). She met the latter during a rehearsal for a concert. Eventually, she visited India in 2009.
After travelling to Pakistan frequently, she decided to move here in 2014. “People have been watching me sing for the last 18 years in the US. I now wanted to venture out and get some more business.
“The people in Lahore don’t know me very well. They haven’t had a chance. I think they would be as surprised as they were in the US.”
Miller has finally had the opportunity to work on her own original album where she is singing some original songs “that have been composed for me only.”
Miller’s confidence is unmistakable. She says she has “no competitor in the Pakistan music industry.”
Today, she knows hundreds of Bollywood, Lollywood, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi songs. She claims she can do a marathon concert of these songs. “I am a phenomenon,” she declares. “People can’t believe their ears when they see me singing.”