Music Review: Guru

Posted on November 26, 2006


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NOV 26, 2006 – IF SOMEONE WERE TO MAKE A MOVIE about me listening to a new album by AR Rahman, the visuals would be like those in the old cartoons where there’s this man with an angel fluttering above him on one side and the devil on the other, each alternately whispering good and bad. I’m playing Barso re from Guru, and the angel says, “How beautifully Shreya Ghosal has sung this!â€? And the devil says, “Yes, but it took you three listens just to get a handle on the bloody melody lines. It’s as if she’s following the instructions of a baton being twirled by the wind.â€? And the angel says, “And why is that a problem? Not every tune has to be instantly hummable.â€? And the devil says, “But this chick here is singing about bullock-cart bells and swings on mango trees, and that sort of rusticity demands a simple folk tune.â€? And the angel says, “Since when has fidelity to real life been important to art? You’re going into the realm of logic. Why don’t you just listen to the music and see, for instance, how marvellously the flute keeps flirting with the voice!â€? And the devil says, “But what’s with the irritating burst of drums that sounds like firecrackers going off in a tin can?â€?

And on and on it goes. Sometime in the latter part of the nineties, Rahman’s music achieved the kind of burnished glow that only comes from the perfect balance of personal creativity and public satisfaction. Dil Se, Taal, Earth… Overnight, the composer got rid of the awkward pauses that would sometimes bring the mood of a song to a grinding halt (the suspended-in-time sitar strains after the mukhda of Pyaar yeh in Rangeela, for instance). He ironed out his tune transitions. He smoothened out his interludes – the one thing he never appeared to give much thought to earlier. (I still recall how startled I was when I first listened to the goosefleshy Jiya jale, with that plaintive sarangi bracketing the opening line of the antara without interrupting for a second the rhythm of the piece.) And where his earlier numbers were (mostly) merely catchy and fun, his work at this point became gifts that would keep on giving. Every time you heard a song, you’d discover something new, and yet, if you didn’t want to dig into them all that much, they were still – well – catchy and fun.

And now, it appears Rahman has completed his transition to the other extreme, with albums that are more personal, more idiosyncratic – I thought I heard the low-throbbing hum of a lightsabre towards the end of Barso re – and, therefore, infinitely more fascinating. There’s very little in his music that’s instantly catchy and fun anymore, because he’s no longer just making soundtracks; he’s painting soundscapes. Over the years, our concept of the Film Album has been a collection of songs of five to six different moods, and the skill of the composers was revealed in the way they worked around these limitations. It’s not that they never experimented, but these experimentations seldom interfered with the surface of the song – and so the casual listener still came away with something to hum after one round of radio play. But Rahman doesn’t seem to care about any of this – which is really the only way for a pure musician to work. (Of course, you could argue that a music director for a movie can’t afford to be a “pure musicianâ€?, and you would be right in a way.) The sound of Guru is the sound of a musician trying to break free, and given the frequently unexpected detours in the compositions here, you can almost imagine Mani Ratnam pulling Rahman aside and pleading, “Boss, give them… something.â€?

That’s probably why each song in Guru is uncharacteristically stuffed to the gills with orchestration that sometimes suffocates Gulzar’s words. That’s probably why each song is filled with chorusey bits – dum tara dum tara, or na na re na re, or mayya mayya, or yammo yammo – that seem like sops to the audience; if they can’t whistle the tricky melodies, there are at least these other things to latch on to. And, inevitably, these decisions leave behind a wake of mild dissatisfaction – especially in the case of Tere bina. This is a breathtakingly beautiful composition that describes life without a loved one, and this thought is elevated by a typically Gulzarian metaphor: beswaadi ratiyaan, flavourless nights. Here’s the hero, envisioning (in Rahman’s soaring vocals) the emptiness that would result in the absence of his woman, and you want the jaggedness of the emotion to linger – but the pat, persistent dum tara refrain (which, as a line of music, is admittedly lovely) keeps dragging the song back into a neutral comfort zone. I felt this even more when Chinmayee began to sing, her voice apparently laden with the collective weight of the world’s romantic longing. She’s so magnificent, you can’t help asking of Rahman: Why settle for merely caressing the heart when there’s potential in the song to pierce the soul?

But Ek lo ek muft gets it delightfully right – from the tipsy swagger of Bappi Lahiri’s enunciation (just wait till you hear his Guroooo ki gudiya) to the spirited chorus to the perky percussion that never once gets in the way of Gulzar’s charming ode to pairs. More foot-tapping arrives courtesy Baazi laga and Mayya, the former with infectious Latin flourishes, the latter with a sultry Middle-Eastern feel. These – along with the anthemic Jaage hain (the crushed, leave-me-alone hopelessness of whose lyrics appear at odds with the increasingly rousing arrangements; it made me imagine a violin solo being executed by a symphony orchestra) – are the soundscapes I was talking about. They are as-far-as-eye-can-see – rather, ear-can-hear – expanses of layering and texture and ambience that you can’t imagine from another composer. Your inner-devil could whine that these songs are a tad overcooked, but the angel would be too drunk on the sounds to care. That leaves us with Ae hairat-e-aashiqui, a number that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Muslim social with Rajendra Kumar and Sadhana. (Or, perhaps Pakeezah, considering the line Pairon se zameen laga mat is but a once-removed variation on Aapke paon dekhe…) The quasi-qawwali (you can hear the clapping in your head) is brilliantly rendered by Hariharan, whose velvet voice combined with the velvet words – when was the last time you heard the e bridge hairat and aashiqui, astonishment and ardour? – brings back a long-ago era where passion meant poetry, poetry meant passion. That Rahman can transport himself as comfortably into that world is all that’s needed to silence both angel and devil.

Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express