15 years of AR Rahman

Posted on August 25, 2007


Picture courtesy: img74.imageshack.us



Fifteen years after the Big Bang that was Roja, I thought I’d recall my transition to a new musical universe – and also remember my favourite AR Rahman compositions.

AUG 26, 2007 – IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO last this long, this love affair with Allah Rakha Rahman. Even as late as the July of 1992, we were returning home to Ilayaraja, to a relationship that had just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. It may have become a relationship that had outlived the hot-blooded passions of the early years, a relationship that had settled into a comfortable (if still comforting) routine – but then you don’t seek out a divorce because your spouse has packed on the pounds. You shake your head, perhaps, and then you remember the way things were. You remember the good times.

Then came August, and along with it, the siren calls of Roja. A new sound – young, hip, night to Ilayaraja’s day – had moved into town, and its hypnotic charms were proving irresistible. The singletons, the unattached, the ones who went about life with no concept of long-term commitments – they responded instantly, instinctively.

But the rest of us, we panicked. We dashed to our homes, shuttered the windows, bolted the doors. Mere jingles, we sneered while taking a cold shower – with the sneaking, sinking realisation that this contempt wasn’t real, that it was simply a desperate attempt to stave off temptation. But it just didn’t feel right. You don’t cheat on someone who’s taken care of your every musical need for so long – that too for what would surely be a mere fling, what writers of pulp fiction would term a couple of hot, sweaty afternoons in an anonymous motel.

Oh, but you sometimes do. Roja was followed by Gentleman and Pudhiya Mugam, and our resolve cracked just a wee bit. We’d stray, we told ourselves. Who was going to know? Besides, how long could this last anyway? We’d be tired of it before we knew it. But then Thiruda Thiruda happened, along with Kaadhalan, Duet, Indira and Bombay – and even without realising it, we fell in love all over again.

How liberating it felt, after all these years, to rediscover the pleasures in getting to know someone over a casual cup of coffee. That’s what it felt like, AR Rahman’s music. It wasn’t intimidating, it didn’t require scholarly levels of comprehension (at least in the early days), and it felt so light on its feet. AR Rahman made us feel young again. And he made at least some of us see, possibly for the first time, that the only natural relationship state in the appreciation of art is polyamory.

Ilayaraja – the colossus that he was – had made my generation forget that. He was the one, the only one, ever since we could remember – and apparently ever since time began. The ties that bound him to us were so strong – and felt so predestined, like all great love – it seemed inconceivable that our eyes would one day wander. And when they finally did, we understood the conflict that must have played out in our elders when Ilayaraja eased out MS Viswanathan, when the new nudged out the old.

But slowly – and just like us – they must have seen that this was no betrayal. They must have seen the greater cause, that of Tamil film music, and they must have realised that the torch had merely passed from one genius to another. And, after fifteen years of AR Rahman, that’s what we see today. It may have taken some time – perhaps a little more time for some of us – but we’ve all come home to AR Rahman now.


The First Five Years

1. Kangalil enna eeramo (Uzhavan, 1993): Because Rahman’s music today, people claim, needs several listens to fully get, whereas this – the first song of his that I completely fell for – posed no such problem. I was instantly hooked by the soaring melody lines tethered to a bouncy, pizzicato percussion.

2. Usilampatti penkutti (Gentleman, 1993): Because with this number – along with Nee kattum selai (Pudhiya Mannargal) and Aathangara marame (Kizhakku Cheemayile) – Rahman proved that it was possible to rustle up a rustic ambience without invoking Ilayaraja. Heck of a catchy tune, too.

3. July maadham vandhaal (Pudhiya Mugam, 1993): Because I can’t listen to this song without smiling, if only for the images of the flamenco-inflected choreography executed rather hilariously by Vineeth and a girl whose name escapes me now. Rahman may be partly to blame, for who could resist snapping their fingers to that spirited opening, one part Spanish guitar base, one part clicking castanets!

4. Senthamizhnaattu Thamizhachiye (Vandicholai Chinraasu, 1994): Because, its chauvinism apart, it’s hands-down one of the funniest songs ever written. And Rahman jacks up the men-teasing-women mischief with a driving beat that suggests nothing less than a pelvic thrust. Listen to it again and tell me I’m wrong!

5. Ennavale (Kaadhalan, 1994): Because, despite music critic Subbudu’s contentions that grievous bodily harm was sustained by the raga Kedaram (thanks to Rahman’s non-traditional deviations), this is the gorgeous cry of a lover so filled with love, it constricts his throat. This, of course, means he shouldn’t be able to speak, but that’s why they invented song.

6. Nila kaaigiradhu (Indira, 1995): Because Hariharan has never sounded better under Rahman, nor more expressive of emotions. (Yes, yes, I know all about Uyire from Bombay, and in my book, it’s a mere pretender in comparison.) The heartbreakingly beautiful tune swells and subsides, keeping you guessing… Hymn? Love song? Lament? Probably all.

7. Kya kare kya na kare (Rangeela, 1995): Because it tells you why Rahman persists with Udit Narayan, despite the latter’s notoriety as the man who unleashed genocide on the lyrical population of Kuluvalile (Muthu). Udit captures perfectly the tossed-off angst of a tapori torn between being in love and admitting to being in love.

8. C’mon c’mon O Kamatchi (Love Birds, 1996): Because every listing exercise is allowed a guilty pleasure, and for me, it was a toss up between this bagpipe-driven lark and Lucky lucky (Ratchagan). C’mon c’mon won because… um, because… Hey, I said it was a guilty pleasure.

9. Strawberry kanne (Minsaara Kanavu, 1997): Because it showcases Rahman’s facility with symphonic arrangements, and because it doesn’t display an iota of strain in the process (unlike, say, Veerapandi kottayile from Thiruda Thiruda, which tries really, really hard). The song’s operetta texture is just right for the battle-of-the-sexes banter.

10. Kannai katti kollaadhey (Iruvar, 1997): Because it’s possibly the loveliest instance of swing in a film music culture that’s (quite understandably) wary of jazz. With the triumphant arrangements (from the irresistible guitar that kicks off the song to the delightful percussion that changes colour on alternate sets of a four-count beat), it wouldn’t be surprising if the thundering chorus of Viduthalai is actually a celebration of freedom from traditional ways of making film music.

The Next Five Years

11. Rut aa gayi re (1947 Earth, 1998): Because it’s the standout track in an album full of standout tracks. And if I’m picking this over the almost-as-affecting Raat ki daldal and Yeh jo zindagi hai, it’s because of that second interlude, a magnificent passage with borderline-menacing strings that evokes Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets.

12. Ae ajnabee (Dil Se, 1998): Because it’s quite simply the most mournful song in the Rahman oeuvre, a howl from a heart so filled with unfulfilled desire, it needs to traverse entire octaves to unburden itself. Udit Narayan is superb. So is the album, which came at a time Rahman could apparently do no wrong.

13. Varaha nadhikkarai oram (Sangamam, 1999): Because dud movies with great soundtracks deserve recognition too (see also No. 14), and because if there’s anything that epitomises the zest-for-life that Shankar Mahadevan brings to his singing, this qawwali-folk song cross-breed is it. Just watch him soar to Kaaveri karayil in the first stanza… You could power a small-sized nuclear reactor for a week with that energy.

14. Thirakkaadha kaattukkulle (En Swaasa Kaatre, 1999): Because of the synthesiser birdcalls (birdcalls, right?) which kick off a number full of charming outdoorsy imagery. A babbling brook in the first interlude, darting deer in the second… And in the midst of all this calming nature, a plaintive, high-pitched cry of a man-made emotion, with Unnikrishnan going kaadhal, kaadhal, kaadhal, kaadhal, kaadhal… Because saying it out loud five times feels so much better than just once.

15. Khamosh raat (Thakshak, 1999): Because of the opening that sounds as if a guitar is being tuned before a performance – as if the player is getting a feel of the tightness of the strings, the acoustics of the room and, most importantly, the mellow mood of the song to follow. It’s like being a fly on the wall of a garage band, with the lead singer rehearsing his impending declaration of love.

16. Nahin saamne (Taal, 1999): Because, despite that stretch at the beginning where a vise is apparently being tightened on Hariharan’s unmentionables (a.k.a. a falsetto hitherto matched only by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees), this is as wistful a sad song as you’ve listened to. A gentle tom-tom rhythm adds to the melancholy, as if even the percussion were too drained for anything more animated.

17. Kizhakke nandavanam (Taj Mahal, 1999): Because it’s the culmination of a journey that began with Usilampatti penkutti. Where the former was trying to keep a rustic feel going merely on the surface – and what a happy surface that was – what we have here is the real deal, a beautifully-tuned “village song‿ that features, appropriately enough, in a Bharatiraja movie.

18. Kurukku siruthavale (Mudhalvan, 1999): Because flutes and dholaks aren’t what we’re used to hearing at the beginning of romantic numbers, and because there’s very little of the Rahmanesque techno-frippery that sometimes subtracts rather than adds to emotions as delicate as the ones expressed in this lovely love duet.

19. Snehidhane (Alaipaayuthey, 2000): Because this song is about a husband who is a secret friend, and because Rahman pours his soul into delineating the sweet sorrow inherent in this relationship, where man and woman are united by marriage and yet separated by distance. And because of the complicity in Sadhana Sargam’s voice as she courses through nee sollaadhadhum iravile puriven. Oh that lucky Madhavan!

20. Sarfaroshi ki tamanna (The Legend of Bhagat Singh, 2002): Because of how singers (Hariharan, Sonu Nigam) and composer can infuse fresh life into the oldest of patriotic rousers. Homesick NRIs especially beware: by the time the dirge-like early half of the number gives way to the chest-thumping optimism of Khushboo banke mehka karenge, you’ll be a sobbing mess.

The Past Five Years

21. Dating (Boys, 2003): Because that Rahmanesque techno-frippery I was knocking a little earlier is put to delightful use in a song aimed at the young ‘uns. From the eerie xylophone-on-helium mood that kicks off the number to the scream-dying-out-in-space end, every single sound seems to have been piped out of machines yet to be invented.

22. Thee kuruviyil (Kangalaal Kaidhu Sei, 2003): Because sometimes it’s just nice to watch a gifted vocalist (Harini in this case) showing off. The way Rahman layers her alaaps towards the end, each quivering leap across an octave appears to be possessed by extraterrestrial life. What brings the song to earth is a relaxingly basic rock beat.

23. Do qadam aur sahi (Meenaxi, 2004): Because, as if mindful of the words, the song seems to move forward in beats of two, and because the minimalism of the arrangements is an ideal counterpoint to the ornateness of the lyrics that talk about a slow, long slog to a far-off utopia. Had the music been as rich, the composition would have probably collapsed under its own weight.

24. Yeh jo des hai tera (Swades, 2004): Because goosefleshy neo-patriotic songs are hard to come by. Accompanied by a shehnai playing at near-monotone, along with what sounds like exhalations from men who’ve burned their tongues with hasty spoonfuls of hot soup, Rahman belts out this perfect anthem for our dispossessed times.

25. Kaalayil dhinamum (New, 2004): Because it’s really tough to craft odes to motherhood without coming off sappy or overearnest or just plain creepy. Rahman’s elegantly sinuous melody is roughened up a little, given a bit of texture by Unnikrishnan’s little-boy whine, and the effect is just right for a movie about a man-child.

26. Rasiya (Mangal Pandey, 2005): Because this musical equivalent of a heaving bosom is a tragically underrated song in a tragically underrated soundtrack. Of course, the picturisation didn’t help. The gypsies writhing around a makeshift campfire seemed to suggest that this number is simply about sex, when it’s actually about something far more thrilling: passion.

27. Bangari marori (Water, 2005): Because it’s the quietest of songs I’ve heard in recent times. Sukhwinder Singh tones down his characteristic energy to infuse this number with the spirit of prayer, despite the Radha-Krishna shringar-ras imagery, and Rahman graciously recedes so far into the background, it’s as if the song weren’t formed so much as found.

28. Khoon chala (Rang De Basanti, 2006): Because its initial piano runs remind me of what would result if Billy Joel flew down to Bollywood. (They’re just a musical hop-step-jump away from Don’t Ask Me Why.) The conversational nature of the opening verse deepens as a mournful cello makes itself felt, and by the closing crescendos, you’re not sure whether to be sad at the blood being shed or happy that it’s being shed for a cause.

29. New York nagaram (Sillunu Oru Kaadhal, 2006): Because it’s got to be one of the most stylish, least sentimental boy-misses-girl ballads ever. From the masterful use of the female backup singers to the soulful sax interludes, not a thing is out of place. The only discordant note came from seeing it on screen.

30. Ae hairat-e-aashiqui (Guru, 2007): Because it brings back a long-ago era where passion meant poetry, poetry meant passion. Full of inspired touches like a very local dam tara chorus exchanging notes with a free-flowing Euro-accordion, this is Rahman’s contribution to the contention that few things in life are as satisfying as a beautifully composed love song.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express