AR Rahman: The Rolling Stone Interview

Posted on June 7, 2008


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He changed the face of film music. Now he’s changing the face of his music.

JUNE 2008 – THE MOST CELEBRATED MUSICAL ADDRESS in Chennai lies beyond a partly corroded gate whose colour has so far eluded consensus. It’s purple, said the first samaritan who attempted to guide me through the maze of bylanes that is this part of Kodambakkam. The second kind soul said lavender, and a third leaned towards mauve. Ten minutes later, standing in front of this entrance of apparently indeterminate hue, I decide to go with mauve. Mauve. It feels nice to roll around the tongue. It sounds sophisticated.

This mauve runs through the most unexpected spaces in Allah Rakha Rahman’s recording studio. It’s on the borders of the doors in the waiting room, doors whose signs indicate that they open out to Studio 3 and Studio 2. (Studio 1 is invisible from where I sit.) It’s on the ceiling, on the yards of gauzy material diffusing the light from lamps overhead. It’s on the fabric of the ergonomic chair in front of the keyboard behind me, a Fender Rhodes Mark II Seventy Three Stage Piano. Perhaps Rahman will complete the theme. Perhaps it’ll be on his person when he walks in.

But Rahman enters in a maroon kurta that’s as rumpled as the hair on that boyish face. Once you’ve sold over a hundred million albums worldwide, you can apparently dispense with combs. And hearty pleasantries. The mumbled greeting almost doesn’t make it, fighting its way out through a smog of sleep.

Rahman looks as if he’s just woken up. Considering it’s fourteen minutes past six – that’s PM, for the uninitiated – he probably has, after a gruelling night of recording. As he leads the way to Studio 3, a cascade of sound crashes through the so-far-silent waiting room. An assistant emerges from behind a door, perhaps the door to the mysterious Studio 1. It closes behind him and locks out the music that has lingered just so long as to tease. So much for wanting to brag about bearing witness to an AR Rahman work-in-progress.

As he opens the door to Studio 3, it’s clear that the only recording that’s possible here is on my Dictaphone. This is just a cubbyhole. There’s a table. A couple of swivel chairs. Hardly the dizzying array of musical geegaws I imagined. Rahman picks a chair and arranges himself in a pose that a yoga instructor would describe as the lotus position with one dangling limb. The homey posture adds to the disquieting impression that the real Rahman is going to stride in any time, boot this happy pretender out and take over his seat, one imperious leg crossed over the other.

But this is the real Rahman opposite me, barreling through the conversation with fragments of sentences – phrases, really – as if he’d long ago realised that fully-articulated declarations had a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with his thoughts. Between these phrases, Rahman pauses a lot. He also laughs a lot. It’s a nice, open sound that makes you think he’s dropping his guard. Then the laugh dies away, and so does the presumption.

Rahman is especially guarded about revealing his feelings about that morning’s big news. The Madras High Court had dismissed the public interest litigation against him (for disrespecting the national anthem in his album Jana Gana Mana, an in-spirit follow-up to Vande Mataram). “I think, me being patriotic and all,” he begins, and instantly changes his mind. “But don’t. That’s already done.”

A microsecond of an internal struggle later, he realises he wants to talk about it after all. “I knew that it would be over. After all, the President released it. And he can’t be wrong.” That open laugh again. Then a pause, followed by a platitude. “I think it’s good that people raise questions and that they are answered in the right way.”

I wonder if this generosity towards people raising questions extends to interviewers. I may already know the answer, but Rahman, to his credit, at least makes the attempt to meet me halfway. He doesn’t mind interviews, “But only selectively. Otherwise I feel very naked. I feel I’ve given everything away, all the information away.” It sounds like a new admission, but it’s the old celebrity dilemma: you want to reach out to your adoring public, and you still want your privacy.

That’s the thing about being in the limelight: there are no shadows to hide in. And this year, especially, has been an extremely visible one for Rahman. It began with a critically-adored hit (Guru) and went on to a critic-proof blockbuster (Sivaji: The Boss) – though Rahman himself may have been overly critical about his work in the latter.

He’s usually happy with the final product he delivers, and even if there are problems, “We usually have enough time to fix things.” But after finishing Adhiradee, the song that he sang, he never liked it. “The director [Shankar] could imagine it, but I could never get the picture he had in mind. But when I saw it, I was blown. He had taken it to some other level.”

There. In his own words. The Mozart of Madras all but wolf-whistling over a Rajinikanth music video. But Rahman makes no apologies about the commercial aspect of his art. “Hit music is important for a mainstream film. It helps you get a good opening. And as an artist, I am happy when people say this is the highest selling album. I am really happy about it because we worked so hard on it – not only me, but the whole team.”

It’s hard to begrudge Rahman his little-boy delight over an album that’s far from his best, especially in light of the fate that befell some of the other, better work. “There was so much stuff in Bose, so much energy and thought. But the producers didn’t release it properly and it suffered a great deal.”

That’s a rare controversial statement – an accusation, practically. And yet, there was a silver lining, a light at the end of the tunnel, whatever you want to call it. “I went to a restaurant in San Francisco. This Iranian lady came to me and said: ‘You are AR Rahman.’ I said yes. She said: ‘Oh we love your Zikr in Bose. It’s so famous in Iran.’ I never expected that.”

Delayed recognition is not new to Rahman, for each release of his goes through a familiar two-step programme: (a) derisive dismissal, followed by (b) inevitable capitulation after multiple listens, reinforcing the urban legend that His Songs Take Time To Grow On You. Rahman, at first, gets defensive. “When we do a song, the director listens to it thousands of times, and only when everyone likes it, we go ahead.” The song goes through a filter. There’s already some kind of assurance there. “So when people react negatively, we have to wait for three weeks, because we know that the song works (or doesn’t work).”

But Rahman understands. After all, he’s been through the same cycle with that other King of Pop. “I used to wait for Michael Jackson’s albums, and the very first time, I used to say: Oh, I don’t like any of the songs.” Three days later, he’d find that a song was actually good. Then he’d watch the videos, and yet another one would become an earworm. Finally, all the songs would make it to the list. “Because so much hard work goes into an album, and when something is new, you can’t judge it. The expectations are too high.”

They still are – with each project Rahman takes on. “There is always this question: ‘How can I do this best?’ I’ve never ever thought, let me just do a fast job.” The prospect of Rahman rolling up his sleeves for a “fast job” would no doubt be sweet music to a producer’s ears, sweeter even than the songs being created. “But I have never looked at music in any other way. Whatever goes out of my studio is precious. I tell this to my staff also. It has to be so precious that substandard stuff will never go out.”

And then, a dash of practicality to temper this perfectionist streak. “Beyond that, we can’t help it.” Because there’s only so much you can do, especially while working on big, international projects like Shekhar Kapur’s Golden Age (with Scottish composer Craig Armstrong), when it’s very difficult to switch to something else. I think he means masala-movie music. And despite this focus, despite this variety, when people don’t seem to get it, it rankles. “I’m always asked why my music sounds repetitive. And I ask: ‘What sounds repetitive?’ If you have a point, prove it and I can correct my mistake.”

Perhaps being tired of being all things to all people, Rahman tries to satisfy himself now. “At first, it used to be about being faithful to the director’s vision.” Then he found that some filmmakers are not connected to the audience. And after all these years and all this experience, “I can spot something and say: ‘You can’t put a song here. It won’t work.’ And most of the time, my predictions have been right.”

Sometimes, it goes beyond predictions. Sometimes, Rahman doesn’t even take on a project, “Because people have their lens on me so much, it will kill the movie. If it’s a small movie, and you put this name on it, they go there expecting the sky.”

There’s just no stopping Rahman, now that he’s gotten started about criticism. He attacks that other accusation often levelled at him – that he works out of one of India’s most well equipped and advanced recording studios, that he’s nothing without his technology, that older composers were not such slaves to gadgetry.

“I’ve played in that era. I’ve done arrangements in that era. I used to record in mono – and if one person made a mistake, we all had to play all over again.” He thinks, for their time, they were the best, Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy and KV Mahadevan. He’s a big fan. “But they always say that old wine is better than new wine, so we should wait for this wine to become old,” he laughs.

The musician as patient vintner. It’s a rich metaphor, though one somewhat ironic – for Rahman’s is the rare instance of a fairly young wine being toasted on platforms of rare vintage, like the London stage. There was, however, a period of maturation before Bombay Dreams could be uncorked.

“Shekhar [Kapur] and I were trying to work on a musical called Tara Rum Pum Pum.” They worked for a couple of years. They finished a lot of numbers. Then Shekhar had this huge opportunity of doing Elizabeth and he had to leave. “It was frustrating, but I realised how important it was for him to become big. So I didn’t care about losing those ten numbers.”

“I think he probably felt something,” Rahman smiles, speculating that his successful international foray owed as much to his own gifts as someone else’s guilty conscience. “He met Andrew Lloyd Webber and everything happened.” That was his biggest gamble, Rahman feels, going for Bombay Dreams and leaving all his work here. “It took two to three years. But I think the gamble was good, not only for me but for Asians there – for India I would say. It raised a lot of questions about us. I would say it gave me an address.”

If the bag-and-baggage relocation left Rahman with insecurities about rivals encroaching on his turf, he dismisses the notion with a philosophical shrug. (Though, truth be told, a philosophical shrug is how Rahman dismisses pretty much everything. These are possibly the limberest shoulders in musicdom.)

“I think the competition is within myself. There’s so much you could do, but because of the time factor and other things, if you think of 100%, you deliver 30%.” So he never thinks of others as competition. At least, he tries not to. “Because I believe that my share is defined by God. And that’s what I’m getting. So even if I want to do 30 movies, I can’t because it’s not my share. Unlike earlier, when a composer was in the limelight, he used to take all the movies and even when somebody wanted to go to another person, he would say: ‘No, no, don’t go. I’ll do it for less.’ I don’t need that.”

Is he talking about… Could he be referring to… I guess we’ll never know. You don’t get to complete an interview by asking these things midway. “Anyway, it’s a great time to be a composer. We’re all enjoying extraordinary comforts. Never before have we had this kind of exposure. Even the small composers, if they do good work, they are celebrated because of the music.”

RAHMAN’S FIRST MEMORY OF MUSIC is listening to RK Sekhar’s songs. That was his father, who composed and arranged music for Malayalam films. “Apart from that, the records that he owned. Osibisa. Jim Reeves. Switched-On Bach.” He’s just picked up on something. “You’re trying to relate all this to my music now, aren’t you?” The unspoken question that hovers, however, is this: Is there anyone who wouldn’t make the connection between childhood memories of Bach being played on a Moog synthesiser and the instant-recall image of Rahman smiling, a keyboard beside him?

Rahman realises this. He continues. “Those days, we never had good records. There was this shop in Bangalore where they would record onto cassettes. All musicians, whenever we’d go to Bangalore, we’d take a day off, go to the shop and record music. Chick Corea and Vangelis and Dave Grusin.” History and Science and Math, inevitably, came a distant second. Just how distant, you ask? “If you take a class of fifty, there was no rank for me.”

“But,” he quickly explains – perhaps realising that this admission will ensure that slacking students everywhere are going to worship at the shrine of AR Rahman – “it was because I used to work side by side.” (Rahman’s father passed away early, leaving his son the responsibility of caring for the family.) “Setting up stuff, playing for Wonder Balloon on TV – all this meant taking leave.”

And yet, Rahman never dreamed of becoming a musician. There was no dressing up in rock-star duds and playing in front of a mirror over the screams of millions of imaginary fans. “I could never see myself performing. Even today, when I have an interview, when my wife switches the TV on, I’ve trained my daughter to switch it off.”

The irony of such self-effacement in a career that routinely requires him to perform on stage, in front of thousands, doesn’t escape him. “But I don’t like to watch myself,” he persists. “I think it’s something in the imagination… That is something else and what I see is something else.”

But he doesn’t mind hearing himself sing. “That’s okay.” A rapid dot-connecting exercise results in a hazy theory: maybe he’s just more into sound than visuals. “My main interest was electronics, hardware, that kind of stuff. That’s because we had so much stuff. I was fascinated with it.” Yes. He’s definitely more into sound than visuals.

“The most important person for us at the time was the hardware engineer.” This guy called Raghavan. If something went wrong, they’d go stand at his doorstep. “He was the only person who could fix everything.” Including a temperamental rhythm box – a contraption with a row of buttons titled Rock and Jazz and such, which made up the percussion section of Rahman’s one-man shows.

“I’d be playing, and suddenly only noise would come out of it.” A quick call to Raghavan would ensure that Rahman never missed a beat. “He was a hardworking guy. Always used to work at nights.” But if those nocturnal visits are responsible for Rahman’s now-renowned practice, of composing during hours where the only other people at work are at call-centres servicing American clients, he isn’t telling. “That’s because of… other things.”

Raghavan was eventually nudged out by Roger Waters, when Rahman’s classmates roped him into a band for inter-school cultural competitions. “These guys introduced me to rock and Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. Before that, I was playing mainly the compositions of my master Nityanandam. And film songs.” Some five years after the high-school headbanging came Roots, the band Rahman formed with musicians like Sivamani and John Anthony and Jojo and Raja. “After we went through this big journey of rock and pop, we thought we’d do our own thing. I got my sequencing gear. We composed pieces.”

Not songs. Pieces. “It was more experimental, actually, but also Indian. It was my influences at that time.” Rahman hesitates to use the dreaded F-word to describe this music. “But yes. That was the height of fusion – around 1987-88, when L Shankar asked us to back his band, Epidemics.”

They had just a couple of performances, one in Bangalore, one in Chennai. But this experience helped in terms of exposure to a new way of thinking, a new way of preparation for a concert, and about how serious it was to be a professional. “It led us to good things.” But what led Shankar to Rahman, that’s still not clear. “He claims he was my neighbour in Mylapore, when I was very young.”

Roots was only half as successful as Epidemics, winding up with a grand total of one performance. “At IIT-Madras… no, Anna University, I guess.” There was no time for an encore, once Rahman gave up the stage for the studios. “I became an arranger. I used to work in Bangalore a lot, for [the composer] Vijay Anand.”

Steady work. Steady money. A sandbox filled with big-studio technology. To the ears of a great many struggling musicians, the situation would have translated to a Puccini aria. Rahman, however, heard only discordant notes. “It was frustrating. It was only film music. To liberate yourself from this and go to another space was impossible. A normal person would never relate to what we wanted to play.”

Even if there’s a bit of a whine there – the whine of a kid picking at a full plate of food when there are millions starving in Ethiopia – it’s hard not to empathise. We are, after all, talking about a time when jobless thirtysomethings mooching off retired parents with a foot in the grave were accorded more respect than an I-want-to-change-the-world musician. Rahman himself felt that by not giving in to peer pressure, by not becoming a CA or an engineer, “I’ve missed out on something great. I thought I was going to suffer in the future.” So much for crystal gazing.

That insecurity could be why Rahman surrounded himself with musician friends: a group of get-no-respects. “I just have two or three guys,” he says, of friends who opted for more conventional careers. “They’re all doing well. One is in Microsoft.” But if there was any longing about trading the synthesiser for a keyboard, it was only Rahman’s. No one at home cared.

“My mother had this killer instinct that I should become a musician,” he laughs. Rahman still harboured hopes of scraping through a correspondence course, “But I could never do it.” He feels that’s why he’s slow in a lot of things. “When I write emails, I manage just one word or two words.” Clearly, even artists acknowledged as genius-in-their-lifetime are entitled to petulance over the inadequacy of their electronic communication.

The bad rap that musicians got – the Scarlet M, if you will – kept eating away at Rahman. “I wanted to set another example, to show that not all musicians are… like that,” he says, explaining away “that” as booze-swilling, babe-hounding bohemians. “When I was playing (the keyboard) for Ilayaraja, I realised he was not that kind of guy. He used to be a saint, sitting there and creating great music. So the image of a musician at the time, in inverted commas, was completely different from what I saw. That was a great thing.”

Greater things were in store. “When I was playing with Ilayaraja, I met this amazing keyboard player, Viji Manuel.” Manuel composed jingles, and he asked Rahman to assist him and programme for him. Then a filmmaker from Kerala, Isaac Thomas, gave Rahman a jingle to compose. “That was the first one, I think, for a colour lab.” It takes a little imagining, that the go-to guy for the soundtrack of every single prestige production today was once toiling away at background scores that could be zapped away with an unceremonious flick of the remote control – but as they say, the journey of a thousand miles often begins with a single 30-second ad.

That ad was for Allwyn Trendy watches. Rajiv Menon, who made the commercial, recalls that he first heard of Rahman – then known as Dilip, before his conversion to Islam – during an earlier assignment for Harvest rice bran oil. “We wanted to show a plate splitting, and we wanted a particular kind of sound – a breaking and splitting apart sound.” Someone told him about this whiz kid with sound effects technology. The rest was the beginning of history. The plate broke and split apart as no plate had broken and split apart in advertising.

Less destructive – but no less influential in furthering the early-Rahman legend – was the commercial for Leo Coffee, made by Sharada and Trilok of Trish Productions. They started out in 1987 and were asked to do a public service film for drug abuse in their very first year of operation.

“Someone suggested a young, new musician called Dilip,” says Sharada. “We fixed up the recording, and in came this tiny guy accompanied by loads of equipment, who talked nonstop and knew more tech specs on sound than the recordist.” Rahman delivered a track that was outstanding and the film won them many awards. “After that, we worked together on over a hundred ads.”

“Mani Ratnam is my cousin and would often ask me who did a particular track for an ad. Trilok and I would keep telling him to check out Dilip sometime.” Once, after a recording, they were heading out to see the first copy of [Mani Ratnam’s] Thalapathi, and Dilip asked if he could come too. He met Mani that evening. Mani called Sharada the next day to ask if he could listen to Dilip’s work, and Trilok took him across to the studio. “Mani called Dilip a day later,” – Rahman remembers it as “two weeks later” – “and offered him Roja.” There it is. The story behind the creation of a new musical universe – in one small paragraph.

Roja came out in 1992 and – despite Rahman’s assertion that “they didn’t like it instantly” – the album’s trajectory on the music charts was not unlike that of a Diwali rocket escaping its cloudy bottle. That, however, may not be the most appropriate of analogies, given the circumstances of the time.

“Around then, after my studio was done, my way of thinking, my philosophy – everything changed. I got spiritually influenced by Sufism. It was not ‘I am going to do this piece’ or ‘I am going to compose’ anymore. I nullified my ego and was waiting for spiritual inspiration.” Sharada adds, “Almost towards the end of composing for Roja, he told us he would like his name to be AR Rahman in the titles.”

Rahman has, at various times, discussed this issue of conversion to another religion, stressing on the death of his father and the miraculous recovery of a sister from a serious illness. But at this moment, he doesn’t want to talk about it. “It happened. I am here,” is all he’ll allow, a sliver of minimalistic poetry couching a larger philosophy.

He is, however, far more forthcoming about the tenet of Tauheed that he was attracted to. “It says that God is One. The ultimate love, you give to God. And because of that love, you have to love other people. Because everybody is His creation.” This road to virtue, inevitably, necessitated a full stop to vice. “I was probably drinking at the time. Beer and all that stuff. All that stopped.”

THERE WAS SOMETHING ELSE AT WORK during Roja. This was, finally, a shot at freedom from anonymity, a passport to recognition. “I realised that it was not worth it doing commercials alone. You’re working so hard, but in front of the people, you’re nothing.” The movies didn’t exactly seem a cure for this existential malaise, because Rahman hated the films of the time. The only person he admired was Mani Ratnam. “And when I got the chance of working with him, it was, again, divine intervention. Once I got to know him as a person, I felt there was something special happening here.”

Rahman had to leave all his other work to get into what he calls the mind-frame of his new project. “I had to leave my film playing. I had to leave commercials. It was not easy because I used to get paid quite a lot of money at that time.” And Roja didn’t pay much. “The money which I got for six months’ work was what I used to earn in a day.” Still, a few freewheeling conversations with his inner voice convinced Rahman that he had to do this.

“Something inside told me that without sacrifices, nothing can come. You can’t have everything.” On the other hand, you can be left with nothing. That’s what it seemed like when Rahman handed in his tunes to the director. “He never reacts instantly. He just organically waits till something goes into him.” And two weeks later, when Rahman didn’t hear from Mani Ratnam, he thought, “Okay, that’s the end of it.” It was now going to be jingles all the way. And then – when he had lost all hope – he was told that his tunes had made the cut.

Fifteen years after Roja, Rahman finds that it hasn’t become any easier. “At that time, that sound was just mine. Now people are sharing that sound. So to do something is not just about a different sound anymore.” Also, during Roja, it was just stereo. “Now we need to think about 5.1, DTS, what comes out of this speaker, what comes out of that speaker – and still hold the song together.”

Hence the layering. Rahman’s compositions, over the years, have gotten more complex; where there were once various individual strands, these are now knotted into a dense skein. “That’s also because I have the option to work abroad. I can get the musicians I want. Like for Jaage hain from Bose, we used almost 130 people – an orchestra, a choir and all that.”

Rahman’s uniquely improvisatory way of creating music – layer by layer, block by block, as opposed to writing out the entire composition and then going about arranging it – is the stuff of myth now. But the way Rahman puts it, it’s the stuff of miracles. “Every time I sit for music, I try to destroy my ego. At the same time, I have a sense of pride, that if I do something, it has to be good. It’s unnerving. It’s a paradox. It humbles you – and you wait for the intervention of God. You say: Give me a tune please. I need to make this work.”

This channel of communication, unsurprisingly, works in mysterious ways. “Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake up, take a tape recorder and record a groove. Or just sitting somewhere, I get an idea.” Paathshala (from Rang De Basanti) was like that. The bursts of sound at the beginning came first. “CHAN… cha-cha-CHAN,” he sings. Then he goes to the studio and fine-tunes it.

Then again, maybe not. “Sometimes, you know it’s not happening, even if you sit there for hours. And you give up and say: when it happens, it happens.” This process can, of course, play havoc with film schedules. (Rumours have it that Rahman’s delays are behind Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar missing its release date this Id.) But Rahman says, “Well, they all know about my schedules. It’s not a bank job. We are all working towards something exciting. You make a movie over two years. So schedules can definitely be shifted around.”

Parents aren’t supposed to have favourites among their offspring, but Rahman’s eyes positively light up when he talks about Rang De Basanti. “Before Rang De Basanti, I was trying to balance my movies – from things like Bose or Swades to more commercial movies.” But all the commercial movies he signed got delayed, so what people heard was only Bose. And that was when Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra came in with yet another story involving freedom fighters. “I thought: I’ve already done Bose and The Legend of Bhagat Singh. So how do we make this different?”

By brainstorming a lot. “We made an effort to treat every situation differently. Like Sarfaroshi ki tamanna – it’s supposed to be the most ferocious anthem, and we did the opposite. We said: ‘Let’s make it sensuous. Let’s get Aamir Khan to do it.’ It was big energy, but an implosion rather than an explosion.” And when Madhavan dies, they tried to put another emotion parallel to that – a lullaby, so that people are not pushed to the edge.

“We said: ‘Every song should be a hit song.’ I know we say that for everything, but in this I think we were favoured by God.” The only apprehension that Rahman had was that Mehra never intended to shoot any of the songs in lip-sync, which would limit their association with a particular star during the television promos. “But the film was a great sensation, and all songs were accepted.”

So the process, apparently, is this: the tunes are a divine gift, which are then shaped by human hands. And ears. “When you are working with a team, they know exactly what to spot. What they want. So I don’t take the trouble of selecting the stuff. I just do the templates.” And if it so happens that the best template comes while servicing the worst director, then amen. So be it.

“I remember some of the more successful composers of the past, they would do twenty movies and they would just concentrate on the movies that they knew were going to work. For me, I say: ‘I sat with this guy and worked on this film. This is probably the most amazing tune this year, but God has given this tune for this guy.’ I should give it to him, even though I know he is going to destroy it for sure.” That’s his philosophy: never discriminate in art.

“Two or three years back, I was failing in my thinking. I used to think: ‘This is what Tamil audiences deserve. This is what Hindi audiences deserve.’ I became complacent because of the lack of time.” He was working mostly in the UK, on Bombay Dreams, and he was doing movies more for friendship than passion. This wasn’t the case earlier, when he composed the groundbreaking soundtracks whose tremors are felt to this day – Thiruda Thiruda and Bombay and Roja.

“When I did those, it used to be: Let’s push things to the extreme. Suddenly I wanted to do a theme like a Western classical piece. The Bombay theme. And I did it. Mani Ratnam did not expect it at all.” And now, that happy scenario is back. “A great piece of music is a great piece of music. Who cares if it’s Tamil or Hindi?”

But Rahman does care about a few other things, like being denied the music publishing rights, which is why he refused to compose for Farah Khan’s upcoming only-an-asteroid-hitting-the-earth-can-prevent-it-from-becoming-a-blockbuster, Om Shanti Om. “I was not speaking for myself alone, because I don’t care about money.”

And as if realising the incongruity of this statement from someone who reportedly gets paid in crores, Rahman corrects himself. “I care about money. But I don’t care about it, in another way. It was just that I needed to make a statement. I feel heartbroken when extraordinary artists go on the streets, begging. I’ve seen that happen. They’ve done their part, they’ve given stuff from their soul and they need to get what they deserve.”

And now some company has these rights – rights that should be shared with the musicians, the music composer, the lyricist. “The publishing rights are what give you that money. You never know what kind of media are going to come up and where music is going to be used. Ten years ago, who knew about ring tones? So why should musicians lose out? And anyway, it’s only a small window. When you’ve given five flops, nobody is going to come to you.”

This isn’t simply a matter of making hay during an equatorial noon. Rahman is almost as passionate about other issues that deprive musicians of their rightful due – issues like piracy. “I feel, if you can afford something, why not buy it? Okay, you downloaded it and listened to it. Make it a point then to go and buy the CD – because you’re supporting the artist and you’re supporting families who are involved in it.”

And yes, he speaks from personal experience, of being both pirate and penitent. “Suppose somebody is downloading something for me and making me listen to it, and if I enjoy it, I make sure I buy that CD and keep it at home, just as punishment – just as a feel-good factor for my conscience.”

The Om Shanti Om loss doesn’t rankle. Seriously. “Earlier, I used to be happy with just film music. It used to pay well. I used to get all the equipment I needed. But when things like 9/11 or Iraq happened, or even the bomb blasts in India, you find that the mind can do anything. And music is a power through which you can influence a mind. Music is one of the very few things that can give you hope.”

So, rather than giving statements in papers, Rahman chose a friendlier route – doing a song. “There are bigger problems in life. Let’s handle those instead of getting into petty fights that can hinder the progress of family or country.” Clearly, Om Shanti Om isn’t just a movie title anymore. It’s an existential mantra.

“The most exciting thing for me now is, instead of being commissioned by somebody, I commission myself.” Rahman is referring to his own label, KM Music, launched earlier this year. “I think I’m getting more guidance now. And I should use it. If I let it rust, it’s a waste for the community and for me. As long as I have that and I have the confidence, and as long as I am healthy, I want to carry on.”

Uh huh! Did he just admit to health worries, this boy-man without a streak of gray, without a line on his face? Looking at him, Rahmanesque could be how you describe the pinkness of health. “But I’m forty-and-a-half,” he says. “I’m not able to abuse my body as I used to – not sleeping continuously for three days, things like that. I fall ill the second day itself.”

And that’s a no-no, because it would interfere with daddy duties. “I’m trying to be a good father and a good musician. This is the time the kids are growing up. They’re asking loads of questions.” And if one of those questions is about what it feels like to be the first composer accepted all over India – north to south, east to west – he’d answer, “I think it’s a blessing.”

“Because there’s still a divide between north and south. You look at the Net and it’s really disgusting the way people talk to each other. ‘You southies are black and we are white.’ If you look at all that, people have been really kind in north India. Also, coming from a different community… Usually they say: ‘You’re a Muslim. You should change to a Hindu name.’ They’ve been allowing me to be myself. That’s fantastic.”

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