Between Reviews: Music Musings

Posted on October 25, 2008


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OCT 26, 2008 – EVEN IF I DIDN’T KNOW THAT AR RAHMAN was behind the album for Subhash Ghai’s upcoming Yuvvraaj, a glance at the track listing would have prompted me to pick it up instantly, if only for these seven words in unholy communion: Salman Khan with the Fifth of Beethoven. How can anyone not want to see what this is about, this musical analogue of Govinda starring in a film by Satyajit Ray? The piece (titled Main hoon Yuvvraaj) kicks off with the famously dramatic four-note fortissimo phrase, played twice, and then Salman’s voice – affected and accented as ever – chimes in, first to introduce himself as the eponymous character, and later to request the composer’s forgiveness. “Maaf karna Beethoven saab,” he simpers, “they think I’m a bad guy. Yeah right, I am a bad guy.” There. If you were wondering how Ghai was planning to bounce back into big-budget filmmaking after the earth-shattering bomb that was Kisna, it’s by placing a Hindi actor with a faux American twang in the middle of the work of a German composer interpreted by a Tamil music director. How’s that for Bollywood going global?

Main hoon Yuvvraaj is just the starter, it would appear – a sampler morsel of the delectable East-meets-Western Classical feast to follow. But as of this writing, my stomach is still rumbling – even after a couple of passes through the entire album. The initial impressions are that the songs feel too fussed over – too much icing, not enough cake. Rahman is a composer who can sound “different” in his sleep, but here it appears that he’s trying to be different, that the attempt to be different is no longer unconscious and organic but a product of the wielded will – and the effort shows. In Tu meri dost hai, soaring lines of melody swoop down startlingly in the first antara, as if suddenly experiencing the effects of gravity, or else, as in the second antara, they seem to have their course rerouted by a sly tonic shift. The results are interesting to note but hardly ingratiating. Tu muskura is the album’s loveliest tune, but it rests on an alarmingly monotonous rhythm section powered by a tinkly-tambourine synth. And for all its tragic aspirations, Zindagi has the weight of spun sugar, harking back to Rahman’s early years with vaguely pleasant pop ballads that vanished like vapour even while you were listening to them.

The anthemic Dil ka rishta, the playful Mastam mastam (which sounds like a composite of Rahman’s own I am sorry and Alle alle from One Two Ka Four), the dance-ready Shano shano – these did nothing for me at all, and what saved the album single-handedly was Manmohini morey. This is one of those classical tunes dressed up in western clothes – like Alaipaayuthe kanna, from Alaipaayuthe, where Rahman retained the traditional tune of the Oothukkadu Venkata Subbier composition, but tweaked the background ever-so-slightly to render it contemporary. Even the synth stylings that cocoon the composition are entirely one with this piece, not merely backdrop but backbone. There’s not much in terms of lyrics here – and the words that open the song, Lat uljhi suljhaa jaa re baalam, have been rendered earlier on stage and in film by the likes of Noor Jahan and Pandit Jasraj – but what few lines there are, Gulzar imbues with the kind of erotic imagery he reserves for Rahman. (Their earlier collaboration, Jiya jale, spoke similarly of the aftermath of lovemaking. And speaking of Gulzar, this has got to be one of his least characteristic efforts – “pairon mein paatal hai” in one of the songs was the closest I got to a fingerprint.)

I know what you’re going to say – that this is Rahman, that you need time and patience and trust and devotion, and then the songs will slowly-but-surely grow on you. While all of this is certainly possible – translation: I haven’t given up on Yuvvraaj yet – I wonder why it is that Rahman is the only composer to whose music this logic is so consistently applied, at least in the reviews of his new albums. Music is the most abstract of arts, and the way I see it, there’s no telling at what point a composition will choose to reveal its beauties to you – and this is true of every musician, not just Rahman. Besides, where do you draw the line? Imagine the flip side, wherein you listen to the songs so many times that you don’t grow to like them so much as get used to them, like how you get used to living with a person who’s all wrong for you simply because, over time, you become immune to those wrongs. Of course, you could say – as I do – that you don’t give every musician this kind of benefit of the doubt. You reserve this consideration only for those like Rahman, who’ve proved themselves in the past (which may be terribly unfair to newer composers whose songs don’t grab you at first listen, but that’s just the way it is).

That I’ll buy – because Rahman deserves this singling out, this special treatment. But what I don’t agree with is that he is the first and the last composer in whose work you need to invest a significant time commitment – because sometimes songs give you that aha! moment after years. One of Ilayaraja’s most successful soundtracks, Karagattakaran, was released in the late eighties, and the song that I almost always glossed over was the one sung by the maestro himself, Paattaale buthi sonnaar. It’s as smoothly constructed a composition as any of his, but given that he was singing it (like he did so many songs of the era), I’d forward quickly to Maanguyile poonguyile or (my personal favourite) Indha maan. But a few months ago, I was walking to the post office listening to this album and this song came on, and I literally stopped in my tracks. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ilayaraja is no longer in favour and this lends a special poignancy to the lyrics that talk of appeasing numerous fans through his songs (as long as they want him to), or perhaps it’s that he no longer sings the title song of every goddamn movie and therefore that fatigue factor is no longer there and we’re free to listen to just the moving music – but my eyes misted up that instant, and as if an eclipse had cleared, I saw for the first time the luminous beauty of the song. And – talk about time – it only took me twenty years.

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