The Rahman Effect

Posted on October 8, 2011


After nearly 20 years in the business, is the Mozart of Madras likely to be concerned by the reactions to ‘SuperHeavy’ and ‘Rockstar’? We think not.

The latter days of September were an important time for AR Rahman. No, scratch that. They would have been an important time for AR Rahman had he not been ushered into cinema, nearly twenty years go, with a gilt-edged invitation from one of our most celebrated filmmakers; had he not won a National Award for that stratospherically successful score; had he not, like no film composer before or since, straddled the chasm that cleaved the musical ethos of the northern and southern halves of the country; had he not gone on to sell millions upon millions of albums; had he not ventured outside Indian cinema and scored for international theatrical productions and Hollywood films and come away clutching Grammies and Oscars; had he not become the musician sought out to add a splash of showmanship to somber occasions like White House state dinners and Nobel Peace Prize concerts.

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Had that AR Rahman existed – in a parallel dimension, alongside a swarthy struggler named Rajinikanth and an economic underachiever named China – he might have been found mopping a clammy forehead in a darkened corner, awaiting the world’s verdict on two fiercely anticipated albums. The first, named SuperHeavy, reached US stores (or should we say, today, “became available for download”?) on September 20; the second, the soundtrack for Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar, arrived ten days later. That AR Rahman, the parallel-dimension AR Rahman, would have withered under the coolly unsparing assessment, by international publications, of the eponymous first album of the group where he breathes rarefied air alongside Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Damian Marley and Dave Stewart. The New York Times labelled him a purveyor of “goopy synthesizer passages.” Rolling Stone appraised his function in the supergroup with the vaguest of generalisations, as someone “adding Bollywood flair.” They might just as well have called him the token Third World presence.

The real Rahman, I suspect, is emphatically unconcerned – about the initial reactions to SuperHeavy, about the furiously multiplied expectations from Rockstar that no earthly album can possibly fulfill (though early raves from fans suggest that the portals to heaven have been breached), and about what the month of September means to his career. This lack of concern is partly a function of the Sufi-Zen calm that the composer wears like a second skin. But it is also a fact that his career has been – and continues to be, like no one else’s – strikingly impervious to hits and flops and how we complain about the music when it comes out and how we sigh, time and again, that he’s lost his magic. It appears that in his case – and only his case – we have united in a countrywide pact to look forward, to the ways he can delight us, and not backward, on the ways he’s disappointed us. This has never happened before with an Indian composer.

There are, of course, conspicuous exceptions, but the story of the Indian film composer generally follows a hidebound script. He struggles during a period no one knows his name. He delivers that first hit and finds everyone smiling unctuously at his doorstep. The years in between, the years of crushing anonymity, have created a vacuum inside and he strives to fill this emptiness, this loss of a sense of self and security, by signing every offer that comes his way. He sticks to the industry that finally opened its doors upon his persistent knocking and shone a spotlight on him, and even if he strays outside for the odd collaboration he returns to his roots. He rarely steps across languages and styles and genres because he knows what his producers want and what his listeners want and what will vault his songs to the top of the charts, and whenever he chafes, inwardly, about being typecast, he remembers a past filled with struggle and a present glutted with comforts. He is like the Indians of the pre-liberalisation era, who were grateful for opportunities and knew that boats weren’t meant to be rocked and taught themselves to be happy with what they got.

Rahman, on the other hand, is like the global Indian who emulates American kids finishing school and taking a year off to backpack around Europe while pondering upon what they want to do in life, or middle-aged parents who forsake successful careers and enroll in college to pursue long-cherished degrees alongside friends of their mortified children. Rahman’s choices – the music he creates, the people he collaborates with, the projects he chooses – reflect not the steady reassurance of the done thing, the viable thing for long-term survival, but the adrenalised excitement of what he really wants to do at that instant. That’s perhaps what we respect, what we respond to and look forward to, and that’s perhaps why we never give up on him, because he marches to the beat of his own drummer and we wish we could do the same in our lives and be rewarded with the same successes. With other musicians, we feel we have the upper hand. We can bestow on their works pleasure or supercilious disdain and we can change, on a capricious dime, the course of their careers. But with Rahman, we have trained ourselves to be indulgent, even if we suspect that he is never going to give us an album that we take to instantly, and even if we fear that we are going to rush out in droves to purchase our copies of Rockstar only to register the initial response of bemusement.

That, after all, is how we reacted to Jhootha Hi Sahi, Rahman’s last soundtrack, which was released almost exactly a year ago, in the September of 2010. In the interim – after repeated listens, after patient hours and months devoted to chiseling away at its impenetrability – it has neither spawned belated hit singles nor has it ripened into a connoisseur’s cult item. But that hasn’t impacted a whit the frenzied expectations for Rockstar, which has just been released as of this writing. Will it rocket to instant immortality, like the sublime soundtrack for Delhi-6? Will it fail to take off, like Jhootha Hi Sahi? Will it hover in between, like an anxious aircraft circling the skies awaiting permission to land? It doesn’t matter. We will soon begin speculations about what lies ahead of Rockstar, which is why these latter days of September were of scant concern to AR Rahman.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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