‘What else can I do?’

Posted on May 2, 2013


AR Rahman isn’t in the mood to talk about his music for ‘Maryan,’ but about everything else he’s happy to hold forth.

AR Rahman seems to like having his picture taken. He’s seated at the edge of a couch in one of the many small office rooms at his Kodambakkam studio, and the harsh lights bouncing off the walls are heating up an already sultry summer evening. But he’s smiling. He’s dressed up for the occasion in a discreetly embroidered maroon kurta and a stole tossed around his neck. As the photographers begin to wrap up, I remark to him that he seems quite composed under the circumstances. He says this is easy. He’s prepared for it. What’s difficult is when people pop up with photo requests when he’s at the airport or at an event or entering a place of worship for prayer. He laughs that laugh that hasn’t changed in the twenty-plus years we’ve known him, that high-pitched giggle that suggests a little boy who’s gotten away with mischief or a grown man still rubbing his eyes that his every dream has come true. It’s likely the latter.

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The other thing that hasn’t changed is his equanimity about everything under the sun. He speaks of an early song which drew negative comments about his voice from the first few listeners. They said that the way he sang Mustafa, that had emotion. Here, he was just shouting. But when he played the song to Deepa Mehta, she wept. He wonders what it is that triggers some people’s emotions while others are blind to it. His conclusion: if there’s honesty in something, it works. That’s why, he feels, Iranian singer Alaa Wardi’s a cappella rendition of Pehla nasha went viral. If Wardi had gone to a T-Series or a Magnasound in an earlier decade, they’d have said the Indian audience wouldn’t like it. He says we all start judging what is right or wrong, and sometimes we can’t think beyond “you won’t be a hit” or “your voice won’t fit.” We like to box things into slots. We are all human. (That laugh again.) But now, with the Internet and all, it’s opened up. It’s like, let people make the judgment.

He admits there’s a negative side to the Internet. There’s so much bathroom writing, he says. If you take a story about any personality and see the comments below, it’s unacceptable. And nobody is punished. When you have faith, you say “I can’t do this because God is watching.” But here they get away with anything. The world opening up has actually been a problem, he says, because there are too many directions – you can get confused, you can get lost. And the crash of CD sales happened in this era. The consumption of music is much more, but musicians get paid much less. But there are always two sides to things, he says, and you can make any negative thing a positive too. He met Pandit Ravi Shankar in London and asked him to play for Maa Tujhe Salaam, the slow version. But the maestro didn’t believe in it, thinking it was something of a sacrilege. So they went another way, using a saxophone to play the melody. That forced us to think differently, he says. Hence the credo: anything can be turned into a positive.

After all he’s achieved, what makes him get out of bed to work? What makes him say yes to a project? He says it’s his mortgages and lets loose a howl of laughter. Collecting himself, he says he wants the experience to be pleasing and open. When you just do things for the sake of doing your work, it shows. It becomes boring for everyone, even his own team, if he’s not allowed to explore different directions, given the limitations. And the talk finally turns to Bharatbala’s Maryan, the reason for this interview. I ask him what those limitations are and he says that the story is set in Africa, which is something new for him. So automatically his sensibilities have to open up and make him say “What else can I do? How can I gravitate towards something I would like and what people will accept?” He talks of the director’s visionary ideas – a bearded Bharatbala, in mustard-yellow pants and a black shirt, is a silent observer in the room’s far corner – but he won’t talk about the music, which he feels should be heard, not spoken about. All he’ll say is that it’s simple and appealing.

There’s another reason he’s reluctant to talk about his work in isolation, and that’s his belief that the film has triggered the music. He needs to give fifty per cent of the credit to the film, because without the film, without the script, without the director’s inputs, the music wouldn’t have existed. In a way, if a listener enjoyed anything of the music, it is because of the movie. And it doesn’t matter if the film succeeds or fails. These days, he says, a film’s success is not limited to one release. Three years later, people may wake up to it. He gives the example of Iruvar, when some fans asked him how he could make such bad music, especially compared to his score for Muthu. When you accept praise, he says, you also have to accept blame. I attempt to steer the conversation to Maryan again. This time, I refer to the director’s admission, earlier, that this was a film with fifty per cent less dialogue than the average Tamil movie. Surely this would mean more scoring. He says he’s still doing the background and that it’s going to be a lot of work. This is how musicians build a brick wall.

Another film that’s been in the news, again starring Dhanush, is Anand L Rai’s Raanjhanaa – it’s trailer just came out. Do new filmmakers, given his stature, feel free to tell him what they really want? Of course, he says. Abbas Tyrewala would reject every tune of his, and that’s what he wants. That’s what makes the interaction worthwhile, otherwise he’d keep doing the same thing. The directors’ choices, he says, make his soundtrack unique, and that’s why he likes working with different filmmakers, so that a different side of him comes out each time. And yet, there are filmmakers who keep coming back to him – like Shankar, whose I marks the duo’s twentieth year of collaboration. Shankar, he says, carries the burden of always having to be successful and needs a lot of convincing, so it’s really challenging to work with him. He recalls spending over an hour talking to the filmmaker about Sahana, the song from Sivaji, saying that it would work.

Shankar’s worries are valid, he feels, because of this age we live in, this age of inattentiveness, of distraction, this age of too much content. He recalls watching a symphony and falling asleep when it got too repetitive. He fell asleep again during a small lull in the second half of Oz the Great and Powerful. As a composer, he says, he constantly has to keep thinking about those guys who are saturated with content. He was in Berlin some time ago, and he heard someone scream out that they loved Sheela Chandra, the English pop singer of Indian descent. This, he says, wouldn’t have happened without the Internet’s ability to disseminate all kinds of music. And we’re back to this era’s freedoms, where people are not forced by this channel or that one to listen to specific content. I try to get something about Maryan one last time, when Bharatbala steps in and says that the biggest thing was getting Yuvan Shankar Raja to sing for the album. Last night was when the song was recorded, and it was mixed at four in the morning, and the mastering engineer left at six. The hours, too, haven’t changed in these twenty-plus years.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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