I candy

Posted on September 17, 2014

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Thoughts on AR Rahman’s gloriously fun and wholly individual soundtrack for the new Shankar film.

You know that familiar Tamil-cinema contrivance where a prisoner in handcuffs is being led away in a police van, and the van stops at a crossing, and the prisoner looks around furtively and sees a chance, and as the cops are looking the other way (or maybe after a scuffle) he slips out and runs into the forest, and he runs and he runs, and then, in a clearing, there’s a conveniently located shack where a sweaty smithy is pounding away on an anvil, and he looks up and sees those handcuffs in front of his nose, and he brings his hammer down and frees the prisoner? That’s the picture that kept coming to mind as I listened to AR Rahman’s soundtrack for Shankar’s I. Free. That’s what Rahman sounds like here. Free from the constraints of Tamil cinema. Free from hewing to situations. Free to leap off a cliff and land on a passing cloud and float away for a while. Whatever you think of Shankar’s filmmaking, you have to give him this: he wields one hell of a hammer. He liberates Rahman.

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It’s not that Rahman has been producing bad music, exactly. But there was a time he used to make songs like Chandralekha and Strawberry kanne, and you’d sit up and, slowly, smile at the playful bombast of it all, the sight of a Dickensian orphan stumbling into a smorgasbord. That we haven’t seen in a while, and that’s what I is. To complain that the songs are overdone, overproduced is to find fault with a Persian carpet for having too many colours, too many motifs. That’s what Shankar’s cinema is. That’s what Shankar’s cinema needs. A simple “melody song” like Kaadhal anukkal sounds so wussy in the context of this filmmaker. If you’re going to make a “melody song” for a Shankar movie, then you’d better make it like Ennodu nee irundhaal, which sounds as if Sid Sriram is standing on St. Thomas Mount and howling at the moon, which is where, presumably, his lover is. The situation isn’t entirely inconceivable if you know Shankar’s work.

This isn’t about liking the songs. This isn’t about humming them as you do your chores, as if the only purpose of music is to make your life a little more bearable as you wait for the end of the spin cycle. This isn’t about the lyrics. (That phrase in the exuberant Aila… Is it Maiden vennila? Made in vanilla?) This isn’t about pointing out what ragas you can sense, what instrument has been employed at the 2:33 mark. (Besides, in this digital age, can you truly say if a sound you hear is from a human playing an instrument or from a thingamajig? Best to stand back and try to think of what these sounds sound like. Sounds like… a shooting star. Sounds like… a water plop. Sounds like… a stomach gurgle. Sounds like… thunderclouds. Sounds like… the love child of adrenalin and a gymmer’s pulse. Sounds like… a power guitar having a nervous breakdown. Sounds like… a soprano’s orgasm.)

This is the thing that sets Rahman apart. At his most playful, he’s capable of synthesising sound and tunesmanship to produce music that’s the equivalent of a modern-art mural. You may not want it on your wall, but this isn’t about wanting it on your wall. It’s about standing in one corner of the room and scratching your chin and trying to get it, and then trying to get it from a spot twenty feet away, and then from the other side of the room, which was really the only way you could respond to something like Oru koodai sunlight. It’s practically impossible to attempt a traditional “review” of these songs, zoning in on specifics. It’s about the experience.

And it’s about Rahman following the instincts that serve him best, the instincts of a international-quality pop-music producer. Whenever I point this out, I am viewed with suspicion. Fans of the composer think I am dissing him by making him sound like a purveyor of something… ephemeral. And non-fans gloat that that he what he is, and that pop music is the domain of mall-hopping, bubblegum-chomping, anklet-wearing, Bieber-worshipping teens in America and that real music is rich, traditional Indian music, with Indian sounds and Indian instruments, a contention that always makes me feel the only music they listen to are recordings from Krishnadevaraya’s court. But Rahman marries the pop music he grew up with, the hits of the 1980s, to soundscapes inconceivable before the computer era. It’s like HAL 9000 possessed by the soul of Huey Lewis and the News.

It’s why the real Rahman, at least according to me, is seen in a ballad like Nazar laaye, with the twinning, laid-back, in-the-middle-of-the-night vocals sounding like something George Clooney would sing to Sandra Bullock in Gravity. This is the Rahman we see in this soundtrack – in the crazy violin bursts, in the chorus that latches on to the latter half of lines, in the opening riff on an apparent loop that the programmer forgot about as he stepped out for a cigarette, in the soaring melody line that stops abruptly to make way for staccato chorus bits, in the female singer who sounds as if she struggled to latch on to the tune and had to repeat the line several times and these recording-room glitches were layered onto the final song, in this other female singer sounding as if she had the hiccups and no one was around to give her a glass of water – and despite these instances of letting the freak flag fly, the music itself isn’t freaky, just… free. This, to me, is Rahman saying, this is me. Rather, this is I.

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