Readers Write In #348: What I wanted to ask Rahman

Posted on March 22, 2021

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(by Madan Mohan)

The day I signed up for the Film Companion Front Row discussion with A R Rahman, I formulated the question I wanted to ask him.  When the discussion started, I was maybe the second guy to punch in my question in the chatbox.  But the numbers were against me from the get go.  With easily over two hundred participants, the questions too poured in by the hundreds.  A few of these questions were squeezed into the last ten minutes of the discussion.  I hoped mine would be one of those but it wasn’t to be. 

What I wanted to ask Rahman was this:  how in 1992 did he have the conviction, the self belief to chart his own path and defy conventional wisdom?  How did he fend off detractors, of which there would surely have been many?

For all that Rahman is a pan India phenomenon (and there was even a European – maybe more – who had signed up for the Front Row program), Tamil listeners in particular have better understood the import of what he achieved from the get-go.  Because for us, he wasn’t the guy who came after Laxmikant Pyarelal’s Raam Lakhan or Nadeem Shravan’s Aashiqui. He was the man who stole Ilayaraja’s thunder.  And THAT’S a whole other ballgame.  

Irrespective of where you stand on this topic, what is indisputable is most other composers working in the early 90s slavishly imitated Raja’s sound.  And they delivered hits with it too.  Shankar Ganesh scored a good one with Idhaya Thamarai, MM Kreem with Azhagan and Deva with Mr Madras. So yes, it was possible to score hits but your hits would frequently be mistaken for Raja songs.  So you were at best discount Raja. And you had to be happy with that. Oh, Anand Milind were terribly happy with that, by the way.

But Rahman didn’t succeed merely by improving the production several notches or by scoring peppy uptempo songs that the youth would like. He brought a different ‘point of view’, a different theory of film music, as it were, to the table.  And he is the last one to date who has been able to do so.  There have been others since who have scored beautiful songs but nobody who has put together a whole style of music that asserts a definitive perspective on melody, harmony and rhythm. A great musician, particularly a great composer, usually has a point of view about music, whether or not they choose to articulate it in that way. There is a reason why you can identify a Fiona Apple song from the first few keystrokes of her piano. 

Rahman partly answered this question himself in his deep dive with singer Arijit.  He said that MSV and Ilayaraja had covered so much territory that he had to study Hindustani raags and identify variations – I paraphrase here and badly – that would NOT remind you of their songs. He made this point in the Front Row discussion too. 

That addresses, to an extent, the melody aspect of it.  But there’s also the chords he uses which are nothing like Ilayaraja.  The moods, the pacing are all different.  Just as Ilayaraja brought to the table a complete and comprehensive vocabulary of music that would bear his unmistakable signature, so too Rahman forged a path that was nothing like his predecessor.  And it wasn’t only nothing like his predecessor. It was nothing like any film music before his time. In the tennis world, we talk about pre and post 2001, the year in which Wimbledon was slowed down, killing serve and volley for good pretty much.  On similar lines, you can divide film music into pre and post Rahman. 

Yes, I KNOW, Raja’s harmonic vocabulary is way ahead of anyone else so it isn’t like anybody before his time either.  I am a dyed in wool Raja fan, don’t worry about me. But the essential sound of Raja’s music was still the film music sound.  He chose not to veer too far from that sound and made his subversions subtle.  Rahman in contrast decided to boldly announce the fact that he was different.

And that, again, was the question I had wanted to pose to him.  How did he know he could dare to be so different and yet succeed?  Or did he not know and did he decide to just roll the dice anyway?  Is there a counter history where in the unlikely event of the Roja soundtrack flopping, Rahman decides to follow the lead of industry seniors who gleefully pounce on the opportunity to say, “I told you so”? Or would he have packed his bags and headed to Berklee?

But maybe…there really are no answers to such questions.  I noticed that when Rahman was asked deep questions about his process, his answers were vague.  He didn’t want to be pinned down.  Artists hate being pinned down because they feel knowing their own process too well will get in the way of their creativity.  

And so, had I asked him how he did it, he might have simply shrugged and smiled.  Yes, I am happy to report that even in an unscripted setting, Rahman is the same soft spoken, smiling self you have seen in interviews.  Yeah, really.  There aren’t too many around in tinseltown who wear their greatness that lightly.  That being the case, he is hardly going to bother trying to find out how he got so great.