Monday, March 20, 2006

A R Rahman's Interview: Times of India

Unarguably India's best music composer today, AR Rahman is back in the hot seat with his score in Rang De Basanti. Jitesh Pillaai exchanges notes with the maverick musician TIMES NEWS NETWORK

He's pushing 40, going on 25. His chocolate mousse voice gently glides through the room. A bit like his entire demeanour. "Sorry for the delay, just have a lot of things to catch up on," he apologises as I grab a few minutes with the man who is unarguably India's best music composer today, on what is yet another whirlwind stopover for him. His current topnotcher, Rang De Basanti, has yet again perked up the stagnant genre monopolised by the nasalcrooning variety of musicians.

But that's another story. There's yet another apocryphal tale which bears repetition. At the height of the film industry strike in Chennai about five years ago, his mentor, Mani Ratnam, was waiting for the music wiz to complete the soundtrack of Alay Payuthe. Ratnam is reported to have deadpanned, "I can either handle the strike or Rahman. Not both simultaneously, please."

That then is the magic of Allah Rakha Rahman. Another industry joke that's often pulled is that after God, Rahman is the greatest leveller. Be it Mani Ratnam, Shyam Benegal, Ashutosh Gowariker or Shankar, they all wait for him. Time no bar. Music bar bar. You've heard the story about him playing the piano when he was all of four. Years later, after rigorously dabbling in the world of 30-second jingles and moonlighting as a musician with composer Illayaraja, he was ready to fly solo and test his m├ętier. Came Roja in 1993. Rahman smiles, "The songs were composed in a small room. I kept thinking that people would hate the music. By the grace of God, it was liked so much that I even went on to win my first National Award for the film."

About Ratnam, Rahman says that he just allows him to do whatever he wishes and then chooses the best. Rahman recalls, "Even when we were composing Jiya jale in Dil Se, I felt a lot of Mallu 'Moplah' tunes coming into my head, Mani said, 'no problem, I'll change my character (Preity Zinta) into a Malayalee girl' and it all sort of fell into place."

It all also fell into place with Rang De Basanti circa 2005. When Rakeysh Mehra greenlighted the film about two years ago, Rahman had given him a scratch tune. When Mehra started the film, he was stuck for a background tune in the climax, miraculously, the tune which Rahman had composed earlier became the leitmotif. Just like that. Rahman smiles that gentle smile of his, "Mehra is a lot like Mani. He just lets me do my own thing. When I composed Paathshala with words like 'lose control', I thought he'd change it into Hindi. But Mehra stuck to it, saying that the only time his assistant came into his room was when he played that tune. So obviously he was sticking to the vibe." When Rahman composes, synthesisers meld into guitars, the dholaks blend with the keyboards. Fusing the music of different traditions, Rahman straddles the world of Bach and Carnatic music with easy facility. Among his oeuvre, his personal favourites include Roja, Muthu, Lagaan, Dil Se and Taal. But it was also the musical cadences of Gentleman, Kaadhalan, Rangeela, Thiruda Thiruda, Kandukondain Kandukondain and Alay Payuthe that burned up the barcodes in music stores. Born a Hindu, AS Dilip Kumar converted to Islam and the AR Rahman moniker a decade ago, his music is inspired by Sufi mysticism. It's reported that after all the hard times after his father's death, Rahman and his family found solace in Karimullah Shah Kadiri, a Sufi spiritual healer.

Reportedly, he's sold more than 100 million albums, won scores of Filmfare and National awards. His success prompts him to stay connected to his God. "Your faith keeps you focused. You never grow big by putting other people down," he sallies. Talk again veers to the drubbing of Mangal Pandey,when it was loudly asserted that Rahman had lost his touch. He is unequivocal, "I did my best. Maybe, it was too folksy, too much of in-your-face patriotism…"

But in a capricious industry dictated by the ticket windows, all's well after Rang De Basanti. The self-effacing composer tells me that he's just read a signboard outside a church in Bandra, Mumbai. He says casually, "It says, 'If you start judging people, you won't have time to love'. That's so true, the mind then loses its serenity, its naivete. I think to compose you need to have a purity of being. I also try to find that purity in music. Just before I compose, I'm a total mess, I don't know if I'm coming or going. And then through some divine intervention, it all falls into place. I guess you should just move lightly through life, carry no excess baggage at all."

He should know. Apart from the Padma Shri and collaborations with artistes like the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Peter Gabriel, he still travels light. His music for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Bombay Dreams and the Chinese film Warriors of Heaven and Earth won him plaudits. He's also wrapped up the stage version of Tolkien's The Lord of The Rings, which opened in London to great reviews. He says, "For Bombay Dreams, they wove the story around my music, but for LOTR, I had to integrate the music with the story. For the Warriors, it was great to work with the live Symphony Orchestra. I didn't mercifully have to rely on my keyboard. Isn't it strange that India, with such diverse cultures, so many states, so many musicians of the highest calibre doesn't have a single national orchestra?"

So what of the charges that he doesn't understand the Hindi idiom too well? "Maybe you should ask the lyricists I've worked with. I love Urdu poetry, I understand Hindi, but I don't speak it too well. I tend to confuse the genders while speaking. That gives me a rawness that some people find appealing. For example, I keep saying Na koi padhnewaala in the Paathshala song. I don't say na koi padhnewaali. No one noticed, fortunately it worked," he smiles.

Of the current songs other than his own, Rahman picks out Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's Jiya dhadak dhadak (Kalyug), Vishal Shekhar's Allah Ke Bande (Waisa Bhi Hota Hai - pt 2), Dus bahane (Dus) and Shankar- Ehsaan-Loy's Har ghadi (Kal Ho Naa Ho).

But for the moment, life as he knows it, is a happy blend of the spiritual and the family man. He loves spending time with his daughters Khatija, 11, and Rafia, 8. Is he a good father? He smiles, "I try to be." Does he take up their homework? He laughs, "No, I don't do that." And is he a good husband to his wife, Saira? "I try to be that too," he dimples.

He gently taps on the mahogany table. The minutes have beguiled into a full blown hour. As he glides out of the room, I can hear the chocolate mousse vocals trail softly. And I can see that there's really no excess baggage.

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