He is considered India's most respected musicians. He has been credited with giving Indian film music a global, a more original, more unique sound. He is also one of the highest selling artists in the world, having sold more than 50 million albums in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English. He has also made a very successful crossover to the West, while his roots, his first love, continues to be Indian music. He is A R Rahman.
In an exclusive interview with CNN-IBN's Entertainment Editor Rajeev Masand, A R Rahman talks about Rang De Basanti, his music and some of his outstanding works.
Rajeev Masand:The most obvious question first: Where did the dreadlocks go?
A R Rahman:I went for Haj, so I had to get them off. Or you can say, to washed my sins, I got my hair chopped off.
Rajeev Masand:That was your most marked characteristic. Do you miss them?
A R Rahman:I know, but my wife likes me better now.
Rajeev Masand:Rang De Basanti, your most recent work, is a film which really marked a milestone. Isn't it? Apart from the fact that it has great music and it's a great album, it is one of those rare soundtracks where the theme is blended perfectly with the music. Your earlier work Bombay and Taal were also examples of that. Do you agree?
A R Rahman:Yes, I think so. The process with Rang De Basanti started when Rakeysh (Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra, the film's director) told me the story, which had freedom fighters in it. I was working on Legend of Bhagat Singh with Santoshji at that time. So, I said that I would not do another film like this. Of course Rang De Basanti happened four years later.
When I started on this film last year, what we decided to do was not to have anything which is preachy and going to bring people down. We wanted to go abstract and go counter-point, like people and children are dying there and we have a happy soundtrack, which is Ru Ba Ru and going to the light and there is more positivity rather than going along with the film.
In fact, everything is in opposites -- like the song Khalbali, which has the word 'ziddi (stubborn)', and it came because of the tune. And then the way after the song was recorded, which Rakeysh used in the film, when Bhagat Singh refuses to take any food and becomes ' ziddi'. Now that is the stroke of a genius. And that's how things should be done, more interactively, not by having a per se idea and defining it. If you want to break and go on to the next level, you need to take a chance. Sometimes, it works out this way. And in this film, it all worked out, I guess.
Rajeev Masand:One of my favourite songs in Rang De Basanti soundtrack is Lukka Chhupi. I have read a fair bit of criticism about the song, largely perhaps because it is a collaboration with Lata Mangeshkar. I could be wrong, but I guess the reason should have been Lata Mangeshkar. The song is really a mother's call and a mother's song.
A R Rahman:See, the song was not designed to be in the film at all. I was doing the film and I was doing Ru Ba Ru and Khalbali and Pathshaala. I felt it was all upbeat and modern. What was the film about? It is about a call of a mother. It is how the characters in the film change. I was actually hearing a song from Born On The Fourth Of July soundtrack and there is a song, which goes this way: 'Where have you been my blue-eyed son'.
I thought why not do a similar song for the film. It is very abstract, it takes the inner feeling of the film into a soundtrack. So I was telling Zaria, and Rakeysh was saying, "Mmm... OK." And Prasoon, of course, said it won't work. We then came up with Lukka Chhupi. I said why don't we have an answer for the mother who calls. And in a way, I was trying to do a duet with Lata Mangeshkar, which I had wanted to do for a long time, because whenever I had approached, it never happened. The plan got cancelled for almost six times, until it finally happened.
So, in which scene will this song fit in is the next question, right? When we tried to spot the scenes, it fitted exactly with Waheedaji and the death. But then the reverberation of the song is within the film and outside the film also. So, I feel doing a song is taking me from the cliché' of situation which films have. And working outside it and then fitting it in. So all these things fitted in.
Rajeev Masand:You have just signed up as world ambassador for World Space. This is not the first time that you have endorsed a brand. How long does it take or how do you decide as to what is it that you want to get attached to and don't ?
A R Rahman:I probably was the first one to get the radio of World Space. I just wanted to check it out first. I was really impressed with the variety and the manner World Space had put up their advertisements. I did not know that here was a policy of not having any hassle in it, which is brilliant. I remember 20 years back, I used to go all the way to Bangalore to pick up my favourite music, and here we have everything on the touch-move-button --jazz, classical, pop. So when they ask me, I said: "Yes, let's do it!"
Rajeev Masand:You were in Toronto recently for the opening of the Lord Of The Rings musical. Tell me, was that a daunting task, for doing a score for that? Especially, because the comparisons between the musical and Lord Of The Rings film series were almost inevitable and especially because those films have gone on to become cult films.
A R Rahman:I think people very well know what is possible on stage and what is not. In films, you can add a lot of special effects and get away with. But to do something like this on stage is an incredible task. We have to give it to them the way they produce it and direct it and how they have put up this whole thing. It was a big gamble and they have succeeded in it. And being a part of it is a nice feeling.
Rajeev Masand:You have composed music for a musical before, including Bombay Dreams. Was Bombay Dreams perhaps a little easier, especially because you were familiar with the milieu. It was a story of a boy who wants to become an actor in Bollywood?
A R Rahman:One more thing is Bombay Dreams is a musical, which was written around the music of life. So we already knew that Ayesha was going to be in it. Taal's music was going to be in it. The music was written around it. But here it was vice-versa, we have script and the successful movies and they said do not derive inspiration from the movies. No music should come out of the movie, but it should be original from the book. So this is more difficult, this is really difficult. And I worked with Bartana, who is from Finland. Ultimately, when the music was put together, you could only see the scene and the episode there and get excited rather than trying to research which music is whose and cannot find that out.
Rajeev Masand:Your music is quite a rage among Chinese filmmakers. Your score in Warriors of Heaven and Earth became immensely popular. You have apparently been getting lots of offers from Chinese filmmakers. Is that true?
A R Rahman:Yes, there were a couple of offers which came in, but then I was busy on this side.
Rajeev Masand:Is it difficult doing a Chinese score? What's the challenge there?
A R Rahman:The challenge for me was not just doing a Chinese film. It was about the Silk Route, the Turkish and the Russian influence, and all those stuff. Working of the film was really good. For the first time, I got to work with the Prague Orchestra and the orchestral experience was really something.
Rajeev Masand:Which you used again in Mangal Pandey…
A R Rahman:Yes.
Rajeev Masand:If I ask you to pick your most under-rated film score out of 1947 Earth, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Bose... which one do you think had the most under-rated score which could have perhaps done well, but didn't ?
A R Rahman:I want every film score I do to do well. But some don't, because there are a lot of actors involved. Yet, it adds to the repertoire because someday people might listen to it in a different frame of mind. Like when I did Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, I literally had a person asking me why did I do a score which looked so old-fashioned. He didn't know that it was a period film. There are so many elements and when people come to know about them, then after a year they buy the same music.
Rajeev Masand:You are dodging the question. Which is that one score that you were disappointed with, perhaps because of its failure?
A R Rahman:Yes, sometimes you get disappointed, but then its not just you, it's the entire team that gets disappointed because it did not succeed. Bose, I know that most people wouldn't have listened to it at all. Most people won't be having a cassette or a CD of it. I hope it gets released soon as I have heard it was finally getting released some time (soon). I hope that gets done.
Rajeev Masand:Have you ever been embarrassed by the way a song has been filmed?
A R Rahman:Yes, a lot of times. But, I guess the people are intelligent enough now to know all that, what is personal and what is not, and what is done for the movie.
Rajeev Masand:You won't take any names?
A R Rahman:No.
Rajeev Masand:We know that Mani Ratnam has been an influence and a mentor. While you were doing ad films, he offered you Roja and most of your best work has been with him. Tell us as to what kind of relationship do you share with him. Is it something apart from just the director-composer relationship? Are you two friends? Do you hang out outside the studio?
A R Rahman:We don't hang out much (laughs). What is really a relationship? A relationship means the first good experiences, like first love and you always remember that. He picked up the best out of my work and said, "This is you." He was the first one who gave me a good work. For us, it's been a challenge to cross each thing from Bombay to Iruvar. Whenever we sit, we don't talk about old things, rather we try sharing a new frequency to create the same magic again.
Rajeev Masand:Your score for Roja was ranked by the Time magazine as one of the 10 best scores in the world. How do you look back at it now, since so many years have passed since Roja? Is that flattering?
A R Rahman:Yes, it's quite flattering. It's a small world, isn't it? You see Inside Man using Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan, Lord of War using Bombay theme.
Rajeev Masand:Do you think Roja is your best work?
A R Rahman:It's probably my first good work. Like I said about Mani Ratnam, who gave me my first good work. It brings back all those memories. It gave me the urge to go further and maintain quality work, crossing over to the North Indian audience with the film, lyrics which were never imagined before.
Rajeev Masand:Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan is one song that you've always been remembered for. People continue to love this one song. It was used in Bombay Dreams, in Hollywood films, Spike Lee's Inside Man… Do you ever feel like telling people to get over with it and look at your new work? Do you ever feel that it is a like a double-edged sword?
A R Rahman:It was very strange how Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan was done. I wanted a Punjabi singer for Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan, while I had Nusrat's voice in my head. I asked my friend Brijbhushan in Bombay if he knew anybody like that. He suggested me three names. Finally he said 'Mr Singh' will be coming in.
I had expected somebody with a turban . That's when Sukhwinder Singh landed in Chennai. He was working on Govind Nihlani's Thakshak and I asked him if he knew any Sufi lyrics because his voice has that Sufi touch. He said, "Yes, I know this." We went to a room and then did Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan. It was lying there for one year. I wanted to use it for my album Vande Mataram, but it didn't fit in. Then Mani asked me if I had a tune for his next film. I said something is ready and he immediately liked it. Then Gulzar sahib wrote the lyrics. It was first Thaiyan Thaiyan and then it was changed to Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan. At that time, I realised that it had the potential. The intention of doing this song was not to make it into a film song. It had that Sufi aspect.
Rajeev Masand:Gulzar sahib once said, "A R Rahman's greatest achievement is that he didn't mess around with my lyrics." Is that something you like to elaborate on?
A R Rahman:Yes, I do. And where is the need to mess around with the lyrics when somebody writes them so perfectly?
Rajeev Masand:You have often confessed that you are not so familiar with Hindi.
A R Rahman:(Laughs) Yes, I can't talk but my vocabulary is better than what it used to be. I have been learning Urdu. I can't talk but I can read now and I can understand most of the vocabulary. The thing about words, certain words give you a sound and meaning, if you get the right kind of balance, the song becomes a hit and everybody takes pride in it.
Rajeev Masand:So many actors, especially in Hindi films, have been singing their own songs and you have said that it is good for actors to know how to sing so that they can act as if they are singing themselves.
A R Rahman:Yes, like in the West, actors never practise to use someone else's voice. Nicole Kidman used her own voice in Moulin Rouge. I think that should happen in India too. It will be good if actors learn music because it will make our industry more credible. It will be good if these things could happen simultaneously.
Rajeev Masand:Let me put you in a tough situation. What do you think of Aamir, Shah Rukh or Amitabh, who've been singing their own songs? What do you think of them as singers?
A R Rahman:I think they are intelligent enough to choose songs, which go along their own voice. You can't expect classical songs being sung by kind of actors like Shah Rukh. They don't want to torture people like that.
Rajeev Masand:You said some of your songs were composed in two days while some of them took up to 45 days. How do you know when a song is ready?
A R Rahman:It's based on one's instinct. Sometimes, when you overwork on something you go back and sometimes abruptness is the best.
Rajeev Masand:Over the years, you've sung many songs yourself. Like, Ye jo des hai mera, in Swades, Chale Chalo from Lagaan, or Ru Ba Ru from Rang De Basanti. How do you know when a song requires your own voice?
A R Rahman:Sometimes I've worked from the scratch using my own voice. Like in Dil Se, Mani said why don't you sing it in your own voice. Or when I did Ye Jo Des…Ashutosh Gowarikar suggested that I should be singing this song. Initially, I was supposed to sing Ek Taara but it didn't match Shah Rukh's voice.
Rajeev Masand:Has it ever happened that you recorded a song in your voice and the director told you that someone could have sung this better? Sukhwinder Singh or Shankar Mahadevan? Has it ever happened to you?
A R Rahman:I would be the first one to suggest such a thing (laughs). The last thing I want to do is put my voice in a song. There are so many lovely singers out there and I would love to get their contribution in my music.
Rajeev Masand:You daughters are learning music as well. In fact, they are on the soundtrack of Mangal Pandey...
A R Rahman:They are getting trained, but they have not been singing so much. It's just to give them a choice that they can take up music if they want to.
Rajeev Masand:So in many ways, it's like a legacy you want to give them.
A R Rahman:Yes. That's true.
Rajeev Masand:Talking about Mangal Pandey, apparently you've still not been paid entirely for your work in the film. Does that upset you since the actor and the producer of the film have gone on record saying that the movie was highly successful. Not only did they recover the entire investment in the first week, but that they made a lot of money.
A R Rahman:That's a very delicate question. Mr Bedi came the day an article on it was published. He promised me that everything will be settled sometime in July. I didn't want to go the legal way. He is a nice man and I trust his word. Besides, everybody has been watching everything. All these things were not intentional I guess.
Rajeev Masand:Please tell us what do you like to do when you are not working? What kind of a husband are you? What kind of a father are you?
A R Rahman:Good question (laughs). I think you should be asking this to my wife and children. My mother, my kids are very supportive of me. They always know what I'm going through. I also try to play my role as best as I can within the limitations of my schedule.