With his debut film, `Roja,’ A.R. Rahman redefined the sound of Indian film music, won the National award and made himself heard in the Indian music industry. However, Rahman, the person and the musician, remains unchanged. Fame and adulation rest lightly on his shoulders.
From `Roja’ to `Rang De Basanti,’ Rahman’s evocative music has captivated listeners and inspired zillion clones who attempt to duplicate the Rahman magic in vain.
Excerpts from a freewheeling interview with the maestro who says that coming to Kerala opened a flood of memories.
What kind of memories?
My father R. K. Sekhar had worked for the top music directors in Malayalam – Devarajan master, Dakshinamoorthy sir, M.K. Arjunan…
There was a `thinnai’ outside my house and I remember some of the top directors and assistant directors of those times waiting for my father… He would work on eight to nine films at a time – compose music for a film, arrange the music for another… I believe it was overwork that killed him. His memory still lingers in the minds of people whom he helped. They tell me even now how he helped them, gave them a break and so on. That influenced me a great deal.
You have made the career of many new singers?
It is not me trying to help. They also contributed. I merely tapped their talent. Take the case of Srini [Srinivas]. He got a break with `Padaiyappa’ because he is talented. He used to sing all my tracks. Rajanikant listened to the track of `Padaiyappa’ and then, later, when I played him the same song sung by a famous singer, he suggested we retain the voice that had sung the track. When new people come in, they feel I can make them a star. I cannot, unless they have the voice and the talent.
But some of them were raw when they came in… ?
But they had the talent. Anupama in `Chandralekha’ was incredible at that time. Now, many people imitate her.
How do these singers come to your notice?
When I was doing commercials, I discovered these talents as they were singing jingles for me. So, when I started doing movies, I knew exactly who could do what.
Patriotic songs and the Rahman touch?
The old school was different. It was very straight. And let us face it, not everyone wants to listen to patriotic songs. I get into the mindset of those people and try to find out what they would like to listen to. What would connect with them and make the songs interesting. When I do something, I have to like it. If I don’t like it, I am sure people won’t like it. I have to be convinced that it is good.
Success of `Rang de Basanti ‘?
`Rang de Basanti’ was a risky film. It was a gamble. There are very few films where all the heroes die and people leave the theatre with hope in their hearts and praise the film. The format of the film is so abstract and it worked. It is a first of its kind.
How do you select a singer for a particular song?
For instance, Hariharan for `Uyire.’ I had three options for that song. SPB sir, Jesudas sir, Hariharan. Then I imagined all of them singing it. Since I had not heard Hari in a non-ghazal kind of song, I decided to take the gamble. Then when he did , he had a whole new flavour for the song.
How about movies? You must be flooded with offers?
For me, it is not about the money or the project. It is the experience. So, I look at the team; if I can have a good work experience with them, I agree to work with them.
`Bombay Dreams’ and Andrew Lloyd Webber?
I didn’t think it was going to be so big. I was a zero in theatre. It was an introduction to the world of theatre. And that too at the best of theatres. It was a blessing. Later, I realised that Asians considered it as a status symbol, something of theirs… More than the success, it was the pride of Asians that humbled me.
Playing with Michael Jackson in Germany?
It was a good experience until he got hit by a crane and had to be hospitalised. I was supposed to have a meeting with him. It did not happen. I think he is one of a kind. He is not the Beatles, he is not Elvis… he is Michael Jackson. He has inspired so many young musicians. His personal life is his, but nobody can deny that he is not a phenomenon in the world of music.
What kind of music do you listen to?
When I am deep into film music, I listen to classical music. Pure Qawalis, music of Kumar Gandharv, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Veena Sahasrabudhe… I listen to pop songs too. Whatever is on the top of the charts… To know what is happening.
It is reported that you work on your music only after sunset?
I work from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. When you get a fantastic idea, you have to finish it or it goes away. Now the tunes come first and then the lyrics. Modern music has to be like that. But that is not the only formula. Certain directors want to hear the tunes. They will fit the lyrics later. Shanker and Mani Ratnam are like that. Sometimes, you have the concept and form the lyrics and tunes together.
In `Boyz,’ for example he said he wanted a song for `I want a girl friend.’ We worked on the lyrics and tune together and the song was a hit.
Any movies in Malayalam after `Yodha.’?
There are several offers. But I can’t reveal them now.
India is so rich in culture and it has so much to give to the world – ethics, music, fashion… The rest of the world has been clouded by the American dream. But now we can give to America. That is very interesting. I am waiting for the day when we get an Oscar, Grammy… all simultaneously. The day is not far away.