Gradually, criticism also began to pour in. He was said to be very slow and was accused of taking his own time in composing, something that reportedly forced Mani Ratnam to drop a song from ‘Bombay’ to release the already delayed film on time. Rumours were rife that Mani Ratnam had dropped him from his next project for this reason but they were proved to be unfounded.
But Rahman made no bones about it and said that he was no machine that could churn out scores on an assembly line endlessly and admitted that he did take his time over his scores. He added that it was essential that he take his time in order to do a quality job and made clear the same to his directors before taking up the assignment. “What is the use of quick delivery if you don’t get good stuff? I’m not lazy. I need time to get involved so that something undefined comes naturally to help the movie. I can’t do it in a week – all I had for Karuthamma.”
The above problem threw up another quirk in Rahman’s scores. Due to the lack of time in completing scores Rahman began to serve up his lesser known earlier compositions in new avatars. This happened for the first time when he used the ‘Raakozhi Rendu’ song from ‘Uzhavan’ as ‘Aa Siggueggulenta Varaku’ in the Telugu film ‘Super Police’.
He followed this up by using the song ‘Baboo Love Cheyyara’ from ‘Gangmaster’ as ‘Yaaron Sun Lo Zara’ in ‘Rangeela’ . Then ‘Anjali Anjali’ from ‘Duet’ reappeared as ‘Milgaye Woh Manzilen’ in ‘Kabhi Na Kabhi’ . This dubious practice earned Rahman a lot of criticism but he didn’t seem to care. This feature would become a hallmark in many of his future scores. He would reuse ‘Porale Ponnuthayi’ from ‘Karuthamma’ as ‘Gurus of Peace’ in ‘Vandemataram’, ‘Ottagathai Kattiko’ from ‘Gentleman’ as ‘Musafir’ in ‘Vandemataram’, ‘Maanpoove’ from ‘Yodha’ as ‘Chevaanam’ in ‘Pavithra’, and ‘Jumbalakka’ from ‘En Swasa Katre’ as ‘Jumbalika’ in ‘Thakshak’. But he would top himself when he would go on to reuse not one but two songs for ‘Pukar’. ‘Oh Bosnia’ would reappear as ‘Ek Tu Hi Bharosa’ and ‘Nayagara’ from ‘En Swasa Katre’ as ‘Kay Sera Sera’.
Another charge against him was that his music was getting repetitive. Initially Rahman countered it saying that it was his individualistic brand of music and therefore might sound that way but later he brushed away the oft-repeated allegation saying “hellip; the accusation is getting repetitive. You call it predictable, I term it as my style. They are ways of looking at it. If you call my style predictable, that means you have understood Rahman has been dealing with a particular brand of music alone. Once you hear the music, you know it is has been composed by Rahman. That is what I am all about. That is my identity; that is the identity of my music. “.
” If I stick to my what you call my trademark sound, I am accused of sounding the same, and if I try to do something different , people complain that it doesn’t sound like Rahman’s music. Its a no-win situation for me. Left to myself I would like to be adventurous and try out styles I haven’t tried before.”
Rahman takes both acclaim and criticism in his stride. When told that that many are of the opinion that he has given a new dimension to music he responds by saying that many also feel that he is lousy. He adds further that ‘ I accept I am lousy at times. It depends on the inspiration I get. One can’t be on the same creative plane always’.
Many of his colleagues in Madras and Bombay, unable to compete with him took the route of slander and took digs at him calling him ‘only a jingle composer’ and saying that he would fizzle out in a couple of films. The same ‘composers’ who copied him left, right and centre made grandiloquent statements like “Let us see if he is around after two years, Rahman’s type of music is just a temporary passing fad which will wear out once the crowd gets used to his music, he will not be able to sustain himself”.
Always one to shy away from controversies, Rahman refused to be drawn in to a war of words and responded characteristically with a very curt “Music speaks, statements don’t.”. And as expected he replied with his music which blew all the other composers out of the scene.
When asked about the influences in his music he says “Nobody can be completely original … because the notes are already there… from the notes we form a raag and from the raag a tune… it is a process. As far as possible, to my conscience, I try to be original. The rest is up to Allah.” Explaining his approach to composing he says, “Once I complete a composition, a week later, I listen to it and after two weeks, I take it up again. In the process my music grows.
Sometimes even after a shoot, I listen to the music find its allwrong and get down to re-working. Sometimes it gets all done just before themusic is mixed. For most, once the shooting is done, its all over but I don’twork like that.” Music is like a medicine that cures. Just like a medicine, it tastes sour at the beginning but as time passes it starts to work. If you take sweets for example, they taste great at the beginning but they vanish without a trace immediately. Songs are also like that. You like some songs immediately on hearing but you forget them in the same speed. And there are songs that you hated the first time you heard it, but as time goes on you get a real satisfied feeling hearing it. So, as far as music is concerned you can’t decide anything immediately. “
Other filmmakers, whose offers he turned down spread rumours about him. When asked why he turns down so many offers even when he is offered stacks of tempting money, Rahman, as philosophicaly as always, says, “I would say that I’m fighting as hard as I can to be exclusive. I don’t have the capacity to handle more than 4-5 films at a time. And once I accept a project it is my responsibility to give my fullest to it.
When I refuse offers, I do feel terrible. Some could feel disappointed by my refusal. I say no mainly because I know I won’t be able to do adequate justice to their projects. At times, they look as if I’ve broken their hearts. Sad… its just that I can’t please everyone. And as far as the money goes, Money can’t buy you happiness. The biggest offers I get are for ‘live’ shows. The amount I’m offered for one concert is much more than what I would earn after slogging on 10 films! But I’m afraid you can’t buy creativity… Everyone comes with the same offer- ‘state your price, we’ll give you what you want…’.
Rather than huge fees, I’d appreciate interaction on a film’s score. In reality, the best music emerges from any composer when there’s an exchange of ideas… when there are stories that inspire you. Then the project keeps moving… when you’re not into the spirit of things, you can get stuck. And then delays in delivering the score become unavoidable. So I’d rather not get into projects which don’t excite me from the very outset. I don’t want anyone to feel that I’ve let them down later .. honestly that’s how I’ve been brought up. Don’t get into something you’ll regret later.”
One other criticism levelled at him was that his hip-hop tunes had no scope for good lyrics. This allegation was also disproved when lyricist Vairamuthu won National Awards repeatedly for songs set to tune by Rahman, namely for ‘Roja’, ‘Pavithra’, ‘Kadhalan’ and ‘Minsara Kanavu’. Rahman himself insists on good poetry for his songs, “Lyrics lend immortality to a melody. The eternal, evergreen hit songs are always the ones with profound lyrics ndash; lyrics that remain true and meaningful even after years.”
To the criticism about the use of technology in his music he says ” We are heading towards the millenium. We have to keep abreast of times. Do they expect me to continue living in the 19th century? What is wrong in resorting to modern technology? You have to keep pace with the world around. A computer I bought six months ago had three minutes’ waiting time to get started, but today’s computers take just three seconds to start. I can now record my music on a hard disk and carry it around, and synthesise it with any kind of ethnic music anywhere in the world. If we are to compete globally, we have to be in step with the times. But you have to hold yourself back from going overboard. Technology is like a monster which has to be tamed. You must know how to handle it. I spent three years to bring the music software I use entirely under my control.”
Rahman is probably the foremost user of technology in music in India today. He can probably be described as the man who pioneered the use of technology in Indian music. India’s leading Information Technology journal , Express Computer, profiled the use of technology by Rahman. He avoids making music on tape, and prefers to carry his music on his portable computer. Also, he composes most of his music in-flight and his favorite platform is the Macintosh. Rahman, the progenitor of tunes the nation dances to, is a power user of technology. A proud owner of 12 PowerMacs and two PowerBook portables (now 15, with the addition of the first iBook in India), he swears by technology. “I cannot live without my computers today. Most of my music is made on them – so much so that I carry my music on my portable even when I am travelling,” he says.
“I prefer my computers to traditional tape, as I can rerecord on the machine, which is not possible on tape. Also, it gives me the additional flexibility of editing a song up to one lakh times, which I can do only once on tape. Also, minor flaws within a musical sequence can be rectified on the computer, which is otherwise not possible,” he says. But why the Apple Macintosh? “It is perhaps the easiest and best platform to use, especially in the areas of music and creative arts. I have experimented with other technologies too, but the Mac is something that is very close to me now. It is a machine with an attitude,” he says. Moreover, a majority of music professionals across the world work on the Macintosh for their music.
Rahman is currently running his set-up on Apple’s G3 processors, but plans to upgrade to G4 very soon. “I use PowerMacs to formulate various types of music and musical patterns. The computers in my studio are not networked, so each performs a different function. Everything is integrated into the final score at the end, which is further refined a number of times before you finally get to hear the end result. More than just the basic composition, the post-production work is made much easier by the Macintosh,” says Rahman.
Another strange criticism levelled at Rahman was that he made excessive use of singers without the knowledge of the nuances of a particular language, like he made Udit Narayan sing in Tamil and also the use of untrained singers. To the first allegation Rahman replied that it was quite true and said that he had reduced the use of Hindi singers in Tamil. To the second, Rahman’s reaction was ” Why should any actor or actress sound like S. P. Balasubramaniam, P. Susheela or Chitra? Why can’t a new singer sing in his own raw voice? It’s the done thing in jingles and non-film music. Only in films, they insist on an established voice. I ventured to break the convention and the public has accepted it.”
On why he uses so many different voices in a film, irrespective of whether they suit the character or not, he says ” I do it for variety. Otherwise things would get monotonous. There was a time when the album of a film would have only two voices. Today different singers sing for the same character. The times have changed. The attention span of the average listener has decreased and his geographical purview has broadened. The listeners no longer think in terms of peprfect or imperfect. They want different voices, standards be damned.”
Yet another criticism that was levelled at Rahman in the initial stages of his career was that he was at home only with Western rhythms and would never be able to give typical Indian tunes. But Rahman quickly disproved that allegation and demonstrated that he was equally at ease with Indian Classical and Folk rhythms and melodies with his scores in ‘Indira’, ‘Kizhakku Cheemayile’, ‘Karuthamma’, ‘Iruvar’, ‘Uzhavan’, ‘Taj Mahal’ etc.
One other allegation was that Rahman had become very arrogant and treated filmmakers very badly and made them wait endlessly. Says Rahman “In Chennai, I have a small studio where all the music happens. I can do only thing at a time there. Even when a track is being transferred, all other work comes to a standstill, because I like to supervise everything myself. I don’t believe in handing over a job to someone else and wait for the results. This leads to people waiting for me sometimes. But its not deliberate.”
Initially Rahman had to encounter a great deal of opposition in Bollywood. People were waiting for him to falter. But as one Bollywood composer acknowledged “He just does not fail. He knows the pulse of the public better than any other composer in India today. He is not only in touch with the Zeitgeist, He is the Zeitgeist.(Zeitgeist – The taste and outlook that is characteristic of a period or generation).”
By the end of 1996, the relative non-success of scores like ‘Mr.Romeo’ and ‘Lovebirds’ prompted the know-alls in the industry to comment that Rahman was facing a burn out. Also the failure of dubbed Tamil scores like ‘Tu Hi Mera Dil’ made the critics carp that he was running out of steam and was recycling his own tunes and had exhausted his limited repertoire. They also remarked that the public was now tired of the ‘Rahman sound’.
One other very notable thing that Rahman can be credited with is the fact that he has consistently introduced a whole host of new talented singers, the notable names being Suresh Peters, Shahul Hameed, Aslam Mustafa, Unnikrishnan, Sreenivas, Mahalaxmi, Harini, Minmini, Sujatha Mohan, Nithyashree etc. He even got his secretary Noell James to sing in films. Once, in 1995, Rahman was invited by Padma Seshadri Bal Bhavan, his former school, to be the judge in a singing competition. Rahman promised that he would give the winner of the contest a break in cinema.
True to his word, he introduced the winner of the contest, Harini, with the song ‘Nila Kaigiradhu’ in ‘Indira’ and then gave her ‘Telephone Mani’ in ‘Indian’. This song was a big success. She then went on to sing many more songs for Rahman. He has also given a fresh lease of life to the careers of fading and failing singers like Asha Bhonsle with ‘Rangeela’, Hema Sardesai with ‘Sapnay’ and Sukhvinder Singh with ‘Dil Se..’ . He also brought to the mainstream Sreenivas and let him prove his worth after being a chorus singer for a long time. Rahman says, “That is because I know the difficulty of not being given a chance to prove yourself when you are talented. When God has made me a successful music director today, then why not use it to the best by introducing new talent? I will be sinning if I don’t provide an opportunity to talented people.”
Also a very important reflection of Rahman’s humility, fairness, honesty and sense of equality is reflected in the fact that he is the only composer who ensures that his entire team ranging from the rhythm programmers to the instrumentalists and chorus singers are credited on the inlay card of the album. If, today, Noell James, Febi, Feji, Sivamani are household names the credit goes to Rahman’s sense of fair play. Sivamani has repeatedly thanked Rahman for bringing him into the limelight. An interesting characteristic of him is that he never watches the movies he has composed for. He has only watched two till date, ‘Roja’ and ‘Rangeela’. “The songs are rarely picturised the way they were narrated to me. I don’t want to feel disappointed at not having composed to the feel of the picturisation.”
Rahman is also known for some strange personality quirks. Like his inclination to work during the nights and sleep during the day. When asked how he developed this unexpected and unusual habit of sitting up all night and working and making others work with the same passion, the same perseverance, the same precision to come up with nothing but the best, the best that will satisfy him and satisfy a filmmaker like the filmmaker who is madly in love with his music. He says he used to work the whole day when he worked as a jingles man, working on all kinds of ad films. He started working on the few films that came his way after 6 pm. Soon he was working from 6 am to 6 p.m. and then from 6 p.m. to 2 am and then it went on from 6 am to 6 p.m. the next day. The unusual man’s unusual schedule now starts at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and then goes on till 6 am.
“For a creative job, there are no working hours. When something doesn’t work out, I usually continue working. Initially I used to work in the day, but My work used to get extended into the night and slept at 2”O clock and then it got later and later and I used to miss my morning prayers. So I thought why not work in the nights and sleep in the day.” “It started when I was working on films and jingles simultaneously. It used to be nine to nine in a studio, ten to five on jingles, three hours of sleep, and back to the studio. Then I realised that I actually liked working in the night – it was quiet and serene. There was another reason too.
When I used to work till three or later and hen fall asleep, I missed out on my prayers, so I decided to stay awake for a few more hours and complete praying. By then it would be six. So, now I sleep from nine to three.” Speaking about how he relaxes, he says.”After I finish a film, I mostly take my family to the Dargah where we pay our respects to the Aulia. Otherwise I meditate and sometimes Internet. I like to see what people talk about me and what they are bitching (sic) about me.”
Commenting on his responsibilities towards his listeners he says, “Once music listeners trust you, you’ve got to live up to their faith. You can’t tell people there wasn’t enough time to do justice to the music or that the director gave me the wrong brief. All listeners care about is the quality of the work. So I better do my best. Since buyers spend their hard earned money on music I think its our responsibility not to betray their trust. If you lose their trust you’ve had it.”