During this period, on one of his trips to Bombay he met the veteran Hindi music director Naushad Ali who was very impressed by the young Rahman’s work and asked him to try his hand at composing for films. Rahman was initially a little hesitant about entering films mainly because of the attitude of most movie makers towards music, where songs were used as just fillers and something to give the audience a break during a movie.
But in 1991, he was given an offer that would change his life. At the awards function where he received the award for Best Jingle Composer for the Leo Coffee ad,he was approached by the man known as the Spielberg of India, Mani Ratnam. In the course of his interactions with Mani Ratnam, he was offered the responsibility of composing music for the director’s forthcoming film. Rahman, inspite of his reluctance to seriously take up work in films, accepted the offer since Mani Ratnam had the reputation of a director with a keen taste for good music and he was sure the director would do justice to his compositions on screen.
Rahman would later say, “I wasn’t sure myself why I accepted Roja. I was offered Rs.25,000 for it, a sum that I could make in three days composing ad jingles. I think it was the prospect of working with Mani that enticed me. Mani is no the usual kind of director who uses songs as fillers. He takes great pains over the music of his films.
I love his picturisations, he can elevate a routine song by 400 percent; give it a new dimension.” All the same, as a newcomer Rahman was terrified over his film debut. Expectations were high. What a fall if he failed! “Mani praised everything I did. Later I realised it was to keep me going. He discarded whatever bore the influence of others and picked out tunes that had my individual stamp. ”This is you!” he’d say.”
Rahman’s D-Day arrived when ‘Roja’ was released on August 15th, 1992. It was awaited with curiosity since it was Mani Ratnam’s first film without Illaiyaraja. Sceptics doubted the ability of a 25-year old debutant. The entire film world and filmgoers were in for a pleasant surprise. Rahman delivered the goods and how. To call the music a superhit would be an understatement.
Rahman became a household name in Tamil Nadu overnight and the score of ‘Roja’ was the first step in his changing the face of Indian film music. ‘Roja’ not only won the heart of millions with its music it also won every conceivable award in music that year. Rahman also got the Rajat Kamal for best music director at the National Film Awards, the first time ever by a debutant. He was flooded with offers to do more films. He gradually cut down on his work in ads and subsequently moved into film music full time. And there was no looking back for A. R. Rahman. With ‘Roja’, A. R. Rahman had finally arrived.
Recalling the massive success of his first film, Rahman says, “I was lucky to set a sound in the first film. And I had the right people like Mani Ratnam guiding me to achieve it also and by the grace of god it set and the people know from the moment the song is heard that this is Rahman’s.” Mani Ratnam, in response says, “I was not trying to any favours for Rahman. I was trying to do a film, I wanted good music and I was searching for somebody who would and I heard a demonstration tape of his which he had sent across. I thought that in the first note of the piece that he had sent me was really brilliant, really outstanding piece.
So I went across to his studio and he played me some more, lots of things which he had done for jingles and a few other musical pieces he has done for somebody else. They were quite amazing and I had no doubts that he would be right for my film. How much he would grow, I was not looking at. I was looking at predominately my film at that point of time. He was ready to break a lot of conventions that were there in terms of music at that point of time, in terms of recording at that point in time. So I was very lucky to find someone who was willing to break away and do something different. To that extent it was absolutely perfect. He is the perfect bridge between today’s technology and Indian music. He has the soul of Indian music inside and there is a lot of engineering and recording talent in him. He is able to blend the two together. He is a very talented person.”
Producers began to queue up at his doorstep. But even at that young age, Rahman was very mature and sagacious. He did not let success go to his head and was very choosy about what he accepted. He had his priorities set right from the beginning. For a person who had struggled throughout his childhood, he did not let insecurity get the better of him and wisely opted for quality over quantity and refrained from signing films blindly. “Rather than making money, I believe in making people happy; all other things are secondary. That is why I am not interested in a lot of movies but only in one at a time. I like directors whom I can vibe with.
Ten years of experience in this field has made me quite frustrated. I have evolved a technique which requires a lot of time. Other music directors record a song in seven or eight hours. But I am different. We do a basic sitting and we record it. We record the voice and I add instrument by instrument to improve the quality.” He also began to formally learn Indian classical music, Carnatic from Dakshinamurthy and N. Gopalakrishnan and Hindustani from Krishnan Nair. He took classes in film music from Nithyanandham and Western Classical from Jacob John. He also learnt the qawwalli style from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan”