Rahman’s popularity touched such heights, that other composers began to cash in, rather innovatively, on his name rather than his music. Many albums like ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Beauty Palace’ which actually had music composed by someone else but was falsely credited to Rahman were released in the market. Usually such albums had Rahman’s photograph splashed across the album cover to draw the attention of buyers. And most people bought such albums without question if they saw the name A. R. Rahman on it.
So much so, that the music company Magnasound re-released one of Rahman’s first albums ‘Set Me Free’ under the title ‘Shubhaa’ without the consent of Rahman, which led to the souring of relations between the two. In its earlier avatar as ‘Set Me Free’ the focus was on singer Malgudi Shuba and Rahman was a mere footnote as Dileep. But this time around, the spotlight was on Rahman and Shubha was relegated to the background. Magnasound publicised the release as ‘Rahman’s first international English album’. Hoardings publicising the album sprung up overnight in major cities. Rahman was livid. “I’m not ashamed of my old album. Neither am I trying to hide my past,” explained the music director. But he wanted the public to know that ‘Set Me Free’ was a six-year-old album which was done as an experimental venture with singer Shubhaa. Magnasound, he said, was wrong in trying to pass it off as a brand-new album.
Magnasound sold 2 lakh copies in no time, an increase of over 10000% in sales since the previous time. But Magnasound’s Managing Director Madhav Das was unapologetic about it, “See, we had the rights to the album. And today A.R.Rahman’s name is an instant guarantee to success. So, what is wrong in exploiting that?”. That summed up the brand equity of the name ‘A. R. Rahman’.
Relatively, 1996 proved to be a listless year for Rahman, career wise. He had only four major releases, ‘Indian’, ‘Lovebirds’, ‘Mr. Romeo’, and ‘Kadhal Desam’ along with Bharathiraaja’s extremely low-profile ‘Anthimantharai’. Though the music of both the films , Indian and Kadhal Desam did very well they did not take him to any newer heights on counts of both creativity and success. From ‘Indian’, starring Kamalhassan, ‘Akada’, ‘Maya Machindra’ and ‘Telephone Mani’ became huge hits. In ‘Kadhal Desam’, his second film with Kadhir, he went the whole hog and sang 3 of the 6 songs with ‘Musthafa Musthafa’ becoming extremely popular.
With ‘Musthafa Musthafa’, Rahman arrived as a singer. ‘Mr. Romeo’ and ‘Lovebirds’, both starring Prabhudeva. bombed. His background score for Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’, where some enchanting new compositions were embellished with snatches from his score for ‘Bombay’, was internationally appreciated. But the soundtrack of ‘Fire’ was not released in India and was available only through mail order from a German company. This denied the score not just public acclaim but also prevented the masses from listening to one of Rahman’s best soundtracks.
That year, he was offered a very prestigious multilingual project, ‘Kaalapani’ by director Priyadarshan with whom he was already working on ‘Kabhi Na Kabhi’. But, reportedly on the request of lyricist-writer Javed Akhtar who had scripted ‘Kabhi Na Kabhi’ that he concentrate on any one of Priyadarshan’s films he opted out of ‘Kaalapani’. Following the failure of his ‘Trimurti’, Subhash Ghai decided to put ‘Shikhar’ on hold and make a relatively low-budget film called ‘Pardes’ and he asked Rahman to handle the score. But Rahman’s response as he recounted later was “At that time I was extremely busy with 7-8 films.
I told him that if I had to work with him I had to give him priority and I if I gave him priority I wouldn’t be able to do these films. So I said let me finish these and then we will work together. He said alright and demanded full priority on the next film”. And he later went on to do Ghai’s ‘Taal – The Beat of passion’.
He also went on his first ever concert tour, to Malaysia, in October 1996 where he was greeted by hysterical crowds. For this concert he specially composed a song ‘Bosnia Oh Bosnia’ since the concert was in aid of Bosnian War victims. This song was rendered by a chorus of 40 children accompanied by Rahman on the piano. The lyrics were in the local Bahasa-Malay language. The concert was a humongous success. It featured all the top singers from India including Hariharan, S. P. Balasubramnaniam and others. For the first time Rahman sang in public when he rendered ‘Musthafa Musthafa’ at this concert. As always, he won numerous awards that year, the notable ones being two Filmfare Awards for ‘Bombay’ and ‘Rangeela’.
In end-1996, Rahman went on a signing spree in Tamil films. He signed Kadhir’s next film ‘Kadhalar Dhinam’. He then signed his friends R. M. Sait and Anwar Ali’s “Love Letter’. There was lot of speculation that Rahman was producing this film along with his friends. But this turned out to be false. ‘Love Letter’ was later retitled ‘En Swasa Katre’. He also signed ‘Engineer’ starring Arvind Swamy and Madhuri Dixit to be directed by Shankar’s assistant Gandhi Krishna. Unfortunately the film has remained unmade till date owing to a cash crunch. One other film that has remained unmade was “Mudhal Mudhalaaga’ starring Arvind Swamy and Karisma Kapoor directed by Mani Ratnam’s assistant Perumal.
One very interesting incident that occurred that year, was at the annual Screen-Videocon Awards for cinematic excellence in Mumbai. Following the super success of ‘Rangeela’, everyone took it for granted that Rahman would win the award for Best Music. Even the organisers forced him to come all the way from Madras to Mumbai, saying that he had got the award and he had to receive it personally. On the night of the Awards ceremony, everyone at the event and those watching the show live on T.V. were shocked into stunned silence when the award for Best Music Score was given away to Rajesh Roshan for a fairly popular though largely copied score in ‘Karan-Arjun’.
Even the compere of the show Javed Jaffrey was taken aback and immediately rushed to Rahman in the audience and asked him for his reaction. All that Rahman said was ‘God is Great!’ which immediately won the hearts of everybody. Such is the humbleness of this man.