Early 1997 saw the release of his fourth film with Mani Ratnam, ‘Iruvar’ and the legendary Madras movie house, AVM’s 50th anniversary film ‘Minsara Kanavu’. ‘Iruvar’ was an offbeat film and had a topical score with a couple of brilliant jazz and classical numbers in addition to two nostalgic numbers from the MGR era, among others. Though the music was appreciated by the critics, it did not win much favour with the public at large, probably because the music sounded dated keeping in sync with the period the movie was set in.

In the case of ‘Minsara Kanavu’, when AVM wanted to make a movie to commemorate its 50th anniversary, it was not sure of what kind of movie it would be or who would make it. All it was sure of was that it wanted A. R. Rahman to score the music. First thing, Rahman was signed up by the studio and he was asked who he wanted the director to be. Rahman suggested the name of cinematographer and friend from college, Rajeev Menon.

Rahman had composed jingles for many ad films directed by Rajeev Menon and also worked with him in ‘Bombay’ which was cinematographed by Menon. The music of ‘Minsara Kanavu’ was a major success and also fetched him his second National Award. The songs ‘Ooh La La La’ and ‘Poo Pookum Osai’ (Awara bhanwre in Hindi) became major hits. His second original Hindi film ‘Daud’ for Ramgopal Varma was released in the same year. Though it was in typical Rahman style, it did not live up to his high standards. One highly unusual composition ‘Zahareela Zahareela pyar’ caught the fancy of many but was too unconventional to became a huge success.

Five years of working in the same kind of movies made Rahman yearn for something different and get out of the rut. In 1996, when Rahman had gone to Bombay to attend the Screen Awards ceremony, he met his childhood friend G. Bharat. During this meeting both had discussed a proposal for an album to commemorate 50 years of Indian Independence in 1997. In 1997, the International music giant, Sony Music, whose portfolio included the likes of Michael Jackson and Celine Dion, entered the Indian market in a big way.

They were looking to promote Indian artistes internationally. And the first person to be signed up by Sony Music from the Indian sub-continent was, who else but, A.R.Rahman, on a 3-album contract. The financial details of the contract were not disclosed but Industry experts believe it to be the largest of its kind in India. Rahman suggested the idea that he had discussed with Bharat to Sony Music India and was immediately accepted.

Called ‘Vandemataram’, it was a tribute to the motherland and featured songs to mark the 3 colours of the Indian Flag . Sony asked him to choose from any of its international stars to work with and supposedly even suggested the name of Celine Dion. But Rahman settled, very appropriately, for the Pakistani Sufi music star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Dominic Miller. Rahman had decided that he would definitely work with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan after he attended his performance in Delhi. Explaining his choice, “I don’t want to collaborate with just a name. I must feel something for the person and relate with his work.

I’ve seen several famous names collaborating on songs and albums , but they remain just two names. There’s no chemistry. It’s like oil and water. They can’ t come together.” Rahman worked overtime on it to come up with a memorable album. He devoted so much time to this prestigious project that his film assignments went behind schedule. He went all the way to Pakistan to record the ‘Gurus of Peace’ number with Khan Saheb. Rahman composed, arranged and sang all the songs on the album.

Recounting the time when he hit upon the tune for ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ – “In late January, on the 27th day of Ramzan, an auspicious time when legend has it that angels open the gates of heaven and all prayers are answered, I descended on my studio. It was 2 a.m. and my sound engineer had disappeared. And so I called Bala and when he arrived I told him you’re the sound engineer. And then I sang for the first time, a few verses for just the two of us. “It was magical,” says Bala. “He laughed, then he cried,” says Rahman.

Two months hence, in March 1997, amidst Sony Music executives in Mumbai, came a sort of penultimate test. Shridar Subramaniam, director, marketing, Sony Music India tells the story best. “Everybody was really nervous. It’s an exhausting song and Martin (Davis, head of Sony Music Asia) doesn’t speak a word of Hindi, but in 40 seconds we knew. It was fresh, new.” It got better. In May, at a Sony conference in Manila, where the bigger the name you can drop means the more attention you get, they got 20 minutes.

When the songs from the album was played, pre-release, at the Sony Music conference in Manila, Sony Music executives representing various Sony Music sub-labels reportedly went berserk and clamoured for the international rights of the album. They played the song; pandemonium reigned. The head of Columbia records ( a Sony label) said, “It’s unbelievable, I want it.” The head of Epic records (another Sony label) said, “I don’t care, I want it.” Says Subramaniam: “It was the hit of the conference.”

Rahman became the first Indian artiste of popular music to go international when ‘Vandemataram’ was released simultaneously in 28 countries across the world under the prestigious Columbia Label of Sony Music on August 15th, 1997. Rahman himself performed live at Vijay Chowk in New Delhi on the eve of the Golden Jubilee of Indian Independence to a packed audience that comprised the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Inder Kumar Gujral.

The album was a mega success and sold over 1.5 million copies in India(a remarkable figure for non-film music in India) and did extemely well internationally too becoming the largest selling Indian non-film album internationally. The song ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ got repeated airplay in the world music category on radio and television channels across the world. With ‘Vandemataram’ Rahman left all his contemporaries far far behind and moved into a new dimension altogether. His full-throated rendition of the title song “Maa Tujhe Salaam”, loaded with raw emotion touched the hearts of many a music lover.

Interestingly the Indian release had only 7 songs while the International release had two additional songs ‘Masoom’ and “Musafir’. Later ‘Masoom’ was released in India in the album ‘Gurus of Peace’ and ‘Musafir’ in the album ‘MTV Total Mix’.

The album was lapped up eagerly by both the masses and the classes and was described variously as ‘brilliant’, ‘the ultimate expression of freedom’, ‘a mantra that instills a sense of pride and belonging’, ‘a classic’ and ‘evocative’. India’s leading news magazine ‘India Today’ in its year end issue picked Rahman as one of the faces that made a difference in the year 1997 “hellip;because Vandemataram is the national song once again” and wrote ” Forget Roja, forget Bombay, forget everything. Even if he had never composed a successful piece of film music in his life, he would have gone down in history for one unforgettable night: August 14th 1997. That was the night A. R. Rahman gave his country its most rapturous 50th birthday present – Vandemataram – Maa Tujhe Salaam. It was as if the very soul of India had found its voice once more hellip;”.

One of the many glowing reviews for the album went “Good music has personality. It is a lot like a short story that has embedded messages which the reader must uncover. Unlike a short story, however, good music has many more suggestive qualities. On the one hand it must quickly grab the listeners attention and on the other hand it must be so richly woven that the listener keeps wanting to come back for more. Vande Mataram is an example of music with personality.

What separates this collection from the others is the provocative music and lyrics. What makes this collection enchanting is the raw unbridled emotion that AR Rahman projects through his musical score. What makes the collection timeless is that a thousand years of musical influence, from Khusro to contemporary, is cleverly woven into the composition.”

Speaking about the intent behind the album, Rahman said, “The primary objective of the album is to inspire a feeling for the country. And the sentiments so aroused go beyond caste, creed and colour. The feelings which inspired the album come from the heart, and can solve a lot of problems. If people look beyond religion and caste barriers, and think only of the country, that’s enough. I personally think Vande Mataram is an ongoing movement, and people will feel good about it for the next 50 years.”

Rahman himself underwent a physical transformation in order to feature in the music videos of the album and grew long hair, much to his dislike initially. In his dedication in the album he says, ” All perfect praises belong to the Almighty alone. I dedicate this album to the future generations of India. I wish that this album inspires them to grow up with the wealth of Human values and ethics that this country is made of. I wish that the youth of today would wipe out phrases like ‘Chaltha Hai’ from their vocabularies and find themselves motivated Human beings”.

‘Vandemataram’ touched the heights of fame, appreciation and recognition when it made it to the final rounds of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and was in line for an award but lost out ultimately since the event co-incided with the Indian nuclear blasts. He was asked by people at the festival “Here he was singing his heart out about peace and his country and his country was terrorising the world with its nuclear blasts! Which was the true India?”. Vande Mataram was one of the video film clips that was in the competition for the top prize. But as luck would have it, the film was shown the week that India conducted its nuclear blasts. ”On the one hand, we were singing in praise of our mother earth and on the other, we were blasting it away. People kept asking us, what the hell do you think you all are doing,” says Bharatbala. But even so, their song made it to the finals. From being the No.1 music director, Rahman also became a top pop star, though he didn’t appreciate ‘Vandemataram’ being branded as a pop album.

1997 brought him further personal joy and happiness when he became a father. He named his daughter Kathija. Other movies that were released in 1997 were ‘Rakshakan’ and ‘Vishwa Vidhaata’ in Hindi which had the same music as ‘Pudhiya Mugam’. Rahman was very upset with the producer of ‘Pudhiya Mugam’, Suresh Menon for having sold the dubbing rights of the music to the makers of ‘Vishwa Vidhaata’ without his consent. Both the movies did not do well, though the music of ‘Rakshakan’ did fairly well. He bagged the Filmfare Award yet again, for ‘Kadhal Desam’. He signed Mansoor Khan’s ‘Josh’ but again opted out owing to time constraints.

Aamir Khan, impressed by the music that Rahman gave for his ‘Rangeela’ pursued him doggedly to do his next film ‘Mela’ for director Dharmesh Darshan, but once again time constraints prevented Rahman from accepting the offer. Noted painter M. F. Hussain offered him his much talked about film with Madhuri Dixit – ‘Gaj Gamini’ which also Rahman was forced to turned down due to paucity of time. He was also asked to compose a song for the revised version of India’s first 3-D movie ‘Chota Chetan’. Again Rahman was forced to decline the offer. He took up one interesting offer from Director Suresh Krishna and Producer ‘Pyramid’ Natarajan. The film, ‘Sangamam’, was a low-budget venture with a musical subject and would feature out and out classical and folk songs. He also signed Director Vasanth’s new film for the same producer. The title for the film, ‘Rhythm’ was suggested by Rahman himself.

Post-Vandemataram, some changes in Rahman’s personality could also be seen. The earlier elusive and evasive Rahman became more accessible and gave more interviews and appeared to have become media-savvy. No longer reticent and shy he opened up a bit. He explains the change thus “Earlier things worked on a level of mysticism. I was this mystic from the down South who made music. But you can’t hide from people all the time. I need to relate to people. I have also realised that if I stayed away from people, they would get frustrated and start misunderstanding me. But, there are times when I go back into my shell, it helps me make better music. Because, then , I’m involved in nearly every part of music.”