1998 began on a good note when the music of ‘Jeans’, his fourth film with Shankar did very well. In fact, initially the movie took a bad opening and later picked up and became a big hit on the strength of Rahman’s music. One of the first Hindi movies that he signed, ‘Kabhi Na Kabhi’ was also finally released. One song ‘Mera dil ka woh shehzaada’ became very popular but the rest of the score did not catch on.
He signed his fourth film for Producer ‘Pyramid’ Natarajan – ‘Udaya’ to be directed by Maniratnam’s former assistant Azhagan Perumal. But 1998 would musically belong to one film. The Rahman-Ratnam combination touched greater heights with the release of their fifth film together, ‘Dil Se..’, which became a rip-roaring success and also an all-time crowd favourite. The song ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya ‘ became a humongous success. The entire score came in for wide spread appreciation and was hailed as ‘Rahman’s most versatile score till date’.
For the first time, the ‘Nightingale of India’ Lata Mangeshkar sang a song for Rahman, the song being ‘Jiya Jale’ which also hit the top spot. Rahman later revealed why he doesn’t work with Lata mangeshkar very often, “Most of my songs are so freaky that I feel embarassed to approach her. I feel they won’t do justice to her reputation.”
In the same year, Bharatbala approached him to do a sequel to the super successful ‘Vandemataram’, titled ‘Vandemataram 2’. But Rahman did not take up the project for reasons he would later describe as ‘This whole idea of doing the first album came up so suddenly and was so interesting that I had mercilessly pushed all my producers behind schedule.
There were too many projects hanging fire. I’d promised to complete the pending films as soon as I was through with the album. I was supposed to do a couple of songs for the second album but after a song like Vandemataram I knew I would have to do something really exceptional to match the previous effort. So, I just decided to take a break and then start work on it again”. He won numerous awards for the music of ‘Minsara Kanavu’, including the prestigious National Award, Filmfare Tamil Award for the sixth time in a row and the Screen Award for ‘Vandemataram’.
In October, he performed at the 70th Birthday celebrations of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi. In November he won the Viewer’s Choice Channel [V] Award for Vandemataram, after being chosen by over 4.4 million fans. ‘Dil Se..’ swept the film music awards categories at the Channel [V] awards winning awards for Best Score, Best Song and Best Male and Female singers. Later he won the Channel [V]-IMI Award for Best Producer for ‘Vandemataram’ along with Bala and Kanika.
His second film with Priyadarshan ‘Doli Sajake Rakhna’ was also released in November and the music was a fair success but paled in comparison to Dil Se.. . He signed an English-Hindi bilingual for director Ketan Mehta titled ‘The Rising’ which was to be based on the 1857 First War of Indian Independence. His second film for Deepa Mehta, ‘Earth’, where he came up with a totally new score was released at the Toronto Film Festival in September and the music came in for all round appreciation. He also signed his second film for Rajnikanth, reportedly rather reluctantly, titled ‘Padayappa’, to be directed by K. S. Ravikumar. He reportedly took up the film after the superstar himself made a personal reuqest to Rahman to score music for the film.
In the first week of December he went on a concert tour to Dubai where the Al-Shabab stadium was packed with crowds in excess of 50,000. He performed with the choicest of singers like S.P.Balasubramaniam, Hariharan, Udit Narayan, Chitra, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Sadhana Sargam, Shubha, Anupama and his entire orchestra consisting of drummer Sivamani Anandan, guitarist Kabuli and flautist Naveen. At this concert Rahman demonstrated the falseness of the claim that he used only electronic instruments in his music.
He introduced his entire 50-piece orchestra to the audience and told the crowd that it was the hard work of all those people that made good music and not electronic gadgets alone. The crowd was treated to renditions of more than 30 splendid songs from Rahman’s ever increasing repertoire. In December, he was invited by ‘Mukti’ a social service organisation to perform in a concert to promote AIDS awareness. He composed a song specially for the occasion. Titled ‘Zindagi Se Pyar Karo’, the song was a reflection of the theme of the AIDS awareness campaign ‘Love life, prevent AIDS’. He performed the song to packed crowds of over 60,000 at the concert on the 24th of December at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai.
He signed his first Kannada film ‘Ram’ in addition to his fifth film with one of his favourite directors Shankar, titled ‘Mudhalvan’. While his first film with Rajkumar Santoshi, ‘Pukar’ is very eagerly awaited he went ahead and signed another film ‘Rashq’ with the same director starring, Aishwarya Rai, Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan. Late in 1998 a second daughter was born to Rahman. She was named Rafia.
All this success has not been without its fallouts for Rahman. Some mischievous elements of society spread canards in early 1998 that Rahman was funding Muslim fundamentalists in Tamil Nadu, something that was totally unfounded and caused him a great deal of grief. Later in the year he began receiving threatening calls from Fundamentalist groups for singing Vandemataram and was accorded armed protection by the Government.
What was amusing that he received threats from both Hindu and Muslim Fundamentalists, from the Hindu Fundamentalists for ‘defiling a Hindu song’ and from the Muslim fundamentalists for ‘singing an anti-Islam song’. Rahman dismisses all these controversies saying that while his religion is very important to him, his patriotism for his country is in no way inferior. Rahman feels that all this security is extremely cumbersome and hampers his work but has no choice in view of the perceived threat to his life. Expressing his views on religion, “God and religion are very personal. Now it has become politics. I think religion should be left to a person. The mosque or temple should be within oneself. That is the best thing.”
“I don’t know what all this hullabaloo is about. I am not scared of death. My life and death are in Allah’s hands. I will live only till he wants me to live. I will die only when he wants me to die. I can’t understand all these policemen following me wherever I go. It hurts in so many ways. It hurts my feelings in so many different ways. It makes me lose faith in man. But what can I do? I have to follow the crazy system created by a crazy world. But I am not scare of dying anytime”, Rahman says.
He remarked in an interview, “It is better that I clear everything up. About the rumour that I helped fundamentalists, how can it be that I provide funds for them, when I have received death threats from the extremists and the state government has posted police personnels to guard my residence? Another rumour concerned my giving away money as charity to such organisations. Charity is done to satisfy my urge to do more for the poor. And anyway I have to tell you, I don’t give charity only to Muslim charities, I donate to Hindu and Christian organisations too. The money I give as charity is limited as I have to improve my instruments. I have invested heavily in technology and there is not much left to indulge in mass charity. The amount I give is definitely not enough to help the extremists to buy arms with my money!”
His shy demeanour hides a soft and generous heart. His close associates recount his stopping at a busy Mumbai intersection to give alms to beggars lining the street. “He just thrust his hand into his pockets and gave them all the money,” said one. Another time in Chennai he got out of his car to help a cyclist who lay in an epileptic seizure.
He encountered controversies on the personal front too when he was charged with throwing out his father’s close associates and converting people. All the charges turned out to be totally unfounded and baseless. Rahman defended himself saying, “A rumour has been going around that a beggar I picked up at a Dargah has become an absolute tyrant and has become the reason for sending out M K Arjunan. M. K. Arjunan was a very close associate of my father and my adviser.
He helped our family in the time of our need by letting me play the keyboard in his orchestra. The truth is Arjunan’s son wanted to set up a recording studio in Kerala. I gave him some of my instruments. And M. K. Arjunan went back to Kerala to help his son set up his recording studio there. Therefore there was no question of an outsider making him leave,was there? And while on this point, I did not pick up any beggar on the streets.
Another rumour which is spreading is that I convert people close to me. What nonsense. If I had converted people, Noel, Shivakumar, Shridhar etc. would have changed religion! When I am not perfect myself,how can I convert others? I follow my religion, let others follow their own. The whole thing was cooked up by a freelance journalist called Bismi, who married my sister and later divorced her. He met her when she was doing some stage shows and we sort of forced her into marriage with him. But unfortunately we came to know that he was only after my money. He used to be very upset with my giving to charity. Anyway as soon as my sister came to know that he was only after the money she separated. But during the time when he was around he learnt a lot of the family’s inner issues and now he is spreading rumours to upset me.”