From Roja to Kaatru Veliyidai, this creative collaboration has lasted longer than any other in Indian cinema. In this interview, the filmmaker and composer reflect on their journey, how ‘sprezzatura’ works for them and why movies unite people beyond religious barriers

With Rahman, it is always ‘exceeds expectations’ and not ‘meets expectations’. Even in OK Kanmani, he surprised you by blending contemporary with classical music. How did he surprise you in Kaatru Veliyidai (KV)?

ARR: The biggest surprise I give him is by taking off on a flight and going somewhere…

MR: The film is about flights, so that’s okay! I like the fact that he comes up with something unusual for the situations I give him.

Flexibility is one aspect that you love about Mani. Tell us specific instances when you felt that about him.

ARR: For a song in KV, he wanted me to try the tango style and I was very excited about it. But then, once I composed it, I felt that there was nothing new. We kept working on it — the original tune was about 15 minutes long — and he felt that what was missing was the usual call I have in my songs. Then we added ‘Kelaayo’ and I felt that it was complete. Constructing a song and doing something new in a culture that’s not used to it… that’s how Mani’s brain works. It’s helped me many times. In Bombay, the challenge was to make people sit through the second half of the film that has a realistic, documentary-like footage. He came up with the idea of using Indian classical with drums.

Let’s go back 25 years. What was going through your mind when you visited Rahman’s ‘small room that produced wonderful music’?

MR: There was this nice small cosy room in which he played me some tunes that were electric. For me, it was a totally new experience as I’d never heard a composition so seductive.

Was there pressure to impress Mani Ratnam at that stage?

ARR: I was in a zone when I had faced so much of rejection. When you do commercials, you do a hundred tunes and just two get the go-ahead. So, I was in that zen mode. I thought Mani sir would listen to my tunes and not come back. I felt at ease only after a couple of films with him. But the biggest disappointment then was listening to the songs in the theatre, after listening to it in great quality in the studio. I was like, ‘If this is going to be the way, I don’t want to do it.’ It was Mani sir and Sridhar (the late sound engineer) who said things will change in the future… and they have.

Mani, you often describe Rahman as a ‘co-creator’. How do you patiently wait for the best musical output when there’s a deadline looming large and several coordination tasks at hand?

MR: Who says I’m patient? It’s just that I know how he works. If it’s crucial for a film, he will take that extra effort. He cares for every element of his output that you know you’re in safe hands.

Rahman, tell us in detail about how an Italian word you like — sprezzatura (graceful conduct without apparent effort) — fits in with the working style of Mani Ratnam and his songs?

ARR: Sometimes, you’re tempted to do a lot of orchestration for a simple melody. Some other directors that I’ve worked with tell me that there’s no BGM, add something more. But with Mani, I can do what I like. ‘Vellai Pookal’ from Kannathil Muthamittal, with just a guitar and a voice, is one example. Even ‘Vaan’ from Kaatru Veliyidai was basically just a piano and voice.

There’s a Thirukkural that says: ‘If you’re with learned people, you also become learned’. It works that way with Mani and Vairamuthu. It’s incredible to think that we have someone like Vairamuthu who has raised the bar so much.

How do you consciously work on getting an album to feature mixed moods so it works commercially?

ARR: It is very important. A movie caters to a universal audience and not just one section of it. It’s also about adding to the story. In Mani’s films, if you remove the songs, then the movie might not work because it is constructed that way.

Mani, how difficult is it to adapt to Rahman’s time schedules and recording at night?

MR: There are some benefits to being first in the line. You learn fast and you know how to adapt.

Apart from music and movies, what do Rahman and Mani Ratnam talk about?

MR: From day one, he’s talked about life. About philosophy. A conversation with him can go anywhere, but then it all comes back to music.

ARR: Some musical thoughts come from such conversations. I mentioned the word ‘Fanaa’ once to Mehboob (Bollywood lyricist) and he was curious. We ended up using it in a song!

Rahman is a man of faith and Ratnam is a non-believer. Do you both ever discuss religion or spirituality?

ARR: I think it’s a very personal thing. Working with Mani, I realise that you don’t need to be religious to be a good human being and vice versa. All his films are about uplifting humanity — that shows that his understanding of faith is at a very different level. I think movies — or art, for that matter — are a unifying factor. When someone sees it, they see it only as a thing of beauty. Not one created by a Muslim and an atheist. Isn’t that beautiful?

Tuning in

Roja (1992)

There was this nice cosy room in which Rahman playedme some tunes. They were just electric. I had never heard compositions so seductive. He was evolved as a musician even then – Mani Ratnam

Bombay (1995)

The second half had documentary-like footage. Mani suggested using Indian classical with drums. Every album has one song that takes a long time; in Bombay, it’s ‘Kuchi Kuchi Rakkamma’. – ARR

Kannathil Muthamittal (2002)

Other directors tell me to add something when I offer a simple tune. With Mani, I can do what I like. ‘Vellai Pookal’, with just a guitar and a voice, is one example – ARR

Kaatru Veliyidai (2017)

I like the fact that Rahman comes up with something unusual for the situations I give him and that makes it that much more exciting. It is not necessarily parallel but lateral – Mani Ratnam.

Article and Interview by Srinivasa Ramanujam for The Hindu