In Hyderabad for a concert, A R Rahman talks about the need for enhanced cinematic experiences, making concerts accessible to deaf and his compositions on the theme of demonitisation
4:16 pm, I hear at the other end of the phone.

“4:15?” I ask, thinking I didn’t hear it right.

“No, 4:16,” the PR person reiterated.

An SMS followed confirming my time slot. It left me wondering how many minutes I’d actually get for the interview and why that one minute difference mattered. The scepticism wasn’t misplaced, I realised, when I reached the venue. A.R. Rahman is scheduled to perform in Hyderabad on Sunday, November 26, and a few of us get to interview him for “seven minutes each” on the previous evening. The conversation didn’t begin at 4:16 but a while later, but I was reminded of the seven-minute duration time and again.

The legendary composer himself is a picture of calm, as always. His trademark measured smile is intact, but he looks exhausted. “I am human and there’s only so much work I can take up,” he says, when we begin talking and he explains why he won’t be composing for the Chiranjeevi-starrer Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, a biopic on Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy.

“Chiranjeevi is a fantastic actor and I have great respect for him. It’s a beautiful film and has a great story to tell. But I have other projects and my life is all over the place. I am also promoting my film (99 Songs, which he has produced and co-written). Sometimes I have to be practical about how much I can take up,” he says.

‘Accessible’ concert

His concert in Hyderabad will celebrate 25 years of his music journey. On November 18, performing in New Delhi as part of ‘The Sufi Route – Concerts for Peace’ series, he and his team were part of an initiative that made the concert ‘accessible’ to the deaf. “The organisers came up with the idea and I was very touched. I feel these small things make life beautiful,” he says.

Making a concert ‘accessible’, he says, calls for more technical work. “But if it is done, it will change some people’s lives and enhance the music experience for them,” he says, and goes on to talk about being closely associated with the Ability Foundation in Chennai, founded by Jayshree Raveendran. “I am a big admirer of her work. She can’t hear, but she’s a dancer. I like how she calls it the Ability Foundation and not Disability Foundation,” he says.

On the inaugural day of International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2017 Mr. Rahman attended the premiere of Majid Majidi film Beyond the Clouds for which he has composed music. Then there’s the virtual reality project Le Musk. Closer home he worked for the massive hit film, Mersal. “I look at every project as a means to connect with people. Mersal will reach the villages and along with it, the music. I treat every project equally. I don’t think of Le Musk as a high society project just because it is Italian. I find joy in composing for mass Tamil films as well as 2.0 or Le Musk which call for a different approach,” he says.

Talking of 2.0 and its techno-heavy music, Mr. Rahman avers, “I do what a film and its theme requires. I can do a song in 1000 different ways but I have to work with a director’s vision. He is the captain of the ship and ultimately he listens to the song more than I do. Shankar’s work amazes me. Three small films can be made from the time, effort and money he spends on one song.”

Mr. Rahman’s own ease with technology, he says, began early when he worked on the synthesiser his father bought. His father was the first in South India to have a synthesiser. “My interest in technology started early and I never imagined that and music would merge. But the dots connected,” he reflects.

Enhanced cinematic experience

Mr. Rahman changed the syntax of the film song when he composed for Roja 25 years ago. With projects like 2.0 and Le Musk, is he entering a new zone? “The film industry is going through challenges. There are so many taxes and there’s competition from the digital medium. It’s a miracle to draw people to watch movies in theatres.

“Earlier people had this fascination for movies, actors and stories. Now it has to be so much more. Being in this industry, we are constantly thinking of how to pull people into cinema halls. The experience has to be 100 times more than watching something on the phone or television. We need to give them bang for their buck. Film-making and music are going through changes to make this possible,” he explains.

The PR person has already signalled twice that my time is nearly up. But Mr. Rahman brightens up at the mention of The Flying Lotus, for which he collaborated with the Seattle Symphony. With the theme of demonetisation, this is an experiment. The compositions have no lyrics, barring the one that uses snatches of statements by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Arnab Goswami among others on demonetisation.

Was doing away with lyrics intentional to avoid taking sides on the demonitisation issue? “No,” he laughs and adds, “I felt it should be a musical expression. Twenty years later, when people listen to it, they should feel it’s beautiful and recall memories of this time, when they were part of a change and stood in queues. I was inspired by the idea of composing on such a theme.”

Music and demonetisation

While unveiling The Flying Lotus on social media, Mr. Rahman mentioned that it took him six months to get the right stream of thought to compose, after Seattle Symphony approached him. Discussing this, he says, “I could have done anything; but there is a fear when you work with orchestra music. It’s like the mafia. They are waiting to see what music you can do with them. I felt this is our culture. Events in our country and the music should be an expression of how I feel about it and then bring that into an orchestral composition. I took my time.”

By this time, the PR person is fidgeting and signalling me to stop. But Mr. Rahman isn’t done. He continues, “My dream is to bring our music into an orchestral sound. Orchestra is like a collective instrument with which we can come up with musical expressions. I think we should have orchestras in each of our cities.”

I check the time. The conversation has lasted a little over seven minutes, 25 seconds more to be precise.