A.R. Rahman is one of the most celebrated musicians in this country, but few people know about his humble beginnings. Son of an arranger and conductor in Malayalam movies, AR Rahman (then Dilip Kumar) started learning the piano at the age of four. He was only 11 when he joined the maestro Ilayaraja’s troupe as a keyboard player.
When his father passed away, his mother Kareema Begum inspired Rahman to follow into his father’s footsteps to become a musician. The only way he could pursue music full time was to opt out of school, which he was not sure was the right decision at that time.
The experiences enriched him and enabled him to earn a scholarship to the famed Trinity College of Music at the Oxford University. Besides holding a degree in Western classical music, Rahman was also part of local rock bands like the Roots, Magic and Nemesis Avenue.
His first professional tryst with the ad world got him visibility and then there was no stopping him. Rahman composed background scores for popular ads like Parry’s, Leo Coffee, Boost, Titan, Premier Pressure Cooker, Hero Puc and Asian Paints. He also did a couple of non-film albums like Deen Isai Malai and Set Me Free.
His film career took off when he composed for Mani Ratnam’s Roja and ever since he has been the most sought after musician both down South and in Bollywood. What is even more remarkable is that he is sought after by both mainstream and offbeat filmmakers. International director Deepa Mehta said she could not sleep for nights after Rahman agreed to make music for her film Fire.
Over the decades Rahman has worked with innumerable filmmakers – be it Ram Gopal Varma/ Rangeela and Subhash Ghai/ Taal followed by Ashutosh Gowariker/ Lagaan, Mohenjo Daro and Imtiaz Ali/ Rockstar, Highway. But he continues to share a special relationship with Mani Ratnam, which started with Roja and Bombay and has continued till Raavan.
He was responsible for taking Indian music to new heights when he performed in Shekhar Kapur-Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Bombay Dreams or later The Lord of The Rings for the London stage again with Webber. He is the only Indian composer-singer to be honoured both at the Oscar and the Globe.
Watching him at the music launch of Rajnikanth’s 2.0 at Yashraj Studio in Mumbai and later at the Global Citizen Festival on television, I’m amazed at how simple a man he remains despite his success. He was as shy and withdrawn before as he is today and as good a judge of his work now as he was many years ago. A recap of a rare interview that gives a glimpse of both the man and the maestro.
Are you really as unsocial as everyone makes you out to be?
AR Rahman: I’m shy, not unsocial. I have my close group of friends with whom I let my hair down. My work calls me to meet all kinds of people and I’m used to interacting with strangers, but how I deal with them depends entirely on my mood and circumstances.
Everyone describes you in superlatives. How do you assess yourself?
Rahman: I deliver my best but it is not fair to give me all the credit for my tunes. My team works equally hard and so does the director who projects my creation into the visual medium. My assessment of my work stems from their responses and from the approval of my filmmakers.
And how do you select your filmmakers?
Rahman: It’s very tough and it’s becoming increasingly difficult with time. Earlier, it was easier because I was not well-known and could rely on my instinct. Now, there are greater expectations from me. So one is perpetually frightened of making a wrong choice. The easiest way out is to continue working with people you’ve already worked with, so there is a comfort zone like in the case of Mani Ratnam and now Ashutosh Gowariker and Imtiaz Ali.
Do you fear working with new people?
Rahman: Not fear, but credibility of the director and the lyricist is paramount for me at this stage of my career. It is embarrassing to be attached with people who don’t deliver. In the past I have trusted strangers and delivered sublime music, which after all these years, remains in the cans. To do that again would be a colossal waste of time and energy for my entire team and I’m not comfortable about it.
It’s difficult to accept that a producer will not honour a commitment with AR Rahman.
Rahman: I’m not saying that they do it deliberately or out of manipulation. It’s circumstances. They probably lack finance or are facing some other problems. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, two directors approached me around the same time. The first was an established banner and the second, talented but new to the business. Both wanted compositions immediately and were ready to take tunes from my bank compositions. The first, by my own admission, was an average composition and the second, above average. On instinct, I provided the average composition to the established banner who transformed it into a chart buster. The second, which was in fact the better tune, never got released. It’s something I have always wondered about. There is a possibility that had I exchanged the tunes between the two filmmakers, the hit would have been even a bigger success.
There is a possibility that it may not have worked at all?
Rahman: Sure, there is that possibility too. Till the tune is ready and finalised by the director, the music composer is never completely satisfied with his creation. He can never enjoy his own music until much later, sometimes maybe even years later.
Your compositions have an unmistakable stamp. Is that an asset?
Rahman: I have to admit that it is not deliberate but if it still exists, I take it as my identity. As long as my identity does not come in the way of my versatility, I’m okay. There is a difference in being characteristic and in being typecast.
Where do you seek inspiration?
Rahman: From life, from faith… I don’t know. I don’t think about it and don’t want to analyse too much. Sometimes reflection takes away from the natural process of the journey. I guess it’s about faith and my faith stems from my religion. Nothing is possible without His will… neither my talent nor my innumerable compositions.
You seek peace in religion?
Rahman: I surrender to my religion. It believes in one God. That is why I converted to Islam. Those were turbulent times for the family. My mother and I were seeking an anchor and we found it in Allah. By embracing a new religion, I felt I had acquired a new identity.
Subhash Ghai once referred to you as mercury. Do you agree with the description?
Rahman: I’m not sure what Subhashji was thinking when he said that. This must have been during Taal. He could not be referring to my temperament because I’m very calm and far from mercurial. He probably meant someone you cannot hold on to in which case he is right, because even I don’t know why I do things and when.
They say you are terribly inaccessible. Is this true?
Rahman: Well, I’m attending this music release and I’m also talking to you right now, so I’m accessible (Laughs).
Producers say that if you want to work with Rahman, you should be able to do two things: park yourself in Chennai and be able to stay awake all night.
Rahman: I’m not forcing anyone to work with me, but if I live in Chennai, that’s where they will have to come. About keeping awake, I’m comfortable working in the nights but that does not mean that the filmmakers have to stay awake as well. Shyam Benegal didn’t during Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose or even during Zubeidaa. He would be in the studios till midnight and then arrive next morning to listen to the compositions. But Subhash Ghai, because he is a music lover, wanted to wait and watch the creative process during Taal. So it’s their individual choice.
And how do you manage to catch up on your sleep?
Rahman: I work through the night, starting at dusk and ending at dawn. The five o’ clock namaaz is a precious time. If I sleep at regular hours, there is no way I’d be able to wake up for the morning namaaz, so I prefer to wrap up my recording at 5 am, offer my prayers and then retire to bed peacefully.
In the position you are in today, you are seldom criticised. How do you know if you have given a good score?
Rahman: I always know when I have delivered a good score and this is one area where I will listen to nobody but my heart. A popular score or a celebrated one is not necessarily my best score.
Original Article published at quint.com. The article is written by Bhavana Somaaya who has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. You can follow her on Twitter @bhawanasomaaya