When A.R. Rahman sang Vande Mataram with Coldplay’s Chris Martin in Mumbai recently, the crowds roared with appreciation. Not just because they were watching two legendary musicians together on one stage, but also because of the emotion that the song evokes.
Speaking about the 12-year-old Rahman who often skipped school to play music and support his family, composer Ilayaraja once said, “He held onto the instrument like his life depended on it. He was in love with music more than anyone I know.” At the age of five, Rahman would lock himself up in a room and play the harmonium for hours. His mother would wait outside with his lunch.
Today, at 49, he has crossed innumerable milestones. Yet he often searches for that young boy within his music. Even when the world hailed him as a leader in music, he chose to see himself as a seeker. “It’s what keeps me alive. If I stop searching for something new, I would die of boredom,” he says. Right now, his search is beyond music. He is turning to filmmaking and looking to specialise in a whole new way of capturing visuals and sound.
Rahman, dressed in all black, with a hint of green (his lucky colour) waits in his hotel room in Goa during the 10th NFDC Film Bazaar. He’s just returned from the release of the virtual reality (VR) film that captured his concert at the United Nations (UN). Twenty-four years after Rahman changed the soundscape of film music in India (with Roja) with digital compositions, he is on the brink of yet another brilliant idea. Excerpts:
Your tribute concert to MS Subbulakshmi at the UN in August is now a VR film. Do you think a film shot on 360 degrees can do justice to that live experience?
It’s about bringing to people what they could not have. Only a certain number of people could watch that concert. I wanted to make sure it reaches as many as possible. I knew that many people wouldn’t have been able to make it. MS Subbulakshmiji was there at the UN 50 years back, and now I was there giving her a tribute and recording it from all dimensions. We have kind of immortalised it, so you can watch it for the next 50 years. Of course, we can record it on regular video and upload it on YouTube, but we wanted to think beyond that. When you’re watching a live concert in VR you are part of the experience, a lot more than otherwise, because with that headset on, you are in the space. You are not just an outsider.
You have always been a pioneer when it comes to embracing technology. Will recording music in VR revolutionise the space like digital sound did two decades ago?
You can’t be a slave to technology, you have to empower it and make it work your way. If you want to bring up the art, bring up the tradition, you will do that. Imagine watching the biggest symphony orchestra perform on your VR set. It may be happening in Berlin or San Francisco, but you are sitting in your home and experiencing that not just visually, but also musically. Recording sound 360 degrees makes it a wholesome, deeper experience.
There is so much technology around music these days that live sound almost seems like an illusion. Do you agree?
Well, everything is an illusion; this conversation might be, who knows? It’s like you are in a dream and you want to sustain it. Technology helps you do that. It doesn’t mean you don’t respect the live form of the art. For me it’s like pausing a good moment, and controlling it and reliving it. The VR films I have seen have been overwhelming. In a moment, you are shifted to the Himalayas or Antarctica, places where you can never be. On my mother’s birthday I connected with her through VR and it was wonderful. It’s like the beginning of a whole new wave of an art form that can expand your vision at multiple levels. It’s about taking that leap of faith and sticking to your purpose.
With this film or even your first film that you announced as a producer, your interest in storytelling has increased in the last few years. Is that a conscious shift?
Yes, because you evolve as a musician. I have been concentrating on how to emote through music all my life. And then I see the world divided and I know that I can say several things which may or may not be communicated through music. When people divide themselves in the name of religion, gender, money, I feel like they don’t see the larger picture. I am very controlled in what I speak, I don’t want to attack people. But I feel very responsible towards the world I live in and I want to express what I feel. My stories are that form of expression; my films will hopefully embrace the sense of belonging I feel towards people around me. These stories will always reflect upon the other sentiments that I have, apart from what music evokes.
After all these years, do you ever feel limited in your musical space?
There’s an over sensory attack happening with music today. There’s too much of it and it is too easily available. Earlier the thought of taking a record, putting it on, putting a needle on it or going to a concert and listening to someone play was worth something. Now it’s ten a penny. You plug in your iPad and there are 10,000 songs. So where is the respect for the art form? The wholesomeness of an experience is gone. If I make you a song and you listen to a YouTube clip of it on an iPhone speaker, it will never do justice to the notes I created. But that can’t change now, which is why you reinvent the way you are listening to sound or watching movies so that we can feel what music is really capable of.
Even today your best music comes from your regional space, when you work with the likes of Mani Ratnam. Are you happy with the stories that are being told in cinema by young writers today?
My work with my mentors, or those I’ve shared a relationship with for so many years, comes from a very sacred space. We understand each other’s language so well, which is why we made a Roja or a Bombay or OK Kanmani, for that matter. But today I feel like there is a wave of change through independent filmmakers and the stories they are telling. The more original content we create, the more unique things we can do by being ourselves, and the more we will be noticed. Like what Satyajit Ray did. His vision of India was real and glorious at the same time. I feel we are at the brink of innovation in our cinema telling, and that inspires me as a musician too.
Independent filmmakers cannot afford to hire you, though…
(Laughs) Why should they hire me? There are so many great musicians in India. And I am never closed to working with someone new. In fact, I am looking for stories that would excite me and I would love to work with someone who has a fresh thought.
Can you tell us some more about your first film?
It’s being directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy and we’ve been working on it for six years now. It’s a story of self- discovery through music and I’m really looking forward to shooting it.
That’s all you’re going to tell us?
I don’t speak much, you know that. (Smiles)
What was it like performing with Coldplay in Mumbai?
It was lovely. It was very nice to see youngsters reacting to Vande Mataram after so many years of it being made. Chris Martin, of course, has a very elevating energy, which made it even better. I like the band, they say good things through their music. They don’t use bad language or insult the art form. Which is why people respond to them the way they do.
You’re working on five films at the moment. Plus, you travel between homes in LA and Chennai. And you do live shows. And you have an initiative, Nafs, to promote Indian talent internationally. When do you sleep?
On flights. Your mentioning the things I do at one go is intimidating me a little. But it’s nothing compared to what can be done. I’m happy and lucky to have a set of brilliant young minds working towards a vision of mine. I want my work and my music to bring people together and everything I do is towards that. It’s purposeless otherwise.
Article Credits – A.R. Rahman in conversation with Divya Unny for Open Magazine