When you hear the name A.R.Rahman, you are immediately reminded of all the soulful songs he has composed and sung since the beginning of his career in 1992. His image in the eyes of fans is also influenced largely by his energy and electric stage presence during concerts, which make people stay back at venues after he has finished playing his set, in the hope that he will come back to play more. After having listened to his stirring rendition of Vande Mataram, and powerful tracks from films like Bombay, Roja and Rang De Basanti over the years, it can be very tempting to ask him questions of a philosophical nature with the expectation that he will say something deep and emotional in response.
This is why it comes as a surprise that he is, in fact, a little shy when you meet him in person. Not just that — as a contrast to the aura of intensity that surrounds him, the music composer and singer is also candid, honest and quite humourous when making conversation.
His concert film One Heart, which gives a glimpse into his 14-city tour in North America, released on 7 September. Along with clips from concerts, it also has shots from rehearsals and his interactions with his bandmates. “I took off the bits I didn’t like,” he says, with a chuckle. Surprisingly, his favorite part from the film is the footage from his personal life, and more specifically, the shots where he and his wife take photographs together.
Ask Rahman what keeps bringing him back to the stage, and he promptly responds with, “Mortgages, actually.” Apart from the remuneration that concerts bring, he says that he likes performing on stage to explore the different possible ways in which people can be entertained. There is also the ‘wow’ factor at work because of the sheer scale of these concerts. “When you become ambitious and build institutions and a studio, you want to give back all the love you received. Most of my concerts are quite big, the stage is big. And it’s not just about me, it’s about the whole deal. I’m stunned when people post pictures from the shows,” he says.
Does he prefer the stage to the studio? “No, without the studio, there is no stage!” says Rahman. His first concert after “becoming AR Rahman” was in 1996 in Malaysia. He played to the largest audience he had seen until then, and he describes the atmosphere as being crazy. But playing on stage never gets old or easier for the composer. “The challenges always remain. For example during IIFA, our sound engineers didn’t get visas, so we had to get replacements. Sometimes, you have to rehearse for two weeks before a show. These things happen regularly, and it can be terrifying,” he says.
Despite preparing so much in advance and receiving rave reviews for albums, the audience can still go home unhappy. Recently, Rahman performed at the Wembley Stadium, and some attendees complained about the inclusion of Tamil songs in his set list, unaware that the composer produces an extensive amount of music for the Tamil film industry. But this seems to be a common occurrence. “It does happen often, it has been happening for 17 years now, since I began performing in the US, where the crowd is a mix of cultures. If you have an audience of 10,000 people, there will definitely be 50 people who will point out things like this. But you have to consider the logistics of the concert — if you want a big concert, you need everyone to support you. I don’t let such criticism affect me, because I have to look at the bigger picture,” he explains.
Apart from Bollywood and Tamil music, Rahman has also carved a niche for himself in international cinema by collaborating with directors like Danny Boyle and Majid Majidi. Speaking about the difference in approach he must adopt while working with film makers who belong to different countries, he says, “I’m constantly shuffling between sensibilities, cultures and music. You have to cater to the directors’ needs, which may not be too demanding. But my approach has to be focused on the lens through which the film is looked at by the maker. You have to tune in to their thoughts, and that takes a few days sometimes.”
Rahman’s iconic song ‘Hamma Hamma’ from Bombay was recently remixed for the film Ok Jaanu, and seeing as how revisiting old songs is all the rage right now in Hindi cinema, it is likely that his other compositions, too, will be experimented upon. But this does not bother the composer. “I think ‘Hamma Hamma’ did well because it had a good vision; people loved it and I’m happy with it. When I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s good a new feel!’ Fans of the original were disappointed, though,” he says.