In this regular column Gopal Srinivasan writes on a particular topic related to A.R. Rahman. This time Gops discusses some of the controversies that have surrounded A.R. Rahman.

Controversies, as most people will readily agree with, are an unavoidable part of public life. Facing controversies is also a harsh reality for a successful person. For a shy, reticent and unassuming person, A.R.Rahman has been part of more than his fair share of controversies. Controversies very rarely of his own making. Like most controversies the ones affecting Rahman were largely media made too. This is an attempt to take stock of all the controversies that have plagued his personal and professional life.

Rahman made his debut with Roja in 1992. And soon thereafter became much sought after by the media. Perhaps his first brush with controversy was unwittingly sparked off by himself. His presumably naive remark in an interview, ‘I am told that my flops sell more than Illayaraja’s hits’ earned the criticism of many. But the remark was dismissed by most as the naivete of a newcomer and Rahman got away lightly. The next was when Rahman was accused of being responsible for the delay of ‘Bombay’.

‘Bombay’ was originally scheduled to release in January 1995 but was put off to end March finally. It was alleged that Bombay was delayed because Rahman had not delivered the songs on time and Maniratnam was finally forced to drop two proposed songs from the movie in order to release atleast it in March. It was speculated that Maniratnam was fed up with Rahman and was going back to Illayaraja for his next film. But none of that happened. Later both Maniratnam and Rahman did acknowledge that there was some problem with the songs but made light of the so-called controversy.

In 1996 the music company Magnasound re-released one of ARR’s early albums ‘Set me Free’ as ‘Shubha’ advertising it as ‘Rahman’s first international album’. This was done without the knowledge and consent of Rahman. Set Me Free was meant to launch singer ‘malgudi’ Shubha Kailash and featured Rahman as composer in his earlier avatar of Dilip Kumar. In the reissue the focus was entirely on Rahman. Rahman was livid. “I’m not ashamed of my old album. Neither am I trying to hide my past,” explained the music director.

But he wanted the public to know that ‘Set Me Free’ was a six-year-old album which was done as an experimental venture with singer Shubhaa. Magnasound, he said, was wrong in trying to pass it off as a brand-new album. Magnasound sold 2 lakh copies in no time, an increase of over 10000% in sales since the previous time. But Magnasound’s Managing Director Madhav Das was unapologetic about it, “See, we had the rights to the album. And today A.R.Rahman’s name is an instant guarantee to success. So, what is wrong in exploiting that?”. That was the last word on the matter and Rahman remained silent with registering his protest.

Some minor controversies continued to plague Rahman. He was tagged with the reputation of being very arrogant and was accused of making producers wait endlessly and treating them like dirt. One widely reported incident , especially in Bollywood was Rahman keeping Subhash Ghai waiting one entire night. But these reports were not substantiated by either of the parties involved. But Rahman did say this much – “In Chennai, I have a small studio where all the music happens. I can do only thing at a time there. Even when a track is being transferred, all other work comes to a standstill, because I like to supervise everything myself. I don’t believe in handing over a job to someone else and wait for the results. This leads to people waiting for me sometimes. But its not deliberate.”

Around 1995 Rahman was crowned king of Indian music and barely 3 years after he arrived on the scene was lord and master of all he surveyed. At this time the public was getting an idea of his personality. His being a devout Muslim. His penchant for being nocturnal and all that. One disgusting accusation was that some not too pleasant incidents were happening amongst his troupe during the nights in his studio. Rahman brushed aside such malicious stories with ‘Everyone working with me are like brothers and sisters’.

In 1996, producer-director Suresh Menon for whose, Pudhiya Mugam Rahman scored the music, sold the Hindi remake rights of the movie and its music to BabuBhai Latiwala of Bombino. The Hindi soundtrack was dubbed without Rahman’s involvement and he was peeved with Suresh menon for having sold the dubbing rights without consulting him. Rahman made known his displeasure in public but could do little since the copyrght over the music vests with the producer and not the composer.

In 1997 following the release of Vandemataram singer Yesudas is supposed to have severly criticised Rahman at one of his concerts, condemning his rendition of the song. Yesudas’ bluster against Rahman never received much attention. Rahman himself remarked that Yesudas had not told anything to him directly and refused to believe that he had made those comments. The incident was soon forgotten. As evidence of the cordiality between the two Yesudas did sing for Rahman after this incident in films like kandukondain kandukondain.

Some of the most bizarre and serious allegations about Rahman surfaced post-vandemataram in 1997. After the release of vandemataram Rahman received a barrage of threats from Islamic fundamentalists for having sung a song that supposedly went against the principles of Islam and from Hindu fundamentalists as well for having ‘defiled a Hindu song’. Consequently he was offered armed protection by the Tamil Nadu government. In this period he was accused in the Tamil print media of a variety of things. It was alleged that Rahman was funding Islamic fundamentalists. And then he was charged with throwing out his father’s close associates from his studio. He was also accused of converting people close to him.

In his defence Rahman said, “It is better that I clear everything up. About the rumour that I helped fundamentalists, how can it be that I provide funds for them, when I have received death threats from the extremists and the state government has posted police personnels to guard my residence? Another rumour concerned my giving away money as charity to such organisations. Charity is done to satisfy my urge to do more for the poor. And anyway I have to tell you, I don’t give charity only to Muslim charities, I donate to Hindu and Christian organisations too. The money I give as charity is limited as I have to improve my instruments. I have invested heavily in technology and there is not much left to indulge in mass charity. The amount I give is definitely not enough to help the extremists to buy arms with my money!”

“A rumour has been going around that a beggar I picked up at a Dargah has become an absolute tyrant and has become the reason for sending out M K Arjunan. M. K. Arjunan was a very close associate of my father and my adviser. He helped our family in the time of our need by letting me play the keyboard in his orchestra. The truth is Arjunan’s son wanted to set up a recording studio in Kerala. I gave him some of my instruments. And M. K. Arjunan went back to Kerala to help his son set up his recording studio there.

Therefore there was no question of an outsider asking him leave,was there? And while on this point, I did not pick up any beggar on the streets. Another rumour which is spreading is that I convert people close to me. What nonsense. If I had converted people, Noel, Shivakumar, Shridhar, Swamidorai, Sivamani etc. would have changed religion! When I am not perfect myself,how can I convert others? I follow my religion, let others follow their own. The whole thing was cooked up by a freelance journalist called Bismi, who married my sister and later divorced her. He met her when she was doing some stage shows and we sort of forced her into marriage with him. But unfortunately we came to know that he was only after my money. He used to be very upset with my giving to charity. Anyway as soon as my sister came to know that he was only after the money she separated. But during the time when he was around he learnt a lot of the family’s inner issues and now he is spreading rumours to upset me.”

Even as he weathered the larger storms some minor pinpricks continued to persist. People spoke of bad blood between Kamalhassan and Rahman because Rahman had refused to let sing Kamalhassan sing in Indian. The rumours were probably fueled by the fact that Rahman did not work with Kamal after Indian and while Kamal’s preference for Illayaraja is well known he kept stressing that Ilayaraja was a better composer than Rahman in a few interviews. Rahman had no comments to make. But the two have since returned to work together in Tenali. One doesn’t know if the above was true since Kamal might have agreed to work with Rahman in Tenali since he was in no position to call the shots after the debacle of Hey Ram. And Kamal is singing in Tenali.

Then there was Kumar Sanu who went on a wild joyride abusing Rahman in the choicest of terms. Kumar Sanu incidentally has sung a solitary number for Rahman, in Kabhi Na Kabhi. Kumar Sanu made it a point in every interview to make some disparaging remarks about Rahman. He said that Rahman had no knowledge of music and it was beneath his class to work with Rahman and many other things all in an attempt to establish that he had nothing to loose by not working with Rahman. But not many were fooled. Sanu’s real grouse was that Rahman, the most happening composer around, didn’t work with him and was trying to save face by making it appear as if he was the one who was disregarding Rahman. For his part all that Rahman had to say was that ‘Kumar Sanu sings in a very Bollywood style. He does not suit my freaky songs’.

One of the most serious controversies to hit his professional life is the recent split with long time lyricist Vairamuthu. No one really knows when the rift began. But it hit the ears and eyes of the public when vairamuthu made some remarks during the music release function of Kandukondain Kandukondain. Said Vairamuthu, “I agree wholeheartedly that Rahman is a great composer.

But I do wish his music would not totally swamp my lyrics to the extent that nobody can make them out.” Sitting on stage next next to him was Rahman and his only response was a smile. But the very next day Rahman reportedly ordered the doors of his studio and his movies closed to vairamuthu. The stories grew when Vairamuthu was missing at the launch of ‘Tenali’, the very next day. Rahman signed up four new lyricists Ilayakamban, Piraisoodan, Arivumathy, Kalaikumar and with them Pazhani bharathi for Tenali.

If some magazines were to be believed the whole thing started when director of ‘Udaya’ Azhagu Perumal introduced upcoming lyricist Ilayakamban to Rahman. Pleased with his work Rahman asked him to do a song for ‘Udaya’. This apparently miffed Vairamuthu who till then was sole lyricist to Rahman. As things stand neither Vairamuthu nor Rahman or any figures from the movie industry have made any comments on the issue. Details are hazy. There is just a lot of speculation on the basis of the fact that Rahman is not working with Vairamuthu but these whole hosts of new lyricists in ‘Tenali’.

And this one even took him to court. In 1995, Rahman had performed at the wedding of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s foster son in Chennai. The wedding was an elaborate affair and was probably the most expensive wedding in the world ever. In the subsequent corruption cases that were filed against the former CM, all those who had performed in the wedding were also investigated to find if they had received any ill-gotten wealth.

Rahman stated that he had only received the customary gifts given to all guests at the wedding and had accepted no fee for the performance itself. On July 14th 2000 Rahman deposed as a prosecution witness in the bevy of corruption cases against former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha. Deposing before judge A C Arumugaperumal Adityan, Rehman said that in July 1995 Jayalalitha’s secretary Jawahar Babu had called him up saying that she wanted to see him. Rahman and his mother went to see the then chief minister at the secretariat. Jayalalitha requested him to perform at the wedding of her foster son, Sudhakaran, whom she has since disowned. Sudhakaran, a co-accused in a corruption case against Jayalalitha, is one of the three nephews of Sasikala Natarajan, Jayalalitha’s close friend. Rahman said that 10 days before the function, Bhaskaran (Sasikala’s nephew) and his wife came to his house to invite him to the wedding on behalf of the groom.

As is the custom in Tamil Nadu, they invited him with the card placed on a silver plate holding a ‘kumkum’ (vermilion) container and two silk saris. It is common practice at Hindu weddings to present vermilion and clothing to friends and relatives on behalf of the bride and groom. From the bride’s side, legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan’s son Prabhu invited him. A reception was held on September 6, 1995, a day before the marriage, and Rahman and his troupe performed for an hour. He told the court that he had performed free of charge. After this Rahman was discharged from the case.

Perhaps the most damaging allegation against Rahman was made by the portal indiainfo.com in July 2000 when it ran a story that Rahman’s mother was stalling the telecast of the second part of an interview to Sun T.V. because the producer refused to delete Rahman’s reference to the song ‘Sankara nadasareerapara’ from the movie ‘Shankarabharanam’ as one of his favourite songs composed by another music director.

Rahman’s mother reportedly wanted it removed because she did not want her Muslim son to refer to a Hindu song as his favourite!!! The article described Rahman as a religious fanatic and condemned him for tolerating his family’s religious fanticism. It questioned how a composer who had tuned Vandemataram and Jana Gana Mana could do such a thing. Indiainfo.com stood by its article and claimed that it had thoroughly investigated the whole issue before publishing the piece and the journalist in question was one Kalyan Kumar, formerly with the Tamil edition of India Today. There was neither any response from Rahman nor any follow up from the webzine.

And the latest in the list is to do with Rhythm. This movie had been in the making for a long while and Rahman had been repeatedly named as being responsible for its delay. The story goes that Pyramid Natarajan, producer of ‘Sangamam’, ‘Rhythm’ and ‘Udaya’ had not paid Rahman for ‘Sangamam’. And therefore he was dragging his feet on completing the work for ‘Rhythm’. The producer supposedly toyed with the idea of replacing Rahman with another music director in both ‘Rhythm’ and ‘Udaya’ but ran out of money to even complete the shooting of ‘Rhythm’. Then the producer supposedly approached Rahman and begged him to complete work on the music of ‘Rhythm’ so that he could make money from music sales and complete the movie. Apparently Rahman obliged him and Rhythm is now complete.

In summation, the one striking aspect of Rahman is that the dirt never sticks to him. Probably because most of the charges made against him are unfounded and baseless. Its mostly the result of yellow journalism or plain envy. Perhaps not many of the above mentioned incidents even deserve to be termed controversies. Interestingly in nearly all the above cases the controversy was raked up by a single source – magazine or website and died its death right there making one believe that it was all made up. Except in a couple of instances like the Rahman-vairamuthu split never has any of these snowballed into a major issue. Somebody raised it, a few people read it and that was the end of the matter. Rahman is bound to be drawn into many more controversies in the future but we can fairly rest assured that the dirt will barely stick since its rarely of his making.

© Gopal Srinivasan

Original Article Revived from Rahmanonline.com which was one of the famous fan websites created by Satish Subramanian in early 2000’s.