Leading documentary filmmaker, Umesh Aggarwal’s documentary based on legendary musician, A R Rahman will premiere tonight on Discovery channel at 9 pm. Named after the Oscar winning song, ‘Jai Ho’, the film was an initiation of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) to celebrate India. In a tete-a-tete with Pandolin, the ace filmmaker talks about working with A R Rahman, encompassing the maestro’s life into a film, his take on documentary filmmaking in India and more.
What promoted you to make Jai Ho?
This Ministry of External Affairs has a department called Public Diplomacy Division who have collaborated with PSBT to make new documentary films every year. In 2012 they were looking for films to celebrate India and at that particular time I suggested to them that if we want to celebrate India, why not make a film on A R Rahman because he is a global phenomena. And, that is how the film came about.
I’d been thinking of this idea because when Mr. Rahman won an Oscar everybody was celebrating his success, but I believe that behind every success there is a big story, which generally, does not get highlighted. At that time I read about him and realized that he was this boy from Chennai who lost his father at the age of 9, who could not complete his education and had to start earning at the age of 12-13. This got me thinking about the struggle and hard work that he must have put in to reach wherever he is today. For me, besides celebrating his Oscar this particular story was really fascinating because I wanted the world to know A R Rahman.
What proposition did you approach A R Rahman with? Was he easily convinced about the idea?
PSBT itself were quite apprehensive because we had all heard that Mr. Rahman was not a public person at all and hardly gave any interviews. We know that he is an introvert and extremely shy. So they were apprehensive if he’d agree and whether it was a doable film. I suggested that we shouldn’t give up without trying and luckily they accepted my request. Once the film was commissioned we started contacting Mr. Rahman.
It took nearly three months to reach him through mail. Post that I was informed by his staff that Mr. Rahman works only at night, so I might receive a call from him around 2.00 or 3.00 a.m. And I would be up the whole night, but the call never came. For more than six months I had no answer, it was neither a yes nor a no and it was becoming very unfriendly.
One day I decided to just take a flight and reach his office because I needed an answer from him. Incidentally, I managed to meet his sister there and I explained the entire project to her and what it meant. She couldn’t say whether Mr. Rahman would agree or not, but she assured me that I would be able to meet him in sometime. I managed to interact with Mr. Rahman the same evening. Surprisingly, it took 6-7 months to reach him, but within less than 5 minutes, he agreed.
How have you encompassed the various facets of his musical journey into one film?
It was very difficult. Initially we wanted to make a 54-minute film, which was the brief by PSBT for every film. But here was a career spanning more than two decades with more than 125 albums – feature films, films, musicals. How do you encapsulate everything? It was a huge challenge. We started researching with our researcher and script writers and we decided to not go by the popularity of the songs because everything is popular; nobody could say that they have not heard of Mr. Rahman. So we decided to focus on two things.
There would be two parallel narratives, one that would talk about his professional journey and the other would talk about his personal journey and both these narratives will go simultaneously because we wanted to make it very engaging. We did not want it to be a general compilation but a proper narrative wherein you are locked onto the story within just five minutes of the film.
We selected the main milestones from his personal life as well as professional life, milestones that changed him as a person and changed the music scenario in India to a great extent. We don’t even tend to realize that Mr. Rahman has not only composed successful music albums but has actually changed the way Indian film music used to be. And this is what the film talks about. Mr. Gulzar and many others in the film talk in detail about it, from Mr.Rahman’s style of recording to composition to the way he interprets a particular situation or selection of voice. But there was no way that we could have done this film in 54 minutes.
Finally, we made an 85-minute film. There are two cuts of the film – one is an 85-minute film, which is essentially for the Asian audience, people who are aware of his work in Indian cinema. But the international audience have a different take altogether. Because of the Ministry of External Affairs the film is disseminated across the global through the High Commission. Therefore, we made a 60-minute cut for the international audience and that cut will telecast tonight, i.e. October 26, on Discovery.
You have also worked with other notable names like Danny Boyle and Mani Ratnam for this film. How important was their contribution to the making of this documentary?
Extremely. When we interviewed Danny Boyle he was able to tell us how Mr. Rahman who won an Oscar for the film (Slumdog Millionaire) was the last one to come on board because it had already been shot. The song ‘Jai Ho’ that got the Oscar had already been shot. They had actually taken the rights of the song ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ from Don and used it to shoot the dance sequence that comes in the credits. Mr. Rahman came into the picture much later, but he composed the music in such a manner where each beat matched the ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ number, so they didn’t have to reshoot the song.
Similarly, we met Mr. Andrew Webber who believes that there is no other musician like Mr. Rahman across the global. This tells you how important this music composer is and what he has brought to India is not merely an Oscar, but has taken Indian sensibility and Indian music across the globe and made it popular. Earlier we have had musicians who have been globally popular, but they were restricted to a very niche audience who were interested in classical music. But Mr. Rahman has been able to connect to the popular culture. And those are the things that we have tried to bring out in the film.
How was the experience of working with a stalwart like A R Rahman?
Wonderful. We shot the film in Los Angles because Mr. Rahman was working on some Hollywood films at that time. Besides that we shot in Mumbai, Chennai and the United Kingdom. Mr. Rahman is a person who is extremely down to earth, spiritual and a clean soul. Mr. Rahman did most of his recordings late at night and would work till early morning and our shooting schedule, whether it was in Chennai or Los Angeles, was always from around 6 to 11 in the morning. And he would reach there on time every single day. He was always there for us and even while we were in Los Angles he ensured that we were looked after and that our work happened without any hurdles.
What was the most challenging aspect about making Jai Ho?
It is a challenge that any filmmaker would face – encompassing two decades of a career in one and a half hour, by the end of which you should get a feeling that you have virtually seen everything and should be hungry for more. The film should have such a gripping narrative that when it gets over, the viewer wants to know more.
And your favorite moment would be?
In a documentary you have a certain idea about how the film will finally shape up, but essentially you shoot a whole lot of stuff and then try to make sense out of it. One day we were shooting with Mr.Rahman in Los Angeles and during this time we had already decided on the milestones. Like the first one was Roja and despite Rangeela, Mr. Rahman did not really became a rage in Mumbai, it was actually with Taal that he became a rage in Bollywood, so Taal become another milestone.
I wanted him to play the theme tracks of these films on his piano and I would record it. He started playing and got into the mood, so besides the fact that we were shooting, we realized that we almost had a personal concert with Mr. Rahman. I think that is one evening that I will value for the rest of my life.
How did A R Rahman react when he first saw the completed film?
Mr. Rahman is a person of very few words. I sent him the film and he only called to say, “Umesh, thank you.” After that we had the World Premiere of the film in New York in the Museum of the Moving Image. He came all the way from India to New York to be part of the premiere. Post the premiere we got fantastic press, so much so that the news reached the White House and we were called for a special screening at the White House in Washington DC. Mr. Rahman came all the way to the White House.
We then had a premiere in India and he came all the way to Delhi. So I think, he is a person who expresses himself through his actions. The fact that he made himself available at all the important points of the film, after the film was made, gives me an idea that perhaps he liked the film. Also, recently in a press conference held in Mumbai people asked Mr. Rahman about his reaction to the film and he said that he liked it for the simple reason that this is an understated film.
The film is not about a personality talking about himself only, although that is the body of the film with Mr. Rahman being the narrator of his own story. but the film has a lot to do with what others think about him. There are humorous narrations regarding Mr. Rahman like Subhash Ghai says that he would end up fighting with Mr. Rahman because according to Mr. Ghai, Mr. Rahman was not disciplined. He would say that I am going to the bathroom and would disappear for three hours. These are things that were said with certain fondness, we have kept all those things and I have enjoyed watching them.
When he was doing Bombay Dreams, Mr. Rahman was working with Andrew Webber and he did not allow Mr. Andrew to enter the studio with his shoes on because in India there is a tradition that you enter the studio without shoes. Now, Andrew got very angry about it and complained to Shekhar Kapur (Co-Producer of the film). And Shekhar Kapur had to pacify him saying that he should let Mr. Rahman be, as long as he was getting good music and that should be his only concern. So, it was very interesting to see how others have managed to live with him.
How does PSBT as a platform help new filmmakers?
Public Serving Broadcasting Trust is one organization that has kept the documentary movement alive in India. Otherwise, today there are very few documentaries that are getting released in theaters. PSBT has played a very important role in supporting new and upcoming filmmakers. There are filmmakers who have made their first attempts and PSBT has stood by them, given them another film and mentored them so that their next is much better than their first one. They have played a very important role in creating independent voices for cinema and also give complete freedom to filmmakers.
The film is all set for its premiere on Discovery Channel. How did the association with Discovery happen?
The moment the film premiered in New York, a certain amount of buzz was created around it. It had already gone to 11 international film festivals and was received very well everywhere. That is how Discovery got to know about us, we started talking and they expressed an interest to telecast it on their platform. We thought that since we have very good content, Discovery would be a wonderful platform because it has a certain amount of brand equity and has nonfiction programming that reaches out to the larger audience.
Discovery also suggested that they would like to dub the film in many languages because the film is essentially in English. It was decided that the film will not only be dubbed in many Indian languages but several international languages as well. Therefore, the film is being dubbed in Malayan, Tamil, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish etc. I think after dubbing, the film would be able to reach out to a far larger audience, those who perhaps wouldn’t have watched the film because it is in English, but can now watch it in their own language. It is a win-win situation for both the content maker as well as the broadcaster.
What is it about documentary filmmaking that fascinates you?
I have been a documentary filmmaker for quite some time now. I got a National Award for my film and many of my films have been part of international film festivals and have won awards there. I find it fascinating because it presents a reality, a reality that is sometimes very unsettling, very harsh and at times a reality that is pleasant and fills you with positive energy to celebrate life, like this film.
In India, cinema is looked at as the primary source of entertainment and films largely fall under the category of entertaining cinema. Therefore, mainstream cinema has its own space in our life and we must continue to celebrate it. Documentary films have always been there but are gradually finding their space. They are questioning the norms of society and are also becoming technically sound. They now have good narratives and are no longer just interviews joined together. We are learning the art of storytelling in documentary filmmaking.
But Indian audiences are too caught up with Bollywood. Do you think there is scope as far as documentary filmmaking is concerned?
I think if the film is interesting and engaging, it will work. Sometimes films can be so stark that they depress you, but some films need to be that way otherwise you won’t understand what is happening around you. Also, a lot of nonfiction programming is getting a boost in India now, especially with channels like Discovery. But I think that we are still years away from that particular time when documentary films will be released commercially and people would go and spend 300 bucks to watch them.
But the good thing is that in India there are institutions like PSBT who have supported documentary films irrespective of whether the money will come back or not and it doesn’t come back most of the time. But there are people who have invested their resources in creating that independent phase and that gives positive hope for the future.
Any plans to venture into mainstream cinema?
Mainstream cinema would be feature films and let me be frank here, every filmmaker ultimately dreams of making a feature film and if anybody says he doesn’t want to make a feature film, I think somewhere he is hiding his true emotions. One day I’d definitely like to make a feature film. But through documentary films I’ve learnt few things like the art of storytelling because essentially cinema is the art of storytelling and how engagingly you can tell it. Through documentary films I’ve tried to be engaging and most of the times I’ve been successful. So, yes, I do dream of making a feature film, but let’s see when it happens.
Can you tell us something about your future projects?
I was just approached by the Ministry of Defense who is going to have an International Sea Tribunal in February 2016 and they wanted me to do a film. 50 nations are going to participate in it and I thought it would be interesting to shoot on ships. So we have just completed that film. There are three more projects that I am working on but will talk about them when they get ready.