A.R. Rahman talks about experimenting with genres, finding new voices and why, at 46, he felt the need to look beyond film music. sangeetha devi dundoo listens in
A.R. Rahman is a magician in control of his team on the stage. A Zen-like calmness seems to envelop him as he takes to the keyboard, anchoring the performance of his singers. When we catch up with him after the live performance at the audio launch of Kadali (the Telugu version of Mani Ratnam’s Kadal), he talks about his music with the same demeanour.
The music of Kadali is a blend of Christian gospel, Blues and South Indian folk music. “The sea was a huge inspiration. ‘Chithirai Nila’ was born out of that inspiration,” says Rahman, taking us into the creation of the album. “The other songs came in when Mani sir said he wanted romantic numbers. I composed ‘Nenjukulley’ (‘Gunjukunna’) and ‘Moongil Thottam’ (‘Pachchani Tota’) in the same tempo; these songs were alternate choices but he liked both.” Rahman chose Shaktishree Gopalan for ‘Gunjukunna’and Abhay Jodhpurkar and Harini for ‘Pachchani Tota’.
Testing new territory
The risky song of the album, says Rahman, was ‘Adiye’ (‘Yadike’): “Most Christian gospel songs in the US that I’ve heard have a Blues feel to them. I thought it would be interesting to incorporate this into a folk song picturised on a village boy.” The song was composed and it took a while for him and Mani Ratnam to get used to it, he says. “The song fell in place after I found Sid (Sriram),” says Rahman.
Sid Sriram was studying at Berklee College of Music and had sent Rahman a demo. Rahman liked it, interacted with Sid over Skype and then Sid sang the song. “Mani sir didn’t like it initially and asked me to sing it. I had already sung ‘Keechan’ (‘Yele Yele’) and didn’t want to sing another song in the same album. A few hearings later, Mani sir liked Sid’s voice and retained Adiye (‘Yadike’),” adds Rahman, who is all praise for Sid’s versatility: “He has this rare combination of being able to sing Blues and Carnatic music. I found that very striking.”
Spotting new talent has always been Rahman’s forte. He says unlike a decade ago when it was tough to find new voices, there is a huge talent pool today thanks to television reality shows. “Every street corner has a new singer,” he exclaims. What he looks for in a singer is “a gifted voice; the ability to transport you into a different world when you close your eyes and listen to their voice; ability to convey the required emotion and above all a good attitude.”
Rahman has had a way with spiritual songs. ‘Piya Haji Ali’, ‘Khwaja Mere Khwaja’, ‘Kun Faya Kun’, the gospel songs in Sapnay and Kadali being fine examples. “I don’t believe in doing a Sufi song with dummy lyrics that go ‘Ishq, Ishq’. I’d rather do a song that is spiritual. You have to believe in a genre to make the music sound appealing. You believe in God and you bring in that depth into the compositions,” says Rahman.
The challenge, he says, lies in making romantic songs sound different. “Each film has a romantic, sad and a motivational song. It’s challenging to do something different yet achieve the same emotional connect with people. Which is why I don’t do too many films so as to not repeat myself,” he says.
Rahman rues the fact that filmmakers rarely experiment with music and maybe bring in Carnatic classical like K. Vishwanath and K. Balachander did. “Directors feel the audience might use such songs as a break and leave the hall. I think if you work hard to compose and then picturise a song, any song will catch attention. Doing a masti song to cater to youth is the easy way out.”
His recent independent single Infinite Love is his attempt to break free from composing within the confines of a film and its script. “I suddenly realised I was 46. I had everything; why not have a global voice even if nobody listens to it? My agent in LA helped me and I did this single. I haven’t publicised it aggressively. People are slowly discovering it. It’s a start; other songs will follow,” says Rahman.
Criticism for ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’
Finally, we ask him about Jab Tak Hai Jaan, an album that got mixed reviews with many music buffs feeling it didn’t have the charm of a Rahman album. He pauses, smiles and answers, “I wanted to work with the legend Mr. Yash Chopra. Yash Raj Films has a tried and tested method of filmmaking. They make big films that make an amazing amount of money. The parameters were small. I had to move out of my zone, fit into their idea of filmmaking and bend a few things to make it work,” says Rahman. Did he find it restrictive and strike a compromise? “I cannot call it compromise but I went with the flow of things and gave them what they wanted — two Punjabi songs and a few romantic numbers. They promoted the songs well. The film made 250 crore and they are happy.”