AR Rahman's songs for “Highway” aren’t exactly groundbreaking — and no, that’s not an unjustified expectation when it comes to this composer

After a few listens to AR Rahman’s soundtrack for Highway, I must say I’m not terribly impressed. Let’s begin with ‘Heera’, which sounds vaguely like something Rahman used to do long ago — say, ‘Putham pudhu bhoomi vendum’, from Thiruda Thiruda. (The rise and fall of the first two lines also brought to mind, the way music often connects disparate dots in the brain, Ilaiyaraaja’s ‘Singaara Pennoruthi’, from Oruvar Vaazhum Aalayam.) The surfeit of ambient strings on the track seems like a distraction, a ploy to keep us from thinking too much about the over familiarity of the tune. The song is certainly pleasant to listen to — but then, with this composer, when has listenability ever been a problem?

His production levels are so staggering, the sound so pure, the voices so fresh and unusual, the arrangements so crisp and clean (and suffused with that impeccable instinct of his to sneak in a snatch of this instrument or that one when you least expect it, the musical equivalent of pulling a lever and changing a train’s tracks) that even his sub-standard work ends up sounding, well, listenable. But is that all we want from a double-Oscar winner?

Okay, forget the Oscars. Let’s imagine, for a minute, that the Oscars hadn’t yet happened. We’d still have humongous expectations from Highway. One, Rahman hasn’t been releasing all that much music of late. In 2011, there was just Rockstar. The following year, we got, mainly, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Kadal. Among Rahman’s other offerings that year, the Ekk Deewana Tha  album was essentially a rehash of the Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya score, and People Like Us  was a Hollywood-movie score that went largely unheard in India.

Last year, in the May-June time frame, we got Maryan and Raanjhanaa. Then, for more than six months, nothing — and then... Heera? Perhaps we have to watch the film to really get it. Perhaps it’s the perfect tune for the situation in the story. But as an audio-only experience, it just doesn’t cut it.

For a while, now, I’ve been wondering if this expectation of film songs being a rewarding “audio-only experience” is a just one. It’s how film music has been viewed traditionally, in the sense that the older composers created songs that functioned both within and without the film. When we saw the film, the song made sense with the visuals, but even if we hadn’t seen the film, we’d still be left with a great tune. (And given our track record of song picturisation, nine times out of ten, we’d rather be listening to the song than viewing it.)

But now, with filmmakers becoming increasingly adventurous – let me qualify that right away; there have been adventurous filmmakers earlier, but they worked within the “Indian-film format” and dealt with “Indian emotions,” whereas a lot of today’s filmmakers are inspired by Western narrative models — does the soundtrack album continue to bear the responsibility of lulling us to sleep on powerless nights? Or should we begin to look at soundtracks like Highway, with their moody instrumentals like ‘Implosive silence’, the way we regard Hollywood soundtracks, not as a collection of “songs” but as a musical translation of the film’s themes? With more and more songs being used in the background, over montages of situations, have songs, of late, become the background score?

I have to admit I’m not ready for that leap yet. Songs set our films apart, and when a song is used well — ‘Raabta’ in Agent Vinod, ‘Alvida’ in D-Day — it really becomes something else. In both these song situations (a shootout, a flashback to a murder), background music would have sufficed, but because these situations are set against sombre songs, the mood changes. Suddenly, it’s no longer just a shootout, just a flashback to a murder. The normal emotions we’d feel during these moments in a movie are transformed and amplified, because we’re not being influenced just by background music (however powerful, however well done) but by background music plus lyrics plus a voice.

That’s why I would still like a film music album to focus on songs. I would still like to fall in love with those songs after I listen to them once, maybe twice. (And it’s not like Rahman doesn’t do this. As proof, there’s the breathtaking ‘Nazar laaye’ from Raanjhanaa.) And I still want songs — like ‘Ambarsariya’, from Fukrey (a song I picked because of its Punjabi—ness, a mood that’s found in Highway as well) — that complement the on-screen picturisation while retaining their efficacy on a pair of headphones.

And that hasn’t happened yet with Highway. Not that I would listen to a techno/clubby track like ‘Wanna mash up’ on a pair of headphones in any case — I’m just too old. But the other songs, too, hint at promises that aren’t kept in the end. ‘Kahaan hoon main’ begins interestingly, with a whispery voice floating over a piano that seems to have just woken up and is doing a lazy-morning stretch, and the antara-back-to-mukhda bridge is lovely (‘Aate jaate poochti’ and ‘Mann bhi mera poochta’), but once the metronomic synth-beat sets in, the song settles into the kind of heartbreak-ballad template that served Richard Marx so well in the 1980s. ‘Patakha guddi’ (which comes in two flavours) is infectious, but carries a Rang de Basanti hangover. (Yes, this is due to the genre of the song, but when a composer works so intermittently, do we want to be reminded of his earlier hits?)

The two tracks I found most interesting — at least on a formal level — are ‘Maahi ve’ (which layers a singsong schoolchild-like chant with touches of gospel, calypso and a Tangerine Dream-era electro-pop ambiance) and ‘Sooha saaha’, which sounds like an update of an S.D Burman tune and just about survives being smothered by an excess of Rahman’s signature arrangements. The phrasing at ‘saaha’, with the extra syllable in the middle, is the album’s sole bit of magic — just about enough to make us forget the startlingly generic single from Kochadaiiyaan, which we got late last year, and help us tide the months till the release of the soundtrack for Shankar’s Ai. Given the gargantuan expectations around that album, though, I have to wonder if anything Rahman dreams up is going to be enough.

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Notes from a criticMarch 14, 2014