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From Kollywood to Bollywood to Hollywood

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A.R. Rahman with his mother Kareena Begum (centre) and sisters.
A.R. Rahman with his mother Kareena Begum (centre) and sisters.

Sruthi Krishnan

Tracing the musical evolution of Allah Rakha Rahman

CHENNAI: In the summer of 1992, the nation experienced a new sound. Be it ‘chinna china aasai’ or ‘choti si aasha’, the song captured hearts, marked a beginning and introduced a name. Allah Rakha Rahman. A name that became a chant on Monday.

As a four-year-old, Dilip, as Rahman was then known, was seen toying with a harmonium. That was when the composer Sudharshanam Master playfully tossed a towel over the instrument. Undeterred, the boy repeated the tune he had been trying out — to the astonishment of his father R.K. Shekhar. It was the early sign of genius.

Not surprisingly, academics did not figure high on his priorities. His sister Rahane recounts that all his school notebooks remained literally unopened. “Nothing interested him as much as music.”

He lost his father when he was barely 10. “Yes, it was a challenging time. But our mother made sure we did not feel the burden,” says Ms. Rahane, recalling a time that brought the siblings close to one another.

Malayalam music composer M.K. Arjunan was the first to assign Rahman keyboard duties for his 1981 film Ernadu Mannu. Rahman was paid Rs. 50, his first income from the film industry. The keyboard took him to maestro Illayaraja’s studios too.

In the mid and late 1980s, Tamil audiences savoured the Leo Coffee ad which had Rahman’s signature stamped on it. The world of jingles had found its new poster boy.

But he belonged elsewhere. Kollywood was then hunting for a new music director. “Mani Ratnam referred to me a boy named Dilip who was doing a lot of good jingles,” says veteran director K. Balachander, recalling the making of Roja.

“The first song which was recorded was ‘Chinna chinna aasai’.” A tape was sent to him for approval. He listened to it driving his car. He ended up listening to it 15 times over. “I sent a note back to Mani Ratnam saying this was the best song of the decade.”

What followed reads like a long-list of ‘best songs of decades to come’. Be it Prabhu Deva gyrating to ‘Chikku bukku’ in Gentleman, the magnificence of ‘Chandralekha’ in Thiruda Thiruda, the tug-at-your-heartstrings ‘Uyirae’ from Bombay, or the stirring ‘New York nagaram’ from Sillunu Oru Kaadal – any attempt to pick favourites falls flat.

Charmed by his lilting blockbusters, Bollywood did not take long to embrace Rahman.

There was no ‘Kya Karen ya na karen’ dilemma in continuing the journey that began with Rangeela in 1995. From Sukhwinder Singh’s ‘Chaiyya chaiyya’ to ‘Masakkali’ in Dilli 6, his romance with Bollywood continues.

The West first spotted his talent in Bombay Dreams, an Andrew Lloyd Webber production in 2002. From then on, recognition in Hollywood was but a small step.

Rahman rode on the Slumdog Millionaire sensation across the United States picking up several awards in the run-up to the Oscar night.

— with inputs from M. Dinesh Verma, Ramya Kannan and Meera Srinivasan

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