In times when music is literally going into the background in our films, A.R. Rahman is coming up a film production company where music will drive the content. Speaking on the sidelines of the India launch of Jai Ho , Umesh Agrawal’s documentary on him, Rahman says he finds music going increasingly ambient in our films. “Particularly Hollywood films. It is no longer central to the theme. I want to produce films where the music is scored first and then the story is woven around it.”
He feels it is a pragmatic idea. “Why not? People have given me so much love. So let’s give it a try.” Asked has this music first policy got something to do with his experience with filmmakers over the years, Rahman says, “A filmmaker has many challenges to contend with at a time. He has to deal with his hero, whose aim is to become a bigger star to earn more crores. In such a scenario it is difficult for a filmmaker to accept a musical script.”
Rahman says when he was young he used to think why can’t our popular music be accepted in the West. “There was always an audience for our esoteric music but when it came to popular forms, it were always we who were following them.” With Rahman’s success it changed and this is what “Jai Ho” celebrates. His school KM Music Conservatory is making news and Rahman says his idea is to impart knowledge about both traditional and western forms. “Today I met seasoned composer Uttam Singh at the music launch of Nanak Shah Fakir and he showed concern about the diminishing number of good players of strings and brass. At the school we lay emphasis on creating good players of both traditional and western forms of music. We already have some of the best pianists in the world,” says Rahman.
However, it is Rahman who ignited the electronic music wave and cynics often hold him responsible for the decline of organic music in our films. He admits that he was bored of the Tamil music scene when he was growing up, playing keyboards for his father who was a noted arranger in Tamil film industry. Rahman counters, “Change has to happen. If I had not done it somebody else would have done it. I was not doing 12 movies a year. I was probably doing one or two movies but people still noticed it. And I never ever completely replaced organic music with electronic music. Acoustic musicians have always been part of my score.”
So it is time to turn the clock back. “It is about striking a balance. Both can coexist. Sometimes I find a lot of acoustic music in Vishal Bhardwaj and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s work. I did it in ‘Lagaan’ and recently in ‘Kaaviya Thalaivan’. We have so many audience. People can consume different things.” This brings us to another charge that Rahman has made the lyrics and playback singer redundant but in the documentary he says that he often records the sound on a bare track. “Not every song is the same. Every song demands its own grammar,” he reasons. “Like ‘Lukka Chuppi’ is all about Lataji’s voice. Similarly in ‘Pathshala’ there is emphasis on lyrics. But we should not forget that there is a reason that it is called soundtrack and that every song can’t have dholak sound.”
Last couple of years have been a mixed bag for him. While his compositions in Lingaa and I failed to enthuse, his work in Hindi films Ranjhaana and Highway broke new ground. “It is not that Hindi filmmakers are providing more challenging work. It is just the timing of releases and the expectations.” He reminds us of Jab Tak Hai Jaan where Aditya Chopra was elated with the score while some of his fans were not as excited. “Sometimes a simple score is the need of the filmmaker. Expectations are high again as he and his mentor Mani Ratnam join hands again for O Kadhal Kanmani , releasing next week and like always, Rahman says it is a multi-layered score. Earlier in the evening he said after Roja he felt exhausted. “I was coming from the jingles background so film music was a lot of work for me. But Mani understood not only me but also the change that was happening around and allowed me to do my thing. I have this habit of returning to the song till the very end. It was not the practice before. Like Roja I still feel that there is something left.”
Apart from Ratnam, Rahman says Shekhar Kapur, Ashutosh Gowarikar and Subhash Ghai proved to be great influence for him. The latest to join the list is Majid Majidi for whom he has composed for his latest work “Muhammad”. “I always wanted to work in Iranian cinema. How they are able to say so much with so many limitations. I experienced a whole new culture, a whole new world but Majid was not easy to deal with. Here everybody knows how I work but he had no idea. When I sent him some of the tunes, he said what it is. I had to make him listen to various tracks to understand what he likes and what he doesn’t, and then compose accordingly.” One thing that has changed about him over the years is that Rahman now feels sleepy at night but what hasn’t is his humility and discipline as Umesh tells us the night before the launch the maestro messaged him to ask if he had checked the audio system in the auditorium.