Mozart of Madras

February 27, 2015 12:00 am | Updated 02:01 am IST

Despite being one of the biggest cultural icons of the country, A.R. Rahman continues to be an enigma. As Umesh Aggarwal tries to decode the genius through a documentary, Anuj Kumar gets the story behind “Jai Ho”.

Before “Jai Ho” comes to a close director Danny Boyle says, “We all dance to a mysterious tune intoned in the distance by an invisible piper. None of us know who that invisible piper is. But the song that he is playing will be written by A.R. Rahman.” It pretty much sums up what Rahman means to the world today. But to make the magician talk about his magic is not easy. National Award winning documentary filmmaker Umesh Aggarwal has managed to do it and has been able to capture not only the rise of Rahman as a global phenomenon but also his doubts and the dichotomies that his music deals with. From jingles to film music to western classical, Rahman transcends boundaries like no other. His music means different things to different people but nobody doubts he changed the course of music in the ’90s. “The way he amalgamates South Indian sounds with Western classical music is something special. Dholak and pakhawaj sound different in his music. The way he hears the sounds around him is unique. Sometimes it becomes difficult to spot the instrument that he is playing,” says Gulzar. Subhash Ghai declares except for lyrics he is perhaps the only composer who is adept at all the seven arts that go with composing a song.

Produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust and The Public Diplomacy Division or PD of the Ministry of External Affairs, “Jai Ho” was premiered at New York’s Museum of Moving Images early this week.

Catching Rahman is not easy but Aggarwal was up for the task. For nearly four months he made absolutely no headway as he just couldn’t reach Rahman. Then he got in touch with K.J. Singh, an award winning sound engineer with whom he had worked with for the past two decades. “K.J. has done a lot of work with Rahman, and he put me in touch with Vijay Iyer, a member of Rahman’s team. Vijay was very supportive. He said Rahman worked late nights and that I might get a 2 a.m. phone call some time soon. But my sleepless vigils were in vain. Six to seven months down the line I was still at square one and even (commissioning editor) Rajiv Mehrotra began to feel it wasn’t working out.”

That’s when he decided to take the plunge and pay a visit to Chennai. Destiny intervened and he managed to meet Rahman’s sister, Fathima. “She said Rahman was out; he’d be back by 6:30 or 7 that evening and she would try and get me a few minutes with him. Wary of the great Indian traffic jam’s power to slam shut this tiny window of opportunity, I waited for the next six hours by the roadside at Kodambakkam. At 6:15 there was a call: “He’s coming in 15 minutes. You’re on.”

Aggarwal explained that the film was part of the government’s efforts to highlight Indian achievements, to honour him and document his musical journey. “I was waiting for him to say no, but he asked when I wanted to do it. In disbelief, I replied, ‘Immediately’. He suggested that I first complete other stuff like collecting archival clips, interview his associates and the like. I came out and realised that it had taken 6 months to reach him, and less than 6 minutes to get his consent. By the time I reached my hotel, he had already sent mails to a host of people and asked them to cooperate, paving the way for me.”

Given Rahman’s legendary taciturnity and the constraints on his time, Aggarwal actually began with a voice-over-driven script. “Gradually, it dawned on us that we’d been playing it safe, creating a structure for someone whom we believed would prefer not to say much; but as it turned out he really opened up, and his own voice and words were actually the best vehicle for the story. So we began a new edit on these lines and it gradually began to take shape.” At New York a 60-minute international cut has been released and for those who already know a lot about Rahman’s music there is an 85-minute cut.

The film cogently brings out how Rahman has been able to get an international fan base without losing out on his following at home. “Rahman is somewhat like a powerful radio tuned in to different corners of the world. He’s aware of every musician, every recording artist, every trend, every instrument. So when he composes, he draws on this knowledge base and analytical acumen and he also assembles exactly the right team for each piece he creates, down to even such minutiae as getting the right diction for a particular song, the dialect, the flavour,” observes Aggarwal, who spent a lot of time with the maestro observing his life and work.

It is often said that his music takes time to make sense but when it does it refuses to fade away. Agrees Aggarwal, “As Ram Gopal Varma says, you want a song of his to be like other hit songs in that genre, but they aren’t, and this is disorienting at first. Yet when you hear it again you know it just has to be that way. It’s almost as if he’s teasing you to listen to it again and when you do, you realise why it’s perfect, and this is what you begin to love about him. The genre is there, but so is the genius, the originality. This is echoed at a thematic level as well. The song, ‘Tum tak, tum tak’ from ‘Raanjhana’, for example, operates on two levels. It’s the ballad of a hero singing to his beloved, but it sounds simultaneously like a devotee expressing his feelings for God. This is a characteristically Indian musical device which you can find in Meerabai’s bhajans as well as some of the classical dance music of the South, for example. It’s a unique combination of joie de vivre and the most transcendental spirituality.”

You can sense a dash of flamboyance in Rahman when he is in LA, where most of the interviews have been done, in comparison to Chennai. He almost has a faint smile on his face when he is talking about his father’s death. It might be irony but it stands out. “I wouldn’t call it flamboyance but may be a sense of relaxation. Someone who never had an easy childhood, is perhaps living his childhood now. As to the faint smile, I think it represents irony…. The stark visuals of his father’s cremation are etched indelibly on his mind, but from those ashes was born a phoenix-like glory that would have made his father proud beyond words.”

Americans took time to understand his brilliance. And when they did they got enamoured of “Jai Ho” which is not his best work. So naming the film “Jai Ho” seems like branding him as a pop icon. Aggarwal disagrees. “There are two aspects to this. One, every film needs a hook, a take-off point or a peg that draws viewers in. ‘Jai Ho’ was already resonating in listeners’ minds globally as a phrase and the signal of a new wave of music rather than just a specific piece, and that made it a logical choice. A more important reason for the title is what it really represents for me: Rahman’s victory over clichéd categories and stereotypes, over the limitations artificially imposed by political or indeed musical boundaries.” The film also brings out Rahman’s spiritual side, his change of faith and how saying his prayers help him remain focussed. “He isn’t given to holding forth on spiritual matters or giving discourses. But it’s when he talks about people, about music, about dealing with work pressures or difficult situations that his spirituality really comes out. It’s a very practical spirituality, grounded in real life and action. I’d say he’s one of the most grounded, centred people I’ve met.”

And as we wind up, Aggarwal recalls some interesting anecdotes from the shooting. “We were shooting a sequence at a gas station in LA. The bestselling recording artist in the world found he didn’t have money to pay for gas! He wasn’t carrying any money with him. It was also interesting to learn that while travelling he watches films in the silent mode, imagining the soundtrack rather than letting it play. But for me the most touching thing was how, whenever we’d eat together, he’d make sure that 100 per cent vegetarian food was ordered for me. It was emblematic of his personality and the care, respect and concern with which he treats everyone.”

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