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A. R. Rahman: ‘I am an instrument’

Many believe the music reveals itself to him. No matter what the source of the inspiration, A.R. Rahman has undoubtedly changed the very syntax of the Indian film song. Lounge meets him at his studio in Chennai

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You can’t walk into the AR Rahman Foundation wearing shoes. It’s sacrosanct—everyone, from the office staff and bustling personal managers coordinating the musician’s commitments to A.R. Rahman himself, leaves their footwear outside the inconspicuous two-storey building in Chennai’s Kodambakkam area.

“That’s what we do anywhere, it’s a south Indian tradition,” Rahman demurs. It’s 31 degrees Celsius outside. The calm within seems to be a reflection of the man who could weather a storm with a smile and a strum. Tamil auteur Mani Ratnam’s Roja—the first film that Rahman composed the score and soundtrack for—released in 1992. Our meeting last Saturday was the culmination of efforts to track him down to mark his 25 years in the movies.

But now, I have the two-time Oscar and Grammy winner seated cross-legged on a footstool. We’re in a well-lit, orange-hued room on the first floor—well appointed to double up as a studio for photo shoots and television interviews. It is right above his workstation a floor below, and noiseless except for the faint hum of the air conditioner and the man who seems to audibly process each word before releasing it to the world. It’s been a hectic week—nothing unusual, he tells me. He has been juggling Hindi, Hollywood and regional projects, and has just returned from a music tour in Australia with composer-orchestrator Matt Dunkley.

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“Music is an art, at least for me and my family. It is informed by spirituality. And where there’s a spiritual environment, we normally take our shoes off, right?” he offers.

Dressed in a white T-shirt, black trousers and a black sweater vest, he looks far younger than his 51 years, though he jokes that his limited social skills are getting even more impaired with age.

Rahman moves without an entourage, gliding through the studio barefoot without hangers-on. There is no one else present at the time of the interview, a rarity as far as film industry meetings go.

The numerous trophies and certificates—he has four National Film Awards and five honorary doctorates, besides countless other felicitations—have made little difference to the genius of the man whose music, as collaborating film-maker Abbas Tyrewala observes, is purely “internal”, almost revealing itself to him before he processes it intellectually.

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Born A.S. Dileep Kumar, the singer, musician and composer converted to Islam at the age of 23, a move that he says honed his music skills and continues to define much of what he is known for today.

“I was never happy with my music earlier. But the whole thinking changed from ‘I’m playing music’ to ‘I’m an instrument’,” he says softly, arranging his thoughts. He has just finished a video bite but hasn’t snapped out of the formal camera position.

“There is some zone of self-discovery for each of us. Earlier, it was easy to say I’m practising and playing but I’m not good. Now, to even say that is a complaint against the inspiration. Also, music is not a solo activity, there’s an entire team working with me and everyone is spiritual in their own way. I feel like we’re an empty vessel or a zariya (means) and the art that comes out in the process is bigger than us; it defines itself.”

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Over the years, Rahman has collaborated with many professionals who aren’t spiritual in the conventional sense, the most significant of them being film-maker Mani Ratnam, whose Roja set a music milestone when it released. The Tamil film album that won the debut composer the National Film Award for Best Music Direction was the first to challenge the syntax of the traditional Indian film song. It introduced orchestral melodies instead of using regular instruments and reversed the mukhda-antara (chorus and stanza) structure. It was a choice that Time magazine referred to as “Rahman’s gift for alchemizing outside influences until they are totally Tamil, totally Rahman”, while naming it as one of the magazine’s “10 Best Soundtracks” of all time in 2005. Rahman attributes the now legendary structural reversal to his exposure to different kinds of music, from jazz, fusion bands and African music to commercials from 1986-91, when he quit his job as a sessions player for films under composer Ilaiyaraaja.

“It was not done just to make a statement,” Ratnam says on email. “But the way AR perceived specific songs, he would go back to a conventional format whenever it was right but did not feel the need to be bound by it. He was not fettered by film music traditions, or by region or language. He was, and still is, making music as he sees right for the film. He goes with the flow and brings in a musical dimension to the narration.”

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An unconventional musician may have been uncommon for Indian cinema then but breaking rules and pushing boundaries are what continue to endear Rahman to audiences, says UK-based television producer and writer Nasreen Munni Kabir. He effectively discarded the templatized music of the 1980s, where the focus was entirely on acoustics, preferring to “assemble” songs on the keyboard thanks to his sound programming skills. This also ensured that many of his songs were heard in their original Tamil version beyond south India on the basis of their extraordinary orchestration.

“Rahman does not operate with any safety net. Every song that we’ve made together has seemed like a very big risk to me because he wasn’t following any pattern that would elevate the song midway if the overall conception didn’t come through well,” says film-maker Imtiaz Ali.

For example, Maahi Ve in Ali’s Highway wasn’t even part of the film originally. Having improvised a 20-minute track for another song, Patakha Guddi, the composer decided that the last portion of it could be developed into a completely different song, despite knowing there might not be any place for it in the film.

“The risk-taking in this was that he was making it for a situation that didn’t exist (in the movie), knowing that it would add to its emotional heart. He had obviously seen something that none of us had,” Ali says.

Inspiration of this kind may have come, to a great extent, from the A-team that, as Rahman points out, collaborates to make a musical statement and a film-maker who acts as a friend in co-producing a thing of beauty—an opportunity music directors in India rarely get now with songs no longer driving narratives as they once used to.

“I believe music is an inevitable, compelling part of movies and the art of it is lost because the belief in it is gone. If Andrew Lloyd Webber produces a film, my music (for it) will be different because he understands what melody is and how much joy it can bring. Whereas when I worked on the Lord Of The Rings (the stage adaptation, 2006), it was more about the story,” says Rahman. “I understood that there. Even here, if you’re a very music-focused director, the movie will have wonderful music. Like Aanand L. Rai is all about storytelling and very culturally rooted, so the songs in Raanjhana are helping the film but they’re not soaring out. If you take Mani Ratnam or some other films in the 1990s, you can see how the songs would soar out. But that’s increasingly rare now. La La Land happened because the director is a musician and understands the power of melody.”

That is why, the composer emphasizes, he launched a movie production company, YM Movies, earlier this year. He has been courteous and attentive throughout our interaction but the needle really moves when you bring up the latest initiative. Directed by theatre and dance artiste Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, his maiden venture 99 Songs, which releases later this year, is a Tamil-Hindi bilingual film with music and story by Rahman. He shows me pictures on his phone of the sound stage they’ve built.

“I feel like it’s time we make international movies from India,” he says, keen to put his Hollywood learnings to use in India. “They should be in English to reach a global audience. It’s exciting to learn new things and bring the knowledge to your own people. Here, they learn things in probably one-third the time others take and they are much more loyal. Of course, I love working with orchestras abroad but it gives you a different high to work with your own people.”

Rahman says he doesn’t know how to look back on the legacy he has created in the last 25 years—he doesn’t see or understand it that way.

“I thought Roja would be my last movie and the world would perish in a year. But it never stopped spinning. Now, there’s a challenge and a task every day. So the day never ends; even if your body says you have to sleep for two days, you have to keep going,” he says, walking out barefoot

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