You cannot stare directly into AR Rahman’s eyes. It’s like the Medusa effect, except that instead of turning into stone, you go into deep introspection and start questioning what you have done with your life till now. His eyes are dark and deep, almost like tunnels that suck you in. I notice how they complement his blue kurta-shirt that he is wearing when we meet. This is the first time I’m meeting an Academy Award winner and when he walks into the room, I notice that he’s not very tall. But does that really matter? Does anything really matter when you are AR Rahman?
To a young journalist like me, this is a big deal. I am told that there are only three other journalists who’ve been invited to interview Rahman and none of them are in their twenties. I start counting the number of awards he’s won on my fingertips in a bid to kickstart my brain.
Rahman’s won six National Awards, two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, and — here, I take a breath — he’s also a Padma Bhushan awardee. I almost start out by saying “You’ve got big dick energy”, but restrain myself to gushing over how honoured I am to meet him.
He’s turned producer and writer with his debut film, 99 Songs, that is set to release this year, and stars newcomers Ehan Bhat, Edilsy Varghese and Tenzin Dalha. As an artist, Rahman’s creativity has always found manifestation in music. What set him on the path to creating something visual?
“I’m a big fan of visuals,” he tells me, and goes on to narrate how he started thinking about using the power of music and storytelling and transcending the roadblocks that people (read: producers) put on musicians (“We need an item song, we need this song and that song”). “I started thinking about what the world is going through right now, I see stories, around me, of redemption and self-discovery. These stories made me wonder if there’s a possible narrative that can be strung together from all of these experiences? So, what you see in the film are stories which is my perspective of the world around me and what I’ve gone through,” he says.
The thing with a Rahman song is that you can see it the minute you hear it. You can see the train slowing down as it approaches a station, you can see the plumes of smoke it emits. You can see the drops of rain hit the scorched earth in slow motion and see the smell of hus while relieved villagers dance all around you. I’m no music expert but this, I believe, is a uniquely Rahman phenomenon. It doesn’t take an Anupama Chopra or a Rajeev Masand to know that it is a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film even before the credits flash on the screen. It is the same with the Oscar winner of namma Chennai. I’ve always been intrigued as to whether he first visualises the music and presents it to the filmmakers? “When you create music, do you also see visuals?” I ask.
“So, I read the basic synopsis. I keep narrating the story to myself. The more you keep narrating it, telling the story over and over to yourself, the better are the chances of being able to churn out ideas.” he says, adding that storytelling is a natural process, and just how the right people enrich a melody after it is put to paper, similarly, the right director enriches an idea while preparing it for screen.
“I think music is just a feeling. After a while, when you’re a professional, you surpass all the technicalities and it’s just a feeling, and how purely it can be translated into action, that is, your keys and melody. So, sometimes, you’re in the right mood and it falls together correctly and sometimes you feel there’s some colouration,” he says, gesticulating with his hands. Rahman talks with his hands. These are expressive, conductor-like movements. It’s almost hypnotic, but I push myself to focus. Rahman doesn’t make eye contact frequently and tends to stare at his hands and the table in front of him, I notice. He speaks as he thinks — there’s no clearly formed sentence. He makes numerous references and his speech is almost devoid of punctuations. Sometimes it seems like he is in a conversation with himself, and I am just the moderator, leading with the questions.
We start talking about his film. All the lead actors that were picked for 99 Songs are debutants. Why would he pick nobodies when, let’s face it, he could have his pick of the best actors in India? What’s so special about the leading man, Ehan Bhatt?
The answer, according to Rahman, is Bhatt’s personality and his soul. Rahman and team did not compromise on the process. They went to Mukesh Chhabra, the casting director, and held around 600 auditions with the sole specification being that the main character had to be Indian. Bhatt had something in his eyes that spoke multitudes about his character.
“Initially, we had a more younger-looking almost nineteen-ish guy in mind. Something like the Harry Potter guy. Then I said no. In case (god willing) this movie becomes a success; I can see this guy grow as a star. I could see him in another movie and becoming bigger. I could see him as the next big movie star,” the maestro says. I’ve never met Bhatt but I’m thrilled for him — after all, how many people get a personal character certificate from the AR Rahman?
“Were you adamant to work with a fresh face?” I probe. “Well, I love Aamir Khan, but will he come for one year and get trained in a conservatory to learn piano? He might but I didn’t want to trouble him because it’s my first experience,” he smiles.
As far as the lead female character is concerned, Rahman initially spoke to Alia Bhatt but “because she is really big right now and we were going through teething problems with the budget”, the team held 900 auditions and decided to go with Varghese.
For a while, we discuss the teething problems and how 99 Songs is like his baby. “It’s amazing when your characters come alive. It’s amazing when things work out. And it’s also very challenging when things don’t and you have to bring them back on track. As a leader you need so much conviction and strength to tell the team that this needs to be done and this needs to be fixed,” he says.
But that is a huge responsibility as a first-time film-maker — to be in charge and be the final authority on everything. He’s built such a name for himself that isn’t there immense pressure to be the best of the best?
“Aiyo, yes,” he says. “I have to go out and test if it is good enough. Does the song only work for the situation in the film or is it also good for the general public? Then I wonder, how I keep talking about music and I have been working for so long, but what if I fail? So, all these questions keep cropping up in my head, and that makes me work even harder. And I think that’s how it should be done because people deserve your 100%.”
Steering away from his film, I decide to discuss the current state of Bollywood music. This is clearly the era of remixes and now, we have the whole country jumping onto the rap bandwagon. It is evident that, for the past five years or so, the 52-year-old has slowed down in Bollywood. We are used to an AR Rahman discography that is instantly recognisable, an individualistic soundtrack that is as separate from the movie as it is cohesive — and sometimes bigger than the film. One doesn’t have to go as far back as Roja or Bombay or even a Rang de Basanti. This is the man who gave us masterpieces like Dil Se, Taal, Saathiya, Jodhaa Akbar and Rockstar. In recent times, Raanjhanaa and Highway were fantastic and Tamaasha was haunting. That was 2015. After that, he delivered blink-and-misses in Mom and Sanju. What happened?
“I did slow down because of various reasons,” he admits. “Even the industry changed. There were publishing issues and music companies took control and said ‘oh, I have seven composers and I’ll give you three of this and three of that’. It is easy for people, this good short cut for commercial movies. And that is not bad, even Hollywood does stuff like that, but then, I was like, why are you doing this? You have the power, people love you — some people love you at least — what stops you from taking leadership and creating a base instead of waiting and asking other people to give you a chance?”
It doesn’t take a musical genius to see the dearth of original composition in Bollywood films today. What’s Rahman’s take on that? “I’ve always felt that these short cuts people have…” he says and pauses. He’s clearly trying to measure his next few words. “We need to invest time,” he continues, “We need to invest love and passion and that’s how the team, the director, composer, lyricist works. Having the intention of creating something beautiful. When these three combines, when you have the right wavelength and sit together, magic happens. You’ve seen that when I have worked with Mani Ratnam and Imtiaz Ali. Even Highway, even with Rakeysh [Omprakash Mehra], with Ashutosh Gowariker, there is a lot of love, a lot of soul searching, a sense of excitement to discover something new. Nothing comes readymade. So that’s it. Often, the situations don’t exist but we discover them like ‘hey, I like this and I want to create a situation for this’. So that is missing with readymade music. Now we are like “okay, we have 5 slots”. There’s a promotional video, there’s a this, there’s a that… It’s a formula of marketing. What happens is the sense of newness of what could be the next song disappears.”
“We know that Bollywood can’t exist without music but at the same time, I personally feel that right now Bollywood isn’t investing in music as much,” I say and Rahman nods in agreement. “They don’t, they don’t. I think the big money is playing a big role. It’s all about making 100 crores or 200 crores. So, we need to do this, we need to do that. Nothing wrong with that and I am sure it’ll come back to its original source and structure soon,” he says. But doesn’t this sadden or frustrate him? “No, it doesn’t frustrate me because I am not sitting here and sobbing. I am doing my own thing. It provokes me to probably learn many things and see what are the other possibilities.”
I am getting the image that the music Rahman wants to create was not available so he decided to go ahead and do everything on his own. “Exactly, yeah, exactly,” he enthusiastically agrees. “It’s too much of a responsibility but at least I am trying. I think it’s definitely worth the risk. Other people are putting their money on me and I am just terrified of that responsibility and that makes me work day and night. Every member in my team is just amazing. They are just so honest and so faithful and they trust me and I hope we all get success.”
I hope he is successful too. Rahman might be incredibly accomplished, but he is also a shockingly humble and vulnerable man. The PR person in the room gestures to me that my time is up and I ask him if he’ll be kind enough to take a picture with me. “Come here, I’ll take a selfie with you,” he says.