Posted by: Satheesh Kumar Muthu | November 22, 2008

AR RAHMAN: THE ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW

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He changed the face of film music. Now he’s changing the face of his music.

JUNE 2008 – THE MOST CELEBRATED MUSICAL ADDRESS in Chennai lies beyond a partly corroded gate whose colour has so far eluded consensus. It’s purple, said the first samaritan who attempted to guide me through the maze of bylanes that is this part of Kodambakkam. The second kind soul said lavender, and a third leaned towards mauve. Ten minutes later, standing in front of this entrance of apparently indeterminate hue, I decide to go with mauve. Mauve. It feels nice to roll around the tongue. It sounds sophisticated.

This mauve runs through the most unexpected spaces in Allah Rakha Rahman’s recording studio. It’s on the borders of the doors in the waiting room, doors whose signs indicate that they open out to Studio 3 and Studio 2. (Studio 1 is invisible from where I sit.) It’s on the ceiling, on the yards of gauzy material diffusing the light from lamps overhead. It’s on the fabric of the ergonomic chair in front of the keyboard behind me, a Fender Rhodes Mark II Seventy Three Stage Piano. Perhaps Rahman will complete the theme. Perhaps it’ll be on his person when he walks in.

But Rahman enters in a maroon kurta that’s as rumpled as the hair on that boyish face. Once you’ve sold over a hundred million albums worldwide, you can apparently dispense with combs. And hearty pleasantries. The mumbled greeting almost doesn’t make it, fighting its way out through a smog of sleep.

Rahman looks as if he’s just woken up. Considering it’s fourteen minutes past six – that’s PM, for the uninitiated – he probably has, after a gruelling night of recording. As he leads the way to Studio 3, a cascade of sound crashes through the so-far-silent waiting room. An assistant emerges from behind a door, perhaps the door to the mysterious Studio 1. It closes behind him and locks out the music that has lingered just so long as to tease. So much for wanting to brag about bearing witness to an AR Rahman work-in-progress.

As he opens the door to Studio 3, it’s clear that the only recording that’s possible here is on my Dictaphone. This is just a cubbyhole. There’s a table. A couple of swivel chairs. Hardly the dizzying array of musical geegaws I imagined. Rahman picks a chair and arranges himself in a pose that a yoga instructor would describe as the lotus position with one dangling limb. The homey posture adds to the disquieting impression that the real Rahman is going to stride in any time, boot this happy pretender out and take over his seat, one imperious leg crossed over the other.

But this is the real Rahman opposite me, barreling through the conversation with fragments of sentences – phrases, really – as if he’d long ago realised that fully-articulated declarations had a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with his thoughts. Between these phrases, Rahman pauses a lot. He also laughs a lot. It’s a nice, open sound that makes you think he’s dropping his guard. Then the laugh dies away, and so does the presumption.

Rahman is especially guarded about revealing his feelings about that morning’s big news. The Madras High Court had dismissed the public interest litigation against him (for disrespecting the national anthem in his album Jana Gana Mana, an in-spirit follow-up to Vande Mataram). “I think, me being patriotic and all,” he begins, and instantly changes his mind. “But don’t. That’s already done.”

A microsecond of an internal struggle later, he realises he wants to talk about it after all. “I knew that it would be over. After all, the President released it. And he can’t be wrong.” That open laugh again. Then a pause, followed by a platitude. “I think it’s good that people raise questions and that they are answered in the right way.”

I wonder if this generosity towards people raising questions extends to interviewers. I may already know the answer, but Rahman, to his credit, at least makes the attempt to meet me halfway. He doesn’t mind interviews, “But only selectively. Otherwise I feel very naked. I feel I’ve given everything away, all the information away.” It sounds like a new admission, but it’s the old celebrity dilemma: you want to reach out to your adoring public, and you still want your privacy.

That’s the thing about being in the limelight: there are no shadows to hide in. And this year, especially, has been an extremely visible one for Rahman. It began with a critically-adored hit (Guru) and went on to a critic-proof blockbuster (Sivaji: The Boss) – though Rahman himself may have been overly critical about his work in the latter.

He’s usually happy with the final product he delivers, and even if there are problems, “We usually have enough time to fix things.” But after finishing Adhiradee, the song that he sang, he never liked it. “The director [Shankar] could imagine it, but I could never get the picture he had in mind. But when I saw it, I was blown. He had taken it to some other level.”

There. In his own words. The Mozart of Madras all but wolf-whistling over a Rajinikanth music video. But Rahman makes no apologies about the commercial aspect of his art. “Hit music is important for a mainstream film. It helps you get a good opening. And as an artist, I am happy when people say this is the highest selling album. I am really happy about it because we worked so hard on it – not only me, but the whole team.”

It’s hard to begrudge Rahman his little-boy delight over an album that’s far from his best, especially in light of the fate that befell some of the other, better work. “There was so much stuff in Bose, so much energy and thought. But the producers didn’t release it properly and it suffered a great deal.”

That’s a rare controversial statement – an accusation, practically. And yet, there was a silver lining, a light at the end of the tunnel, whatever you want to call it. “I went to a restaurant in San Francisco. This Iranian lady came to me and said: ‘You are AR Rahman.’ I said yes. She said: ‘Oh we love your Zikr in Bose. It’s so famous in Iran.’ I never expected that.”

Delayed recognition is not new to Rahman, for each release of his goes through a familiar two-step programme: (a) derisive dismissal, followed by (b) inevitable capitulation after multiple listens, reinforcing the urban legend that His Songs Take Time To Grow On You. Rahman, at first, gets defensive. “When we do a song, the director listens to it thousands of times, and only when everyone likes it, we go ahead.” The song goes through a filter. There’s already some kind of assurance there. “So when people react negatively, we have to wait for three weeks, because we know that the song works (or doesn’t work).”

But Rahman understands. After all, he’s been through the same cycle with that other King of Pop. “I used to wait for Michael Jackson’s albums, and the very first time, I used to say: Oh, I don’t like any of the songs.” Three days later, he’d find that a song was actually good. Then he’d watch the videos, and yet another one would become an earworm. Finally, all the songs would make it to the list. “Because so much hard work goes into an album, and when something is new, you can’t judge it. The expectations are too high.”

They still are – with each project Rahman takes on. “There is always this question: ‘How can I do this best?’ I’ve never ever thought, let me just do a fast job.” The prospect of Rahman rolling up his sleeves for a “fast job” would no doubt be sweet music to a producer’s ears, sweeter even than the songs being created. “But I have never looked at music in any other way. Whatever goes out of my studio is precious. I tell this to my staff also. It has to be so precious that substandard stuff will never go out.”

And then, a dash of practicality to temper this perfectionist streak. “Beyond that, we can’t help it.” Because there’s only so much you can do, especially while working on big, international projects like Shekhar Kapur’s Golden Age (with Scottish composer Craig Armstrong), when it’s very difficult to switch to something else. I think he means masala-movie music. And despite this focus, despite this variety, when people don’t seem to get it, it rankles. “I’m always asked why my music sounds repetitive. And I ask: ‘What sounds repetitive?’ If you have a point, prove it and I can correct my mistake.”

Perhaps being tired of being all things to all people, Rahman tries to satisfy himself now. “At first, it used to be about being faithful to the director’s vision.” Then he found that some filmmakers are not connected to the audience. And after all these years and all this experience, “I can spot something and say: ‘You can’t put a song here. It won’t work.’ And most of the time, my predictions have been right.”

Sometimes, it goes beyond predictions. Sometimes, Rahman doesn’t even take on a project, “Because people have their lens on me so much, it will kill the movie. If it’s a small movie, and you put this name on it, they go there expecting the sky.”

There’s just no stopping Rahman, now that he’s gotten started about criticism. He attacks that other accusation often levelled at him – that he works out of one of India’s most well equipped and advanced recording studios, that he’s nothing without his technology, that older composers were not such slaves to gadgetry.

“I’ve played in that era. I’ve done arrangements in that era. I used to record in mono – and if one person made a mistake, we all had to play all over again.” He thinks, for their time, they were the best, Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy and KV Mahadevan. He’s a big fan. “But they always say that old wine is better than new wine, so we should wait for this wine to become old,” he laughs.

The musician as patient vintner. It’s a rich metaphor, though one somewhat ironic – for Rahman’s is the rare instance of a fairly young wine being toasted on platforms of rare vintage, like the London stage. There was, however, a period of maturation before Bombay Dreams could be uncorked.

“Shekhar [Kapur] and I were trying to work on a musical called Tara Rum Pum Pum.” They worked for a couple of years. They finished a lot of numbers. Then Shekhar had this huge opportunity of doing Elizabeth and he had to leave. “It was frustrating, but I realised how important it was for him to become big. So I didn’t care about losing those ten numbers.”

“I think he probably felt something,” Rahman smiles, speculating that his successful international foray owed as much to his own gifts as someone else’s guilty conscience. “He met Andrew Lloyd Webber and everything happened.” That was his biggest gamble, Rahman feels, going for Bombay Dreams and leaving all his work here. “It took two to three years. But I think the gamble was good, not only for me but for Asians there – for India I would say. It raised a lot of questions about us. I would say it gave me an address.”

If the bag-and-baggage relocation left Rahman with insecurities about rivals encroaching on his turf, he dismisses the notion with a philosophical shrug. (Though, truth be told, a philosophical shrug is how Rahman dismisses pretty much everything. These are possibly the limberest shoulders in musicdom.)

“I think the competition is within myself. There’s so much you could do, but because of the time factor and other things, if you think of 100%, you deliver 30%.” So he never thinks of others as competition. At least, he tries not to. “Because I believe that my share is defined by God. And that’s what I’m getting. So even if I want to do 30 movies, I can’t because it’s not my share. Unlike earlier, when a composer was in the limelight, he used to take all the movies and even when somebody wanted to go to another person, he would say: ‘No, no, don’t go. I’ll do it for less.’ I don’t need that.”

Is he talking about… Could he be referring to… I guess we’ll never know. You don’t get to complete an interview by asking these things midway. “Anyway, it’s a great time to be a composer. We’re all enjoying extraordinary comforts. Never before have we had this kind of exposure. Even the small composers, if they do good work, they are celebrated because of the music.”

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