When the makers of Pele: Birth of a legend got in touch with A.R. Rahman through his agent, he didn’t even recognise his name. It’s after reading up on the Internet that he realised that he has been approached to score music for the biopic of probably the greatest footballer of all time. That the maestro is so removed from the world of sports is not shocking, although it is surprising. But it is a curious quality for a person whose current projects include two sports biopics: Pele and Sachin: A Billion Dreams, the docudrama on Sachin Tendulkar.
The American biographical film that releases in India a week after its premiere in the U.S., is being promoted here almost entirely on the basis of Rahman’s popularity. In an interview at a suburban Mumbai five-star hotel, Rahman says, “As a musician, it’s always the human part and that always moves you. The world knows about the sporting achievements of both Pele and Tendulkar. What is fascinating for me is how they got there. They are also about universal themes such as family, aspirations, taking the leap of faith, listening to one’s conscience. We had to find a balance of the local element and universality. For instance, in Sachin , the music couldn’t be too Indian and in the same way, although Pele has the essence of Brazilian music, it has a sense of universality. That’s the idea of these two films, to reach out to people and not be esoteric.
”Rahman’s own life has been chronicled in a couple of books. A documentary on him also came out last year. A couple of decades down the line, it is likely that the Mozart of Madras will get a biopic of his own. About his humble beginnings as A.S. Dileep Kumar, the son of a little-known music arranger, his conversion to Islam, his explosive entry into the Indian film music scene, and his Oscar win in 2009. The journey is still on. But the composer shies away, laughing off even the idea of a biopic on him when I hypothetically ask him who he would like to score music for it. “That’s a very hard question. I don’t think there should be a biopic on me.”
One of the things that have differentiated Rahman from other composers is his approach towards film music. While keeping with the Indian tradition that the music can be enjoyed independent of the films, he also made it an organic part of the narrative. Critics may point at the limitations of his signature sound. Many fans lament that they miss the kind of work he did in the 90s. But it is important to note that his urge to collaborate with a director and understand the core of their films has only deepened over the years. That explains the relatively less number of films he is working on at the moment.
“When you sign a film, you need to really dwell in its world to make something beautiful. It’s like getting into a virtual world. Why I am not keen on too many projects is because unlike before, I am not able to juggle so many films together.” Working on his first feature film, 99 Songs, which he is writing and producing has also added to it. “Writing drains you. I wake up thinking about the characters, suddenly writing down lines if I forget later. But it has helped look at my music in a new light.”
When he talks about his films, Rahman talks about them with the responsibility of a director and not someone who has contributed to only its music. About his last Hindi film Tamasha (2015), he says he wished “people embraced it a little more.” He says, “Not the music; I don’t care about the music. I am talking about the film. The reception hasn’t been bad. I was sceptical considering the film becomes quite dark in the second half.” He takes a break from working with the film’s director Imtiaz Ali: one of his more successful collaborators in recent years with hits such as Rockstar (2011) and Highway (2014). Ali will work with his old partner Pritam again in his next starring Shah Rukh Khan. But with the upcoming Mohenjo Daro , Rahman returns to working with Ashutosh Gowariker after Lagaan (2001), Swades (2004) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008). His other film is Shankar’s Robot 2, starring Rajinikanth.
It brings us to his reputation in the industry as someone who only established filmmakers with a big budget can dream to work with. Would he consider doing a small, independent film? “I try to do one every now and then. But it has to be really good because it can be a double-edged sword. While my name can boost a movie, it can pull it down too. People come with a certain kind of expectations seeing my name: Oscar winner, grand orchestra, etc. But the music should serve the film. For example, a Kakka Muttai may need just three notes, but the audience may complain about how I didn’t make it complex or rich enough. I have seen it happen with a small, beautiful film that was pulled down because of my name attached to it.”
What’s he listening to?
It’s hard to resist the temptation to know what A.R. Rahman is listening to currently. Is there anything in Indian music of late that excites him? He names the hypnotic Hebrew-Manganiyar-rock fusion album Junun by Shy Ben Tzur, John Greenwood and Rajasthan Express. He also mentions Natalie Di Luccio’s opera tinged Manganiyar experimentations, almost bypassing film music. “I don’t care much about film music that unfortunately has to cater to too many things. There are a lot of strings attached: it has to be a top chartbuster, an item song, etc. In a way I’m relieved I am not doing many mainstream movies.”
As someone who pioneered playing around with the texture of the voices of playback singers in Indian film music, what does he think of the excessive autotune in present-day songs? The composer sounds uncharacteristically critical. “Recently, I heard a song sung by Shreya Ghoshal and I was like why would you put her on autotune? That too a melodic song. Now, why would a Shreya need autotune? Things like this piss you off. She is an amazing singer. If you ask her to sing again she is going to sing in tune. It’s just laziness sometimes I think. People should consciously avoid those things.” He says, “My whole sound engineering team is anti-autotune. Even if I make a mistake, they will not allow it during the mastering. It’s interesting to use it as an effect occasionally but never throughout the song or as the main vocals.”
2015 Kashmir Despatch