New York: Back when he hung out more on land and less at 38,000 ft above, A R Rahman had a lair on top of Palace Theatre, London — a Victorian red-brick landmark barely a 6 minute walk from Leicester Square in the heart of the city’s theatre district.
“Andrew (Lloyd Webber) had given me a room there, it was the first time I was away from home. It was cold, dark and full of pubs. I used to walk back to my room at night with no car and driver to pick me up,” laughs Rahman.
It was 2001, Rahman’s first crack at composing for “western sensibilities”. He banged out Shakalaka Baby and more than 10 other tracks that swept up London’s musical scene into its throbbing, tidal wave energy.
“It was a surreal experience,” Rahman says of his first overseas fling.
Bombay Dreams tells the story of Akaash, a young slum dweller, who dreams of becoming a huge movie star, and of his fateful encounter with beautiful Priya, the daughter of one of Bollywood’s greatest film directors.
When Lloyd Webber succeeded with his “Rahman obsession”, critics called the show “the bravest attempt at a West End musical in years.”
London was a “turning point”
“I never knew what a turning point that would become,” Rahman recalls.
This coincides precisely with the time ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ was being filmed.
The London experience, in many ways, became Rahman’s equivalent of Harry’s platform 9 and 3 quarters - from where Harry could walk through a solid brick wall and be transported from the humdrum to the magical, on board Hogwarts Express.
For Rahman, whose success in India came lightning quick but the path to western markets remained arbitrary at best, songwriting on cold nights on top of a Victorian red brick opera house in a strange city sealed his first boarding pass to Hollywood.
At the time, Rahman was 34.
On 6 January, 2017, he turns 50.
In these 16 years, Rahman’s voodoo, among other awards, has won 2 Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire - “that’s enough for a lifetime.”
“The next six months were horrible. All I did was shaking hands with people,” says Rahman.
After the hangover, Rahman has worked the soundtrack for 11 foreign films — from Warriors of Heaven and Earth in 2003 to the latest one, Muhammad.
“Rahman can do a 360 degree turn on any piece of music, it’s difficult to explain to people in the West just what a superstar this guy is,” gushes Danny Boyle.
“I remember the crowds that used to come to watch MGR speak…after that, the first time I saw anything like it is for A R Rahman,” says one of Rahman’s favourite lyricists — Vaali.
Rahman has a simple explanation for the superlatives: “I worked like a slave for the first 14 years. That’s what made me who I am, that's what made me patient.”
Happy not doing “dancing songs”
As Rahman gets more selective about domestic work, you often hear his die-hard fans complain that they’ve heard so many of his tracks that whatever he comes up with for Indian cinema has a touch of deja vu.
Since Roja in 1993, Rahman has arranged the soundtrack for an entire generation of Indians, at once mystical and frenetic. While devotees play catch up with his seemingly endless repertoire, Rahman has travelled to new gigs — screenplay, philanthropy, more playback, lyrics. He says he’s happier when he’s “not doing dancing songs” and instead mentoring kids at his KM music conservatory in Chennai.
The Rahman moment
These days, the superstar from Chennai is spotted most often on planes to Los Angeles, devouring in-flight movies or humming the next masterpiece into his iphone in a quiet corner.
Like Henri Cartier Bresson gave to photography the decisive moment , Rahman has done the same in song, where he breaks the rules because he has mastered them like no other.
“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera,” said Bresson.
In ARR’s signature songs, there’s invariably a Rahman moment that explodes; but unlike photography, this is melody, giving us a rewind button for the ephemeral.
“I find a quiet corner and sing into my phone”
With his eyes glued shut in a trance, a smile curving around his lips, what does Rahman the vocalist see when he sings? Sheet music that rises in sharps and flats, scales and chord diagrams — like fireflies that flash and flame out on a summer’s night ?
Annette Philip, Founder Director Berklee Indian Ensemble at the Berklee College of Music, asks Rahman the same question on the sidelines of a sold-out concert in Boston.
“Nowadays, it’s my iphone,” Rahman jokes. “I find a corner and I test out a few ideas. People often wonder what I’m doing, I just sing into it but I don’t stop at the first idea. I do four or five reps with some changes. One of them will click.”
Philip put together the A R Rahman show that wowed audiences across the globe for its first rate quality and melting pot of performers. Rahman was headed to Berklee Music College the same year Mani Ratnam offered him Roja.
“His creative process is a beautiful thing”
“You don't quite understand his genius till you work with him in person,” says Philip.
“Rahman is an incredible mentor. His childlike approach to creativity sets him apart from other composers. His creative process is a beautiful thing to behold. He is very strict about the specific sounds and textures he is looking for, and has seemingly limitless energy. His ability to adapt and express himself in almost any genre is always astounding.”
Rahman’s name headlines a scholarship at Berklee for one Indian student every year, the proceeds have come from this stunner of a concert.
More Hollywood, more vocals, more giving back
In his infrequent meditations on craft and method, Rahman leaves the door ajar on what’s to come.
Clearly, these themes emerge: More music for “western sensibilities”, the rising influence of ARR in “music education” A R Rahman, the screenwriter and lyricist, A R Rahman, the vocalist.
Most often, his longest answers are when you draw him into the emotive quality of music. How did Mayya Mayya turn out so hot blooded, Kannalane so vulnerable, Arziyaan so raw, Zariya such a scorcher, what gave New York Nagaram it’s insomnaic edge, an oil on canvas with the fragrance of fresh bagels and freshly brewed coffee.
Fans within the industry nail it. “His ability to jump in on whatever you want is just so fast….I did not know what the song was going to be…In his extraordinary way you found a perfect metaphor for what the movie was about,” says Alex Kurtzman, Director, People Like Us, released in 2012.
Many people say Rahman rarely speaks much. Yes and no. Ask him the usual stuff and you’ll get nothing. Ask him about his craft, about a 6th diminished note, about the ‘damaging quality’ of a song’s climax, about his music school in Chennai and his answers flesh out.
“We all have a 100 foot journey”
I really like working with directors who are involved in the script. I think we all have a 100 foot journey, we all need to take that first step to make something bigger. I did not want to do a generic score. I don’t want to show where things start and end. The things that I really aspire to do in Hollywood, this is one of the first or second steps towards that, with a greater sensibility to Western audiences…. a new beginning for me.
“Hollywood is a whole new vibe”
It’s a whole new vibe for me, not being epic not too simplistic…yet sounding beautiful…The other thing that strikes me as so different is how composers are often doing mixing, composers are doing other stuff in the studio when they have the time...these are the hidden jobs in the music industry if you learn music the right way.
“Be in a constant state of learning”
Even now sometimes, I am in situations where I feel, I wish I had learned counterpoint. With a powerful mind and will, you can do anything but it’s the speed that gets affected. That’s why even now, I’m in a constant state of learning. My music has never been rooted — that’s the upside of not learning a particular genre.
“Great fan of Tamil lyrics from the 60s”
From the beginning of my career, I’ve always wanted to write my own lyrics. I’ve been a great fan of Tamil lyrics from the 60s - Kannadasan, Vaali…Mani Ratnam and I spoke a lot about it…and we’ve got the best people to craft lyrics for many of the movies I have composed for.
On long flights to LA...
Two Oscars is enough for a lifetime. My mind is not thinking of awards, I am thinking about art. I have also become more involved with the visuals. My focus is on how to keep the respect and how to keep on learning. In India, there is a format, give me 5 songs, give me 6 songs…When you work with Broadway and Hollywood…they go deeper on what needs to be achieved. On these long flights from Dubai to LA, I think about how to take music to these new sensibilities.
“Honesty…not the size of orchestra”
I am very careful about compositions. I am moving away from my previous work. It’s not about how big or small the orchestration is. It’s about how honest the music is.
“If you don’t learn music, you’re stuck with idioms”
When I started travelling more, I saw concerts in Prague, in Paris and thought…what will happen when our great musicians retire…it was a terrible thought. In six months, what a transformation when I walked through the same doors. The sunshine orchestra is subsidised by the kids who can pay. I have 5 PhDs teaching there. When I go there, it’s like an oasis, like a garden in your backyard where there are flowers and butterflies…when I see those children playing strings, I feel like I must compose something for them…It takes me away from dancing songs ( laughs). If you don’t learn music, you’ll be stuck with ‘idiom’ music.
Redeem yourself with music
So many people are in bad situations. Sometimes I get to know of people who have listened to great music and stopped to think, or it’s helped them make a better decision, or do something impulsive and life changing…I think that’s what inspires me -- the ability of music to redeem us and take us to a better place.
"I did not know a word of Hindi"
My involvement with Hindi came after my first movie Roja. Then came Bombay. I didn’t know a word of Hindi then. That’s when I met Subhash Ghai and he told me I must learn the language. People love you, you can’t just fool around without knowing the language. So I took on an Urdu teacher and learnt. One of my friends Mohan Chopra made me listen to this song Aaj jaane ki zidd na karo.
At first it did not strike me but then I started getting obsessed by this song, by it’s pleasantness, it has a special aura. I thought why not do a version of me signing it with a different arrangement. I try to balance between traditional and avant garde. Traditional where it feels good to hear the raaga, avant garde where I can bring in strings and piano.
On making time for what you want to do
Between 1994 and 1997, when I was really busy and had no time, I learnt Arabic. It was not easy, you have to make that time within your schedule. I used to lock myself up in a room for an hour everyday and not come out. My heart would be pounding…this has to be done, that has to be done, but no, that one hour was for learning what I had to.
"Be the ocean in a drop"
Very Yoda-like, this is one of Rahman’s self confessed favourite leitmotifs: "I heard this once on a shoot and it has stuck with me. It's a beautiful thought, that we must strive to be the best we can be, like flowers that open not to please anyone else but because it is their nature to be that way. If I can compose music that is my very best, that is good enough for me."
On working late hours
“A lot of people say Rahman called me at 2 am , 3 am…and it becomes a big thing. For me it’s normal, this is not a 9-5 job, this is music. When I'm at my peak and all heated up, I like to work with my flow and finish it. I can't do this abroad, the system works differently there.”
It’s a triangle. Cost, quality and speed. You can get only two at a time. You can’t get all three. But, no we can beat that. It is possible.
Roja versus Berklee Music School
I was in the backing band for the legendary violinist L. Shankar and I told him that I would like to go to study at Berklee. I remember he brought me the prospectus, and I was all set and I had everything all ready to go. And then Mani Ratnam comes into my life, so it was Berklee or this movie Roja. So, I had to ditch Berklee, but the circle of life is such a beautiful thing, I am back here...what an amazing band! Indian music has been conservative, and it could take the mindset of people studying at Berklee to innovate without destroying the sanctity of the music.
"Rise above fear"
How do I know that a new song will work with audiences...? I don't know (laughs). What I do know is that the known limits you, the unknown liberates you. If you make music with apprehension and fear, you will do normal stuff. Working (composing) music without fear is the key. Go boldly into the unknown, if it doesn't sound good, you can always tear it up and start over again. Isn't it?
Back in 2001, Pico Iyer wrote this lovely tribute to the comma, in TIME. He could well have been speaking of Rahman. “Punctuation,” Iyer writes, “adjusts the tone and color and volume till the feeling comes into perfect focus: not disgust exactly, but distaste; not lust, or like, but love.”
Rahman’s fans would agree — his sweetest melodies are allegories for the rhythm of our hearts.
When Ye jo Des hai mera switches to Indha Desathin Kural, I am no longer in New York. I'm already home. This is my Rahman, the Illusionist, best experienced in the vernacular.
What’s your Rahman story?
(A R Rahman’s quotes have been extracted from multiple long form interviews published in Tamil and English.)