AR Rahman's revelation about 'gangs' working against him adds legitimacy to recent claims about Bollywood
AR Rahman knows that if there’s anyone who can attest to the struggles of an outsider, or the complicated, insular workings of the Hindi film industry, it’s him.
All of us have had friends who, over the years, have warned us about serious things that can impact us directly one day so that we needn’t to wait for it hit close to home before doing something about it. These are precisely the type of friends we never take seriously because they’ve been going on about it for so long that even when they’re absolutely right, we turn the other way. It usually takes an untoward incident, a personal impact or a completely unexpected person’s narration to make us pay attention to the same issues.
Ever since that infamous Koffee with Karan episode, Kangana Ranaut has positioned herself as the flagbearer of anti-nepotism, the anti-movie family Robin Hood if you will. The layers of shrill drama and swift accusations, laced with occasions of pettiness notwithstanding, Kangana has been consistent in talking about issues that often get brushed under the carpet. And since the tragic passing away of the immensely talented Sushant Singh Rajput, she’s taken it upon herself to keep the focus on the circumstances that may or may not have contributed to him taking such a fatal step, highlighting vicariously all the difficulties one may face while trying to find acceptance in Bollywood.
She is certainly not the industry’s ghar ki murgi but her constant diatribe has over time become dal barabar, taking away from the seriousness and the actual legitimacy of what she’s saying, and in some ways doing greater disservice to the systems in the industry that are in desperate need of an overhaul. We grew so accustomed to Kangana’s social media team haranguing the industry or anyone she disagrees with, that any other new character in this melee who tried to voice their grievance about “Bollywood” didn’t find much resonance, ironically making her another avatar of the very mafia she derides.
Up until this weekend, we had reached a point where the constant mudslinging on the internet was so loud, that anybody and their father/mother (sorry, couldn’t resist that) with an opinion, was jumping into the fray and pointing more fingers and naming more people, all in a bid to talking about how hard this Hindi film industry makes it for newcomers, outsiders and those on the fringe.
But when AR Rahman speaks, you listen. He’s not known for shooting his mouth off repeatedly or settling scores in the garb of activism. He has the reputation of being a reserved genius who— like most geniuses—is looking to better his own work only. Just like his music, Rahman doesn’t pander to the traditions set by others… he makes his own rules. He is his own competition, if at all. The immense dignity with which he has conducted himself in the past 25 odd years that he’s been in the industry, coupled with his indisputable talent, has put him in a position unlike any other.
In a Radio Mirchi interview preceding the release of director Mukesh Chhabra’s debut Dil Bechara he says, “I don’t say no to good movies, but I think there is a gang, which, due to misunderstandings, is spreading some false rumours. When Mukesh Chhabra came to me, I gave him four songs in two days. He told me, ‘Sir, how many people said don’t go, don’t go to him (AR Rahman) and they told me stories after stories.’ I heard that, and I realised, yeah okay, now I understand why I am doing less (work in Hindi films) and why the good movies are not coming to me. I am doing dark movies, because there is a whole gang working against me, without them knowing that they are doing harm.”
If that wasn’t painful enough to hear, he adds, “People are expecting me to do stuff, but there is another gang of people preventing that from happening. It is fine, because I believe in destiny, and I believe that everything comes from God. So, I am taking my movies and doing my other stuff. But all of you are welcome to come to me. Make beautiful movies, and you are welcome to come to me.”
Wow. Let that settle in.
Rahman breaking his silence on the camps that control his work opportunities is like Tom Hanks says he’s got the coronavirus— the good, non-controversial bigwig whose admission adds legitimacy to what seems like rumours or overreactions so far. A person of Rahman’s stature admits that there is a “gang” that prevents work from coming his way. And he says this in his inimitable, non-provocative way. He carefully words himself by saying that the gang is spreading rumours “due to misunderstandings”. He is making an accusation without making an accusation. The man is a Padma Bhushan, winner of Oscars, Grammys, BAFTAs and Golden Globes, for God’s sake. He could’ve just said he’s been busy watching Narcos reruns and we’d have been okay with it.
But he knows the worth of his words. He knows that his speaking out will make some people sit up and take notice. Perhaps even squirm. He knows that it’ll add some weight and respectability to the conversation that until now was feeling like a pre-lockdown shopping trip to Crawford Market.
He is not naïve. He also knows that despite him speaking out, the camps and cliques that comment with breaking news pace on racism in America and the burning rain forests of the Amazon, will maintain radio silence. They heap praise on him when they love his music or use his songs in their works, but they will look the other way when he speaks out…hoping for a new news cycle to drown out this “minor inconvenience”.
From what the acclaimed composer admits, it appears that the perception game has been on for so long and with such intensity, it has affected the work that could’ve come his way. “What does he know about the industry?” “He's hardly ever in town, or even in the country for that matter.” You give him a terrible script and when he rejects it, you say it’s because he’s become to “high-flying”. He’s become too “arrogant” or worse, “Western”. This hardly scratches the surface of perception people in the industry may have created for Rahman.
He knows that if there’s anyone who can attest to the struggles of an outsider, or the complicated, insular workings of the Hindi film industry, it’s him. He is the proverbial outsider who made it big in an industry where being Tamilian meant being played by purple-faced, vibhuti-brandishing, aiyyo-saying North Indian actors, where “the South” was the source to tap for beautiful dusky actresses who needed to be dubbed over, and where one could find original, thought-provoking scripts that simply need to be remade for a Hindi-speaking audience.
He is the proverbial outsider who created revolutionary sounds at a time in Bollywood when players spanning generations were perpetuating formulaic structures of film writing and song structures. And he continues to do so.
He fits in everywhere he goes and simultaneously feels like he’s fitting nowhere at all. He resembles a Sufi, dervishing around to his own tune, content at being steady at the heart of a chaotically whirling glamorous, cut-throat world. In many ways because of who he is as a person, Rahman hasn’t been a part of any cliques, instead again letting his work be his calling card. His reserved nature has meant Rahman has hardly dispelled these rumours before, and if focusing on his work instead has been his approach, then it may or may not have worked in his favour, evidently.
Rahman will move on from this and continue to do his work, as is his wont. A few Twitter-happy celebs may tweet in his support, some others with lesser influence in the industry might show outrage, but the truth is that even those heavyweights who talked about cleaning up the industry after Sushant’s death by suicide, will stay mum. This is exactly how the toxicity permeates the industry. They know that Rahman is speaking the truth. They know what these forces at work are. They will feel for him now and do nothing at all.
Even Lady Macbeth couldn’t wash off that wrecking guilt. But these guys? They’re made of sterner stuff. And Rahman knows this reality very well. It’s a good thing then that he believes in destiny and God’s work. If someone like Rahman finds the need to hedge his bets, then what hope is there for lesser mortals? I shudder to imagine.
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