Harmony with AR Rahman review: Amazon show marries arresting visuals with impeccable sound design

Devansh Sharma

August 17, 2018 14:14:09 IST

After acing multiple film industries for 25 years, winning two Oscars and producing timeless melodies in abundance, AR Rahman embarks on a journey to unlearn. After various globetrotting endeavours, Rahman makes inroads into the remotest corners of India in an attempt to rediscover hidden gems of native Indian music, and render them a new voice.

Harmony with AR Rahman, Amazon Prime Video India's latest non-fiction music show (or a travel-based music show), is produced by Kavithalayaa Production Pvt Ltd, the same banner that introduced Rahman to India with Mani Ratnam's 1992 film Roja. Two and a half decades later, the curiosity in Rahman is intact. That is why he is willing to go down and dirty with four gifted music personalities from four Indian cities.

A still from Harmony with AR Rahman

A still from Harmony with AR Rahman

The first episode, set in Cheruthuruthy, Kerala, revolves around Kalamandalam Sajith Vijayan, who plays Mizhavu, a traditional Malayalam percussion instrument. Traditionally made of a clay pot, the Mizhavu is now fashioned by tieing wet calf skin to the top of a copper plot. A Mizhavu player betters his performance only by hurting himself repeatedly on the rims of the copper pot. The painful, gradual exercise is like a tapasya as the Mizhavu is a holy instrument used primarily for religious purposes.

Sajith's association with music is devotional and his path is the Mizhavu. He seems in complete control of his abhyasa (practice) and explains that a Mizhavu player must take up a larger role of passing on his skills to another budding Mizhavu player. Otherwise, the transfer of knowledge gets terminated, thus planting the first seed of an ancient instrument losing itself to history. It is a delight to watch Rahman cycle his way to the Sajith's Kala Aashram and watch intently as the Mizhavu players unleash themselves. It is also refreshing to see a Mozart like Rahman resort to hit and trial as he tries to put in place a taal-mela (tuning) with Sajith in their final performance at the end of the first episode.

Titled 'Wake Up Jungle', the climactic act is a taandav-like invocation to challenge the untamed nature. Viraj Singh Gohil's cinematography gives the viewers a montage of stunning, dramatic visuals. But the drama feels optimal only because it is preceded by his minute capturing of close-up shots peppered all over aerial shots of the river that bisects the greens. The reason why the river is depicted as the axis mundi is because locals like Sajith worship their waters. In fact, there is an arresting shot of Sajith create minor ripples in the water with his hand movements. For the entire show, Gohil works in tandem with Alwin Rego and Sanjay Maurya of the sound design department to pick up these nanoscopic movements with silvery sound effects.

Sajith and AR Rahman in a still from Harmony

Kalamandalam Sajith Vijayan and AR Rahman in a still from Harmony

The second episode, featuring Rudra Veena player Ustad Mohi Baha’un-din Dagar from Mumbai, is this writer's least favourite of the lot.

The blame must be shared by a familiar setting of the Maximum City and the decision to confine the going-ons to Dagar's residence. The indoors-dominated shoot poses itself as a constraint to the combined brilliance of the cinematography and sound design departments. But Gohil makes up for it by providing a keen, intimate study of the Rudra Veena. The lighting is just right as the camera appreciates the ornate detailing on the classical instrument. Most of the episode's narrative revolves around how Gohil has inherited his love for music from his father. It is an emotionally engaging story given how a musical instrument chooses who gets to play its strings.

The final act, titled 'Sunset Maulkins', is shot on the edge of a hill in the outskirts of the bustling city. The proximity to the atmosphere proves that the motive of turning to music for Dagar is not just hereditary but also a creative release. As the sun downs, he reunites with the Rudra Veena and roars with all their combined might, channeling all of the city's chaos into the skies. Director Sruitu Harihara Subramanian employs additional visual effects in the sky for this act to translate the player's state of mind onto the screen. But she could have let his instrument do the talking.

and AR Rahman in a still from Harmony

Ustad Mohi Baha'un-din Dagar and AR Rahman in a still from Harmony

The third episode is centered around a woman who, after Irom Sharmila, can be easily referred to as the Iron Lady of Manipur. Lourembam Bedabati Devi, from Imphal, admits she would have never turned out to be the untrained vocalist that she is, had she submitted to the woes of married life and the limitations of city dwelling. Though the Lepcha community of Sikkim also borrows its music from nature, Bedabati's music is merely her freewheeling interaction with the birds, the trees and the flowers. She does not carry the burden of a legacy but composes and mouths whatever comes to her mind instinctively. "Since my childhood, I was just left free to play in the fields," she says of the phase that shaped her inclination towards Khuilang Eshei, a distinct folk vocal technique.

Manipur is the best episode of the series as it not only offers a glimpse into the jugalbandi between Bedabati's unbelievable vocal range and the luscious environs of Manipur but also tells the story of a woman who defied all worldly ways to establish her primary identity as a singer by, of and for the nature. Rahman even draws a parallel between the lives of her and Lata Mangeshkar. Both the legends did not get married for they feared it would act as a hindrance in their quest of enriching their music. The climactic act, called 'Floating Circles' (referring to the circular grass formations in the Loktak Lake), is the most brilliant across all episodes. Rahman seems to warm up more promptly to the two North Eastern music composers than the ones closer home in Mumbai and Chennai, which speaks so much of the unifying quality of music.

A still from Harmony with AR Rahman

A still from Harmony with AR Rahman

The fourth episode features Mickma Tshering Lepcha, a Panthong Palith (a traditional pentatonic wooden flute) player from Gangtok, Sikkim. His association with music emanates from his steely will to keep the Sikkimese tradition alive. He has a band which serenades folk music with contemporary tools to make it more relevant to the state's youth. Rahman pulls a page out of their book by using electronic music as a counter to Mickma's sonorous folk tunes. The final act, 'Rainmaker', is staged on the edge of a hill yet again as the two talented minds invoke the rain gods. The resultant mix feels like a folk-gone-global counterpart of Rahman's 'Ghanan Ghan' from Lagaan.

AR Rahman and in a still from Harmony

AR Rahman and Mickma Tshering Lepcha in a still from Harmony

Rahman is not your conventional host. The redeeming factor, however is, his self-awareness and the makers' validation. As he admits in an interaction with Firstpost, "I am not (one of) those who would say, 'Aah! O lovely… look at the trees, look at the food here…' and things like that, I am not that charming." His awkwardness is shared by his partners in crime as all of them boast of a mischievous streak that adds quirk to their music.

On the flipside, the towering production quality and the breathtaking visuals demand the show to be exhibited on nothing less than a big screen. This writer got access to watch a super-cut version of the show on the big screen, and I must admit the bigger the screen, the more justice it does to this visually fascinating show. The exceptional sound design and the astounding original compositions could have also been optimally utilised by banking more on the silences. There is a lot of additional background score to heighten the drama or underline major narrative points, but those do more harm to the show. For a show inherently big on music, both ambient and produced, the background score only leads to aural overpopulation.

But these are minor hiccups for an innovative show that is hugely engrossing. The last episode could have been chopped off to just the finale performance in the KM Conservatory, Chennai. The four music personalities, though, seem less in command of their craft in the absence of their familiar surroundings. But Rahman's exemplary team more than makes up for it. A Manipuri voice fronting this pan-Indian orchestra is sure to give you goosebumps.

This harmony of contemporary, classical and folk music is what makes the show a watershed event in the Indian music history. "I don't think India's rich musical heritage is dying, only the exposure is dying. People love traditions and it is beyond anybody's money or power," asserts Rahman in the Firstpost interaction. If you notice hints of native freshness in any of his future compositions, you do know you have four people to thank for.

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 15:44 PM