The AR Rahman interview | 'There are certain stories that need to be told because the world is divisive now'
AR Rahman, on being roped in as the ambassador for BAFTA Breakthrough's India chapter, talks about why Indian artists need to push the creative envelope, and how teaching music to children keeps him going.
On Monday, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) announced their collaboration with AR Rahman, who is all set to be the ambassador for the BAFTA Breakthrough India programme, 2020-21. A British and Indian jury will select five Indians, who will then be mentored and trained in the fields of cinema, television and gaming, lending them international exposure.
In a Zoom conversation with Firstpost, the Grammy and Academy Award-winning composer and musician talks about BAFTA's initiative, the divisive nature of our prevailing world, and why the past decade was defined by crushing walls and breaking barriers.
What does your role as an ambassador for the BAFTA Breakthrough India programme entail?
My role is to recognise breakthrough talent across the breadth of the Indian film industry, and not just Hindi but the whole of India, and help BAFTA navigate the diverse and creative landscape of the country. [I will] also educate the country on BAFTA and its work, and lend a supporting voice to reach many talented individuals across all regions. It is just movies, TV and gaming.
What does this cross-cultural exchange between India and the UK bring to the table for cinema, music, television and gaming?
There are many things that people want to do; younger people want to break the barriers and want to move much further. It's important for India to tell those stories in an international way. For that, there are many limitations — understanding what the world's sensibility is. We are very happy with this industry, with our 1.3 billion people. But our movies may not appeal to an international audience. If you want to tell a story to the whole world, you need certain knowledge and you need to travel, you need to speak to experienced people, and they also need to understand what we are, so these exchanges are very very important.
Again, there is networking. So if you have great talent, and if somebody tells you that they've got this kind of a movie (in the works), and why don't you connect with this person...that will bring magic to the table.
Even (in case of) my work, it's not just me. If I work with a particular lyric-writer in the south or north, my whole album changes because the combination of two talents together makes a whole new artwork. It is that kind of a thing.
For someone with a body of work as prolific as yours, what do you still struggle with as an artiste today, after working in the field for so many years?
There is no struggling; the only thing that we are pressurised with is deadlines, so suppose when we have a Diwali or a Pongal or a 15 August release. Even if there is enough time always, and even with all the limitations this year, we've been working through Zoom and there are many collaborations happening.
And I think a start is if you want to seek, find out more and go further — how can I express this better. Even if I have done this in the past, with all the gained experience and wisdom, what can I do more, how could I simplify it, and how can I cut the clutter.
Over the years, especially after you won an Academy Award, did your experience of working in the Hindi film industry in particular change in any way? I ask this question because recently during the launch of Dil Bechara's music, you had mentioned in an interview that you have been doing less work in Hindi films as there is a 'gang' that seems to be working against you and keeping you from getting good work...
I'll answer the first part of the question on what changed after the Oscars. There are certain things that unite the world, you know. People understand rhythm, people understand melody, and people understand a whole new sound. We are always fascinated by Africa, or Latin America or the complexity of a symphony like those of Tchaikovsky or Mozart.
There is a famous saying that 'if you know yourself, you know everything'; so you should know where you stand and where your art stands in front of the world. When you have this amazing display of so many great stuff out there, then where are you here? I think that question defines what you should do, or what it should take to take it up there. This is for many people — it could be for a singer, for a composer, it could be an artist or a filmmaker. How will my movies stand out in this world of masters? So that will force us to think that, 'Okay, I need to learn this', or 'I need to push this part of myself'. That is what defines self-improvement or the evolution of an artist, I would say.
We have often seen how the artistic space not just in India, but across the world, can frequently fall prey to mediocrity because of its feudal and nepotistic nature. How does one address that through platforms like BAFTA Breakthrough?
Yes, this whole thing is just about talent; it's about the spark. While recognising the spark, you're giving an opportunity to somebody who is inherently magical and you're connecting them to the world. And through that opportunity, he/she is going to become an ambassador for our movies, for our culture and our narrative.
If our movies are going to get dissed and people say, 'Oh, that's too over the top,' — we are self sufficient which is great — there are still certain stories that have to go to the world, because the world is divided; it's divisive now. For that, our stories need to be told, and for that you need help. Through that, we are helping each other. We are lending help across the world to let people understand what we really mean, what our lifestyle is, what our beliefs are in a way that they will understand, and not feel like this is too much.
Like food — each country has its own food. We eat spicy food while some people have bland food, and some people like spicy food. So choice is very subjective, and movies are just the same. Some stories have to be told, and we and our filmmakers deserve a world platform to tell these stories.
What kind of talent strikes you as promising, because we have different definitions of talent and it is a fairly subjective opinion. Also, how does one make the playing field fairer for everyone in the arts?
I think there are certain people who are already talented — they've done a couple of works, whether it's with a production company, television, movies or gaming. The idea is to take them and ask what might be lacking because of resources. So you provide that to them in the form of screenings, workshops, and mentorship for a year, and see them shine. Personally, I've felt the same thing. When you take a person and they get involved in the real thing, they shine and their learning becomes much faster. That is how it is going to be effective.
What are some of your greatest professional milestones?
If I think I have achieved a lot, then that is limited thinking. Then you look at the world and look at what people have achieved, and you feel small. So it is important to compare yourself with people out there. I definitely feel blessed that I was able to do so many things. Being in a place like India is such a great blessing, because you have so much freedom and people are more open-minded too. They do not pigeonhole you into one thing, and allow you to do whatever you want to do with each try.
I am into filmmaking now and I am trying a sensory production called Le Musk. We have been doing it for three years and there is a movie ready to get released post-COVID called 99 Songs. I am also educating people on Western music and harmony through the conservatory, and empowering children who can play in my orchestra. They are already playing now — they are 11 years old and are playing symphonies, (George) Gershwin and Carnatic classical...in a snap of a finger they change, which is beautiful. I think that is what keeps me going.
Finally, now that we are nearing the end of 2020, what or who, according to you, defined the past decade in terms of music and sound, and what are you looking forward to in the coming years?
I think this decade has crushed all the walls and it has empowered people. It has democratised the world for artists. I found (a video of) a lady in a village doing freaky things to her husband — leg massage and all [laughs]. That's a channel, and it has got subscribers! So the freedom now, where nobody is stopping anything, is great. And I think this is where you discover real life, because before it was all moderated — this is what you should watch; now, you have everything. In a good way, everybody has freedom, and in a bad way, you also have to waste time watching many things that you have subscribed to [laughs].
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