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interviews:  The Burden of Genius

dated: 23.01.2000

Roja in 1992 gave Indian film music a new sound and an exciting new talent. Allah Rakha Rahman is seen by most musicologists as the one and only important innovator among film composers to have survived the turbulent 90s. All his scores from Roja and Thiruda Thiruda to 1947 and Pukar have clicked in a huge way. At the beginning of the new millennium, Rahman is seen as the only film composer in India who can drag popular film music kicking and screaming into this century. He spoke to Subhash K Jha.

A lot of people in and outside the Indian film industry see you as the only composer who can carry film music forward into this millennium.

That's too much of a burden for me. You know what? I find myself stuck between the traditional and modern styles of music. From the age of 11, I was working with musicians of the earlier eras. So I've imbibed their influences. Until my late teens, I was meeting the maturer generation of musicians. Then I came into jingles composition and eventually film composition with Roja I was suddenly exposed to the `in' scene and the hip-crowds.

You've tried to synthesise the two generations of influences in your music, haven't you?

Actually it's a bit of both, yes. I started my career as a musician within a rock band called Magic. Some of my colleagues from those days are still with me. Others have moved on. After Magic, we formed another band, Fusion. We backed L Shankar during a concert. That meant a lot to us. L Shankar gave us a whole new hope for fusion music, clubbing Indian and western music together. Finally, when I was doing jingles, I was part of a band called Nemesis Avenue. This was when I really began interacting with young contemporary musicians.

How much of your early influences have you retained in your music today?

Actually, I'm inspired any time I watch a good musician playing. When I'm programming my music on my own, I always think of some great drummer or some great bass guitarist. When I'm playing on the keyboards, I think of how beautifully another musician plays the instrument. And that inspires me to play. Otherwise I may end up playing like a cheesy upstart.

You once said that you like to record songs with flawed voices. What did you mean?

Not always. Suppose I've to compose a folk song about a farmer and his life. I can't use a perfect voice for that. I need an earthy voice. Sometimes even in an urban film like my recent Thakshak, I've used voices that are earthy. Although the earthiness is at odds with the milieu the humanism of a song situation comes across better through raw voices. It's like abstract painting. If you take its oddities and try to correct them they have no meaning. Of course, for some songs like the ones that go on certain actors or actresses I've to use flawless voices.

You seem to avoid working with filmmakers who aren't musically literate?

In fact, you know what? It would do me good to work with all types of filmmakers and in all genres of films. Otherwise, I'd be struck in a groove. I feel I've been very lucky so far. I've been able to work with the best filmmakers in the south like Mani Ratnam. In Mumbai, I've worked with directors like Subhash Ghai, Deepa Mehta and Govind Nihalani. If I meet a filmmakers and the vibes seem right, I work with him or her. My problem is, my working style is completely different from others. I can work with only those filmmakers who can adjust to my working style. So it's not a question of being choosy but a far more practical reality that decides my assignments. I work mainly in Chennai.

But filmmakers in Mumbai are willing to make adjustments for you.

The problem is, once a director comes from Mumbai to Chennai he has only one thing on his mind and that is how to get his music. He may want a track to shoot a song in some hill station the very next day. The four or five hours that he waits could be excruciating for him. My tune happens very fast sometimes, sometimes it doesn't happen. The problem starts when it doesn't happen.

So you have to wait to be inspired.

More than inspiration, it's getting the arrangements right, the whole technological nitty-gritty. Even though the process of creating a tune slows me down, it helps me to grow as well. Sometimes a tune crashes completely. But that cannot be helped. In fact, I discourage filmmakers from signing me.

In Mumbai you've acquired the reputation of being tardy.

It's their choice whether they want to sign me or not. If filmmakers want good music they have to be patient. In fact, I warn them about the situation. They always know what they're getting into. Still, sometimes I'm very unhappy about not doing a film.

Why is your music often accused of sameness?

That's inevitable, I guess. It's a sound that's different from other composers and hence easily identifiable. At the same time, people get irritated by even the slightest deviation from my style. I suppose they're now getting a hang of my style.

From Roja in 1992 to Pukar in 2000, do you feel you've evolved as a composer?

I have. But I don't think growing as a composer has anything to do with making your compositions more complicated. At the same time, I don't believe in not learning while composing. There should be a balance between the composer's intrinsic knowledge and the requirements of the specific score. I simply move on after completing a score. Now I've forgotten Taal, Takhshak and Dil Hi Dil Mein. Now I'm thinking about what I can do in this millennium. Once I'm finished with a score there's nothing more I can do with or about it -- good bad or ugly. Maybe I'll return to my scores ten years from now. Right now I've new challenges to face, so my priority is the next score, not the last one.

Have you struck a balance between composing in Mumbai and the South?

Yes I have in a way. The South is a completely different ball game. It triggers off some heavy creative impulses in me. But work ethics are pretty similar in Chennai and Mumbai. I've just recorded a devotional song for Khalid Mohammed's Fizaa. I hope people like it. I want people to accept me for what I am.


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