interview - Interview
with A R Rahman appeared in Filmfare magazine (in early 1996).
There have been rumours that you have been been dropped from
What! This is the first time that I've heard such a rumor. Let me tell
you, I am doing 'Shikhar'... I'm committed to the project. Mr. Subhash
Ghai was in Madras and he attended my sister's wedding... Perhaps there
is a hostile group which is trying to spoil our relationship.
Speaking of weddings, is it true that your getting married in March?
(Blushing..) Yes. It's an arranged marriage ... her name is Saira She is
the sister-in-law of the actor Rahman.
At this point can you tell me what attracted you to show business?
(Laughs) The need to survive. My father was a music conductor and
arranger in Malayalam films, I would often accompany him to the studios.
When I was 11, my father passed away suddenly. It was difficult to make
both ends meet; I had to get a part-time job and fast. So, I joined
Illaiyaraja's group as a keyboard player.
Were you formally trained in music?
Let's say, I had a working knowledge of music. I could identify the
varnams and the thumris. I'd studied Hindustani classical music. I had a
taste for ghazals. I could play everything from folk to fusion music.
As a result, did your studies suffer?
They did. I was cutting classes regularly [...] bit of money for the
house. But my principal refused to understand. I used to get a right
royal yelling every day because of my poor attendance. After ninth
standard, I was forced to move from Padma Seshadri to the Madras
Christian College. After that, I joined a music college. I enjoyed
school; it was fun.
Was working with composers of the stature of Illaiyaraja and M. S.
Vishwanathan also fun?
It was. I learnt what I should do and what I shouldn't. Abroad every
year, a sensational new discovery explodes on the music scene. But here
new talent is rare, we keep working with the same singers in film after
film and with the same orchestra. It's easy to fall into a rut. I wanted
to be different, to be wild. But it wasn't easy...
Because a composer is given only eight hours to deliver. Where's the
time to sit back... reflect... experiment? Whatever you churn out in
that time is accepted. MSV used to compose a phrase and ask his
musicians to play it over and over - he'd improve on it every time. The
'feel' had to be right. Illaiyaraja writes out the entire score... He's
a genius. I just give my musicians some rought notes - they play them
over and over until I am satisfied.
How long do you take to compose the song?
Depends! At times, I finalise a tune after an hour... at times, I have
to allot another session. A song can take me two days or two weeks.
'Uyire Uyire' ['Tu hi re, Tu hi re' in Hindi] from 'Bombay' took me
ages... so did kuchi kuchi rakkamma. On the other hand, Veera pandi
kottaiyile ['Pyaar kabhi na todenge' in Hindi, from 'Chor Chor'] from
'Thiruda Thiruda' was ready in a week. Occasionally I've had to change
Which was eaiser to compose-Muqabla in Kaadhalan or the more
Composing a peppy number like 'Muqabla' is easy. I just have to be
spontaneous, let myself go. It's like gorging on Chinese food once a
month. But melodies, like 'Chhotisi asha', 'Chandralekha' and 'Ennavale'
['Sun ri sakhi' from 'Humse hai Muqabla'] were more difficult...
'Ennavale' was inspired by a song which is 2000 years old. For the songs
of 'Yodha' [his sole malayalam effort], I did a lot of research in
Nepali and Chinese music. I know 'Ennavale' and the songs from 'Roja'
and 'Puthiya Mugam' will be hummed for decades.
'Muqabla' and 'chiku buku rayile' are needed to break the monotony.
They're needed to sell a cassette. I don't know how long they'll remain
popular but at the moment everyone is dancing to their beat.
Would 'Kaadhalan' have been a hit without 'Muqabla'?
The film was an entertainer... the songs were only a part of all the
It's said that for 'Muqabla' you lifted a Dr. Alban number.
I was inspired by a beat which also seemed to be the inspiration for Dr.
Alban. I heard his number only after my song was composed. After
Muqabla, I haven't turned to the same beat... a beat which we call a
But you've already started repeating tunes already. In fact, the two
Telugu films you've done are nowhere close to your usual standards.
Everything I do is so new that even if a single note is repeated, it's
noticed immediately. You may hear tHE same tabla beat 1000 times and no
one complains. As for my Telugu films, I can only say that it's upto teh
director to inspire teh composer. Moreover the Telugu audience is
different, [...] sing a song.
Why did you turn to ad films? Was it the money?
I wanted a change. After a year with Illaiyaraja, I wanted a break. So,
in 1987, when I was offered teh Allwyn's Trendy Watch campaign, I
grabbed it. I went on to do almost 300 ad films: Leo Coffee, Boost with
Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar, MRF Tyres, Hero Puch... there were so
many. The Asian Paints ad which I did with cinematographer Rajiv Menon
even won an award. Money isn't important, creative satisfaction is. You
can never achieve quality if you just want to make a fast buck.
What made you veer towards feature films?
Mani Ratnam. His cousin, Sharda Trilok (Trish Productions) had produced
one of my ad films. I met Mani at the party hosted by her. I invited him
to visit my studio.. he came after three months. He must have been
impressed with my work because he offered me 'Roja'. I was quite happy
in my ad world. I had no intention of joining the film industry as a
composer. The pace is much too hectic. But Mani's offer was too tempting
to refuse. I love his picturisations, he can elevate a routine song by
400 percent; give it a new dimension. Also the audience is larger...
Did you expect Roja to be such a mega-hit?
We used fresh voices and a fresh approach. We weren't sure if the
attempt would click, but we had created something new. After 'Roja',
'Thiruda Thiruda' was quite easy... Bombay wasn't. After 'Roja' there
are greater expectations. [Reportedly Mani Ratnam had planned on six
numbers for Bombay. But he had to settle for five because A. R. Rahman
couldn't deliver the songs on time] Bombay was very demanding. I admit
that I gave Mani some problems, but he was very patient and
understading. We composed the title song first. The others followed
smoothly if slowly. I think 'Humma Humma' will be the most popular
number of the lot. When I accept a film, I make it clear that I take my
time over my scores. There's a clause to this effect in my contract.. so
no one can complain later. My directors are confident that despite the
delay, I'll give them good music.
Is it true that you were paid Rs. 1 crore for 'Shikhar'?
The rights were sold for quite a high price but I wasn't paid much. In
fact, I was paid very little. (Shrugs) That's okay. When you work only
for money things don't turn out right. I wanted to work with Mr. Ghai.
He's a dedicated film-maker.
Success seems to have gone to your head. In an interview, you've been
quoted as saying that your cassettes sell more than Illaiyaraja's.
That's what people tell me.
Have you met MSV or Illaiyaraja after becoming a music director?
I met MSV a couple of times. Since my studio's at home, I don't go out
Is it true that you're a threat to their position?
That's what the media says. I don't think so. Illaiyaraja is doing 25
films a year, I have only 10 films on hand.
Whom do you consider your closest rival?
The man who's inside me and constantly trying to distract me from doing
'Bombay' has run into heavy weather with the censors.
I believe so, but I'm sure it'll come through. It's a good film, we've
all worked very hard. God will surely help us. It focuses more on the
need for humaneness than communal issues. I remember someone saying that
every perfect Muslim is a Hindu and every perfect Hindu is a Muslim.
Are you a perfect Muslim?
We're a very secular family. My sister's married a Hindu. We didn't try
to stop her from marrying the boy. It's her life, she had to make her
There was some talk that you were very close to a chorus singer.
Chorus singer? What're you saying? In the studio, we're all brothers and
sisters. That's the only way we can work late into the night... without
getting involved in messy affairs. All the girls I work with treat me
like their bhai.
You've sung the Bombay number 'Hamma Hamma' yourself. Does this mean
you're changing lanes.
No way. I'll sing only when it's absolutely essential.
Are you fluent in Hindi?
Not really, but I'm learning. Besides my six Tamil films and my non-film
album which I expect to bring out in eight months, I have three Hindi
films on hand ('Shikhar', 'Rangeela' and a film being directed by
Priyadarshan). If others can copy my tunes and make it to the hit-list,
why can't I?