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i n t e r v i e w

rider on the storm

Exchanging notes with A R Rahman, the nation's snappy spice boy. A R Rahman has just completed an album to mark the 50 years of Indian Independence and is now tackling his ever-burgeoning list of film assignments, including Mani Ratnam's first Hindi project.

What kind of tunes are swirling in your mind right now?

(Laughs) I'm blank. But seriously, the tunes totally depend on the story situations given to me, be it a brother-sister kind of song, a Sufi incantation or a boatman type of song. Otherwise, my mind stays on a single track which is the best way to make it work when I actually start composing.

Could you tell me about your album to commemorate the 50 years of Indian Independence? How did it come about?

The project started off when I'd gone for an award function in Bombay. The weekly magazine had told me that I had won the award but at the function, they gave the award to someone else. Well, I told myself that's that. I wasn't depressed but I must admit that I was hurt. Anyway, I let the incident pass. While I was in Bombay, I called up one of my school friends - Bharat Bala, who makes commercials. We had dinner, we talked about music and planned to do something together. A week or so later, Bala suggested the theme of 50 years of Independence. And then Vijay Singh, the managing director of Sony-India, approached me to do the album. So several things seemed to fall into place about a year ago on the project. It started off as three songs on the three colours of the flag. Essentially, the songs are interpretations of Vande Mataram. The peace song was rendered for the album by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Lahore.

During your visit to Lahore, what did you see of Pakistan?

We were in Lahore very briefly, reaching there at 7:00 p.m. and leaving at 3:00 the next afternoon. The song was recorded in the night. Once that was over, as usual I slept through the morning, waking up to catch the flight. The authorities were very co-operative; there does seem to be a growing atmosphere to encourage cultural inter-exchanges.

Besides the three songs, has the album broadened in scope?

Yes, there's a spiritual feel to the album. For three months, nothing was moving on the album. Then during the month of Ramzan, the tunes started coming to me. Now there are six songs on the album. I think the attempt has been to catch the nafs, the pulse of what is happening around us today.

How free do you feel today to do what you want?

I wouldn't deny the fact that I feel uncomfortable at times. But then during my visits abroad, I ask myself, "Do I really feel free out here?" I don't. On coming back home, I feel a sense of belonging, as if I've returned to where I belong. And I wouldn't exchange this feeling of oneness for anything in the world. So far, I've been to the US, UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong and Dubai. But once I've reached these places, I've been suffused by a feeling of restlessness. One day away from Chennai and I'm homesick.

Why're you restless?

Honestly, I don't know the answer. I do try to be cool. Believe me, I've been surprised at myself on the occasions that I've lost my temper with my office guys.

Haven't you taken on too much workload? I believe you're doing eight films right now.

Two or three of them are already complete. So, it's okay. When a film-maker doesn't make unreasonable demands, composing doesn't become a burden. Like I enjoyed working with Rajkumar Santoshi on Pukar because he's a fan of melody and wasn't looking for those 'item' type of songs. I take on an assignment depending on the attitude and the needs of the film-maker. Like Shivendra Sinha had been calling me from time to time since Roja. Finally, his first film (Ittefaq) has taken off, and I'm glad that it has, because he has a feel for music.

At one point, wasn't Aamir Khan snowing you with faxes to do one of his films? Why didn't you?

Simply because I was extremely busy at that point. I think Dharmesh Darshan and he wanted me to do the music for Mela. I liked the script, but I just didn't have the time to spare.

What has been your experience with the Bombay film crowd?

I haven't been very close to the Bombay crowd. It's always been touch and go... hello-how're-you-sort-of-thing. I know a dozen people want to bitch on and on about me. I've been called all sorts of names. But I haven't responded. Like I told you, I try to be cool.

What's the score on Subhash Ghai?

(Laughs) So far, so cool. He's on to Shikhar now that Pardes has been released.

Do you think your music for Daud measures up to Rangeela? And pray whose idea was that Daaaa....uuuuud dog-like howl?

I can't make any judgements on my own music. All I know is that I've done my job on Daud, which is the best way to deal with it. As for Daaaa.....uuud, we wanted a different kind of theme song, a freaky sort of a thing. By the way it's not supposed to sound like a dog, but like a wolf howling.

But Daud doesn't have an immediately catchy number like Tanha tanha or Humma humma. Right?

Ramu (Ramgopal Varma) is generally clear about what he wants. He's into R and D (research and development), finding out what appeals to the public. So I leave catches and hooks to him.

Whose idea was it to use the voices of Remo Fernandes and Usha Uthup?

Ramu thought Remo would sound different in an Indian kind of song and he did. Usha Uthup was used unconventionally for the Punjabi version of the title song of Daud.

What do you mean by calling the instrumental track, The Thump of Daud? What does 'thump' mean?

Ha! Ask Ramu the meaning of thump, because he thought of it. Like he thought of The Spirit of Rangeela.

Okay, tell me, do you feel your new batch of songs are also being plagiarised by the Bombaywallahs? Or have they stopped after being criticised constantly?

I would say, there's a definite competitive spirit among the Hindi film music composers. Whether they admit that they are 'copying' or say that they are 'influenced' or 'inspired', is their problem. Not mine. On my part, I've just stopped listening to the numbers whenever I'm told that they've been plagiarised from one of my songs.

What's your reaction to Nadeem-Shravan calling you "a mere jingle composer"?

I leave such statements dangling in the air. There's no point in reacting, because that's just what they want probably. Silence is the best answer. It's better to shut up and keep quiet. Mr Nadeem is all sugar and honey to me at parties. A couple of years ago, we were at the same function, and both Nadeem and Shravan kept giving me broad smiles.

Are you getting more religious nowadays?

I need a base. Otherwise, I'm the most horrible creature on earth. The base keeps me humble. I feel the teachings of Abdul Qadar Jilani have brought about the right attitude in me. While praying you attain a certain position, telling the lord that you are the most horrendous sinner in the world, that you must be granted forgiveness and mercy.

I get this feeling that you don't like yourself.

I felt that way for a long, long time. Now I have a purpose in life, a single-minded purpose. But don't ask me what this purpose is because it's personal.

Are you at peace with yourself?

NO! (After a marathon pause) Because there are secrets within every one of us. So please, let my secrets remain within me. (Laughs uncontrollably) Because without mystery there can be no music.

What is the first word spoken by your daughter, Khatija?

Allah.

And the second?

Aiya - her grandmother. She hasn't said abba yet. Whenever she hears my music, she starts dancing. She's very loyal.

Do you see any interesting new trends in music?

After a point, I feel there should be a sense of purpose in music - it shouldn't be there just for dance and romance. I'm attempting to bring about that sense of purpose in my music. Which is not to say that I want to reform the world or anything as profound as that. I'd rather let my music speak for itself. And the clue to what I'm saying is in the Independence album.

How do your peers and the rest of the film industry in Chennai take your music?

It's the same everywhere, whether in Bombay or Chennai. They think I'm a fool. Maybe I am. I admit that I've a lot to learn. I feel I'm doing well perhaps because I'm blessed. If you think you're a know-all, then you get hurt. I do get hurt when personal attacks are made on me. Now that's another clue for you, to know why I want my music to have more purpose and meaning.

It's widely believed that you've overpriced yourself by charging an enormous fee.

I didn't initiate this intentionally. My price was suggested by the directors I was working with. They told me to work less, concentrate more, to ask for remuneration that would allow me to do my own thing. In any case, I share 50 per cent of the expenses of a song recording. Comparatively, my style of working is different. I can't churn out songs overnight. At times, it has taken me six to eight months to arrive at the appropriate tune for a song situation.

Have you ever hit a creative block?

Yes, to an extent. For the Sai ai ya song in Daud, we were trying out a new set-up of computer programming. And the system crashed 26 times during the recording. I was at my wit's end. Finally, we were satisfied with the song after grappling with it for 20 days. Relatively, the Zahreela zahreela song was a breeze. I met an old friend - Deena Chandradas - at a party Mani had hosted for his technicians; we started talking and something rung a bell. Usually my songs touch the high notes. But Deena's voice was just right for the lower notes in the song. Both Asha Bhosle and he could grasp the feeling what I wanted right away.

What has happened to the non-film album that you were to record with Asha Bhosle?

I'm working on it. I must come up with something that'll do justice to her calibre.

How come you allowed snatches of your music from Mani Ratnam's Bombay to be used in Deepa Mehta's Fire?

I saw nothing wrong with that. It made the music reach an international audience. I did compose some fresh pieces for Fire. For her next film, Earth, I'll be doing an absolutely brand-new score.

Do you think you'll ever cut an album for the international market?

Inshallah. I have been a bit choosy about this. I was supposed to do Mira Nair's Kama Sutra. But I didn't want to be branded in the west as the composer of Kama Sutra fame. I met Mira Nair and liked her a lot. I'd love to do some other film with her.

Would you compose music for film-makers you don't "like a lot" immediately?

I used to be on that trip. I used to like films which were out of the rut. Like Govind Nihalani's Tamas. But then so many unusual films don't reach enough people, the common man doesn't understand them. So, I'm trying to do both - films that are out of the rut and the regular stuff as well.

Would you be able to conjure up a music score for an absolutely abstract film?

That would depend on what the film is trying to convey. There was a time when I'd close my eyes and see far-out images, and so many crazy colours. At the outset, my music was quite abstract and experimental. (Laughs) But then I didn't meet any abstract people.

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