on the storm
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
How do your peers and the rest of the film industry in Chennai take
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
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
What has happened to the non-film album that you were to record with
I'm working on it. I must come up with something that'll do justice to
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
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
Would you be able to conjure up a music score for an absolutely
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.