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Zee Premiere interview - 2000

At the end of 1999, Rahman is poised at the crossroads as far as film music is concerned. While Taal hit a creative as well as commercial high, 1947 won him rave reviews. Thakshak and Dil Hi Dil Mein, however, were a case of loveís labour lost, as both films didnít deliver at the boxoffice.Nevertheless, most music lovers see him as the only true pathbreaker of the í90s, the only composer capable of carrying film music forward into the next century and a new high. His detractors, however, accuse him of limited creative capacities, which has led him to sound repetitive and monotonous.

Rahman takes both acclaim and criticism in his stride. Thereís no rancour of defensiveness in his attitude even when you accuse him of monotony. His eyes are on new horizons. New ways of extending music. Heíll be working with Michael Jackson in the year 2000, as also Andrew Lloyd Webber. 

It is difficult to pin Rahman down for an interview in Chennai. He works through the nights and sleeps through the day. After several phonecalls handled by his charming and soft-spoken wife, the man finally comes on the line. ďIíll be in Mumbai tomorrowĒ, he says. ďWe can meet there.Ē We meet him the following day in Mumbai, where he is recording a song for Shyam Benegals Zubeida.

There are many who say that you have given a new dimension to film music.

Yes, but there are also those who say that I am lousy.(laughs)

Arenít you, at times?

Maybe I am. It depends on the inspiration I get. One canít be on the same creative plane always

How do you respond to the acclaim heaped on you by music historians?

Itís a great responsibility. Iím trying my best to combine traditional and contemporary styles.

But sometimes the result isnít in my hands at all. It depends on the film and its director. So far Iíve been lucky not to have any major disagreements. Trends come and go but Iíve to keep doing my own thing. Personally, I was very fond of my music in Doli Saja Ke Rakhna, but it didnít do well. The film wasnít released properly. It depressed me. Now the music has been included in a Telugu /     Tamil bilingual film. And the songs are super-hits.

Why do you use so many different voices in a film, irrespective of whether they suit the characters or not?

I do it for variety. Otherwise things would get monotonous, and Iíd be composing an endless series of love duets. (laughs)

There was a time when the album of a film would have only two voices, mostly, Lata Mangeshkarís and Mohammed Rafiís, singing for different characters. Today, different singers sign for the same character.

Itís possible to that even now, but it wonít be work. The times have changed. The attention span of and average listener has decreased and his geographical purview has broadened. He wants to see Switzerland and New York, and at the same time experience the rural landscape of India. The scope of songs is expanding to include every part of the planet maybe even the moon. Movies no longer move through one time-frame and mood. If they did, then one could stick to one voice. Today we canít afford to have the heroine and her maidservant sing in Latajiís voice. Ealier the only means of experiencing music was movies, now with MTV and Channel [V] in vogue, listeners are rooting for variety. When they hear a song outside the film, they donít relate the singerís voice to that of an actorís. So that aspect becomes irrelevant. They no longer think in terms of perfect or imperfect. They want different voices, standards be damned. (laughs)

It is said that you had to splice together several voices in Taal because you couldnít get the required results with just one or two voices. Is this true?

The problem was different. We recorded some songs of Taal in Chennai and others in Mumbai depending on the time and availability. It gave me the chance to work with some new singers. You see, if I take a new singer for a song his or her career is made.

You have boosted neglected singers like Ranu Mukherjee and Hema Sardesai.

Yes, but unfortunately, I couldnít sustain their careers. I had to move on.

Inspite of the success of Jiya jale, you have seldom got Lata Mangeshkar to sing your songs.

Most of my songs are so freaky that I feel embarrassed to approach her. I feel they wouldnít do justice to her reputation. Jiya jale was raga-based so it was her territory.

How was the experience of working with Subhash Gahi in Taal?

It was very good. Subhash Ghai is a genuine lover of music. Heís like a child in his responses. If he likes something he hears, he gets really excited. If he doesnít like something he hears, he gets depressed.

Subhash Ghai told me there was a huge communication problem between the two of you.

It was not because of language- Iíve been learning Urdu (laughs). One part of the problem was Anand Bakshi. He canít travel. So the lyrics had to be written in Mumbai and sent to Chennai. If a change was needed it had to be sent back. That was time consuming. Sometimes Subhashji had to wait for me because of my work patterns. In Chennai, Iíve a small studio where all the music happens. I can only do one thing at a time there. Even when a track is being transferred, all other work comes to a standstill, because I like to supervise everything myself. I donít believe in handing over the job to someone else and waiting for the results. This leads to people waiting for me at times. But itís not deliberate.

How happy are you with your work in Taal?

Iím very happy. I had worked on the score for eight months. It was good to work with a filmmaker like Ghai. Heís very Particular about everything. He wanted to know every detail in the track. It inspired me. He looked at the music objectively. After the recording, he spent three days doing minor editing on the music to make it crisper. It was the first time that a director did the final trimming.

Which are your favourite numbers from Taal?

Most of them (laughs). Actually Nahin saamne and Ishq bina are my favourites. Ishq bina is a combination of a bhajan and a qawwali. For this song the lyrics were written first. After that I composed four versions. Ghai asked me to combine three of them into one.

Sukhwindara Singh seems to be a constant presence in your scores these days. Do you share a special rapport with him?

Sukhwindara began with me in Thakshak. When I heard the story I could hear a voice in my mind. I spoke about it to my friend Brij Bhushan in Mumbai. He knows a lot of singers. I wanted a Punjabi folk singer. He suggested Sukhwindaraís name. I immediately chose him for Thakshak. After that we recorded for Dil Se. I then heard a lot of his Punjabi music, not just bhangra. More listeners in North India relate to Punjabi music than Hindi or Urdu. The rhythm is universal.

Has Sukhwindara become a link with the North for you?

You could say that (laughs). In fact nowadays, weíre jamming together a lot. He thinks music. He writes very simple lyrics in a lay personís language.

Is it true that you were hesitant in the beginning about the Thakshak score?

Yes. A key character in the film is a pop singer. I was asked to compose a song for the situation when the lead character is going through turbulent emotions. He had this toofan inside him. And the script demanded that I compose some noisy numbers for the situation (laughs). I told Govindji that I wouldnít be very comfortable doing it. He pleaded that the music had to tune in with his lead character. When a director is that clear about what he wants, the composer canít dilute or deflect his needs. So I decided to go by Govindjiís brief, against my own musical taste. Even after recording, I had reservations about the Toofan number. I felt it was too noisy. But it reflected the protagonistís state of mind. Maybe we should have deleted the song from the album.

Many feel that your score in Deepa Mehtaís 1947-Earth is your best in a long time.

Maybe. Deepa Mehta was on her own trip. She didnít care if the music was commercially viable or not. She wanted sparse orchestration in the film. There was no dholak in the Rut aa gayi re number in the film. In fact, in the album, I had to pad up some of the songs with more instruments.  

How did you enjoy your first full-fledged foray into folk-based rhythm?

In the beginning, I was a bit scared, But I came to terms with it. I had to instill a period atmosphere into the kind of music todayís listeners relate to. I composed and recorded the songs the way I wanted to. Fortunately when Deepa heard them, she freaked out. We had even recorded a version of Vande mataram, but since it went into the sensitive Indo-Pak issue, we decided not to use it in the film. The bhajan Ishwar Allah was written and composed in one day.

Is it true that youíve declined several films in Mumbai?

Ealier I was supposed to do Mela. Then Josh. There was a huge communication problem regarding Josh. Since Iím Chennai-based, a whole lot of gossip and speculation followed. I was accused of all sorts of things. If thereís no trust between a filmmaker and a composer then the two should not work together. Now Iím doing Aamir Khanís Lagaan. Iíve already recorded two songs. I did turn down a few offers in Mumbai but it is not proper for me to discuss then.

There were a few rumours that Thakshak and Pukar were held up because you delayed the background score.

Thakshak and Pukar were done on DTS, so there was a lot of work involved. Since the effects are done in Chennai, they conveniently put the blame on me. The music was more or less ready in time, but the sound mixing, which involved four times the normal work, took time. The result as  you can see is mind-blowing. The music of Pukar has an individualistic sound. It was designed exclusively for the film. And thereís no item song.

Of late you have been moving away from your trademark sound.

Yes, I had to, for variety. But the problem is, if I stick to what you call my trademark sound, Iím accused of sounding the same, and if I try to do something different, people complain that it doesnít sound like Rahmanís music. Itís a no-win situation. Left to myself, Iíd like to be adventurous and try out styles I havenít tried before.

Traditionalists are very critical of contemporary music. Whatís your view?

I guess some of the criticism is valid. But then, you need to understand the pressures under which most composers work in the film industry. The pressures donít allow them to function freely. I have become immune to the abuses hurled at me from all sides (laughs). So I function the way I want to. They keep cribbing all the time even about the slightest delay. Everybody seems to be in a hurry. Not every composer can take that kind of pressure, so they compromise on quality.

What about the lack of originality?

A director told me recently Ė I wonít name him Ė since all the tunes are the same, all I need to do is to change the backup. I kept thinking about the offer for three weeks, then declined the film. I guess everything depends on the success of a film. The music of Dil Se did very well until the film bombed at the box office. Then they said that the music was too complexly structured and it was too difficult for the common man to grasp it, and that the songs should have had a North Indian falvour. In a way the assumption is right but it occurred to them only after sa;es of the album slowed down. But on the whole, I agree that too much innovation puts off people.

Roja was completely alien to listeners in the north, yet they accepted it.

Maybe because there was too much mediocrity around at that time (laughs).

Do you still feel akward working in Mumbai?

Not anymore. It is almost the same as working in Chennai. I donít communicate with the lyricists long distance anymore. Instead, we meet and interact, and there is better communication. Earlier I did my job and the lyricists did his.

Who are the lyricists you are comfortable working with in Mumbai?

I am okay with most of them. I enjoyed working with Gulzarsaab in Dil Se. Heís a very musical person. He doesnít use clichťs. Javedsaab is a very fine poet too.

Does poetry get in the way of your tunes, since you arenít so fluent in Hindi?

It depend on the requirements of the song. Sometimes songs need poetry, sometimes they donít. In any case, as I said, I have been learning Urdu.

Gulzarsaab says that your biggest contribution to film music isÖ

Öthat I didnít interfere with his lyrics? (laughs)

No, that you broke the clichťd antra-mukhda-antra pattern of a film song.

Some people praise me for it, other criticize. When I started out, I used to play the keyboard for a number of composers. Soon it became like a boring office job and I began wondering what I should do to break the monotony. It led me to think up new ideas. By listening to other composers carefully, I learnt that what should be there in good film music and what shouldnít be.

What is this project you are working on with Andrew Lloyd Webber?

We are still to work out the final details. It will be oriental-style music in English language, and will be produced by Shekar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are several other things I want to do. Music, after all, is not a predictable vocation.

Do you feel you are reaching a saturation point where film music is concerned?

No, I donít. The film industry is growing. It is expanding at an amazing speed. Even as piracy is being blamed for screwing up the music business, Taal and Dil Se are on the UK and US charts. A Tamil film called Muthu starring Rajnikant has done very well in Japan. When the Japanese came here, I asked them what it was that they liked about my music. They said they liked the John Barry kind arrangement inter-mixed with Indian folk.

What do the initials A.R. stand for in your name?

Allah Rakha. My friends call me A.R..

After putting in such long hours, how do you relax?

Whereís the time to relax? Composition is not just about creating tunes on the harmonium. Nowadays thereís software related to music, which Iím getting familiar with. Thereís so much happening and so much to do.

Do you spend time with your wife and children?

I do. Fortunately, Iíve my studio attached to my home, which helps me keep in touch with my family. Otherwise Iíd be coming home from the studios at 4 a.m. and going back again in the evening.

Are your two daughters musically inclined?

Yes, I think theyíll get into it slowly. My father too was a composer. He died at the threshold of success. He passed away the same day his first film as a composer was released. I was nine then, and his only son. I started working at the age of 11.

What were you doing at that age?

Setting up music equipment for others. At 13, I started playing music. At 19, I started composing jingles.

A common charge against you is that your music sounds like ad jingles.

I donít want to argue with that charge. Maybe when I donít use the dholak my music sounds like jingles to them (laughs). I think composing jingles gave me the right formula and the hook for film music.

Are you affronted by criticism?

Not if itís intelligent and valid. I think criticism is healthy. When I composed for Mani Rathnamís second film, Thiruda Thiruda, they said the music was atrocious. Today they say itís the best music Iíve ever done. Not the Hindi version, the Tamil one. What they did in Hindi was to arbitrarily dub the Tamil version of Thiruda Thiruda to cash in on the success of Roja. Iíve stopped such dubbing now.

Do you have any music idols in Mumbai?

The late RD Burman and Naushadji. I like Naushadjiís sense of melody. Doli Saja ke Rakhna had his influence. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is another favourite. I just did one song with him for my album Vande Mataram.

Renuka Balasubramaniam




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