He has taken Indian music to the global platform and, in a career spanning over two decades, created melodies that have touched the hearts of millions. As music maestro AR Rahman hits another milestone as a producer with 99 Songs and a director with the international Virtual Reality feature Le Musk, Team Box Office India is honoured to have the legend as the Guest Editor for this issue. Excerpts from an in-depth conversation with the genius about his journey, his successful crossover to the West and his undying passion for music
Box Office India (BOI): It’s been more than 25 years since you found a place in the hearts and minds of people for the outstanding music of Roja. A day before the release of Roja’s music, did you expect to achieve so much and survive for so long?
AR Rahman (ARR): No, I was in a very different zone. I started my career very early, at the age of 12 or 13, and I became very Zen-like as I was working with people who were much older than me. When I was 12, they were in their ’30s, ’40s and ’60s. So their mindset automatically became mine.
During my first movie, I thought it would be my last movie, so I told myself, ‘Let me do my best.’ I was not expecting to do more films and was happy to do the music of this film. Also, working with Mani Ratnam was such a temptation. I wanted to do something musical but outside the movies. But the overall response and love I received was endless. The possibility of having the resources to make more music was probably the fuel for doing more movies.
BOI: At what point did it actually hit you that this was not like any other album or any other response that you had received before?
ARR: For Roja, I think it started the day I met Mani Ratnam sir. I kind of knew he was going to change everything. The way he explained things, the way we were working together… I was excited throughout the process of making those songs. It was an experience like never before. It’s not about the response to the release but the excitement when you are making songs.
BOI: Things move very quickly now… fashions come and fashions go, and music is probably the most fleeting of fashions. How have you stayed on top of the game for such a long time?
ARR: By the grace of God. I believe so much in spirituality and I feel it is a gift and a blessing. I felt like I didn’t have this creativity when I was doing Roja. The music that came out of Roja was never in me because it evolved due to a combination of things. So, whenever I have a block, I have to do something very different and immerse myself in something out of the way. So never trust what’s there in you but what could come out of you. All you need is to have an intention or an idea and a benchmark to achieve what you want.
BOI: When you are approached by a producer or a director for new projects, what makes you say yes?
ARR: The team and the vision. You know, sometimes great scripts come in but they don’t have a good producer or the right distribution… so all the hard work is wasted. Then people ask me why can’t you do big movies, why do you have to do some silly movies, where only four people come to watch them? It’s the team that I primarily look at, and sometimes even people who are discovering new things. That’s best because you are discovering together. I don’t treat them like newcomers and they don’t treat me differently, and together, we discover the music that we want.
BOI: Do you adopt a different approach when you are doing a Hollywood film, a Hindi or a Tamil film?
ARR: Strangely, for Hindi and Tamil, I give the tune and try to understand the words. Like Taal, for instance, most of the work was done on the lyrics. Even though they asked me for tunes, I said give me the lyrics, I will make the tunes accordingly because (Anand) Bakshi sir is so good when it comes to writing lyrics, which are music-friendly.
Hollywood is a different ball game. They don’t have the patience. When they want a song, they won’t wait for me to create one. They just take an existing song and get the licence. The big movies never take any risks, they very rarely do. Scoring, in a way, is pretty similar but they are very cautious about whether the score is disturbing the movie or the flow. I think we have more freedom here.
BOI: Music over here largely relates to films. Is that a blessing or a curse?
ARR: It’s only a blessing. So many livelihoods and so many different artistes and singers are involved. If a singer sings even one song in a movie, he or she gets a platform. There are so many television programmes, I feel good about it. Rather than suffer from poverty, so many people are getting an opportunity to showcase their talent. Making money is a good thing but even they have to evolve. It is a blessing and you need to value it. Today, when someone has an idea, they just put it up on YouTube and it becomes popular. It is the greatness of the idea that spreads; it is not about how it is marketed. People don’t see all that, they see how great he is as an artiste or as a singer.
There are many viral videos floating around, of someone from a very poor family who sings beautifully. Videos like these are doing the rounds. There was this beggar who was sitting around, playing Airtel tunes. So there’s no gatekeeping. The important thing we don’t have is performance houses for younger people to go out and hang out. Somebody needs to set up these places.
We have to keep up with the younger people. These places nurture independent music. Like Blue Frog but it’s gone now. It brought so much joy. So many people performed there… and that’s gone now. I think these are the keys reasons for independent music to thrive. We need hangout places, where we can go with our coffee or drink and make a song.
BOI: Your association with Mani Ratnam is legendary but you are also known to do repeat work with other directors that you have worked with before. Why is that?
ARR: Yes, I think some people understand me and the way I work. However, I give everything to make a vision come true or to make a great song. I sacrifice my ego, everything is gone… it is about the song and how it will enhance the movie and how people are going to benefit. And if somebody is willing to create along with me, then I am game and these directors get that. So if you take Rakeysh Mehra, Ashutosh Gowariker, Imtiaz Ali or Shankar, I will work with them again and again because, ultimately, we are all striving to bring out some good music.
BOI: You have given the maximum number of breaks to singers. Is there a design behind that?
ARR: When I was an ad film producer or a music producer, it was easier for me to check out new voices and that became my habit. Nobody asked why I was using this person or that person. If they sounded good, they said ‘ok’. Only rarely will people say ‘I want this singer’ or ‘use this popular singer’ and I respect that too.
BOI: Now you are stepping into production with 99 Songs and direction with your film Le Musk. How did that come about?
ARR: Production came because I was writing ideas. I have so much time between travels. I used to write 2 pages, then from 2 pages to 12, 13 pages and it went on. So I was, like, let’s work on the first idea. And from there, I came into production.
We are doing pre-production now. But direction… I don’t think I should call myself a director because I was into this virtual reality, discovering this new creative form. The idea was to find something very unique. The images that came to my mind lingered longer than the 2D images. It looked almost real and I thought, what if we do a narrative on this, music-based? Then we wrote a script according to what would look good on virtual reality, when you are a part of the narrative. Then we said, let’s try it out and shoot it. We used the non-actors in my school, and we shot the whole thing, and we got excited. Intel was ready to sponsor. I didn’t even know how we finished shooting.
BOI: Any plans to make a full-length feature film?
ARR: It is strangely a full-length feature film; it is almost an hour long, with two intervals. It’s in English. Since it’s our first time, we thought we would make it in English so that it could reach a larger audience.
I think 2D is another monster.
I don’t have the mindset to sit for two years and do a movie, it would kill me. My bread and butter is music. This was a short film and we jumped into it and I don’t need that kind of attention. I have a great team now.
BOI: But, in production, do you see yourself scaling up at some point in time?
ARR: It all depends, we want to. It was an acid test. We are very confident that we will give a whole new feel to cinema because it’s music-based. I feel that movie like those became formulaic rather than going deep and evolving musically. Look at La La Land, we could have done it too but we did not do it because there is a formula and everyone wants to follow it rather than reinventing musical ideas and filmmaking. We have seen masters like Subhash Ghai and Mani Ratnam, of course, they have a unique way of… So our director (Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, 99 Songs) is next gen, he has done MTV. I really appreciate his work. I feel with his inputs and combination of this team, we will do better. Fingers crossed.
BOI: We are assuming that all the films from your production will be musical…
ARR: Yeah, that’s the idea. We started like that, I was doing my sisters’ album. I had not done anything for them, so I started an album for both my sisters. It is called Chemical Roses. So when we were doing that, we had three short stories and we realised it was going to cost a lot of money to execute those ideas. One was about space and one was about a parallel universe. They are all musical ideas but they could be made in to film too.
BOI: Speaking of your music school and students… how did that come about?
ARR: There was a crying need for a music school. Nobody did it. I felt like a fool because, for 15 years, I thought someone was going to open a school and then I realised that that someone was me! So, I announced it on my birthday, even though I did not know how to go about it. Once we announced it, we got teachers and people started coming in and everything fell into place. My sisters helped me, we have a musical family. She is the director of the school.
ARR: As I started living in different countries like the UK, the US and, obviously, India and a bit of France, I realised it is not just the movies. There is so much in the mind to be broken for people to like another culture. What are the movies about India that have clicked in America — Slumdog Millionaire, it’s about poverty; Salaam Bombay, it’s about poverty. The way Western culture sees Eastern culture is as if they are all suffering in the same way. Even Life Of Pi is about suffering.
It’s not like we can generalise everyone to have that kind of mindset but I feel there is a sense of empowerment and entitlement with certain communities. ‘This is how we want to see them.’ If it’s a Middle Eastern film, it has to be about terrorists. It’s so convenient to have assumptions. But convenient is not an option, we have to go to the truth and for that you need a lot of courage.
We can’t sell ourselves again because they like the poverty perception and, again and again, we sell the same thing. I think that’s one of the reasons we don’t show a glorious India. People are happy and people are not suffering, and even if they don’t have anything, happiness doesn’t equate with money because I think that is by itself God-given.
Of course, we respect the idea of God more than anything else. So our thinking is different. I could be wrong but this is my assessment. When our movie is releasing, we need to have a sense of pride. Not false pride but we should not be apologetic about being Indian. We have a culture that is older than any other culture out there. Show that and evolve with that.
BOI: How did you break the stereotype in Hollywood? Of course, Slumdog Millionaire was an Indian subject but you’ve also done bona fide ‘All-American’ Hollywoood movies like Couples Retreat and 127 Hours.
ARR: Yeah, I wanted to break the mould. I made sure that I was not type-cast. So everybody was, like, ‘Couples Retreat? That’s what you are going to do after Oscars?’ It’s an American comedy and it was fun. It was with nice people and I enjoyed it. There was nothing Indian about it. Then there was nothing Indian about Prophet.
It was nice to challenge myself and see if I could push myself and understand another culture. And to get to know another culture, you need to respect it. You need to respect their lives, culture and values and not criticise it. We must respect them as they are. That is one of the most important things the world lacks. We all criticise each other. We should have that pride but not have that generalised idea.
BOI: After 25 years, what keeps you motivated?
ARR: You need some reason to live, otherwise I would be, like, I have done everything, now let me die. My father died when he was 43, and I had this strange notion that I too might be dead at 43. I was surprised to be alive at 43, so I thought, okay, now that I am alive, let me do something bold and courageous, and let me see things which my mind has never thought before. Let me do those things – the school was like that, the foundation was like that, doing a VR movie was like that, a movie company was like that.