New Delhi: Nobody who knows A.R. Rahman could have been surprised by the way he ended his acceptance speech for best original score at the Oscars—with the Tamil phrase Ellapugazhum iraivanuke that translates into: “The praise must all go to the Almighty.”
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Born as the Hindu Dileep Kumar, Rahman converted to Islam in 1989 along with the rest of his family. That conversion—as well as his rigorous habit of prayer—is a firm part of the well-known Rahman mythos that lives within the Indian film industry. “I don’t just sit down and say: ‘Oh, let’s make a tune.’ It is possible to do that but I don’t work like that,” he once told this correspondent. “I like to make it a spiritual exercise for myself.”
“Everybody in the industry knows how religious he is, how he prays every time before he sings or records,” says Radhika Chandrasekhar, a New Delhi-based film-maker who worked as assistant director on the Rajeev Menon film Sapnay, which Rahman scored. “For a long time, if he ever sang one of his songs himself, he would only sing about faith or about his love for the country.”
His faith has kept him grounded even as his reputation and worth have soared, Rahman’s colleagues say. But the Academy Awards will be the sternest test yet. Inevitably, his price will climb as projects from the US and Europe compete for his time—and that might well affect those in India he works with in the future.
Rahman charges Rs1.5 crore per film, easily the highest fee commanded by a music director today, according to Komal Nahata, editor of the trade publication Film Information. “The next highest, probably Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa), charge less than Rs1 crore,” he says. “I think now Rahman’s standard fee may even go up to Rs2 crore, and nobody will be able to refuse it. If some directors can’t afford him, they won’t get him, simple as that.”
But T. Selvakumar, co-founder along with Rahman of the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai, believes otherwise. “We were talking about it, and he was sure that he would continue to do movies only if they were for good directors, and for no other reason,” he says. “He has a couple of Hollywood offers on hand, but he isn’t at all the type of person to use this to increase his rate and commercialize this whole experience.”
Vidhya Sivaramakrishnan in Chennai contributed to this story. Shashi Baliga is editor, Sunday Hindustan Times (Mumbai).