Chennai: As the countdown to the 81st Annual Academy Awards gathers pace, music director A.R. Rahman’s invisible army of sound engineers, instrumentalists, chorus singers and trainers in Chennai is getting ready to celebrate.
Rahman’s home city is hoping, expecting and praying that the Mozart of Madras brings home an Oscar—or two.
On a wining note? A 2 February photo of A.R. Rahman at the Academy Awards luncheon in Beverly Hills, California. The Oscars will be telecast in India on Monday from 6.30am. Chris Pizzello / AP
The Cine Musicians Union and Trust in Chennai is busy making arrangements and sending out invitations to felicitate Rahman on 1 March for winning the Golden Globe award for Jai Ho in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The Cine Audiographers Association of South India is also planning to celebrate the occasion, but is yet to finalize specific plans.
Rahman has three Academy Award nominations for Slumdog Millionaire—two Original Song nominations and a third Best Score nomination; Mumbai-based Resul Pookutty has been nominated in the Sound Mixing category for the same movie.
If this Sunday brings Rahman his first-ever Oscar, the big event will be even bigger, says the secretary of Cine Musicians Union Trust, M. Kalyan. “Not only this award (referring to the Oscars), but he will get many more!” he says.
Kalyan, who has known Rahman since the days he worked with his father S.A. Shekar, fondly calls him Dileep (Rahman was earlier known as A.S. Dileep Kumar). “Kalyan uncle”, as Rahman calls him, has been a solo instrumentalist for string instruments the violin and viola since 1993’s Roja, which won Rahman a National Film Award for best music director.
Kalyan and a host of others, including sound engineers, instrumentalists, chorus singers and trainers, make up Rahman’s behind-the-scenes team. They’re part of a breed whose talent is recognized mostly within the confines of the recording studio and within the music industry.
Celebration frequency: (left to right) Assistant sound engineers Dinesh Ramalingam and Suresh Permal, and chief sound engineer S. Siva Kumar at AM Studios, in Kodambakkam, Chennai. Sharp Image
For example, how many know that the flute piece in the famous theme music of Mani Ratnam’s Bombay was played by P.M.K. Naveen Kumar? Or that the man behind the saxophone in Tamil movie Duet is Raju (also known as Sax Raju)? Or that the sound engineer who worked in the recent blockbuster Ghajini is S. Sivakumar?
Base guitarist Keith Peters, who has worked with Rahman on many movies, believes that things have changed in the last few years. “Names of the instrumentalists and sound engineers are printed on the covers of CDs and cassettes, and then there is word-of-mouth. So, people know and there is awareness and knowledge, media coverage and exposure through television.”
Peters, who has contributed to chartbusters such as Aye udi udi from Saathiya, Kehna hi kya from Bombay and Chaiyya chaiyya from Dil Se, believes that in the coming years, backstage musicians will get more recognition.
Sound engineer Sivakumar, who has worked with Rahman in around 125 movies, says that it was Rahman who introduced the practice of printing the names of instrumentalists and technicians, including the name of the studio(s) where the sounds have been recorded, mixed and edited. “After this, everybody took up this practice.”
Sivakumar says the initial days of his career were quite a struggle. “Nowadays, it’s relatively easier. When I started out as an assistant engineer in Sujatha Studios, I was asked to stand near the sound engineering equipment and see where the tapes are getting punched and had to change the tapes once they rolled over—I was not allowed to mix the sounds initially. Nowadays, youngsters want to start mixing (sound) right away.”
Sound engineering was quite a task in the earlier analog years, but it became easier to handle when the process went digital. Sivakumar, who joined as Rahman’s sound engineer after Roja, says that in the initial years, they experimented with new technology, new methods of sound mixing and new software. “The learning processes used to happen in the night, after a hard day’s work. He used to keep experimenting till late in the night and sometimes, I would tell him I am sleepy (grins).”
Siva, as his colleagues call him, says that his average sleep time has increased from four hours in the initial years to five-six hours in the last three years.
V.S. Murthy, who worked on the sound for Roja and who has been working with Ilayaraja for years, says it was quite difficult to record in those days.
“There used to be only three tracks for recording—one for the lead vocals, one for melodic instruments and the other for rhythm and percussion. Nowadays, you have ‘n’ number of tracks. In those years, there was devotion towards duty, but now it’s mechanical. We have had crucial deadlines, like finishing the re-recording of a movie (background score) in one or two days. In one particular instance, we worked till 2am and the producer used to wake us up at 4am with a cup of coffee!”
A close associate of Murthy, P.T. Arasu, who has been in the field of sound engineering for the last 24 years, and has worked with Illayaraja, Rahman and other leading south Indian music directors, says that a lot of sacrifices have to go in for one to remain in this field. “Family is secondary, otherwise you can’t survive in this music industry.”
Both Murthy and Arasu, who are among the top sound engineers in the Tamil film industry, are all praise for Pookutty. “The nominations of Rahman and Pookutty would result in more people looking at India for music. It will open more doors,” believes Arasu.
Augustine Paul, who has worked with leading music directors on?Western chorus works, says that more international collaborations may work out if Rahman wins the Oscars: “More people will explore the idea of working with Indian musicians. Of course, Indian musicians are present in the international scene, but this (Oscars) would help it open it up even more.”