In 2003, a Chennai-based journalist and author was on Penguin’s shortlist of three-four writers for an A.R. Rahman biography. Finally, the publishers gave Kamini Mathai the go-ahead when they received her outline of what she wanted the book to be. After six years— during which she interviewed the composer, went in search of his roots, interviewed scores of people from his past and present, wrote and rewrote—Mathai’s book was launched a fortnight ago. In an interview with Lounge at her Chennai home, Mathai spoke about how she got Rahman talking, the people she met, and why this is not an authorized biography. Edited excerpts:
Chronicler: Mathai at her Chennai home. Sharp Image
What did your book outline to Penguin say?
At that point, I didn’t know too much about Rahman. I vaguely knew about Roja (Rahman’s first movie as a music composer), that he was a Hindu and had converted (to Islam)—the basic stuff. I didn’t know how exactly to write about somebody so young. I told them in my outline that I would make the book go back and forth between the present and the past. I was very excited when I was asked to go ahead, but I knew it was also going to be very tough because Rahman wouldn’t meet me easily. The first meeting itself took me around nine months.
How did you first get in touch with him?
I went online and tried to read as much as I could on him— anything that I got—and I started making notes. First, I sent him an email introducing myself. I would keep bombarding him with mails—every two weeks, so he didn’t get irritated. While that was going on, I would read up about him, buy his music, listen to it. Every article I came across on him, or anything that I came across about him, I would make notes of the characters in it, then set about finding (out about) those people—his father R.K. Sekhar, who was in the Malayalam film industry, and some composers. I found all his band members and spoke to each of them. I went back and found out who the principal of his school was.
Was Rahman receptive to the idea of a biography?
To be honest, no. He was receptive in the sense that he would let me speak to him, he put me on to his mother, he’d answer my questions—he was the usual, polite Rahman. He always said he wasn’t ready for a biography.
He is known to be a shy person, and doesn’t talk about his private life.
I think you have to be really, really close to him to finally get him to open up. He is very guarded about his past, about everything. So, I had to have eight paragraphs of information and then ask, “Is this true, or why did you say this?”, then he would open up. You have to be specific.
You spoke to nearly 100 people. Were you able to verify everything?
With Rahman, yes. Some of the things, I would just get a “yes” or “no”. So, that way, it would save me time. I got at least dates and years and things like that verified.
Was it difficult to get in touch with people associated with Rahman or his father?
Ah, yes. Somebody told me that Rahman’s father used to live on a street in the Mylapore area (in the heart of Chennai). I went to that street and was generally yelling “R.K. Sekhar family—anybody?” I went from door to door. I found this lady, Boologarani. She gave me this booklet, a family tree. Rahman’s father’s picture was there; Rahman’s grandfather’s picture was there, too. This was the only thing that gave me exactly when Sekhar was born, because Rahman himself told me he didn’t know.
What struck you the most about him?
That he is actually so simple. One of the people I met told me he didn’t want to buy his BMW—he would go around in whatever car he had. The simplicity was striking.
Have you sent a copy of the book to Rahman?
I sent him some chapters, but he had told me that he wanted it to be an unauthorized biography. I got an SMS from him saying he agreed it was unauthorized.
So why the confusion about the book being an authorized biography?
I don’t know. Nowhere have I stated it was authorized, nowhere has Penguin stated it is authorized. There was a PTI report that came out saying it was authorized. I sent Rahman a mail saying (that) wherever you see the word “authorized” you can be assured they have not spoken to Penguin or me. He wrote back saying: “I understand. Do clarify wherever possible.”
Finally, does Rahman’s music really reflect who he is?
He says it does. He says that all his music has a little bit of melancholy in it—a touch of sadness, because that’s how his life has been.