The last A.R. Rahman song I heard people singing along to in movie halls was Masakali, from Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6. Rahman has, of course, made good music after that: Last year’s Rockstar, for example, is a soundtrack that improves every few listens, and for all its faults, Imtiaz Ali’s film didn’t prevent the music from coming magically alive on screen. Think of a song like Aur Ho, sung by Mohit Chauhan and Alma Ferovic; overwrought on first listen, but mysteriously unforgettable in the way it captured two people in a strange city slowly coming to realize that they are going to destroy each other.
Rahman’s music is integral to the films he composes for. With directors like Mehra, or Mani Ratnam, for whom he produced the bright, crisp music of Raavan in 2010, it’s possible to clearly see how his sound is meant to be woven into their vision. It’s tempting to point to lesser soundtracks like Yuvvraaj (2008) as proof of the reverse being equally true, but before we agree that Rahman’s sensibilities are wildly different from Yuvvraaj director Subhash Ghai’s, let’s remember that Ghai also made Taal, easily one of Rahman’s greatest works in Hindi.
Those for whom the ideal post-2000 Rahman is the composer of Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities and Dil Se.. need not, in theory, have worried about the composer signing up for Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Chopra made love stories; Rahman has made some of the finest love songs in contemporary Hindi cinema. Chopra’s films have always featured elaborate dance numbers; Rahman is the guy who scored Urvasi Urvasi. In Chopra’s movies songs never fade in and out apologetically as the characters do their best to approximate realism on screen. The world of the movie halts for them to play out, sounding from first note to last. Who do we know who can write music to match that kind of anarchic romanticism?
But now that the music of Jab Tak Hai Jaan is out, and the customary fortnight that it takes for Rahman’s music to steep in listeners’ minds has passed, early suspicions are that this is a minor Rahman soundtrack. Not a failure like Blue; and not a small miracle like Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, but merely pleasant. It gives us several things that we can enjoy in a detached, admiring way, but perhaps just one or two songs which demand immediate love.
Almost everything about the music of Jab Tak Hai Jaan is virtuoso. The songs utilize an array of voices and instruments, all of which are carefully controlled, pleasantly surprising and generally fall brilliantly on the ear. This is an album made for strings—guitars, violins, and cellos. The bass lines, Rahman’s habitual first responders, are in full bloom. The opening song, Challa, is remarkable not so much for folk singer Rabbi Shergill’s voice, but for its guitar track, which gives it so much room to breathe and grow. There is something less exciting about the arrangements on Heer, sung by Harshdeep Kaur. Her voice is enchanting, as always, but somewhat subdued by lugubrious percussion, and a far cry from the last song she sang for Rahman, the sparkling Katiya Karun in Rockstar.
Rahman has been substantially responsible for the way Hindi music has opened up to different kinds of female voices, but I think he can misstep sometimes with their upper registers in a way he doesn’t usually do with male singers. The least likeable song in this album, Saans, features a twee, trilling performance by Shreya Ghoshal (who Rahman also cut loose in one of the few false notes in his outstanding Delhi-6 soundtrack, by trying to lock her in step with Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan on Bhor Bhaye).
To be fair, the otherwise wonderful Javed Ali also shows up at less than his best in the title track, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, a soaring confection of rapturous string arrangements that might actually have been made for Sonu Nigam. This isn’t to mock the arrangements, or Nigam, at all. Rahman has mastered the art of using orchestras that sound simultaneously retro and iPod-ready at once, but songs like Jab Tak Hai Jaan are clearly meant to serve a familiar mood and vision, and that sometimes demands old-school vocal overpowering.
But there are other, outstanding performances. The other singer on Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Shakthisree Gopalan, is terrific; one of those seemingly perfectly-trained mezzo voices that Rahman loves (think Chinmayee). Jiya Re, which will probably show up as the inevitable embarrassing child-woman fantasy in the film, is delightfully sung by Neeti Mohan, spirited and airy without being even slightly brassy, or, indeed, cutesy (although Hindi film music, Rahman included, really needs to stop dropping rap into song bridges).
And Shilpa Rao is swooningly lovely on Ishq Shava, ably accompanied by Raghav Mathur and a number of masterfully-strummed Spanish guitars. The sort of gauche dance video might put you off, but I think Ishq Shava is the album’s best song, not just because it rewards instant replay, but also because it, and Jiya Re, are the only two songs which pull off a seemingly impossible feat, of coexisting simultaneously in a Yash Chopra universe, and an A.R. Rahman universe. Ishq Shava has a guitar solo to die for, and an opening that no nu-jazz artiste would be ashamed to put on their record, but it also has a melody that a child could pick up on first listen, and—who knows?—might just get an audience to sing along in theatres.
I can’t help but feel sympathy for this odd, ambitious hybrid, at risk of being loved neither by Rahman’s fans nor Chopra’s fans, and less than what might have been dreamt of by the subset of fans who love both. It remains to be seen how the music will unspool on screen. The great thing about a Yash Chopra film is that there’s no giving up hope.