The A.R. Rahman fan club

25 industry insiders, including Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Mani Ratnam, Prasoon Joshi talk about on 25 years of A.R. Rahman in the movies


A.R. Rahman
A.R. Rahman

“In my experience, he is the best sound engineer in the world. He’s a package—of a music arranger, singer and musician. He records every song with a spiritual connection. Be it ‘Muqabala’ or ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ or ‘Taal Se Taal Mila’, it feels like a ‘bhajan’.”

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’(‘Dil Se..’ 1998)

—Sukhwinder Singh, playback singer

“Rahman made contemporary film music cool. Most music that was consumed then was either older songs with their beautiful nostalgic tug, or the more plebeian hits that were primarily patronized by the proletariat. With ‘Roja’, and then a body of work that is still fresh, he brought film music right into the lives of the modern youth, and it was as cool as any international music. The secret to Rahman’s success is his deep faith in the divine and the very palpable connection he feels with God. He is not feverish about success, he is not constantly trying to retain some position or compete in any manner. He simply does what flows from his soul. And it’s that honesty towards his inner voice that guides not just his music but, indeed, his life.”

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ (‘Dil Se..’)

—Abbas Tyrewala, film director

Shantanu Moitra. Photo: HT
Shantanu Moitra. Photo: HT

In this age of digital consumption of music and clutter, what makes Rahman’s songs stand apart is a certain melody which is beyond technology; it’s about heart. People mistake that for his technical efficiency. As a musician, I’ve learnt from him to capture moments, and not performances, on the microphone. Even a mistake is music.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ (‘Bombay’, 1995)

—Shantanu Moitra, music director

Rahman sir is a master of melodies. His arrangements are rarely cluttered, yet they remain sophisticated and poignant, with textures that complement and enhance his main idea. He’s also a visionary and loves to experiment, finding new sounds, using cutting-edge technology, constantly learning and evolving. He has always been ahead of his time, yet he understands how best to honour his roots and continues to inspire a whole new generation of composers, songwriters and performers.

Favourite Rahman songs: The ‘Bombay’ theme, ‘Thee Thee’ (‘Thiruda Thiruda’, 1994), ‘Kun Faya Kun’ (‘Rockstar’, 2011), ‘Raasathi’ (‘Thiruda Thiruda’).

—Annette Philip, artistic director, Berklee India Exchange, and founder-director of the Berklee Indian Ensemble at Berklee College of Music, Boston

Also Read | A. R. Rahman: ‘I am an instrument’

Rahman is always searching for something that excites him. back in the day when Bollywood composers would just sit with a harmonium and let the arrangers do everything, he would programme his own songs. But more than the technical stuff, what i’ve learnt from him is to never limit yourself, to go out of your comfort zone and attack genres you’re not comfortable with. Often, he doesn’t even give a brief; he just calls people he trusts who know what he expects. and that makes you wrack your brains and give your best to the song. so you don’t feel like you’re being fathered, but empowered.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Rehna Tu’ (‘Delhi-6’, 2009)

—Clinton Cerejo, music producer and singer

Good music is neither constrained by shelf life nor does it have limitations of age to be appreciated. Rahman ‘saab’ is the epitome of good music. He was relevant then, is relevant now and will be appreciated by generations to come.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Aawara Bhanwre’ (‘Sapnay’, 1997)

—Vikram Mehra, managing director, Saregama India

People like Rahman established their brand before the Internet era. The longevity of musicians today is impaired by the fact that people just don’t listen to music the way they used to. Earlier, it was for the sake of listening, now it’s heard while doing something. There is so much clutter that an album doesn’t get replay value. The generation that started with K.L. Saigal and Naushad stopped with Rahman. That Rahman has reached a position where people still look forward to his music regardless of whether the film does well or the soundtrack is a hit goes back to the fact that he established his brand in an era where we were still listening to music in a certain way.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Thalli Pogathey’ (‘Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada’, 2016)

—Baradwaj Rangan, film critic

Also Read | Kun Faya Kun’s love note to Rahman ‘saab’

He’s like a potter who knows exactly how to shape each piece of clay. He’s always experimenting and figuring out new methods of working with existing voices. He’s a very open-minded person and is always willing to push and challenge himself. how many people will do that even after winning the Oscar? Also, his spiritual connection puts him on a very different plane of thinking.

Favourite Rahman songs: The ‘Thiruda Thiruda’ album

—Chinmayi Sripada, playback singer

Composers, actors or writers who had long innings running into a couple of decades were all people who were big in the 1990s, when there was no digital proliferation so the recollection of the work they did was longer. I don’t think Rahman’s contemporary hits are a contributing factor to his music having a great shelf life. The constant connection that people have with the past, when things were slower, bestows a long shelf life to his music. Today, you’re not looking at anything but the number of ringtones and downloads on digital platforms when it comes to music. With that as the yardstick, the focus period becomes much shorter. That said, stalwarts like Rahman define their own yardstick. Fortunately or unfortunately, every time he comes up with a soundtrack, he will be compared to his own work. So he has to come up with tunes that outlast the film.

Favourite Rahman songs: ‘Ishq Bina’ (‘Taal’, 1999), the ‘Meenaxi’ (2004) soundtrack.

—Gautam Chintamani, writer and film critic

The process of making music with Rahman is very fluid. Some of us work with him on a regular basis so we are there when he composes the songs. Otherwise you just walk in and chip in the vocals. It’s very instinctive and in the moment and that is one of the reasons his music remains so fresh. At some level, he knows what he wants and at others, he lets things that excite him happen. He really knows how to talk to people and get the best out of them. He’s always clued into what’s happening in the world. That desire to learn and update is a beautiful quality. It’s been 17 years but if I walk into a studio and he’s sitting there, I still have butterflies in my stomach and it’s a beautiful feeling.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Khamosh Raat’ (‘Thakshak’, 1999)

—Karthik , playback singer

Also Read | Teaching the choir

Rahman always has someone in mind when he composes a song. That’s why it’s special and unique. The norm in the industry is if a particular kind of song is a hit, music directors get the singer to stick to it. Whereas he makes you experiment with all genres. I’ve sung everything for him—a ‘thumri’, a ‘ghazal’, a peppy Holi number, an item song, a ‘bhajan’, a folk, and a romantic number. Each time I get a call, I wonder what the challenge will be.

Favourite Rahman songs: ‘Ae Ajnabi’ (‘Dil Se’), ‘Ye Jo Des’ (‘Swades’), ‘Tu Bin Bataye’ (‘Rang De Basanti’)

—Madhushree, playback singer

Imtiaz Ali. Photo: HT
Imtiaz Ali. Photo: HT

Rahman’s relevance has to do with his purity. Everything he does comes from a pure place, he’s not bound by anything short- term. The fashion of music will change and he will be cognizant of that in order to keep creating what comes to him instinctively by hearing stories that come from directors like me. For him, the challenge has always been the same since he was a kid performing for other musicians—to have a pure experience and a pure expression of that experience.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Raasathi’ (‘Thiruda Thiruda’)

—Imtiaz Ali, film director

Rahman ‘saab’ has always tried new ideas that were youthful and ahead of their time. He thinks 20-30 years in advance. The ‘Roja’ soundtrack sounds so fresh that you would think it was made today. A quality unique to him is that he brings in new ideas and forms of composition and keeps updating his style.

Favourite Rahman songs: The ‘Bombay’ theme, ‘Tu Hi Re’ (‘Bombay’), ‘Jiya Jale’ (‘Dil Se..’), ‘Arziyan’ (‘Delhi-6’)

—Javed Ali, playback singer

Rahman is talented, a hard worker and a constant learner. I’ve seen him go into different genres. He’s not averse to any kind of music, he won’t say he’ll do only Indian classical or Carnatic, because he doesn’t see music in genres, but as an industry. He’s source-agnostic and will find music and influences in anything from rap, R&B (rhythm and blues), pop and rock to Indian ‘khayal’ and Bhakti ‘sangeet’. The challenge for him is to not change. His work is delicate and layered and should remain so. I think his audience seeks him and he should never forget that.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Luka Chuppi’ (‘Rang De Basanti’)

—Prasoon Joshi, lyricist and collaborator with Rahman on films like ‘Rang De Basanti’ and ‘Delhi-6’

Also Read | What’s your Rahman song?

Rahman constantly reinvents himself. He has also taken India into the global music market. Indian film music may have been popular in pockets like Russia or Israel before, but he gave it that international stage. Stalwarts like Ilaiyaraaja could not take music beyond the borders of south India. But we heard Rahman’s songs in their original Tamil version for their orchestration, and also because he didn’t get the best lyricists who could have the same impact in Hindi. The change that he introduced from acoustics to post-production has been followed by every composer, be it Amit Trivedi or Sachin-Jigar. He can go back to the roots but for others, he has set the roots. He is a phenomenon, undoubtedly the best thing to happen to music in India in the last 25-30 years.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Ye Jo Des’ (‘Swades’)

—Pavan Jha, film and music historian

Rahman’s hard work and sincerity are responsible for his continuing relevance. He has often asked us why we were doing the same commercial things. Because of the risks he takes, some of the films or songs may not become huge hits, but he still doesn’t take the usual (safe) route. His music will always be unique and modern, so we have to think of unique visuals to go with it.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ (‘Roja’, 1992)

—K.S. Ravikumar, film director

Mani Ratnam. Photo: HT
Mani Ratnam. Photo: HT

AR is someone who is ready to try something new instead of going into safe zones. So it is always a pleasure and an adventure when you start a film with him. He continues to evolve all the time, which gives you options and new avenues. He loves cinema in general and has a soft corner for the visuals. He always thinks laterally and contributes with his kind of music. His aim is not just to please you as a director, which he does almost with everyone, but within the kind of score that you want, he finds something that is honest for him.

Favourite Rahman songs: All his songs are great.

—Mani Ratnam, film director

Rahman has always tried to push boundaries and I think people like that in today’s age.He is willing to experiment. There’s a humility in him which people like and which is a rare virtue today. Being in the south, I think he’s protected from this celebrity carnival. He’s not on parade all the time. He is not keen to be on television every night. He’s not chasing celebrity status or thinking about his brand. The brand is his music.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Ae Hairat (Guru), Khwaja Mere Khwaja (Jodha Akbar)

—Nasreen Munni Kabir, TV producer, director, film writer, her conversations with Rahman were published in ‘A.R. Rahman: The Spirit Of Music’

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Photo: HT
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Photo: HT

The beauty of working with AR is you don’t go looking for something, you just find it as if it’s a gift. For me, he is one of those personalities who brought about a sea change when they walked in. Not only was his work inspired by the masters of yesteryear, but it became important enough to inspire present and future generations. His work does not just transcend time; what he did 25 years ago does not just feel relevant today but would have felt relevant even 200 years ago. That is how beautiful it is.

Favourite Rahman songs: The ‘Thiruda Thiruda’, ‘Roja’, ‘Bombay’, and ‘Dil Se..’ soundtracks

—Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, film director

Rahman has no prejudices when it comes to music. He looks at everything with an absolutely open, fresh mind. No musician is perfect but he looks for the good and projects the same. He also doesn’t leave a product until he is satisfied; he keeps chiselling it. Even when I take care of the vocals, he has to like it and find it genuine and natural and possessing integrity. So many of us tell him his work in the 1990s is amazing but he reiterates that it’s all in the past and he doesn’t want to be complacent. He doesn’t rest—he’s in 2017, not in the 1990s.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ (‘Roja’)

—Srinivas, playback singer and music composer

Rahman’s work in the 1990s infused fresh energy into film music that had seen a decay post the 1980s. He was one of the few early composers to experiment in genres not conventionally used in Indian film music, at least not after the 1960s. His outlook was cinematic, as opposed to simple song-based productions that were flourishing at the time. He had a unique talent to throw in complex harmonic structures into easy-listening music. ‘Roja’ is a perfect example.

Favourite Rahman songs: The ‘Roja’ and ‘Dil Se..’ Title tracks, ‘Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyaara Hai’ (‘Roja’), ‘Tu Hi Re’ (‘bombay’), ‘Jiya Jale’ Dil Se (‘..’)

—Aashish Mandhwani, guitar player of Delhi-based bands MindFlew, and Sage and the Comets

Amit Trivedi. Photo: HT
Amit Trivedi. Photo: HT

The current generation of 16- to 17-year-olds may not be exposed to Rahman’s real, hard-core work that we were lucky to have witnessed first-hand in the 1990s. With age and the pressures and expectations he has to deal with, it’s not humanly possible to create magic every single time and it’s not fair to expect him to either. But it still comes out in bits and spurts—be it ‘Tamasha’s’ ‘Agar Tum Saath Ho’ or ‘Ok Jaanu’s’ ‘Enna Sona’ or ‘Kadal’s’ ‘Nenjukkule’. Twenty-two years later, you release ‘Humma’ and it still garners 100 million views (on YouTube)—that says something about the man. His music is timeless, whereas most songs today die within six months.

Favourite Rahman songs: ‘Yeh Jo Des’ (‘Swades’), ‘Rehna Tu’ (‘Delhi-6’), ‘Kuchi Kuchi Rakkamma’ (‘Bombay’)

—Amit Trivedi, music composer

The international recognition and the fact that he’s won an Oscar really makes Rahman cool and keeps him relevant. Besides films in Hindi, he works in all four south Indian languages, and has also got private albums. So he’s present not just over multiple decades but across multiple platforms and genres. And there is no doubt he’s really reinvented himself. He’s a great arranger and always contemporarizes his sound. Whether it’s ‘Roja’ or ‘Highway’, you will see a journey which is very palpable. You may think it’s similar but he’s changed some very essential instruments and sections, which has made it modern. So he’s always with it. That’s really what makes a difference.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Patakha Guddi’ (‘Highway’, 2014)

—Tapas Sen, chief programming officer, Radio Mirchi

Rahman’s awareness of world music, different genres and styles, his patience, faith and humility to learn, help him discover and allow any talent to shine. In terms of rapping and writing, he invests much thought into what, why and how to best use the style and gives great freedom to the artiste. He’s open to ideas and experiments but is clear about what he needs.

Favourite Rahman songs: ‘Warriors Of Heaven And Earth’ (2003), and ‘Pray For Me, Brother’ (2007).

—Blaaze, rap artiste and playback singer

Rahman is constantly searching for new talent because he always wants to create something new. During ‘Rangeela’ (1995), I had purchased a pan flute which I didn’t even know how to play. He suggested I try it, and that is how ‘Tanha Tanha’ was born. He also started the superimposition process and digital recording in the 1990s. Musicians are very delicate and sensitive people and the dedication he has towards music and making the atmosphere almost divine is extraordinary.

Favourite Rahman song: ‘Chhoti Si Aasha’ (‘Roja’)

—Naveen Kumar, flautist

Compiled by Lata Jha

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