Author Kamini Mathai first approached composer A.R. Rahman for the biography six years ago and the book does show some evidence of her perseverance. She’s tracked down various connections, including some complete unknowns—such as Boologarani, a distant relative, now cut off from Rahman’s family—to demystify the life of Dileep Sekhar, the man who later became A.R. Rahman. Mathai, to her credit, also manages to write without allowing awe to seep into her narrative. For the most part, Mathai has humanized the larger-than-life hero that Rahman has become and that is probably her biggest strength as a biographer, next only to the waiting involved to get close to a man like Rahman.
Rewind: (left) Rahman in his studio; his father R.K. Sekhar (sitting) at a recording. Photographs Courtesy Penguin India
A.R. Rahman: The Musical Storm begins at the most important turn in the composer’s life this year: the Oscars. The beginning scratches the surface of the impact the Oscars had on Rahman—there’s nothing about how he went completely underground for a while to overcome the frenzy around him and the subsequent developments. The chapter has four pages.
But the next chapter makes up for what looks like a hurriedly put together first chapter with never-before revealed details of the life and death of his father R.K. Sekhar. Sekhar, who was known as Tiger Sekhar in the studios, was the polar opposite of Rahman at work. While Rahman is known for his freestyle approach to music and artists—both playback singers and instrumentalists—Sekhar was a terror as an arranger.
There are several events related to Sekhar’s death which had an irreversible impact on Rahman. Some of them, such as the claim that Rahman believes in numerological voodoo, are shockers.
Mathai has mentioned how closed Rahman can be. So others shape Mathai’s effort to complete the puzzle that Rahman leaves before her—among them, composer T.A. Johnson, who Rahman first worked with as a keyboard sessions player; percussionist Thumba Raja, who has known Rahman since his Dileep days; and M.K. Arjunan, a leading composer in the Malayalam film industry who saw Rahman’s family through the tragedy after Sekhar’s death.
But Mathai’s writing left me unmoved.
The next chapter on Roja also tells us how Rahman’s award-winning soundtrack came to be, but there is not a single comment from Mani Ratnam, the director of Roja. Ratnam has worked with Rahman on nine films, with the 10th now in progress, but all there is in the book is a borrowed quote. Composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s voice is also missing. Considering Lloyd-Webber is the man who, to a large extent, helped Rahman come out of his shell, he should have been interviewed.
The editing is extremely poor. Some details are repeated annoyingly across chapters, and sometimes in the same chapter. For instance, the fact that Rahman likes to wear clothes that have a spot of green and black occurs twice in the chapter titled Faith. The fact that directors Ratnam and Rajiv Menon sent Rahman away on a work holiday so he could clear his head and compose better is mentioned in the beginning and at the end. Several details from a chapter titled Home, which mention how Rahman’s mother Kareema looked after her son and shaped his career, have been dealt with in earlier chapters.
It’s almost as if the writer and publisher were left to fill a certain number of pages and ended up being repetitive.
The book could also have done without literal translations from Tamil to English, such as when Rahman is quoted as talking about Lloyd-Webber in a chapter titled Under the Spotlight: “Where is he and where am I?”
There’s a footnote explaining who well-known percussionist Sivamani is, but one of Rahman’s bandmates, Jim Satya, pops up more than once without a footnote explaining who he is and what kind of a musician he is.
There are four pages of photos, out of which three pictures have never been seen before—one with his last band Nemesis Avenue, another with his band Roots and a solo shot of him in a studio.
A lot of research has undoubtedly gone into the book. All the facts are there. But rarely do we get to know the real Rahman. If there’s one thing missing in the first ever biography of Rahman, it’s soul.
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