Composer: A.R. Rahman

Lyrics: Javed Akhtar

It’s well-accepted that A.R. Rahman’s music almost inevitably ‘grows’ over a number of listens. This idea has established itself over the years when many of his albums have gone through the graph of disappointing, to not-so-bad, to pretty-good. Sometimes, it amuses me how a song I was so dismissive about after the first listen is now a permanent resident of my playlist. His complexly produced songs slowly reveals their layers, the free-form structure take time to register. Of course, this is not exclusive to Rahman but applies to the work of other composers as well. But I must admit I am extra cautious when reviewing a Rahman album, trying to give it as many listens as possible before beginning to write about it.

Mohenjo Daro is the kind of album that is easy to dismiss after the first couple of listens—except one instantly likable track. This is best reflected in the first song Mohenjo Mohenjo. It is the album equivalent of Azeem-o-Shaan-Shahenshah from Jodhaa Akbar (2008)—the last time director Ashutosh Gowariker and Rahman came together after Swades (2004) and Lagaan (2001). Like the paean to Emperor Akbar, the song celebrates the great civilization marked by rousing percussions and choruses. The almost hilarious Mohenjo Mohenjo refrain and the tribal jungle chants—too unimaginative, flat by Rahman’s standards—could be off-putting. We have heard the quasi African alaap in Rahman’s voice too many times. But there’s a lot to like if one can make peace with these. The song comes on its own around the halfway mark. Arijit Singh, whose style of delivery sounds a little too modern in certain places initially, hits the sweet spot when it reaches higher notes. Its amazing how from something that sounds borderline frivolous, it transforms into something haunting and dramatic in an instant. Javed Akhtar’s lyrics, however, seem to confuse between simple and simplistic with lines like Jo bhi yaha aata hai, sunte hai woh kho jaata hai. It is a disappointing turn by the veteran lyricist, who has had memorable partnerships with Rahman in the past. He does better in Sindhu Maa, where the modest lyrics merely support a sweeping, beauty of a melody. It begins like a calming mystical prayer (an effective Sanah Moidutty) but becomes a different beast as Rahman, the singer, takes over. In the past, he has guest starred in songs and elevated them to another level—I was reminded of Kabhi Neem Neem from Yuva (2004). The latter was an embellishment, a cameo. Here, it is the star of the song, arriving like a voice from the sky, going to unexpected directions of unbridled joy and transcending into pure experience beyond time, space and even lyrics. No wonder that a large part of the Rahman-sung portion has been cut out into a separate track—Tu Hai. The only problem, as with the album, is the tribal chants that keep coming in regular intervals. It’s hard to point at the problem but they just don’t work.

At first, Sarsariya sounds like a sweet Tamil song (with unintelligible lyrics). It beautifully segues into Hindi and almost a different song aided by soulful turns by singers Shashwat Singh and Shashaa Tirupati. With ample flute, Indian percussion and a rustic, solid melody at its centre, this is a classic old-fashioned number meant for a hero-heroine romancing around trees and waterfalls.

As an Indian film composer, Rahman pioneered the way to approach the human voice like an instrument. A very good instance is the exquisite, wordless twin instrumental pieces Whispers of the Mind and Whispers of the Heart. In the former, vocal artist Arjun Chandy lets out a steady hum like a meditative Buddhist chant. Chandy’s haunting, lone voice is joined by a dreamy female chorus and soft beats in the next one. Rahman is one of those few composers whose instrumentals are every bit as dense, enjoyable and seriously crafted as his songs—unlike some of the album-filling exercises we are used to in the average Bollywood album. The second half of the album has four such pieces and each of them make for smooth, repeat listens. The light and soothing Shimmer of Sindhu has Keba Jeremiah plucking the guitars clean with the restraint of a santoor. Kareem Kamalakar’s flute provides the perfect foil. Lakh Lakh Tora Tora, the instrumental version of Sarsariya, has some great strings by Tapas Roy, accompanied by flute by P.M.K Naveen Kumar. I’m being able to name these musicians, who are an integral part of the collaborative process of music making and stars in their own right, because their names feature as prominently in the credits as the singers. Although it is not the first time they have been named in the credits, this is a big step towards setting a precedent so that it becomes a regular practice in Bollywood.

Mohenjo Daro has eight tracks that are full of tribal, folk sounds and melodies and is underlined by the sweeping gorgeousness we associate with the composer’s work in period films. These are elements that are not considered cool, aren’t really market-friendly and the album does demand patience. But it is a big film with a big star, so it will be interesting to see how this album is received. What the album, like all of Rahman’s work does, is take us closer to world of the film. This is a very Indian medieval opera, a fairytale romance that is made of more myths than history.

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