NDTV: First of all I would like to say that how grateful we are, that you could spare this time. Because you are more in the air than on ground these days, right? You are travelling all over the world.
AR Rahman: My pleasure.
NDTV: It’s pretty tough.
AR Rahman: Yes.
NDTV: But you used to work till two in the morning. Now, 2 o’clock could be which time? LA time, India time?
AR Rahman: Yeah, it depends on the jet lag. Yes, I used to work when I was stationary back in India, then I used to work from 3 in the afternoon to morning 6. And then I will sleep till 2 in the afternoon.
NDTV: Yeah, you were known for that.
AR Rahman: Yes. But now I have lessened my work, I have got more time to…
NDTV: Lessen your work?
AR Rahman: Yeah, I am spending more time to do other things. I am spending more time with the family.
NDTV: Your family means a lot to you. Tell me something, when did you realise that you had a different gift, special gift? When did it strike?
AR Rahman: It was in the process. I was composing or something, which I never thought I could do, because playing for the people is almost like being a slave, you just duplicate what they give. They give ga ma ga pa and you play ga ma ga pa.
AR Rahman: There are too many things that happened, like I plan to use tabla and this and that on the first recording. And all my friends said, “Oh we have got this other recording where we are recording four songs. That is more money for us. So, we are not coming for the recording.” Oh, my God! It was my first recording man, come on. My mother said, “No, no, don’t worry about all that. You have the power to do it yourself.”
NDTV: Your mother told you?
AR Rahman: And I said okay. So, if I had those people with tabla and everything on it…
NDTV: You never know where you would have gone?
AR Rahman: I think certain things are forced by nature, by destiny.
NDTV: Now you sing quite a lot by yourself.
AR Rahman: I try to.
NDTV: You try to…
AR Rahman: I think about going into different worlds, different zones. Each zone is different; South is different, North is different. Hollywood is very different. But music-wise it’s all united. It takes time to go to the zone. But when you get there, it’s beautiful.
NDTV: Yeah that is amazing. You said that your mother gave you the go ahead, so, it means that she is very important in your life?
AR Rahman: She is not a typical filmy mother who is like ‘beta’. We do not have that kind of relationship. She is the one who set up everything. We were letting out instrument on rent, and we were getting that income. So, she knew what music was all about, what people were playing, what is playing about, what the composition is all about? She is the one who said, “Why do we have to rent out instruments. Why don’t you start playing? You start learning.”
NDTV: When this song ‘Maa tujhe salaam’, plays do you think of your mother? You know this is about country, but this is also about the universal mother.
AR Rahman: The whole ‘Maa tujhe salaam’ came out because land is a land and it’s an emotion and it can’t be described. When you say you have Himalayas, you have Deccan, you have Kanyakumari, and it doesn’t really bind you. You can put that feeling into metaphoric. So that is what made the song. Mehboob, Bala, we all sat together. The metaphoric helped bind the song; there were too many things that collided at that time.
NDTV: And the story of the life, things colliding.
AR Rahman: Yeah, I think you should let it happen.
NDTV: Let us hear ‘Maa tujhe salaam’
(Rahman sings ‘Maa tujhe salaam’)
NDTV: When this song ‘Maa tujhe salaam’ plays, do you think of your mother?
AR Rahman: Yes. It has got multiple layers in it. That is why I think it works very different. It’s a combination of so many different things.
NDTV: Your mother actually sold her jewellery which she was keeping for your sister’s wedding?
AR Rahman: She keeps cribbing over that (laughs).
NDTV: And bought you all the equipment?
AR Rahman: Yeah.
NDTV: So, would you say that she had more faith in you than you had in yourself?
AR Rahman: I think because of my father. She lived with my father. She already had one experience; she was not new to that thing. I think the faith was inbuilt in her.
NDTV: Did she say something about you or you discovered yourself?
AR Rahman: I think she did.
NDTV: It’s amazing to do that. You have got a biography out. Don’t you think people will know a lot of things…but losing a father who has been really…
AR Rahman: Yes, but I think all of us have to lose something to gain something. That is the law of nature. When you look at it there is so much stuff coming after me. Prayers of my parents…
NDTV: Let me tell you that there is nothing to do with you. It is their genes. Always remember that. But if you have to sing some song for your father, what would it be? Which one would you choose?
AR Rahman: I think I am not matured enough to do that yet.
NDTV: Any of your existing ones, try it.
AR Rahman: He had a very different musical song skill of those times, very Kerala. Beautiful music; I don’t know if it’s his song.
(Rahman rhymes a tune)
AR Rahman: I think it’s one of his songs.
NDTV: I want to come back to this period, because it is a very important period. Just fast forwarding a bit to your first biggest hit with Mani Ratnam. Tell us how “Choti si aasha” happened?
AR Rahman: It was when I was discovering mine, probably sound, and at the same time the hardest part was to leave all the things behind and just go with something else. You just have the intention to discover, but you don’t know whether you have it or not? So that was the whole question of the challenge within you.
AR Rahman: And every time you go to discover and you fall asleep, and then you decide, and then you see a huge radio playing somewhere, you know, like a public function which just takes you off, and you say, what I am going to do? Whenever I touch my keyboard, something is happening. Slowly, you discover you are frustrated first. You don’t know you are in the process. You are already in process.
NDTV: So, now that somebody gave you the words. How did it happen?
AR Rahman: So, what would you write for this da da da da da da. So, what happened was lyricist Mr YR Muttu had written this song for a kind of a thing which was “chinna chinna”. It was a very long line.
AR Rahman: Yeah, so he always had this stuff, which he has done for other people and we were trying a lot of things. So, he had come up with something called “mutt vutt roja” kind of stuff. He wanted to keep them, what happened was, we were hearing the tune and we saw the lyrics and took it in the whole. It was a long line; we truncated it, what we had was not matching. It was “chinna chinna”. It was not going d d d d d d. That fell in the place strangely. And what happened was we got a cue from that. We took it really further, put in so many other brilliant lines with it and it became the song.
NDTV: It was like back and forth, back and forth. How did you actually…
AR Rahman: The best thing was we never planned anything and we did things and it fell into place.
NDTV: Like how did it all came together that moment? If you can sing for us.
NDTV: If you can play us through “Choti si aasha.”
AR Rahman: So that is the best example. So what happened with “Choti si aasha”, we have the melody which goes…
(He plays the song on his keyboard)
NDTV: I want to go back to the college days now. What kind of music would you play in high school?
AR Rahman: High school was… I was coming from a Malayalam school. Scored stuff and because my whole life was, when I was playing in that zone, not even Telugu. Not even Tamil, till age 16 and then I went to Telugu for 4-5 years. So, from there it was a jump from high school kids to who wants to play key board and they introduced me to Queen, to Deep Purple, Smoke on the Water.
(Rahman plays an excerpt from ‘Smoke on the water’ by Deep Purple)
AR Rahman: So, it would be like a culture shock. Boys sitting and singing those sa ga ma…
NDTV: So, you are very technical, perfectionist.
AR Rahman: Everything is written in notes. You can’t remember it. You have to write down the notes.
NDTV: Which are the other ones of those days?
AR Rahman: Those days?
NDTV: Can you still remember those things? I want to hear the 17-year-old Rahman.
AR Rahman: I never used to sing those days.
NDTV: You just used to play the keyboard?
AR Rahman: Yes.
NDTV: That always happens, I don’t need no education, a brick in the wall.
AR Rahman: I don’t remember those.
NDTV: Smoke on the Water?
AR Rahman: Only Smoke on the Water. We never stayed in one zone.
NDTV: But you have missed out which I had, the 60s and 70s. The Stones and The Beatles. But now of course you have caught up with those. It was a very special decade, the 60s.
AR Rahman: Yes! I think that era of discovery is always great, source of enthusiasm. If you have done it, it’s boring, you are discovering it. Even for me, I am discovering. So that is what it is exactly. You land and it’s boring.
AR Rahman: And then you open up and now you are playing like a film musician. So, you open up. So it’s good… when band experience enhanced my creativity and then…
NDTV: You used to go to high school. You used to play in high school?
AR Rahman: Yes. The main kind of thing that changed was extraordinary keyboard man. Handled by his son. He took me for his commercials. So, he would let me play for his commercials, almost all night. He is the culprit actually.
NDTV: He is the culprit.
AR Rahman: So, we used to work in the studio till 9 o’clock, go to another studio to record commercials. And we would come back in the morning and again go back to work.
NDTV: And how old were you? You are talking about what age?
AR Rahman: I was probably 18 or 19. Something like that. That is when seeing him play, and there were lot of other musicians, differences, which kind of made me start one day. I finally had my four-track cassette. It has come up which you can over dubbed, you know, at home. Do a professional co-ordinate. Many bands actually came up with those releases, record four-track thing…
NDTV: Right, right.
NDTV: Now tell me other big hits like “Dil se”. Tell us a bit about that.
AR Rahman: ‘Dil se’ was during a particular timing of my life. I was mostly in UK doing this album. I was doing Vande Maatram, and all those stuff. So it was a whole new. It was just before Bombay Dreams you know. So I was discovering the UK scene.
NDTV: Was it a bit isolated being out in England. Did you feel?
AR Rahman: No, I felt really good. Good in the sense, even to get a music magazines those days I used to cycle to Mount Road and there used to be one shop where we used to have all these magazines. Like a one-year old music magazine in UK. You just get that one issue and you learn a lot. And so, going back to UK, and seeing everything for real.
NDTV: Yeah, just there…
AR Rahman: It was fascinating.
NDTV: So you said you were there and Dil Se, how did it happen?
AR Rahman: So Dil Se would be probably me at that zone and very much in the UK. Going and coming back. So the brief was very funny. Just gave me the seven stages of love.
NDTV: Arey waah!
AR Rahman: It’s attraction, its lust and finally it’s death.
NDTV: Why is this?
AR Rahman: Forgot all of the stages. I mean I never told you a story…
NDTV: Which stage were you at that time?
AR Rahman: I was in the last stage.
NDTV: So, let us see how did it happen?
AR Rahman: I think that one song we did. Satrangi Re, probably the culmination of everything. That song has got seven-stage thing.
NDTV: But in actual Dil Se was a big hit!
AR Rahman: Yeah. I think Dil Se had great lyrics, you get to sing, we all sing.
NDTV: Now, you are being very modest. Let us hear this song. And they will decide which is beautiful…
(Rahman sings “Dil se re….”)
NDTV: What do you think when you played now?
AR Rahman: I think it’s a very meditative. It has got two outburst of anger. I would say anger but angst in it. And it has got opposite of that. If you can code this together, the mantra is like explosion of anger and the initial was very meditative. It takes you to the zone of, it’s very typical Mani.
NDTV: Yeah, but how did you vibe everything so well, that you got thing?
AR Rahman: I am a big fan. I am still a fan…
NDTV: And vice versa of course. What he says about you. I mean I am no one to say, but you are a good human being, on top of being a good talent, all great people tend to be that, I think yeah. But tell me you have a fun side also, Chahiya Chahiya where did that come from?
AR Rahman: It’s a long story.
NDTV: I would love to hear that because it’s like the left half of you?
AR Rahman: Ah, I think, when you discover an artist like Sukhwinder, who is amazing, so in the process of discovering as an artist and a lyrics writer and all that stuff, when I was doing Vande Maatram, we jammed together once. I said, okay let’s start with something of Babe Bulleh Shah, you know his poetry, because I am a big fan of Nusrat and his music. I said why don’t you, you are from Punjab, let’s take some poetry, so this is a poetry of Baba Bulleh Shah, so I put a grew and we started jamming and so, ah, it was called Thaiya Thaiya first and it didn’t fit into the album of course of Vande Matram. So, I said let’s not give it all away, it was there lying for an year and then money came and I said that’s my song and I am doing an expo, so we had this great idea, so I wanted to do it on sort of a train, and I wanted Shah Rukh to dance on the train and of course Gulzar Sahib came with Chahiya Chahiya. It changed and because it changed it became more phonetic, interesting quality about it and has this beautiful thought in it and Sukhi sang it and he landed.
NDTV: Another fun one is Pappu Can’t Dance Sala.
AR Rahman: Pappu ya, the story behind Pappu. Ah yes, we had another song actually, ah, I was discovering a buzz, completely from a new generation, from mine, ten years had gone by, fifteen years, and then a buzz lands by, because a buzz got introduced to me by Jammu Sukand, late Jammu Sukand, and he was producing the movie at that time ‘Jane Tu’. So when he came in we had a song called ‘Tali Bajao’, which we all liked it. Aamir felt that this song could be pushed up, so I said let’s not repair this whole song, let’s do something else and then we put that aside. So why can’t we do a song about somebody who can’t dance, we need a dance song. So that’s interesting, we do that in a disco, just in a friendly way. So I said let’s do a song about somebody who can’t dance and add a ‘Sala’, so Abbas came and said Pappu, can’t dance Sala.
NDTV: So that’s how it just happened?
AR Rahman: Yeah that’s how it happened. So once we had finished, then I felt that… Then we added the Indian ‘Tene dhik dhana’ and just to go completely opposite.
NDTV: I just want to, I mean you talk and discuss all this, then how do you actually decide the…
AR Rahman: It comes automatically, I think once you have the concept, sometimes the concept songs really need to be worked, sometimes oh I have done it, it’s not ready yet, there is something missing. So, this song was done first, then, I thought it was irritating and then we worked on.
AR Rahman: So we do this, well I did this last year, where we really took the song and collaborated it, we put a Michael Jackson Black and White and we did a lot of things, very interesting the concept, it was great.