Conversations can be revelatory. And when the person holding forth about himself, A.R. Rahman, is known to be as reticent in conversing as he is exuberant in composing, the very act can be fascinating. As he speaks to Nasreen Munni Kabir, in a Q & A spread over four years which has been edited and compiled into a rather slim book, you often find a soundtrack running in the background.
When Rahman went back recently to Habibullah Road in Chennai to visit his old house â€” the one with a leaky roof in which he lived for the first 20 years of his life and which still comes to his mind when he dreams of home â€” he says it felt exactly like Cinema Paradiso: â€œI had the soundtrack of that film in my head as I drove through the lanes.â€
It has been almost 20 years since Roja came out, with a new music director and a rather addictive sound. You could, then as well as now, worry about the filmâ€™s simplistic narrative of terrorism in Kashmir and its unusual mix of music, naive romance and social message that Mani Ratnam got fixated with. Yet if you care to go to YouTube and listen to Chinna chinna asai â€” its mix of string synth, tinkling bells and anklets, reggae chords, some amazing licks of acoustic guitar and that old, old note of a flute that Rahman composed â€” you will, even now, be at the same time surprised by the freshness of the sound and be reassured by the faint sense of familiarity that suffuses its layers.
After the production of Roja, 25-year-old Rahman went up to Mani Ratnam and said, â€œIâ€™m not going to work on another movie or with another director. Working with you has been so satisfying.â€ He was making money from jingles and was unsure whether film music was his thing. Mani Ratnam dissuaded him from such naivete.
â€œI didnâ€™t decide to become a musician,â€ says Rahman, â€œin a way, I was forced to.â€ After the death of his father, composer and arranger R.K. Sekhar, young Rahman began to give out for rent the musical instruments his father had left behind. Soon, when musicians bought their own gear, he, a 12-year-old, learned the keyboard and started working as a session musician in the southern film industry. He had never listened to much of Beatles, he says, and loved Hotel California without initially understanding the lyrics â€” â€œall about hell and devilâ€.
After Roja, life changed like a Tamil film post-interval. There were movies and musicals, Grammies and Oscars. There has been criticism too, for instance about his excessive layering of songs. Why not leave the core melody alone, if it is good enough? Rahman says music is often a reflection of the times in which it is composed. For the multi-tasking generation who sends a text while watching a movie, music has to a layered, over-powering experience: â€œWhen you layer a song, you can fully occupy the listenerâ€™s mind. When there are many musical elements on the track, itâ€™s a way of seducing them.â€
But there are moments when the tune doesnâ€™t come easily to him. Those are the times when Rahman does something quirky. If he gets stuck on a tune for a Tamil movie, he reads the poetry of Subramaniya Bharati; if it is for a Hindi movie, he reads Amir Khusrau or Bulle Shah â€” and the words nudge a tune into being.
Conversations can be fascinating, but it is often difficult to pull them off as an entire book. And here too, while Rahman holds your attention for the most parts, the way in which the Q and A has been arranged does little to give the book a structure or the narrative any kind of coherence. Kabirâ€™s exploration of Rahmanâ€™s Tamil film music is meagre and unsatisfactory. And you will have to shrug off the irritation at the onslaught of saccharine adjectives that Kabir piles on Rahmanâ€™s songs. If you can do that and listen just to Rahman, it can be like the music of Chinna chinna asai: a trembling string here, a half-cadence there and sometimes an ascending melody.