The Rockstar behind the music

By September 18, 2011 No Comments


We’ve heard the much-awaited music of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar. We can tell you that A R Rahman, the master of reinvention, has broken new ground yet again with this eclectic 14-piece soundtrack.

But Imtiaz Ali will tell you that it wasn’t easy. He calls Rahman a ‘very difficult guy to work with’. “He never explains the beauty of what he is offering. He may offer you an uncut diamond on a platter. But if you fail to see it, he will not insist you look again. He will say – okay, chuck it, here is something else.”

With a few minutes to midnight, Imtiaz has managed to pinch some time off his frenetic post-production work at an Andheri studio. He strides into the Ashtavinayak Cine Vision office. Once he settles down with an empty cup, a kettle full of hot Darjeeling tea and a pack of Gauloises (a French brand of smokes), Imtiaz runs his fingers through his hair and talks about how the music for Rockstar was created.

“When I envisioned a rock music score, I didn’t want a copy of western rock,” he says, “I wanted music that adhered to the principles of rock but originated from our land and from our realities. I wanted music that was organic to the character and yet had an appeal beyond conventional Bollywood music.”

Imtiaz, who grew up on a staple of Hindi movies in Jamshedpur single-screens, doesn’t think of stories without songs. His ear for music that works is evident from the chartbusters from Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal.

Pouring himself a cuppa, he elaborates, “I never have to fit songs in. They simply take the story forward. And just as you cast actors, you look for the best guy to compose that style of music. Most often, the best guy is Rahman sir (he never misses the sir). In this case, he very specifically was.”

Though their first discussion on Rockstar didn’t go anywhere, Imtiaz approached Rahman again last February. “He instantly went – Oh my god, I have no time! There is no way I can do this,” Imtiaz pauses and smiles. “But I will do it. I want to do it – Rahman said. I felt relieved. He was in the thick of a hundred commitments – recording in LA, performing at concerts, jamming with SuperHeavy, Hollywood, Bollywood and Tamil movies. But he said let’s do it. That was good enough for me.”

Apart from a lowdown on the script, Imtiaz’s brief to Rahman was only a few lines on the tortured artiste that Ranbir Kapoor plays. “I told him how Jordan, the protagonist, is inarticulate, how he can express himself only through music, how his music is influenced by not only his situation but also by the music of the place he visits. So when Jordan is in Prague hanging about with gypsies, he imbibes their spirit and makes gypsy music. This is what Hawa Hawa is. Likewise, when Jordan is thrown out of his house, he goes to Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah, spends time with the Qawwals, absorbs their music and plays with them. That journey was not only about understanding music, but also about understanding life,” says Imtiaz, stubbing out his cigarette and lighting another.

It isn’t hard to believe in Imtiaz when he talks about how he wanted everything to be unpretentious in the film. “How Robert Plant or Jim Morrison behaved on stage had a lot to do with their realities. Instead of emulating what they did, we looked for why they did it, we unraveled the reasons. We then applied those reasons to a guy who lives in Pitampura, Delhi.”

As Jordan’s popularity with the masses hits full force in the story, Imtiaz felt there was a need to demonstrate this craze with an anthem song. “Lyricist Irshad Kamil and I spent a lot of time just thinking of phrases, such as Ban jaa, Banjaara, before stumbling on Sadda Haq, Aithay Rakh ((It’s) Our right, keep it here).

This fit well with my story. At that point in the film, Ranbir’s character is asking for his right to be himself. A human being is nature and society has no right to make him plastic. That eventually became the hook. In no time, Rahman roped in Orianthi Panagaris, one of the zaniest contemporary guitarists who also performed with Michael Jackson. At his LA studio, Rahman recorded her loud guitars for six hours. I was on Skype throughout,” says Imtiaz.

Was it cumbersome to travel to Chennai for every recording session? Imtiaz says it was actually a blessing. “It afforded me extra time to write. When you are a writer-director, nobody feels your writing needs extra time. The two-hour flights and time at the hotel room was the only way I could write out and make this film.”

Imtiaz recounts how the first song they recorded last July, Phir se udd chala, set the tone for an effortless musical expedition.

“Rahman had recorded himself singing gibberish. He told me there is something good in it and maybe we can cut out portions. But I really liked it so much that we retained the way it is. Nothing repeats itself and it is just pure expression,” he says.

With its dreamy guitar-work, Jo bhi main is probably the most scintillating track of the album. “Jordan feels – I have beautiful thoughts in my mind. But when I try to express them in words, it gets clerical and the beauty of the thought gets destroyed with the first word I speak. Irshad came up with – Jo bhi main, kehna chahoon, barbaad karey, alphaaz mere – and Rahman improvised on it.”

Imtiaz says he took many liberties with Rahman. “While he was recording, I have pressed the button to talk to Mohit in the singer’s booth and have given him ‘musical instructions’. But that is the beauty of that man.

You don’t have to stop yourself. Often, I have apologised to him and he has laughed it off. He makes you bold and makes you give your best. He keeps telling me; you are the director, you don’t like one tune, I’ll come up with many. You must do your job, I must do mine.”

Directors often rant that composers don’t inspire a sense of confidence. However, Imtiaz offers a refreshing view on this, “Rahman doesn’t inspire confidence in the conventional sense. You never feel – Arre yaar yeh toh Rahman hai, yeh sambhaal lega. You always feel that you better do the right thing, nahi toh yeh aadmi toh duba dega (laughs). What he does is he draws out the best from whoever he works with.”

To drive his point home, Imtiaz recounts the first time Irshad met Rahman. “We were waiting for Rahman in his studio and Irshad was trembling. The hall was splattered with the choicest of award statuettes – Oscars, Grammies, Filmfares, what-nots. Irshad told me nervously – Imtiaz bhai, aap hi unse bolna. Meri toh awaaz nahi niklegi. Yeh Rahman…bahut badi aura hai. Yet within five minutes of us meeting Rahman, I saw Irshad doling out fundas – Sir, hook toh hota hai sir, aap jo bhi bolo (laughs). Rahman nodded along patiently.”

Luckily, Imtiaz didn’t go through a director’s worst fear – of waiting endlessly for the music to finish. “I was told Rahman doesn’t respect your time. We were supposed to have nine songs, but there are 14 tracks on the CD and around six extra pieces in the film; which makes it 20 in all. None of this has come late. I only had to tell him that I am shooting and the song would reach well in time.”

Meanwhile, Ranbir, embarking on a career-defining role, learnt the guitar and spent several days and nights at Rahman’s studio. “This way, he had greater ownership of the music while being on stage during shoots. He didn’t have to pretend he knew the music, because he actually did.”

From working 18 hours a day and then some, to finish penning the lyrics, Imtiaz and Irshad have spent few days on a trot without a wink of rest. Among all other recording sessions, Imtiaz holds the time he spent with Rahman in Kashmir as special.

“Rahman, Ranbir and I would travel about in search of good food. We were inviting ourselves to locals’ homes to eat. It was great fun.” Imtiaz also credits Rahman for filling in the narrative with thoughts from sufi philosophy. “Rahman says, sometimes, you have to go against your grain for a greater experience, to experience life better than be bound by the limits of your personality.”

Rahman on Imtiaz

In another suburb of the city, after Rahman walks into his recording studio, he elaborates what he means by that. “You should let go of yourself when you create something new and not sit in your box and let something good pass you by. You grow only if you take the risk of adapting and discovering. That way, you can have a longer journey.”

About Rockstar, Rahman says, “We focused on whatever would come to us naturally. All the music fell into place in the first three days. Later, we did three songs afresh – Kun Faaya Kun, Katiyan Karoon and Naadaan Parinde.”

Though Rahman hadn’t seen Imtiaz’s movies when he met him initially, he says he liked the director’s passion. “I later watched Love Aaj kal and loved it.” The two were in sync from the start, as they shared their vision of steering clear of stereotypes.

“We had to make his character friendly to all kinds of audience and not just rock music aficionados. I didn’t want to tread that spaced-out, dope and booze-filled rock music scene (smiles). I have seen young people acting all rebellious, playing underground metal and trying to be cool (mocks an air guitar and laughs). When I was 11 or 12, I would set up keyboards for some local rock bands. They would go up on stage, going wild on their guitars. I would be like – the plug will get pulled out!”

Picking Mohit Chauhan as Ranbir’s screen voice was almost an instinctual call for Rahman and Imtiaz. “Mohit’s voice has innocence and character. Until now, he had one particular style. But in this, he was stretched and pushed to all kinds of zones (laughs). We both worked very hard on it. Some songs took four days to record, some even seven. But when you hear it, you will feel how effortless it is.”

How did this project help Rahman find newer facets to his craft? “We didn’t have to make four rock songs, a sad song and an item song. Each song carried a different expression. So I kept the sound organic – less synthesizers, less effects, more acoustic guitar and bass. The gypsy song (Hawa hawa) was the most difficult to compose as it had so many layers, styles and instruments woven in.”

What about the talk in the industry that ‘Rahman is back’ with Rockstar after a rough patch? The legend shrugs and smiles, “I don’t mind what anybody is saying. As long as I am occupied, feel creatively challenged and have fun, it is all good. This year has been really good. I haven’t been pushed to the core, I had my space and I even did a scriptwriting course from UCLA.”

“I have got it all – the Grammies, Oscars. I have done all this for 20 years. Now let me enjoy the process without the pressures. Every day should be a bonus for me.”