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The global sufi
The genius of AR Rahman is not restricted to any genre or music industry, says Saimi Sattar
Light chahiye, lightchahiye,” says composer, singer-songwriter, music producer, musician and philanthropist Allah-Rakha Rahman laughing, as the photographer adjusts the frame. Rahman is testing his Hindi chops yet again as he did once before in 2009 while bagging his Original Score Oscar where he grandly announced, Mere pass maa hai (Even if I have nothing, I have my mother). He is at PVR Director’s Cut, Ambience Mall in the tony Vasant Kunj area promoting, One Heart: The AR Concert Film and appears relaxed taking time out to joke with the people present.
The film is an attempt to give the audience a ringside view of what goes into making a live show. “We produced it in a way where people who had not seen my concerts would experience what it is like being behind stage, on stage and travelling in a bus for the shows. It also has some of my private footage with my family to show people that is how I am,” says the Mozart of Madras. The description that is popularly attached to his name doesn’t enamour him. In January, on a social media page Rahman had revealed that he is happy to be known as Isai Puyal (meaning music storm) and was also content with being called ARR, AR, AR Rahman, Allahrakka Rahman and Abdur Rahman (which means servant of God).
This is certainly the first time that a concert movie has been made in India and released on the big screen. “The motivation to do this movie, to finish it, to produce it beautifully and make sure it rocks was because of the AR Rahman Foundation. When I sent an email to everyone to say that we should make this movie and use the proceeds for the Foundation, everyone was on board,” says the composer, who wears his giant stature in the world of music with utmost ease. Rahman’s humility is something that comes through in the entire conversation. The Foundation undertakes projects related to education, harmony and leadership.
Rahman says during the conceptualisation itself everything had been decided. “In the first meeting everything was covered. I have a studio but no one has seen where it is. And now I had to get used to cameras following me around. I realised that if nobody had done it before then we would not have been able to see Amy (Winehouse) or Michael Jackson,” he says.
Dressed in a tan-orange jacket, black trousers, black and brown shoes with straps running across, Rahman sits non-chalantly while starry airs are conspicuous by their absence. He got Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has written, The Spirit of Music, Rahman’s biography on board so that she could say if something was not good in the movie. “She got very intrigued with it and edited interviews with my editor Amit. We had 18 concerts in the US but we took only one concert for the movie and from this one concert, took the portions that I liked and the band liked,” he says.
Rahman believes that Indian music is getting popular across the world. “It is great. We just need things to happen and everything will come together. The marketing will come together and things will sell. For instance MC Punjabi has done very well. I was in Prague and I heard Punjabi music being played there. As humans we like different things. There is a big space for us,” he pauses and adds, “A huge space.”
And Rahman continues to believe in finding new genres and new artists too. He does not mind when mid-way during an interview, a budding musician brings his guitar and starts playing a song even if it means that he would have to be around longer to hear him out. “Spread peace,” he advises the singer as his manager steps in to tell him to stop after two-three minutes and make way for other interviewers.
But not just the movie, Rahman is also involved with Sufi Route, the first folk, poetry and Sufi music project of India, which is headlined by him. “We have this esoteric audience and they seem to be responding irrespective of the religion they belong to. It is surprising. Sometimes you go to a college like Berkeley College of Music and there are people singing Kun Faya Kuna or Khwaja Mere Khwaja. So there are Christians singing it or Muslims or Hindus then I felt like it is not about the words rather it is about the soul,” he says. The composer whose Sufi numbers including Chaiyya Chaiyya based on the Sufi composition Thaiyya Thaiyya was a huge hit believes that there is an audience, smaller perhaps, for the genre. “We do smaller concepts, for 2,000-3,000 people because of the spiritual aspect and we are doing it for belief,” he adds.
However, if one questions him if Sufi is the route to take considering the strife in the world, Rahman side steps it. “I think the world is very complicated and to say that this is the way to go or that is the way is not possible. First of all, I need so much cleansing myself. I am just going with what I have to do, what my family has to do and what about my people. I just see my world and my role in it,” he says.
Incidentally it is just a day after, when Rahman had voiced his views about the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh. At the premiere of the movie in Mumbai, Rahman had said, “I am so sad about this. These kind of things don't happen in India. This is not my India. I want India to be progressive and kind.” Rahman, has in the past too spoken about rising intolerance in the country. However, in the capital, he decided to tread safer grounds and talk about music.
Music in general and film music in particular has changed a lot since the time he burst onto the scene with Roja in 1992. “A lot of youngsters and opportunities have come up. Earlier they felt that they coud not take youngsters but now they have the confidence to say that anything will work.”
Even though he was young when he debut, Rahman feels it was the easy for him to make his way in the world of music. “My father was in the industry even though the way I entered was different, a door opened and I got one of the greatest directors (Mani Ratnam). I still can’t believe that it happened. And after Roja happened, I believed everything was possible,” he says. Incidentally, it was from Roja that Ratnam’s stock rose and he has repeated Rahman in every movie since.
In a career spanning 25 years, Rahman has done many different things. Music scores for movies, a theatre musical independent albums, one of which became and continues to be the defining anthem of patriotism.
Rahman says, “I use the film industry like a platform because it pays me a lot of money, gives me respect and markets my music. There is nothing wrong with that. Even abroad people do mainstream and also do symphonies, which incidentally do not pay at all. But it gives you satisfaction and also an artistic voice in your pure form. One can do what one likes to rather than being dictated by the requirements of a movie,” he says.
Not surprisingly, awards and accolades have a way of finding the composer who keeps a low profile. In 2009, Rahman was included on the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people. The UK-based world-music magazine Songlines named him one of Tomorrow’s World Music Icons in August 2011. Awards include two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe, four National Film Awards, 15 Filmfare Awards and 16 Filmfare Awards South. He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in 2010 by the Government of India
But for now has set his eyes on other things. In movies next up is a virtual reality movie called Le Musk. Next is the biggest one called 99 Songs which as the name suggests is a music oriented which will showcase his own story, music and production.
He is doing a music score for Little Dragon, the authorise biography of martial artist Bruce Lee being directed by Shekhar Kapur besides others. There is also the symphonic adaption of Flying Lotus with Seattle Symphony which is next month.
There is a lot more that we would hear from the musical genius — and thank god for that.
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