Big noise: AR Rahman


Big noise: AR Rahman

He is linked to Hindi cinema’s greatest musical triumphs, even as he defies classification

By Aishwarya Subramanyam  October 21st, 2014

When I’m interviewing AR Rahman, there are several things I’m afraid of. One, that my phone will run out of battery because iPhone. Two, the call from Los Angeles will drop again because Vodafone. Three, the recorder won’t pick up speakerphone properly or it will stop working midway because life. And four, that I will be murdered on the empty street that I have stopped my taxi in to do this interview, because it’s past midnight and this is the only time he can talk, and my taxi driver is looking at me in a creepy way.

The night-time sounds of Bombay are around me: the whoosh of cars and bikes that zip past, thrilling for speed the only time they can in the city, and on the other end of the line is a young, giggly voice, kind and warm. Rahman is not intimidating, because I know him, don’t I, through his songs. He’s sort of the Sachin Tendulkar of music, I think, someone impossibly good, whom we have all seen soar to the top, have good days and then bad; we all want to tell him how to do his job and what doesn’t work, and at the end of it all, we will forgive him anything because he is ours.

I was 11 years old when Roja happened in 1992. Like any good Iyer girl of that time, my understanding was mainly of the Carnatic classical I learnt from a very patient music teacher. At home it was Tamil film music, by which I mean the deep earthiness of Ilayaraja. Then out of nowhere came this sharp, modern sound, a potent mix of sex, sensuality and sweetness, pictured on the wonderfully moustached Arvind Swamy, then the pinnacle of virility, good and clean and wicked at the same time. “Roja was special. At the time, I felt like it took everything from me, I didn’t think I had any music left inside any more,” says Rahman, in his gentle, honest way.

Roja was certainly special. It was the beginning of his journey with Mani Ratnam, when it felt like the music was inside the films and the films were inside the music. “We would just jam together, pick and choose what excited us; sometimes he liked something I would overlook, sometimes he would push me to try something, there was a lot of give and take, and a similar vision. The only time we would disagree was when he wanted me to sing; I wanted to give the opportunity to another singer. For me it was convenient, I could sing every song, but I didn’t want that convenience to become annoying,” he chuckles.

When he was growing up, Rahman knew very little about Hindi music: “I had heard Sholay and some of the Subhash Ghai stuff on the radio and on LP records,” he says. Like my generation witnessed him taking over the industry, he too witnessed a changing of the guard in Tamil film music — from MS Viswanathan and KV Mahadevan to the dawn of Ilayaraja. “He was so focused and spiritual, people used to respect him so much that it was almost like faith. He was my inspiration.” Rahman worked with the composer for a year and a half, programming for him on his music computer (“It was from Singapore,” he says proudly) until restlessness to get out there and learn new music set in.

It was then that Rahman discovered the influence that would inform his music possibly forever. “One of my friends played me a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. What was this, I thought. I hadn’t heard music like this before. I listened to ‘Dam Mast Kalandar’ and it blew my mind; I had heard qawwalis before, but nothing like this. It changed my whole perception of music. After that I started listening to him in a frenzy.” Eventually, Sufi music found its way into his own. ‘Piya Haji Ali’ from Fiza (2000), his first attempt, received unanimous applause, and then he couldn’t stop. “The music of Bose — The Forgotten Hero (2005) became something of a cult. Gay choirs sang it, underground choirs sang it in Chicago, Michigan. It was amazing, it had gone beyond religion,” he says, and I can hear the smile.

But before Rahman became a gay-choir favourite, he was Dileep Kumar, a boy who used to tag along with his composer dad to studios, playing the keyboards. After his father passed away when he was nine, he suddenly had the weight of family responsibility on his hands. He started playing for the film industry, assisting various composers when he was just 12. Sacrifices are made when you grow up so early. “Quitting school was a hard one. I used to think, who’s going to respect me, I’ve not been to college; it was a burden I carried for a while. I don’t care about it now, but at that time, for some five years, I wanted to go back to study, get a degree. I now realise that you study more from life. When you are put in a situation, in a spot, you learn so much more; it forces you to think, to talk, to act. That’s learning.”

What’s incredible to me is how spotless his life has been. “Unlike those who have set a bad example with drug addiction, drunkenness, debauchery?” he giggles. “When I was young I had my family, you know, it forced me to think clean.” It’s also tied in with his constant search for peace. “There will always be a hundred things to distract you. Quietness has to come from within. You can sit in a completely quiet room and if there’s a storm within the mind, the silence outside won’t help. You can be in a noisy place and be quiet within, and the noise doesn’t matter. It’s all in the mind, and I believe that training your mind to do what you say is the most important thing to learn.”

Dileep Kumar found what he was looking for in Islam. It was a pre-9/11 world when he changed his religion, and I wonder if he would still make that decision now, knowing what he does about how perceptions have changed and prejudices have grown. “For me it was a personal transformation,” he says. “I found spirituality in Islam, it was not ritualistic or political. And I still feel the same, really uplifted by it. Whatever is happening in the world, everyone interprets differently, but what I found was purity and peace, and that reflects in my life.”

It is also where his musical majesty springs from, this place of peace. It’s funny because his music seems so full of unbridled emotion, speaking to something inside all of us. It’s like he understood that we want to laugh and cry and dance, sometimes all at once. To an adolescent, it felt like he took all of those feelings in you, those feelings you can’t explain or understand because goddammit growing up is a bitch, and he put it all together in a mixie and created some sort of divine idli batter that produced the plumpest… I think this metaphor may have gotten away from me.

When he’s writing, though, Rahman says he tries to be neutral: “Sometimes you sit at the piano and play a chord, and it takes you to an emotion right away. It’s hard sometimes, it falls into place some other times, which is a blessing.” He thinks for a minute and continues, “Spirituality is something I can hold on to, nothing else stays with you, everything is impermanent.”

That’s a lot of wisdom from someone who used to play in a ‘rock band’ in school. He laughs, “We used to do covers of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd. But I didn’t know anything about rock. I would just transcribe from the record and have the notes in front of me while playing!” Not exactly Kurt Cobain, then.

But the thing about Rahman is that he never stops changing his sound. Which is what makes it difficult to define. From Roja to Dil Se (1998) to Rang De Basanti (2005) to Rockstar (2011) to

Highway (2014), you can’t really pin it down. And he likes it that way, “Maybe there’s something about my harmonies that makes people think they recognise me in my songs. But I want to surprise, and I want to keep evolving.” He is always curious to know what people think of his music, good or bad, he says. “You’re in a team, and you are surrounded by opinions, but I always ask, did you play it for someone else outside of us? Did they like it?”

And what if they didn’t? Does he take criticism well or does ego come into play? He can’t be all soft-spoken niceness, after all. “I do listen to the bad, honestly. I think you need to separate your personal ego from your creative arrogance. Creative arrogance is a good thing, it makes you want to create something amazing. Otherwise my art would be as boring as my personality.”

Sometimes though, he admits, people just don’t get it. It takes time and many listens for them to come around to his music, which is something we have all felt at some point about a Rahman song, isn’t it? And when you get it, it’s like a window opens. “Music, you know, it can change people. You can be messed-up in the head, and then listen to a beautiful song, and it brings happiness, hope. It’s very positive,” he says. And hard. “When you first start out, you criticise everybody. Oh, this sounds like that, he sounds like this person, but it’s only when you start writing music that you really understand how difficult it is. For me it’s about taking out all the technicalities and focusing on the truth of the tune, and to connect to that. Sometimes the simplest thing can take a long time to get around, but you have to be true to your heart.”

Rahman shuttles between America and India, but Chennai is home. “Madras was a beautiful place when I was young — ultimately it’s not fancy buildings and technology that make a place, it’s the people, the warmth. Once I moved to the US, coming back was at first a culture shock for me, even though I knew the place so well. The noise, god, the noise was excruciating. Then you start living with it, you start getting interested in it.”

And his way of giving back to the noise was by making more musicians, reluctantly at first. “Starting the school was a headache, I didn’t want the responsibility, but after a few years, you see what wonderful things can happen,” he says. “Educating a child in music changes the whole family, it creates social upliftment. This is a known area for me. This is selfish.” He started the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai in 2008, and moved it to a state-of-the-art facility last year. “I want everyone who comes out of there to be a success story.” He’s offering them a great start with Ashutosh Gowariker’s TV show Everest, “a story of a girl who climbs Everest to win her father’s love,” which will air next month. Rahman and students from his college have all composed music for the series (“Gowariker has got some extraordinary work from them”), a dream realised for him.

He has always looked for the next new thing, hasn’t he? From assisting composers to doing jingles for commercials to composing music for Tamil films and then Hindi films to reinventing patriotic music to composing for Hollywood films and Broadway to winning Academy Awards to becoming part of a superheavy, if short-lived, band… it’s sort of amazing to me that he doesn’t just fall down. “The next step is a terrifying one,” he says. “I’m going to produce a movie.” All he will say now (apologetically) is that it’s a movie about music, which he has been working on for four or five years. He now has a director, and expects things to reach a gallop by the end of the year. He will admit, though, that he is insanely excited.

Before he goes, I ask what’s on his playlist, because that’s the playlist I want in my life. He says sheepishly that he isn’t listening to any music, because there’s so much mixing going on at work in different languages. Anything he watches on TV now is on mute. “I can hear the music without hearing it.”

When I’m interviewing AR Rahman, there are several things I’m afraid of. One, that my phone will run out of battery because iPhone. Two, the call from Los Angeles will drop again because Vodafone. Three, the recorder won’t pick up speakerphone properly or it will stop working midway because life. And four, that I will be murdered on the empty street that I have stopped my taxi in to do this interview, because it’s past midnight and this is the only time he can talk, and my taxi driver is looking at me in a creepy way.

The night-time sounds of Bombay are around me: the whoosh of cars and bikes that zip past, thrilling for speed the only time they can in the city, and on the other end of the line is a young, giggly voice, kind and warm. Rahman is not intimidating, because I know him, don’t I, through his songs. He’s sort of the Sachin Tendulkar of music, I think, someone impossibly good, whom we have all seen soar to the top, have good days and then bad; we all want to tell him how to do his job and what doesn’t work, and at the end of it all, we will forgive him anything because he is ours.

I was 11 years old when Roja happened in 1992. Like any good Iyer girl of that time, my understanding was mainly of the Carnatic classical I learnt from a very patient music teacher. At home it was Tamil film music, by which I mean the deep earthiness of Ilayaraja. Then out of nowhere came this sharp, modern sound, a potent mix of sex, sensuality and sweetness, pictured on the wonderfully moustached Arvind Swamy, then the pinnacle of virility, good and clean and wicked at the same time. “Roja was special. At the time, I felt like it took everything from me, I didn’t think I had any music left inside any more,” says Rahman, in his gentle, honest way.

Roja was certainly special. It was the beginning of his journey with Mani Ratnam, when it felt like the music was inside the films and the films were inside the music. “We would just jam together, pick and choose what excited us; sometimes he liked something I would overlook, sometimes he would push me to try something, there was a lot of give and take, and a similar vision. The only time we would disagree was when he wanted me to sing; I wanted to give the opportunity to another singer. For me it was convenient, I could sing every song, but I didn’t want that convenience to become annoying,” he chuckles.

When he was growing up, Rahman knew very little about Hindi music: “I had heard Sholay and some of the Subhash Ghai stuff on the radio and on LP records,” he says. Like my generation witnessed him taking over the industry, he too witnessed a changing of the guard in Tamil film music — from MS Viswanathan and KV Mahadevan to the dawn of Ilayaraja. “He was so focused and spiritual, people used to respect him so much that it was almost like faith. He was my inspiration.” Rahman worked with the composer for a year and a half, programming for him on his music computer (“It was from Singapore,” he says proudly) until restlessness to get out there and learn new music set in.

It was then that Rahman discovered the influence that would inform his music possibly forever. “One of my friends played me a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. What was this, I thought. I hadn’t heard music like this before. I listened to ‘Dam Mast Kalandar’ and it blew my mind; I had heard qawwalis before, but nothing like this. It changed my whole perception of music. After that I started listening to him in a frenzy.” Eventually, Sufi music found its way into his own. ‘Piya Haji Ali’ from Fiza (2000), his first attempt, received unanimous applause, and then he couldn’t stop. “The music of Bose — The Forgotten Hero (2005) became something of a cult. Gay choirs sang it, underground choirs sang it in Chicago, Michigan. It was amazing, it had gone beyond religion,” he says, and I can hear the smile.

But before Rahman became a gay-choir favourite, he was Dileep Kumar, a boy who used to tag along with his composer dad to studios, playing the keyboards. After his father passed away when he was nine, he suddenly had the weight of family responsibility on his hands. He started playing for the film industry, assisting various composers when he was just 12. Sacrifices are made when you grow up so early. “Quitting school was a hard one. I used to think, who’s going to respect me, I’ve not been to college; it was a burden I carried for a while. I don’t care about it now, but at that time, for some five years, I wanted to go back to study, get a degree. I now realise that you study more from life. When you are put in a situation, in a spot, you learn so much more; it forces you to think, to talk, to act. That’s learning.”

What’s incredible to me is how spotless his life has been. “Unlike those who have set a bad example with drug addiction, drunkenness, debauchery?” he giggles. “When I was young I had my family, you know, it forced me to think clean.” It’s also tied in with his constant search for peace. “There will always be a hundred things to distract you. Quietness has to come from within. You can sit in a completely quiet room and if there’s a storm within the mind, the silence outside won’t help. You can be in a noisy place and be quiet within, and the noise doesn’t matter. It’s all in the mind, and I believe that training your mind to do what you say is the most important thing to learn.”

Dileep Kumar found what he was looking for in Islam. It was a pre-9/11 world when he changed his religion, and I wonder if he would still make that decision now, knowing what he does about how perceptions have changed and prejudices have grown. “For me it was a personal transformation,” he says. “I found spirituality in Islam, it was not ritualistic or political. And I still feel the same, really uplifted by it. Whatever is happening in the world, everyone interprets differently, but what I found was purity and peace, and that reflects in my life.”

It is also where his musical majesty springs from, this place of peace. It’s funny because his music seems so full of unbridled emotion, speaking to something inside all of us. It’s like he understood that we want to laugh and cry and dance, sometimes all at once. To an adolescent, it felt like he took all of those feelings in you, those feelings you can’t explain or understand because goddammit growing up is a bitch, and he put it all together in a mixie and created some sort of divine idli batter that produced the plumpest… I think this metaphor may have gotten away from me.

When he’s writing, though, Rahman says he tries to be neutral: “Sometimes you sit at the piano and play a chord, and it takes you to an emotion right away. It’s hard sometimes, it falls into place some other times, which is a blessing.” He thinks for a minute and continues, “Spirituality is something I can hold on to, nothing else stays with you, everything is impermanent.”

That’s a lot of wisdom from someone who used to play in a ‘rock band’ in school. He laughs, “We used to do covers of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd. But I didn’t know anything about rock. I would just transcribe from the record and have the notes in front of me while playing!” Not exactly Kurt Cobain, then.

But the thing about Rahman is that he never stops changing his sound. Which is what makes it difficult to define. From Roja to Dil Se (1998) to Rang De Basanti (2005) to Rockstar (2011) to

Highway (2014), you can’t really pin it down. And he likes it that way, “Maybe there’s something about my harmonies that makes people think they recognise me in my songs. But I want to surprise, and I want to keep evolving.” He is always curious to know what people think of his music, good or bad, he says. “You’re in a team, and you are surrounded by opinions, but I always ask, did you play it for someone else outside of us? Did they like it?”

And what if they didn’t? Does he take criticism well or does ego come into play? He can’t be all soft-spoken niceness, after all. “I do listen to the bad, honestly. I think you need to separate your personal ego from your creative arrogance. Creative arrogance is a good thing, it makes you want to create something amazing. Otherwise my art would be as boring as my personality.”

Sometimes though, he admits, people just don’t get it. It takes time and many listens for them to come around to his music, which is something we have all felt at some point about a Rahman song, isn’t it? And when you get it, it’s like a window opens. “Music, you know, it can change people. You can be messed-up in the head, and then listen to a beautiful song, and it brings happiness, hope. It’s very positive,” he says. And hard. “When you first start out, you criticise everybody. Oh, this sounds like that, he sounds like this person, but it’s only when you start writing music that you really understand how difficult it is. For me it’s about taking out all the technicalities and focusing on the truth of the tune, and to connect to that. Sometimes the simplest thing can take a long time to get around, but you have to be true to your heart.”

Rahman shuttles between America and India, but Chennai is home. “Madras was a beautiful place when I was young — ultimately it’s not fancy buildings and technology that make a place, it’s the people, the warmth. Once I moved to the US, coming back was at first a culture shock for me, even though I knew the place so well. The noise, god, the noise was excruciating. Then you start living with it, you start getting interested in it.”

And his way of giving back to the noise was by making more musicians, reluctantly at first. “Starting the school was a headache, I didn’t want the responsibility, but after a few years, you see what wonderful things can happen,” he says. “Educating a child in music changes the whole family, it creates social upliftment. This is a known area for me. This is selfish.” He started the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai in 2008, and moved it to a state-of-the-art facility last year. “I want everyone who comes out of there to be a success story.” He’s offering them a great start with Ashutosh Gowariker’s TV show Everest, “a story of a girl who climbs Everest to win her father’s love,” which will air next month. Rahman and students from his college have all composed music for the series (“Gowariker has got some extraordinary work from them”), a dream realised for him.

He has always looked for the next new thing, hasn’t he? From assisting composers to doing jingles for commercials to composing music for Tamil films and then Hindi films to reinventing patriotic music to composing for Hollywood films and Broadway to winning Academy Awards to becoming part of a superheavy, if short-lived, band… it’s sort of amazing to me that he doesn’t just fall down. “The next step is a terrifying one,” he says. “I’m going to produce a movie.” All he will say now (apologetically) is that it’s a movie about music, which he has been working on for four or five years. He now has a director, and expects things to reach a gallop by the end of the year. He will admit, though, that he is insanely excited.

Before he goes, I ask what’s on his playlist, because that’s the playlist I want in my life. He says sheepishly that he isn’t listening to any music, because there’s so much mixing going on at work in different languages. Anything he watches on TV now is on mute. “I can hear the music without hearing it.”