There's little one can say about him that has not been said before. He is a musical genius whose popularity spans across continents. He has revolutionised Indian film music and now he is nurturing young talent at his own music conservatory. The man who delivers music from the heart and he is AR Rahman.
Rajeev Masand: Let me start today by throwing an accusation at you. You seem to be reserving the best songs in your album for yourself, whether it is Khwaja mere Khwaja from Jodha Akbar, Tere Bina from Guru, whether it is a song from Sivaji. Is it pure selfishness or is it the fact that you think that you can bring something to the songs that perhaps others can’t?
AR Rahman: I don’t make decisions for myself. I leave it to the directors. In Tere Bina, I had Khader Mustafa who I liked very much. But Mani Ratnam felt that I should sing it. Khwaja mere Khwaja was a song done as a template to listen to and when I played it Ashutosh wanted it. He added it. It was not there in the film earlier.
In Jaane Tu, it was just the opposite. He did not want my voice. He felt it was too soft. I said I like this song and I will do another song for you. He then asked me to re sing it. Initially it was soft jazz and he did not like it. He wanted it more aggressive and more fun kind of singing.
Rajeev Masand: Originally I know, you were committed to do music for Om Shanti Om but you did not do it because you were refused the publishing rights, which is the ownership rights. I know it is common practice in the West and makes perfect sense that the person who creates the music should own the music.
AR Rahman: It is both ways. Some people buyout the music and it is transparent. The buy out is shared. But in this case, strangely we never intended to do that. At that particular time, when my company was launched, I realised the importance of having a publishing of ones own. I have reached 41 now and somewhere I felt that I have to do something for my kids and the generation and in a way to exploit our music in the west, something like an ambassador in the other country. Like recently there is a movie, The Accidental Husband, which has three of my Tamil songs. To give more scope and accessibility to my stuff, it is important. It is a little shocking in the beginning but people are getting used to it.
Rajeev Masand: Did you hear the music of OSO?
AR Rahman: Yes. I liked it. I would not have been able to do it the way it was done.
Rajeev Masand: Was it very different from what you had imagined doing it when you were committed to do it?
AR Rahman: I had a couple of meetings with Farah and we were discussing the Bombay theme and it is unfortunate that we could not work on this. But we are great friends and we will be working in future.
Rajeev Masand: I also know that you were committed to doing Kamal's film Dasavatharam, which you couldn't because time constraints did not allow you.
AR Rahman: Yes at that particular time, I was doing many things. I was travelling and Kamal ji wanted me to give the music immediately and it was a huge film. I knew the kind of work it would require. I knew I could not do justice in that short period.
Rajeev Masand: You were replaced then by Himesh Reshammiya. Were you insulted?
AR Rahman: No, not at all. Himesh did the songs but I think Devi Sri Prasad did the background music.
Rajeev Masand: Have you heard the music?
AR Rahman: No, I have not heard the music.
Rajeev Masand: He has also sung in Tamil.
AR Rahman: I would love to listen to it.
Rajeev Masand: What do you think of him as a singer? You have used so many Bombay voices. You have introduced so many people in the music industry. How come you haven’t found anything for Himesh?
AR Rahman: I think he has got a particular style. I have heard him very closely and I think he is capable of much more. In fact we were co-judges in a show for a channel. So, I am waiting for the right song for Himesh. I like him as a person and I wish him all the best.
Rajeev Masand: You know that he is a movie actor now as well.
AR Rahman: Yes I know. Awesome.
Rajeev Masand: I know you have started a music Conservatory in Chennai. Is this your way of giving back to the industry?
AR Rahman: I just get panicky thinking what if there are no violin players and no trumpet players and I would have to go to Prague or London again or other places. Not only me, Ilayarajah goes to Budapest and Salim goes to Prague. We are all passionate about music and if we don’t have the right kind of players then we will have to compromise and even spend more. I was waiting for someone to bell the cat. I waited for almost 10 years. It did not happen. So just a week before my birthday, I decided to do it. Everything has gone well and we will start in June.
Rajeev Masand: Do you find that we are too lenient as a society? Why are we so indifferent about plagiarism? Look at Pritam’s track record lately. Look at Race, Jab We Met, Metro. Almost all his track records can be traced to either a Korean hit or another Hindi film song or a foreign song. Why are we so lenient as a society as far as plagiarism is concerned?
AR Rahman: It is not just one person. There are a number of people. It’s also how the industry has forced people to do that.
Rajeev Masand: Do you actually believe that?
AR Rahman: I think now people are in a position to say no that I can’t do that. They will be respected even more when they do that. I think that it is what each composer needs to do when he is forced and told that some song is needed. So, one should maintain one’s integrity. If someone wants a particular song without courtesy, then the composer should refuse and say he doesn’t want to steal the song. Else most of them will land up paying a lot of money from their pockets as an out of court settlement.
Rajeev Masand: Your fans were very surprised when you took a shot with remix. You did it few years ago with New, then you did it with Azhagiya Tamil Magan and then now you have done it again with Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na.
AR Rahman: I don’t think remix is a bad word. There is both good and bad in that. You can’t say all Western music is bad and noisy. I don’t agree with that. You also can’t say that all Indian music is classic. I am a composer and if there is a song which I love, for example Tu hi re and someone remixes it, I would not like it, but if there is a peppy song and I want to hear something interesting, then it’s okay. That’s what I did. I took two tracks from Adaan and I released it. Some guy there in a village will be remixing it in his computer and singing in his voice and producing something interesting, an idea that may not have occurred to us.
Rajeev Masand: You said no to Spike initially when he said he wanted to use Chaiyya Chaiyya and wanted to add rap to it when he wanted to use it for his film, The Inside Man.
AR Rahman: No. We were trying to be careful. Rap means swearing and I did not want Chaiyya Chaiyya to have any swear words in it. So, when they assured me that they would not have any swear words in it, and then we said yes.
Rajeev Masand: I remember you saying a little while ago that you were tired of doing these big historic films and you were looking at letting your hair down a little. Is the film Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na, a respite then, an opportunity?
AR Rahman: I started working on the movie at about the time when I said that. Working with Abbas was really great. Though it was a little crazy but I like the craziness. It’s good to break away from routine at times and not be rigid.
Rajeev Masand: How would you describe the sound of the film?
AR Rahman: I think it is a mix. With different lyricists, different flavours come out. With him, there is a genre of words and phrases he has picked and the song is around that. For example, Kabhi Kabhi Aditi, it is a song that I haven’t ever done before. It is simple arrangement yet romantic. It’s like rediscovering yourself.
Rajeev Masand: If I ask you to choose the one song that you are most remembered for, would you still pick Chaiyya Chaiyya?
AR Rahman: You can’t be generic about it. People get angry. Down south people like the film called Duet and it is a soundtrack. Some love Roja, some like Taal, some Lagaan.
Rajeev Masand: Which ones are the breakthrough ones for you?
AR Rahman: For me, personally, I would say Roja, album Vande Mataram, Taal, Dil Se, Bombay Dreams, and probably Rang de Basanti now. In South, last year’s Sivaji is also one. So these are all different songs. When you get bored, you move on to the next phase. These are all different phases.
Rajeev Masand: There was time that you were extremely reclusive, media shy and hardly any media appearances. That seems to have changed now.
AR Rahman: That is sarcastic?
Rajeev Masand: No not sarcastic at all. Did you consciously choose to be more accessible, whether it is brand endorsements, interviews or be it television appearances.
AR Rahman: Yes. Some proposals suited me as a musician. I would not be selling oil or underwears. And also I needed that to fund my school and other interesting projects that I was doing. It was also a way to communicate with people, and people started liking it.
Rajeev Masand: You are collaborating once again with Rakesh Mehra for the music of Dilli 6. That is after the great soundtrack that you gave him for Rang de Basanti. What was the brief for Dilli 6 and how are you going to top the music of Rang de Basanti? I know you will say that they are two different films, but it’s impossible to avoid the comparisons?
AR Rahman: Certain things…you have to let them be. Maybe there is some soundtrack that moves away from Rang de Basanti and is even better for the ears. I am not worried about it at all.
Rajeev Masand: What is the brief for that?
AR Rahman: It is all a secret.
Rajeev Masand: You are also working again with Subhash Ghai after Taal and Kisna. Taal, in the sense was one of the most popular and successful commercial albums that you did. What can you expect from Yuvraj? Subhash Ghai says it’s a complete musical this time.
AR Rahman: Yes he loves music. We are talking about a very passionate man and he wants to pick up the best music and picture it in a great and different way. You have to give it to the man. He has been there for three decades and still wants to excel. It is a great attitude and I am learning from him.
Rajeev Masand: You will still not give us a brief for this one?
AR Rahman: No...
Rajeev Masand: You have worked with one of the best filmmakers, Mani Ratnam, Shekhar, Ashutosh Gowarikar, Rakesh Mehra and many more. Are there other filmmakers that you are looking forward to work with, just because you think you will be able to bring something interesting to their film or just because you like their kind of films?
AR Rahman: Yes. There was a time when I wanted to work with Bazelon and Andrews.
Rajeev Masand: And you almost did work with them?
AR Rahman: We had a couple of meetings but then I had to leave all my assignments and go and settle in Sydney or London, which at this point in my career or age, I can’t do.
Rajeev Masand: I read something interesting that you were all set to work with Bazelon and then they went to IMDB and they looked up all the movies you did and they were thirty. And they got worried.
AR Rahman: It is threatening because they would be worried that if I am already doing so many films, how would I concentrate on theirs. What happens is that when someone announces a movie and their music and my name, even without my consent, my name is there on IMDB. It is dangerous. Anyway, now the most liberating thing for me is my own label. And if I want to do something good, I can produce it myself now.
Rajeev Masand: Is there one music instrument that you are determined to learn how to play?
AR Rahman: Yes, there is a new instrument called the Continuum, which could be a breakthrough in Indian classical music, which I hardly find time to practice and when I do practice, I think it is good. I may soon have classes for that in my Conservatory.
Rajeev Masand: Is there any one song by another composer that you have been humming lately?
AR Rahman: Lately....there is a song of Mohit Chauhan in Jab We Met.
Rajeev Masand: Tumse hi?
AR Rahman: It’s very Himachal actually?
Rajeev Masand: Best of luck. Thanks for talking to us.