The renowned Indian composer's music is driven by instinct and passion.
BACK in 1992, when prominent Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam approached an unassuming ad jingle composer to score his upcoming Tamil film Roja, few would have foreseen history about to be made.
It is more than likely, in fact, that the musician himself had no inkling of the sudden leap into fame he was about to take: to not only have his songs becoming runaway hits, but to become the first debut film composer to bag an Indian National Film Award for Best Music Director.
Twenty-two years, countless films, two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, four National Film Awards and 28 Filmfare Awards later, such beginnings seem almost quaint when viewed in the light of what the musical superstar A.R. Rahman, 47, has become. Not only does he hold the distinction of being one of the world’s all-time top-selling musicians, he is also lauded worldwide for his innate ability to fuse a wide array of musical styles, traditions and genres.
Hailed as everything from the Mozart of Madras to Isai Puyal (Tamil for “musical storm”), the Chennai-born Rahman is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with in the international music scene, especially since his double Oscar win (Best Original Score and Best Original Song) in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire and Jai Ho respectively.
And yet, it is in the way Rahman’s music has burrowed its way into so many listeners’ hearts that his true genius lies. Jai Ho may have catapulted him to global renown, but ask his fans what their favourite Rahman song is, and you are likely to get everything from the poppish Chikku Bukku Rayile and jazzy Adiye to folk-influenced Barso Re and Sufi-inspired Chaiyya Chaiyya – a true testament to the man’s ability to weave together varying threads of music into one beguiling whole.
It is this diversity, the ability to cut across age, cultural and taste barriers, that makes Rahman’s live concerts so appealing to so many people. And according to Rahman, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to promote his upcoming concert here, he loves watching his fans engage with his music.
“The thing I enjoy most about concerts is getting to experience what my songs have been in people’s lives,” he said at the interview. “They’ve come mentally prepared to listen to a (particular) song, and when that happens, you see this immense joy. It’s a great feeling to be able to give that back (to the fans). That’s why we take our concerts so seriously.”
The three-and-a-half-hour concert, dubbed A.R. Rahman Infinite Love Live In Concert, happening on April 26 at Stadium Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, will feature a 78-piece music ensemble and an illustrious line-up of Indian singers, such as Mohit Chauhan, Javed Ali, Mano, Chitra, Vijay Prakash, Neeti Mohan, Harshdeep Kaur and Shweta Pandit – many of whom are frequent collaborators with Rahman. The KL concert will be followed by one in Singapore on April 30.
When asked how he decides which songs from his huge body of work to perform at a concert, Rahman says he often goes by feel.
“My team and I go by instincts, and also by what would be fresh for us, because doing the same thing would be boring. And as new movies get released we take stuff from those too; so in the KL concert, you’ll be seeing songs from movies like Highway (Hindi movie released last month) and Kochadaiiyaan (an upcoming Tamil film),” he explains, adding that he often tinkers with and makes changes to his concert setlist till the last minute.
There is, of course, no shortage of material to fill the show. Rahman has been consistently churning out hits in Tamil, Hindi and other regional languages since his debut in the industry, having worked with the biggest names in the Indian entertainment industry. In the last five years alone, he scored the massively popular soundtracks to Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, Raavan, Enthiran, Rockstar, Jab Tak Hain Jaan, Kadal and Maryan.
The Indian film and music industry, he says, is one that has seen many changes since he first waded into it, and through it all, he is careful to hold on to his sense of self.
“There are different evolutions happening in pockets. There are some good things, but there’s a quote by Rumi that says, ‘I ran so fast that I left my soul behind’; that’s happening too. If you’re not careful in this industry, you leave your soul behind, and then you have to go back and grab it,”
Besides his homegrown projects, Rahman is also a much sought-after composer in Hollywood for his eclectic sound, having worked on films like Elizabeth: The Golden Age, People Like Us and 127 Hours (for which he was nominated for another two Academy Awards). His most recent foray is with Disney’s Million Dollar Arm, slated to be released in May, which completed recording last month.
Working in Hollywood, he says, is a very different experience compared to India.
“In Hollywood, you just do one thing at a time, while in India, I do seven to eight things at once!” he points out, adding that he enjoys amassing these different experiences.
“In Million Dollar Arm, I got to collaborate with many Western artistes, which is always interesting.” Rahman, of course, is no stranger to such collaborative work, having worked with big names like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mick Jagger, Michael Bolton, Joss Stone and MIA.
For all his interest in blurring musical boundaries, however, Rahman says he doesn’t usually set out with a plan to work on particular type of music or the other.
“More than music, you learn from life. I don’t think about (what genres or styles I want to do). Sometimes I feel compelled to write something, so I do that,” he says. It is this reliance on instinct that seems to drive most of Rahman’s decisions, and it hasn’t seem to have failed him yet. To him, it is a belief in a higher power, a force greater than himself guiding his decisions – as he expressed in his now-famous Oscar speech quote, “Ella pughazhum iraivanukke (All praises are dedicated to God)”.
“If something is not close to my heart, I don’t do it,” he says. “I actually quit a movie because of that, a movie about witches and spooks. I couldn’t live with that. I just want the whole ride, the experience of life to be pleasant, and when it’s not, it’s not worth doing.”
A.R. Rahman Infinite Love Live In Concert will be staged on April 26 (7.30pm) at Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur. Tickets, ranging RM98 to RM1,499, can be purchased at dmllive.com. Early bird discounts of 10%-15% are available until March 10. Organised by DML Live, the A.R. Rahman Infinite Love Live In Concert is supported by Malaysia Major Events, a division of the Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau under the Tourism and Culture Ministry.