Melodies are immortal: The AR Rahman interview
The composer, whose film CCV releases tomorrow, talks about the film, and his relationship with Mani Ratnam.
Everyone knows the AR Rahman - Mani Ratnam story. The Academy Award-winning composer’s career kickstarted with a Mani Ratnam film, Roja. Since then, the duo has combined to deliver some memorable albums including Bombay, Dil Se, Alaipayuthey, Guru... It has continued with their latest film, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, which marks their 14th collaboration. While it feels just like yesterday that Kaadhal Rojave and Pudhu Vellai Mazhai breathed new life into film music, the truth is, it’s been 25 years already.
Rahman agrees that his association with Mani Ratnam has been special. He compares it with Steven Spielberg’s fondness for John Williams. “They have been working together for over four decades, and have mutual respect for one another. Main sir and I get along really well, and our families too are close,” he says. He adds that he has great respect for Mani Ratnam’s work. “We see a lot of newcomers making their way into cinema every year, but it’s amazing that Mani sir still retains his undying passion for cinema. His enthusiasm to create relevant and contemporary themes is admirable. He is a genius and has shown great willingness to adapt himself to changing trends. In fact, how he has conceptualised the songs in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam has blown me away.”
Rahman, in fact, shares that he was surprised by the script of CCV. “It's completely in contrast to his previous films. From my side, I knew that this story demanded novelty even through its songs and background score. I’ve done my best to aid his vision.”
At the audio release of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, Rahman stated that Mani had returned to his Naayagan days. Prod him about the statement and Rahman asks, "You have seen the trailer of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, right? Then you will know. The trailer itself has inspired me to compose two different songs. That's all I can say for the moment.”
Interestingly, Rahman accompanied Mani for the recce to Goa. "Only the sea and we were there (laughs). The place we went to didn’t have internet or phone signal. I got frustrated, and at the same time, I felt like working. I composed 10 tunes in two days and told him that I was leaving. He was a bit surprised, but told me I could leave if I was done with my work.”
The songs were fairly easy to conceive for him, but the background score was something else. “Mani sir’s announcement that the film would get released in September was rather sudden. I thought he would slot it for Diwali.” It came as a shock to Rahman, who asked Mani Ratnam about it, only to learn that this date was not negotiable. “I had no choice but to complete the re-recording immediately. I set up all my equipment in my hotel room and composed the RR after completing my shows during weekends."
No long relationship is without a fair share of problems. I ask if there was ever such an instance or if he perhaps remembers his work coming in for any criticism from Mani Ratnam. Rahman turns philosophical: “I don't love anything. If you love anything deeply, you will lose it. I've made up my mind to not love anything greatly.”
It isn’t just Mani Ratnam who’s adapted himself to changing trends. Rahman himself has done it too. “Trends are always changing. So is the audience’s taste. The one immortal constant though is melody. We love that, we love good poetry and we love our ideals. These are common and they don't change, no matter what.” He strongly believes that listeners always encourage new sounds. “At the same time, we are also fond of classical music. At my concerts, I have been introspecting about the kind of music that appeals to listeners. From my recently concluded US tour, I have understood that people’s love for eternal songs like Taal and Ae Ajnabi (Dil Se) persists,” says Rahman.
The composer believes it important to stay attuned to the audience’s preferences. “I'm a listener first and I always think from that perspective. I ask myself many questions: Does the situation demand this song? Will this song work in this film? Does my song elevate a scene? And then my mind starts working the opposite way. I think of this as a type of reverse osmosis (laughs). No matter the fate of a film or an album, this thought process never changes. I will always ensure that my songs don't miss the feel, and brim with a certain poetic flavour.”
While on new songs, the single from Vijay-starrer Sarkar — Simtaangaran — hasn’t exactly won over its listeners. Rahman opts not to talk directly about this song. “Criticism has become an integral part of my journey. In most cases, I can predict the audience reaction owing to my experience. At times, their criticism or praise surprises me. A song from a film comes out only after directors, heroes, choreographers, and producers listen to it and this, in a sense, helps me understand the response it gets from the audience.”
Rahman’s also excited about turning producer. “My production house will make musical films. Two months from now, you will have seen two films from my banner.”
And the most pertinent question for Telugu cinema fans: When can we see him working in a straight Telugu film? He says, “I love Telugu. I'm a huge fan of directors like K Vishwanath, K Raghavendra Rao, and SS Rajamouli. My straight Telugu film should be unique in every way and to make it happen, a lot of things needs to fall into place.