Andrew Lloyd Webber, among others, likes to call him the ‘Mozart of Madras’. But A R Rahman defies definition. The prodigy who studied western classical at Trinity College of Music went on to redefine Bollywood scores. Having brought world sound to Indian cinema, he also put his version of contemporary Indian music – which blends techno, rap, latino, disco, reggae and ragas into a sumptuous potpourri – on the world map. He made Broadway swing to Bollywood Dreams, and composed stirring anthems for the stage version of The Lord of the Rings.
Through it all, Rahman has constantly reinvented himself. But then, so has the city which will always be home to him. Simultaneously centre of culture and commerce, traditional and cosmopolitan, Chennai blends the old and new with the same effortlessness as Rahman. Maybe the controlled chaos of Chennai’s constant flux has seeped into Rahman’s soul, and is reflected in his dazzling ouvre – always fresh, never predictable.
Rahman has already composed music for a special Times of India promo, which he’ll perform at the concert. A tip-off : there’ll be many distinctively Chennai sounds in it, including waves breaking on the beach, an auto driver tooting a horn, a pujari with sunglasses revving up his bike, a boy beating out a tattoo on a kodam, a streetside vendor making egg parathas .
But that will be then. Right now, we’re waiting to interview Rahman as he shoots a video to promote the concert. Technicians drape a bright green monochrome cloth on a wall and set up lights, while a harried director calls out directions. A red and orange towel with a dolphin covers the camera, four electricians struggle to get the air-conditioning working, and assorted assistants drift around chatting on phones. Cans of film, umbrellas, a rack full of men’s clothing and, bizarrely, a shower head lie scattered around the room. Apart from the view of a surprisingly green Chennai from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows on one side, there’s nothing to distract from the fact that we’re all in an immense, stuffy, grey space on the top floor of the Acropolis building on Radhakrishnan Salai.
An hour later, the director decides to move the non-action upstairs – to the terrace of a 12-storey building at 3 in the afternoon. He gets his assistants to remove all the railings, set up a round trolley that looks like a giant’s toy railway track and re-assemble the camera – this time without the dolphin towel.
Back downstairs, the producer gets a phone call. “He’s crossing Gemini,” she shouts. The make-up man who’s been doing a good imitation of a meditating Buddha comes to life and shakes his assistant awake. They drag chairs across the floor to create a make-up table. The light boys do a quick check. The air-conditioner booms to life, as if it’s been waiting for India’s most famous contemporary musician too.
Rahman walks in wearing a blue kurta over jeans, looking surprisingly, and greets the director with a cheery, “I tried calling you, ya, to tell you I was late but you were out of range.”
He’s taken to see the clothing rack; he prefers the sherwani to the suit, the blue scarf to the red. The make-up man goes to work with his brushes, sponges, combs and clippers and once he’s done, clicks a photograph on his mobile phone and passes it across to Rahman for his opinion. “What do you think, better without gel, no?” Rahman asks the director. “You decide,” is the answer. A yellow-and-white striped towel is whipped out and Rahman willingly submits to having his head toweled vigorously. Then it’s time for him to slip into the sherwani and head upstairs for the “round trolley shot”.
Rahman’s keyboard has been set up in the centre of the circle created by the trolley. While the cameraman makes some final adjustments and a couple of boys pleat his blue scarf, Rahman walks around the terrace – shaded by one of the umbrellas – and takes in the view of Chennai. Cloudless blue sky above, shimmering sea in the distance, buildings, trees and roads below.
“I’d like to see this city greener,” he muses. “I’d like to see more artists, more space for artists, actually. I’d like to see less cluttered traffic. I’d love to see an underground. I’d like to see preservation of the old, while we move ahead with the new. Change is good, change is about moving forward, I’m always receptive to change.”
Shooting starts and we’re told to stay behind the camera. As the trolley picks up speed and circles Rahman at the keyboard, we find ourselves running to stay out of sight. The director sends us all downstairs to wait with a disgusted, “If you can’t run fast enough to stay behind the camera, you can’t watch.” Once the trolley shots are done, we’re allowed to troop back upstairs to watch Rahman being shot against the distant sea, with buildings in the background, silhouetted against the setting sun. He’s made to let his scarf fly out behind him, “like Batman,” he jokes with the crew. “You should have got my son to shoot this.” Then he looks out to sea, savouring his city.
“Food, family, roots… these are just some of the things that make this city home. And then there are the important, intangible factors – certain things that cannot be explained,” he sighs. Bombay Dreams, The Lord of the Rings and other projects required him to spend two-third of his year in London a few years ago, not his idea of fun.
“I missed Chennai. London is a wonderful city, but it’s not Chennai, not home. We have much to preserve and much to look forward to -that’s something we need to remember while we change. “We also have to be the change,” says the man who missed listening to a symphony orchestra and so “decided to do something about it and start my own orchestra”.
Time for the next shot. Rainmaking with Rahman. The shower head is fitted to a hose connected to a tap and passed up to a technician on a stool holding a sieve. Rahman puts his hand out gingerly,another technician at the tap turns it on. A few minutes of getting his hands wet and we’re done for the day. The yellow and white towel appears again and Rahman dries his hand.
As his make-up is removed, he says, “I’d love to see an underground , a symphony hall, big productions of musicals like The Lion King – who knows, it may happen sooner than you think… Oh! and I’d love to see snow in Chennai.”
NEWS AND IMAGE COURTESY: TIMES OF INDIA