It’s hard to pin down what exactly it is about A R Rahman that makes him so appealing in person. Maybe it’s the absence of airs of any kind. Maybe it’s the refreshing lack of ennui or cynicism. Or, maybe it’s just plain old n iciness, of a simple, down-to-earth variety that’s hard to come by these days.
Whatever it is, it works just as effortlessly on the six winners of a Sony music organized ‘Sakkarakatti contest’ who get to meet the maestro in his front office late one evening as it does on yours truly.
They all go from hushed reverence to easy, happy smiles within minutes. And although he’s in the middle of recording for Mani Ratnam’s “Ravan”, he makes sure everyone’s got the pictures they want with him before they leave.
Starting off by discussing the music of “Sakkarakatti”, which has now spent over 20 weeks at the top of the charts. “It’s interesting to work with this new generation of directors,” says Rahman, referring to first-time director of “Sakkarakatti”, Kalaprabhu S Dhanu. “They don’t carry the same sort of baggage other directors do, they’re willing to let go of things that could make a product old and go in a new direction, with new influences.”
Possibly no one understands this generational shift in movies and music better than Rahman, who’s been part of the industry since he was a child. “In a sense, I’ve crossed three generations,” he says. “I started playing when I was 11 for the older generation of music directors such as M.S. Viswanathan and Ilayaraaja, then came my generation, and I’m embarking on the next one now.”
And the key to surviving these shifts is constant reinvention. “I think it’s very important to drop certain things and attain a newer mindset,” he says. “That’s why I’m thrilled to see that “Sakkarakatti” is doing well, because most of the songs are next generational.”
How so….? He expands on his theme: “For instance, ‘Muqabala’ was a popular song of the nineties, while ‘Taxi Taxi’ is what’s popular now. For melodious songs, the essence of melody remains, but the shell changes, as with ‘Marudaani’. And ‘I miss you da’ has futuristic touches within a traditional structure.”
Of course, it isn’t all about the new and futuristic. One of the most talked about projects that Rahman is currently working on is period film “Marmayogi”, which sees a reunion of sorts between him and Kamal Haasan. “Well, this is first time I’m working with him when he’s directing earlier, he was a spectator to the process, whereas now, his own taste and essence is emerging,” he says. And how is that working out? Rahman says with a chuckle, “I think it took us a while to tune up, but now we’re vibing!”
He describes it as a “period movie that’s contemporary in every sense, with a ‘300’-ish quality about it.” Then there’s Gautam Menon’s “Chennaiyil Oru Mazhaikalam”, Shankar’s “Enthiran”, “Ravan”, Subhash Ghai’s “Yuvraj”, not to mention Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” that just won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. . Whew! And that’s not even the entire list.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, I work on three different planes now with Tamil, Hindi, and international projects,” he says, adding ruefully, “So it’s like I’m trying to keep everyone happy. My kids are growing up as well and I need to spend more time with them. It’s hard, sometimes exhausting, but all the love I receive keeps me going.”
Indeed, he does look tired, but he poses obligingly next to a pair of keyboards, a mixer and a recorder mounted on the wall of his office as we wrap up the interview. That set of equipment has a special place in his heart, it turns out it’s what he used for his breakthrough hit “Roja”. “I used it all the way up to ‘Vande Mataram’,” he says, as I get a few goosebumps at the thought that I’m looking at a little piece of cinematic history.
Then, although it’s nearly 9 p.m., it’s back to the studio for him — “Ravan” awaits.