AR Rahman hates deadlines as much as he craves musical perfection, often driving filmmakers up the wall… An extract
It takes ages for work to actually begin at Rahman’s studio but when it does, the fingers fly. ‘Superfast’ is how the musicians who have worked with him describe him. While you are tuning your instrument, you have to leave an ear free to listen to the sequence of instructions from him. Rahman is a man in a rush, but hates to be rushed. He has no time on his hands and yet takes all the time in the world to get his songs just right. You have no choice but to wait. If you don’t like it, you can always walk out. Just remember, Rahman never forgets who put their faith in him and who pulled out, plus he hits the bull’s eye on the charts and in people’s hearts almost every time he plays.
Director Farhan Akhtar waited three months for Rahman to say yes to doing the music for Dil Chahta Hai only to finally hear a ‘no’. Farhan was at first dejected that Rahman didn’t sign with him but went on to work with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, with stupendous results. They beat Rahman at almost all the awards that year. Farhan continues to work with them. Rahman says he is happy for them because in the end he only gets what he deserves, what God wants him to get. “I am not a machine,” he says.
AR Rahman has always been called the great leveller in Kollywood. The joke doing the rounds is that in Tirupati, VIPs can pay a little extra and get ahead of the queue for a blessing. But not in Rahman’s studio. Here all men are equal, whether they are Ashutosh Gowariker, Mani Ratnam, Shankar or Shyam Benegal. They mill around for hours at the studio, waiting. And they know that most likely Rahman is not working on their tunes, that he may have finished or not even started yet…
Director Priyadarshan remembers Rahman calling him over to his studio one afternoon. He says Rahman took him to the studio upstairs and opened the door and suddenly shut it before Priyadarshan could see what was going on inside. “And then sheepishly he said to me, ‘Let us go downstairs and listen to the songs.’ I was curious but there was nothing I could say. When we were downstairs, after a while the door suddenly opened and Subhash Ghai walked in. He was apparently sleeping upstairs in the studio on the floor and that was why Rahman was so embarrassed.” Javed Akhtar, who was with Priyadarshan at the time, said he didn’t think that even in his struggling days, Ghai had ever slept on the floor, but now he had to! Director Govind Nihalani says he once waited seven days in Chennai for one song and that he has never learnt so much about anything in seven days as he did about Kollywood choreography, sitting in his hotel room and watching South Indian movies all day. “I hate his timing,” says Priyadarshan. “The songs get delayed and you never get things done on time. But that’s the thing about Rahman … if you can accept him, go to him.” Priyadarshan doesn’t any more because he needs his songs fast.
People do complain about the wait and occasionally a news story or two is written about it. Rahman was accused of being the reason for the delay of Bombay—originally scheduled for release in January 1995 but put off to March that year. Mani Ratnam ended up cutting out one or two songs from the movie because of the delay.
“Ten years in this industry have made me frustrated. I have evolved a technique that requires a lot of time. Other music directors record a song in eight hours. But I am different. We do a basic sitting and we record it. We then record the voice and then I add instruments to the track, one by one, to improve the quality,” says Rahman. Rahman first records the voice of the singer on the basic track and then adds various notes and tunes to fit into the song. He then mixes it with the rhythm until he has a synthesized whole. He keeps experimenting with new techniques in sound production. “I try to make every song of mine a masterpiece because one gets a song only once, and one should make it worth listening to for a lifetime.’
Rahman says he takes risks when he tries something different… “When you create music, you kind of immerse yourself in it. The joy is in getting lost within it, when you are in that particular zone. And I think the joy for me is in seeing the reaction in people. You remember the reaction better than the creation. Appreciation does count when you don’t get it often. And that’s when you realise the worth of it. Music needs to heal people, it needs to have a good vibe with people, it needs to become a zikr, like an incantation, that is heard by all the world and does something spiritually. There was a song I did for Kannathil Muthamittal, which is about bringing peace to Sri Lanka, which was in turmoil. And just two weeks later, I heard there were elections and there was peace there. I heard it after the song was released. It brought me joy. Now you know why I take time with every song,” Rahman says. He truly believes music is one thing that can connect people, bring them together as one.