I'm at my best when I'm in control
Post the unequivocal success of RDB, with an international career beckoning, A R Rahman talks about his future
Subhash K Jha
How did Rang De Basanti's soundtrack become so popular?
It was a special effort. It's rare to come across filmmakers who fire you with enthusiasm as much as Mani Rathnam, Ram Gopal Varma and Rakeysh Mehra. Before shooting for RDB, we did a workshop with the music. I discovered there was a slow song just before the interval-a no-no according to trade pundits. But they were proved wrong. Earlier, I used to think that people would walk out if they heard 'Tu Hi Re' in Roja, 'O Paalan Haare' in Lagaan and now 'Lukka Chuppi' in RDB. But it all depends on how the director treats the music.
How did the music of RDB evolve?
It was conceived four years ago when I was doing The Legend Of Bhagat Singh. Since RDB was also partly about Bhagat Singh I was reluctant to do it. Then, RDB got delayed. Due to the patriotism over-dose within a 'period' film, we re-considered its entire structure. The first meeting was with Rakeysh and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, and we decided we were going to make all songs of RDB super hits.
There's always been something special from you for Aamir.
Like Mangal Pandey? (laughs). People did like the music and some of the songs. But my favourite 'Maula', originally meant to be in the whole climax, was chopped off after one stanza. There're so many factors that a composer can't control.
At the time, it seemed Hindi cinema had nothing more to offer you.
That's not true. Some films, like Abbas Tyrewallah's that I was banking on, got stalled. I was also travelling overseas. I had Bombay Dreams, then the stage version of Lord Of The Rings. I was excited about doing these new projects which I saw as a natural progression in my international career. And now I'm doing the background score for Shekhar Kapoor's Elizabeth 2, my first full-length score in a mainstream Hollywood production. Shekhar was keen on having me. There'll be original songs from the 15th century. I have even done the background score for a Chinese musical, and the background music for Jagmohan Mundhra's Provoked. Being a crossover film, I've tried to bring an international quality to the score.
Your music has achieved a crossover status which our cinema hasn't.
Providing the background score for Deepa Mehta's trilogy Fire, Earth and now Water was very satisfying… and yet it was a kind of sacrifice for me. The songs were put in the background. Most fans hate that. I've been rather unfortunate with some scores that never got released. I've become more careful of the projects I take up. If my songs get a raw deal I'd rather just do the background music.
Is doing the background score as satisfying as doing songs?
Unfortunately, the era when a composer could create something as durable and enduring as Lara's Theme (Dr Zhivago) is almost over. But I'm sure it will make a comeback. Internationally, my career took off after Bombay Dreams–it was an A R Rahman musical. And now I can compose for international projects from my home in Chennai.
You had once said that Chennai would always be your home.
You never know. I'm trying to cut down on my travelling. My kids are growing up and I need to be with the family more often. Now my kids are all over the place while I compose. It's important that they absorb the ambience. They've just started learning classical music from Ghulam Mustafa Khan Saab.
Your slow pace used to be a problem for Bollywood filmmakers.
How can my working methods be a problem to anyone? Every person has his own rhythm of work. Naushad Saab did only 47 films in his lifetime. He never regretted it and look at what he did to film music. I've my own way of working. It's a matter of priority. I'm at my best when I'm in control of my work. Of course, change is inevitable. That's why I keep innovating.
Rakeysh Mehra has asked you to do an entirely Indian classical score in Bhairavi.
Most of the work I'm doing is for musicals. There's also a period film in the offing-Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodha-Akbar. I also have Shyam Benegal's Chamki Chameli-a full-on musical. There's Raj Santoshi's London Dreams wherein I've to recreate British underground music…Punjab meets Southhall! I'm collaborating with music producers from Birmingham to understand the London underground score. At present, I'm doing Mani Rathnam's Guru, a partly period and partly contemporary film, where I'm again working with Gulzar Saab.
How was it playing in the US universities last month?
I played for Global Rhythms in Michigan and at the Utah University. These guys had been playing my music for a while, and wanted to do a world concert with me. We had 152 people on stage perform in Tamil, Hindi and English. Except for me, no one looked at the lyric sheets.
Do you think international success has eluded you?
It can't happen overnight. At the same time, I won't let my career in Hindi and Tamil films take a setback for projects abroad. Although my agent keeps insisting that I'd get a lot of work overseas, what I'm doing here is more important. I've invested a huge amount in my Chennai studio. Now, I need to invest time.
Himesh Reshammiya says he won't sing for any composer except you.
I'm flattered. He fills a lacuna in Hindi film music, just like Nadeem did earlier. He's trying to mix a lot of genres. People like his music. It's good. There're audiences for large genres of films. And he's doing a good job.
• "I've become more careful of the projects I take up. If my songs get a raw deal I'd rather just do the background music"