Earlier this month, I found myself roaming the streets of Dimapur, a nondescript, dusty city in Nagaland whose youth is fanatical about all forms of metal—white, death, thrash, speed; the heavier the riffs, the better. Posters of an upcoming White Lion concert were plastered all over town but there was no sign of Bollywood. Hell, the place didn’t even have a movie hall. I bumped into a mobile download store at every corner—you could even download tones at the local paan store. So it was surreal when I saw a kid blast the Yuvvraaj number Tu Meri Dost Hai off his mobile
Every year, there’s an anthem that endorses A.R. Rahman’s talent. This year there were several, including the one our young man in Dimapur downloaded. Sixteen years into his career as a composer, 2008 turned out to be a watershed with the largest number of Bollywood releases till date for Rahman. He also launched KM Music Conservatory (KMMC) to train students in Western and Indian classical music soon after he launched his label KM Musiq. The fee is hefty but the composer has made sure there are grants and subsidized packages for deserving students. Rahman even engaged KMMC faculty in film soundtracks this year. So, Kavita Baliga, who teaches vocals, did the operatic parts in Guzarish from Ghajini and V.R. Sekar with Elidh Martin, who teach the cello, are featured in the soundtrack of Yuvvraaj. I’m sure students will show up on soundtrack credits soon.
I remember Rahman sounding like an expectant dad as 2007 wound to a close—he was happy to announce that he had a slew of releases lined up for the new year. Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na had been held up over for a little more than a year due to production snags; Jodhaa Akbar, which was under production, had been pushed from 2007 to 2008; a Subhash Ghai project was yet to be titled (Yuvvraaj); and there was Ghajini. Dilli 6 made it to his list as well but it is still under production and is now slated to be a 2009 release. Ada: A Way of Life and Slumdog Millionaire were the two big surprises.
WithAda, Rahman, the geek that he is, opened himself up to a tech innovation: He allowed virtually anybody to remix two numbers (Gulfisha and Gumsum) off the film’s score via Nokia’s XpressMusic website. It was another first for Rahman, another leap into the future. Gulfisha, sung by Sonu Nigam, made a lot of noise but soon made way for the bigger hits in Abbas Tyrewala’s directorial debut.
Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na was an album cut for mass hysteria. Rashid Ali, who played the guitar in a jazz quartet at pubs in London, turned into a phenomenon with Kabhi Kabhi Aditi as did Benny Dayal, who sang the sassy Pappu Can’t Dance Saala. This year reconfirmed that Rahman is a terrific headhunter. His formula is simple: He needs to hear magic when the singers go behind the mike. Exactly the way an actor transforms a scene dynamically when he steps into the frame. It doesn’t matter if the guy has lost a talent hunt (Naresh Iyer) or is a music teacher in Suriname with no claim to fame (Madhushree).
Rahman’s range as a vocalist expanded with each film too. If he surpassed himself with his tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Guru’s Tere Bina in 2007, there was Khwaja Mere Khwaja from Jodhaa Akbar which made the qawwali accessible again.
And he kept innovating. Who would have imagined that he would direct the Chennai String Orchestra to magnificently pull off Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Prelude in Yuvvraaj? The script allowed for lusty Western classical departures; sometimes film-makers such as Ghai and Mani Ratnam (I can’t wait for Raavan where Rahman and Ratnam reunite—it’s as thrilling as Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson every single time) are known to tweak their films around Rahman’s music. O.P. Nayyar and Naushad commanded such respect in the 1950s and 1960s but few composers have thereafter.
Rahman has been accused several times of repackaging and re-recording his older tunes for a new audience. Even in doing so he’s managed to increase his fan base. Surely, few in the north would have picked up the soundtrack for Alaipayuthey but many must have enjoyed the soundtrack of Saathiya, the Hindi remake, as much or even more. Surprisingly, he hasn’t taken a single track off the hit Tamil OST for the Hindi version of Ghajini. Guzarish and Behka from the Aamir Khan-starrer are catchy melodies with Rahman teaming up again with Rang De Basanti collaborator Prasoon Joshi to sweep the charts.
Slumdog Millionaire was a quick, quiet release. Rahman wrapped up the project in an astounding two months for Danny Boyle, collaborating with M.I.A.—the UK-based Sri Lankan wild child. Like Rahman, M.I.A. broke into the mainstream with her inimitable vocal style and razor rhythms. She spent her early years in Chennai and returned to record parts of her smash-hit second album, Kala, in Chennai, inevitably landing up at Rahman’s AM Studios to fine-tune it. She told me last year how she, like the rest of the world, had been blown away by Rahman and hated Gwen Stefani for grabbing her idea of redoing a Rahman hit. Stefani, she says, used the rhythm section of Ottagatte Kattiko, a Tamil hit from the 1990s flick Gentleman, in her debut Sweet Escape. Slumdog was M.I.A.’s cash-in time. Not only did the soundtrack include Paper Planes, the knockout number from Kala, M.I.A. also recorded O Saya with her idol. The track is a megajam with dark tribal beats and Rahman’s chant-style vocals playing over M.I.A’s gritty rap. And Rahman rewrote music history again when he completely redid Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai as Ringa Ringa. So it isn’t surprising that the soundtrack has snagged a Golden Globe nomination.
As the world fell apart around us, Rahman raised his voice against terror with Jiya Se Jiya, a robust number that draws from Rajasthani and Punjabi folk with percussionists from across the globe, including Sivamani, in his brand new solo album, Connections. The video that shows free huggers walking around various parts of the country is as emotionally- charged yet simple. Oh, and he also did the rousing theme song for the new Champions League T20 series with some power chords and Jamaican influences thrown in. Looking back at all that’s happened this year, it’s sometimes hard to believe that Rahman is one individual at work. But every single victory of his is somehow personal for all of us. The Slumdog OST has two tracks in the Oscar longlist for Best Original Song. Can ARR win? You know the answer.
Lalitha Suhasini is a willing listener if you’re playing something original or have an original excuse to do covers. She was formerly an assistant editor with Rolling Stone India.