EXCLUSIVE: Composer A.R. Rahman and Lyricist Mehboob Share Fond Memories on 25 Years of Rangeela
“The whole soundtrack was an experiment,” says Rahman about the 1995 cult film directed by Ram Gopal Varma
When it first released in 1995, it was hailed as the soundtrack of a generation. Twenty-five years on, Rangeela continues to evoke awe, admiration and reverence from both old and new listeners. It’s impossible to look back on the Ram Gopal Varma movie without composer A.R Rahman’s iconic sonic motifs running in your mind. Not to mention the poetic genius of Mehboob, who made his debut as a lyricist with this cult film.
It was perhaps the rare mix of a heartwarming story and an uninhibited, irreverent aesthetic, which made Rangeela a refreshing piece of cinema in the Hindi film landscape of the Nineties. The movie’s contribution in cementing the careers of a range of artists associated with the project cannot be overlooked either, be it actors Aamir Khan, Urmila Matondkar and Jackie Shroff or choreographer Ahmed Khan, lyricist Mehboob and costume designer Manish Malhotra.
In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Rahman and Mehboob reminisce about their first-ever collaboration and crafting a new sound on Rangeela.
Rangeela is one of the most timeless and dynamic soundtracks of all time, and it is especially noted for its ahead-of-its-time sounds. How did you go about building this project?
A.R Rahman: Composing the songs of Rangeela was like discovering something new. The soundtrack arrived very naturally and we didn’t feel the pressure for this movie, because I was enjoying the new company I had with Ramu (director Ram Gopal Varma) and Mehboob (lyricist). We would just talk and joke and we had fun — it was my kind of vibe. There was constant complementing and inspiration shared by all of us – Ramu, Mehboob and the choreographers Saroj Khan and Ahmed Khan. We learned a lot from the whole thing.
The first song that we worked on was “Tanha Tanha” and then came “Rangeela Re.” The most important decision we made was getting Asha Bhonsle ji to sing. Her voice brought something extraordinary to the music. It brought validation for it to really connect with everyone, the older generation and the new generation. She lent credibility to the soundtrack in a very, very big way, because Mehboob was new, I was new, Ramu was new, all of us were new. She brought that amazing credibility to the music, I would say definitely.
During scoring the movie, one of the things that stood out was Aamir’s yellow jacket, which I still remember I was stunned by. And the way he acted was brilliant. And Urmila was brilliant. And Jackie — I was a big fan of Jackie because I’d watched Hero and it was one of my favorite movies of Subhash Ghai ji.
A Jhamu Sughand, the producer of Rangeela, was an incredible person. He was also one of the producers of Bombay (1995). We became friends very soon and our families got close to each other too. He was a great inspiration and I never got a producer like that who was very kind and always had a smiling face.
Mehboob: I would say this film and meeting AR was a total lifechanging experience for me. And it was the first time I was introduced to a very new genre of music which AR created. The film had Aamir, Jackie and all those big stars So, I was very excited. And I think it took just one or two days for both AR and I to click together, and the rest is history. Fir hum karte gaye filmein. (Then we went to to work together on many films).
Were there songs that were more challenging than the others?
A.R. Rahman: I think the whole soundtrack was an experiment. Usually, nobody does a Bhairavi for the beginning of a song. Bhairavi is a raga which is used at the very end, but I didn’t know that information; I was like happy tuning “Tanha Tanha” in that raga. In a way, there were strains of Bhairavi constantly in it. So, that was an experiment. And then bringing in a very old school melody like “Rangeela Re” — it was a 1950s kind of thing. We just went by the instinct of this is right, it feels right.
Another complicated song was “Mangta Hai Kya.” I think that song freaked people out because they didn’t know what to expect and it was just going on, almost like a trip rather than having the proper mukhda, antara. I believe that some people said the song won’t work, but then once it was picturized, people were liked the novelty of it, they really loved it. The way Ramu picturized it was also very cool.
While narrating the story, Ramu had said, “I want something very sensuous.’ So I thought instead of making something cheesy, why don’t we use Indian classical and try something? That’s how “Hai Rama” came about. While composing “Rangeela Re”, we has used “Yaai re” as just a temp word but later kept it as a hook.
And Ramu being Ramu, he would always come and tell me how each one reacted to each song. He would say, ‘This is what Aamir did. And this is what Jackie did. This is what Urmila did. This is what the choreographer did.’ And it was fascinating because I never hear all these things. He would also tell me how each one reacted to the music first and how they reacted later. So it was really cool. I really loved working with Ramu on that movie.
Mehboob: For me, the most challenging song in the film was “Maangta Hai Kya”. The way Rahman sang the sang the tune and gave it to me, I was like ‘Kya likhoon?’ (I wondered what to write!) So, I went to Ramu ji’s place at 4 Bungalows in Mumbai and Ramu ji said, ‘Kuch likha?’ (Did you write something?) I said, ‘Ramu ji, it’s a very difficult tune.’ Toh Ramu ji bhi Ramu ji hain. (But Ramu ji is like no other). He said, ‘That’s why we got Mehboob to write the song.’ (Laughs). So he was challenging me. So I said, ‘Okay, wait. Give me half an hour.’ And I came out with these lyrics “Maangta hai, bolo.”
A.R. Rahman: I was a very big fan of Suresh Wadkar ji [who sang “Pyaar Yeh Jaane Kaise Hai” on the Rangeela soundtrack] because he had sung an Ilaiyaraaja song, “Aye Zindagi,” in the movie, Sadma (1983). The way he expressed in that song — I’ve never heard that kind of rendition in any other songs ever. And his accent was very cute. So, we got him for that song. Then, of course, there was Hariharan — he’s a revelation again. With Hariharan coming in and singing in a movie, and he’s a Ghazal singer. So, with Rangeela all that stuff was broken without any prejudice.
The movie marked a big milestone for all of you associated with the project. Tell us more about how much the film meant to you as your first Hindi soundtrack and how was response soon after the release.
A.R. Rahman: I remember it was Jhamu who had said, “I want your mother to release the audio.” I was like, ‘What? She’s never done all that before.’ He said, “No, no. Just bring her to the stage and let her release the audio.” So, it was very kind and sweet of him and we still have the photographs of my mother releasing the Rangeela audio.
And then comes the premiere (laughs). I think it was at the Eros Theater in town [Bombay]. And two people were blocked off by the security, saying, “Who are you guys? Get out.” Those two people were Ram Gopal Verma and I! So the producer came in and was like, “That’s the music director and the director, man. Just let them in” (laughs). It was fun! I was dressed in normal jeans and you know, whatever. So very casually… And then we learned a lot from the whole thing.
One more incident I remember is when I went to Bangalore… I always felt like Bangalore was this hip place and you know, we have all these young people around. And for the first time, I felt like every car was playing the Rangeela audio. So, it was such fun to anonymously just look at everything that was going on. And you could feel that vibration of music… what it did. I’m still not over that whole vibration. So these are the memories, I would say.
How does it feel to know that the Rangeela soundtrack means so much to so many people? There are countless artsits who have done their own versions of the songs…
AR Rahman: I’m very moved because that means the music has spread a lot. It’s a kind of validation for the music. And it’s probably the payoff that we all need in our work. We’re blessed that we do something different and it gets recognized. So I always feel grateful.
Mehboob: I’m very thankful to Allah and I’m very thankful to AR for accepting me as a lyricist. And Ramu ji, for basically giving me a break with this big film and believing in me. Hum likhte the, humne nahi socha kabhi ki yeh itna bada hit hoga. (I used to write but I never imagined that these songs would go on to become such big hits.)