The Rolling Stone Interview: AR Rahman
India’s most celebrated composer on spiritualism shaping his music, working with western orchestras and reinventing the Indian sound
I remember you mentioning how Andrew Lloyd Webber brought you out of your shell during Bombay Dreams.
I’d never been a part of a live performance that involved both acting and singing, though I’ve heard my father composed music for plays in the early Fifties or something.Â I would teach the singers in such a way that I’d look somewhere else and sing. I was such an introvert at that time.
Bombay Dreams had an interesting backstory.
Shekhar [Kapur] and I were trying to work on a musical called Tara Rum Pum Pum. We worked for a couple of years and finished a lot of numbers. Then, he had this huge opportunity of doing Elizabeth and he had to leave. It was frustrating but then I realised how important it was for him to become big. So I said I didn’t care about losing those ten numbers. But that’s when I think he probably felt guilty. And it was not a relationship like that ”“ when two artists meet, you realise that the vibe is much more beyond that. But then he met Andrew and Bombay Dreams happened.
How did Lord Of The Rings affect you?
I think I’ve opened up a bit more since the Lord of the Rings. I think there’s something really interesting there. I think with the whole trend going electronic now, going back to orchestral music was good for me.
What else did LOTR do for you?
It showed me how intense and deep a composition can be and intentionally so.
How do you strike a balance while composing music for films? You’ve delivered what the situation demanded but what if you’re not completely satisfied?
Mostly there’s lot of time to finish it how you want it to. And there’s the budget, too. Sometimes you have to fight and insist that this is going to work. People always have preset ideas: ”˜This won’t work here, this won’t work there.’ And very few people have the ability to adapt and make it work. Some people adapt and fail. Very few have mastered the technique of adapting. That’s when something extraordinary comes out.
Do you still fight it out?
Yes. Sometimes I don’t fight and go with the flow. Now I’m fighting even more than when I started out. That’s because sometimes you know that something is a mistake and you can’t let it go, and according to you it’s not right. Sometimes they respect that and when they don’t, it’s better not to work on that project.
It doesn’t come to that extreme, right?
It doesn’t usually. It’s probably five per cent of my work.
Sometimes clashes also bring out a good thing.
Ya, it’s good. It’s healthy to talk it out. If everything is accepted then there is no counterpoint. Like most Indian action films don’t even want a melody and then you have to fight for it. You have to prove that people love all this stuff and let’s give it in a way that they can accept it.
Did it help that a lot of your initial work was with Mani Ratnam?
Ya, he’s the kind who would adapt. That’s why most of my good work was with him. He used to adapt so much for music because he loved music. That’s the reason why working in LOTR was completely different. There was no taking good music and attaching it to the film. The story is so focussed on Middle-Earth.
What about your other international project ”“ Warriors of Heaven and Earth?
Warriors was an extraordinary situation. I was supposed to work with this world famous violinist called Joshua Bell. Sony Classical, the record company, wanted me to do this album. I met Joshua Bell and everything came through. We were supposed to do compositions inspired by the poetry of Rumi. And we composed one number and suddenly the head of Sony Classical had an idea that we do a film and use this music for the film, so that the music could be promoted better. The story of Warriors came to him and he put me onto these people. I am a great fan of Chinese films and I said OK but Joshua wasn’t interested. He said, ”˜Let’s do the project that we initially thought of.’ So working with him didn’t happen, but the film happened. But it was also when SARS came in and I was doing the music almost all alone because everybody was stuck in China without a visa. As a composer, Warriors introduced me to the big Western orchestra and the whole system of working on a symphony and working in Hong Kong with all the Chinese musicians. It’s the most ripped piece of music in my life. Every trailer that comes out of South India is inspired by it.
So how does that feel?
In a way I feel flattered but then you’re not being credited. That’s the reason we don’t want to release most soundtracks because it ends up in TV serials.
What does it feel like when you hear your own music playing on radio or someone’s system?
If it sounds good I feel good. If the mix doesn’t sound good then I’m like ”˜Oh my God what happened to the transfer?’ It always bothers me. A transfer can spoil the whole thing.
According to singers, you’re damn chilled out in the studio.
Except if I have a flight to catch. But ya, most of the time it’s like that.
You usually let them do their own thing?
I think it’s very important. There should never be the pressure of delivering while creating. If that comes into the song, then you have a very good song. That’s what people want to hear, the ease. It shouldn’t be forced creativity.