Articles - Stories | Ramgopal Varma on AR Rahman and Rangeela's music

I was making a Telugu film called Kshana Kshanam with a first-time music director called Keera Vani, now known as M.M.Kreem. One day at the recording studio while we were having lunch, Rickey, a rhythm programmer working with M.M.Kreem at that time, mentioned to me that I should work with this very talented keyboard player called Dilip. That was the first time I had ever heard of A.R.Rahman.

I didn’t take Rickey seriously. Much later when I happened to listen Roja’s songs at Mani Ratnam’s home, long before the film released, I was blown away with the sheer originality of the songs’ orchestration and tunes. I immediately wanted to sign him for a film I was making with Sanjay Dutt called Nayak, and for Rangeela. But my investors preferred Anu Malik, as they felt the success of the music of Roja’s dubbed version was a fluke, and that this kind of music would not work in Hindi.

The very fact that A.R was not signed by any top Hindi filmmaker after Roja is proof-enough, they reasoned. They said that Anu Malik was at the top of his form after Baazigar, and that we would get a much bigger price for the audio.
I bartered with them that I will sign Anu Malik for Nayak if they allowed me A.R for Rangeela. They agreed, but the plain truth behind it was that they were not really interested in “Rangeela” as Sanjay Dutt post “Khalnayak” was a much bigger star than Aamir at that time. After 20 days of shooting for Nayak Sanjay got arrested in the serial blast case and the film was shelved. (Much later the script of Nayak I made it as Sarkar).
Before A.R, I have worked with Ilayaraja, M.M.Kreem and Raaj Koti, and knew on a personal level many other music directors and their working styles.

What struck me first when I met A.R was the incredible dignity with which he carries himself. There is neither an iota of arrogance nor a halo of pride which success invariably brings to people. After telling him the story of Rangeela, I showed him references of some Hollywood musicals, and described to him the visual style I was planning to capture the film in. Once he went through the situations, the compositions he came up with used to surprise me, though not always pleasantly. That is because his tunes were so original in his interpretation of the emotion of a situation that a conventional ear will take time to let it sink in.

That I think is the reason one tends to like his music more and more as one listens to it again and again. A case in point is the Hai Rama song where my brief to him was that I wanted to shoot an erotic number, wherein more than the romance I wanted to capture lust in Urmila’s and Jackie’s faces. I said to him that when animals have sex they are not ashamed, or feel shy, as they are so completely lost in their own feelings for each other, and hence do not care about where they are and who is watching them. The visual of Urmila and Jackie circling each other in the Kuldhara ruins of Rajasthan was the key image I gave him.

After the brief I was subconsciously expecting him to come up with a tune, something on the likes of I Love You (Kaate Nahin Katthe Yeh Din Yeh Raat) in Mr. India. What he came up with was the Hai Rama tune, which sounded to me like some classical Carnatic raga, and my first reaction was that he had lost his head.

But when I kept hearing it, it grew on me like an obsession, and I finally said that we will go ahead with the tune even though I was still unsure, deep inside, of how it would fit into the situation. But when he finished the entire track with the orchestration it was beyond my wildest imagination that an erotic song can be made to sound like that. He captured the intensity of the eroticism and the purity of its feeling in the beginning alaap, the cello themes, and through the wild tablaas which elevated the effect of the images I created, many times more than what they would have been otherwise.

One other trait I noticed about the difference between A.R and other music directors is that where the others pretty much dictate to the musicians and the singers about what they want, A.R interacts with them; in a manner of making each and every one of his solo musicians and singers feel as if it is their song and not his, thereby placing the onus on them to feel from within to get the best out of them. This I have never ever seen remotely practiced by any other music director.

Whereas most music directors record the final track first, with all the orchestration and get the singer to dub the last, A.R invariably gets the singer to dub on a base rhythm track first and does the orchestration later, as he wants the orchestration to rise from the depth of the feeling in the singer’s voice. That’s the reason why with every one of his tracks you can’t recognize where the music ends and the voice begins, and vice versa. Each and every instrument is made to be played with the same emotional depth as that is in the singer’s voice.
Not knowing technicalities of music I would think the phenomenon of A.R owes not only to his obvious talent but also to his incredible patience, focus, and dedication towards a song he is creating. The moment they finish recording a song, most music directors forget about it and move on to whatever else they are doing. A.R invariably keeps revisiting his song and effecting changes onto them (Read it as sculpting and polishing). Until a time the tracks have to leave for the audio company, he treats each and every song of his like his own daughter whom he is preparing for a marriage with the listener.

Also, A.R is the only artiste I have met who does not have creative arrogance. I mean that he never defends his work if it were to be criticized. He was recording The spirit of Rangeela theme in Chennai while I was shooting in Mumbai. When he sent the track to me I didn’t like it, at first hearing. Not just me but the entire unit didn’t. I called A.R and told him that it was not working. Without a second’s pause he said he will work out something else, and this he said after having worked on the track for more than a week.
As I was playing the spirit theme in my car over and over again, at some moment it hit me like a thunder bolt, and I told him that I must have been out of my mind not to have liked it in the first place. He smiled and said “I knew you would like it eventually”.

The aesthetics of his song tracks are beyond compare to any other music director’s. What I mean by aesthetics is, if the melody is the story, the various instruments and the way they are recorded, played, and their inter-volume levels and tones would be like art direction, cinematography etc. So purely in melody one might still feel a difference in their own individual favourites, of what they like more and what they like less, but his aesthetics are always perfect irrespective of the overall effect of the song.

I can never forget a line of Rahman’s, which he said to me while at his studio, “I’ve decided that whatever goes from here has to be good”. He said it with neither arrogance nor extreme confidence. It was just so very simply said just as a decision he took and that single sentence made me understand A.R’s greatness, more than his music itself. I have known many including myself who said, thought, and wished the same, but with the exception of A.R I have yet to meet a single man who practiced it and continues to practice it.

Jai Ho!