Fifteen years after ‘Roja’

Excerpt from ROLLINGSTONE interview

THERE WAS SOMETHING ELSE AT WORK during Roja. This was, finally, a shot at freedom from anonymity, a passport to recognition. “I realised that it was not worth it doing commercials alone. You’re working so hard, but in front of the people, you’re nothing.” The movies didn’t exactly seem a cure for this existential malaise, because Rahman hated the films of the time. The only person he admired was Mani Ratnam. “And when I got the chance of working with him, it was, again, divine intervention. Once I got to know him as a person, I felt there was something special happening here.”

Rahman had to leave all his other work to get into what he calls the mind-frame of his new project. “I had to leave my film playing. I had to leave commercials. It was not easy because I used to get paid quite a lot of money at that time.” And Roja didn’t pay much. “The money which I got for six months’ work was what I used to earn in a day.” Still, a few freewheeling conversations with his inner voice convinced Rahman that he had to do this.

“Something inside told me that without sacrifices, nothing can come. You can’t have everything.” On the other hand, you can be left with nothing. That’s what it seemed like when Rahman handed in his tunes to the director. “He never reacts instantly. He just organically waits till something goes into him.” And two weeks later, when Rahman didn’t hear from Mani Ratnam, he thought, “Okay, that’s the end of it.” It was now going to be jingles all the way. And then – when he had lost all hope – he was told that his tunes had made the cut.

Fifteen years after Roja, Rahman finds that it hasn’t become any easier. “At that time, that sound was just mine. Now people are sharing that sound. So to do something is not just about a different sound anymore.” Also, during Roja, it was just stereo. “Now we need to think about 5.1, DTS, what comes out of this speaker, what comes out of that speaker – and still hold the song together.”

Hence the layering. Rahman’s compositions, over the years, have gotten more complex; where there were once various individual strands, these are now knotted into a dense skein. “That’s also because I have the option to work abroad. I can get the musicians I want. Like for Jaage hain from Bose, we used almost 130 people – an orchestra, a choir and all that.”

Rahman’s uniquely improvisatory way of creating music – layer by layer, block by block, as opposed to writing out the entire composition and then going about arranging it – is the stuff of myth now. But the way Rahman puts it, it’s the stuff of miracles. “Every time I sit for music, I try to destroy my ego. At the same time, I have a sense of pride, that if I do something, it has to be good. It’s unnerving. It’s a paradox. It humbles you – and you wait for the intervention of God. You say: Give me a tune please. I need to make this work.”

This channel of communication, unsurprisingly, works in mysterious ways. “Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake up, take a tape recorder and record a groove. Or just sitting somewhere, I get an idea.” Paathshala (from Rang De Basanti) was like that. The bursts of sound at the beginning came first. “CHAN… cha-cha-CHAN,” he sings. Then he goes to the studio and fine-tunes it.

Then again, maybe not. “Sometimes, you know it’s not happening, even if you sit there for hours. And you give up and say: when it happens, it happens.” This process can, of course, play havoc with film schedules. (Rumours have it that Rahman’s delays are behind Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar missing its release date this Id.) But Rahman says, “Well, they all know about my schedules. It’s not a bank job. We are all working towards something exciting. You make a movie over two years. So schedules can definitely be shifted around.”

Parents aren’t supposed to have favourites among their offspring, but Rahman’s eyes positively light up when he talks about Rang De Basanti. “Before Rang De Basanti, I was trying to balance my movies – from things like Bose or Swades to more commercial movies.” But all the commercial movies he signed got delayed, so what people heard was only Bose. And that was when Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra came in with yet another story involving freedom fighters. “I thought: I’ve already done Bose and The Legend of Bhagat Singh. So how do we make this different?”

By brainstorming a lot. “We made an effort to treat every situation differently. Like Sarfaroshi ki tamanna – it’s supposed to be the most ferocious anthem, and we did the opposite. We said: ‘Let’s make it sensuous. Let’s get Aamir Khan to do it.’ It was big energy, but an implosion rather than an explosion.” And when Madhavan dies, they tried to put another emotion parallel to that – a lullaby, so that people are not pushed to the edge.

“We said: ‘Every song should be a hit song.’ I know we say that for everything, but in this I think we were favoured by God.” The only apprehension that Rahman had was that Mehra never intended to shoot any of the songs in lip-sync, which would limit their association with a particular star during the television promos. “But the film was a great sensation, and all songs were accepted.”

So the process, apparently, is this: the tunes are a divine gift, which are then shaped by human hands. And ears. “When you are working with a team, they know exactly what to spot. What they want. So I don’t take the trouble of selecting the stuff. I just do the templates.” And if it so happens that the best template comes while servicing the worst director, then amen. So be it.

Read complete interview in RollingStone

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