Allah Rakha: Jai Ho!
He now seems to have mastered the art of facing reverse swing, learnt to hit straight, and instead of fielding at deep third man stands behind the stumps. That has been exactly a two-decade-long short journey of music maestro AR Rahman in the record books. Gone are the early tentative strokes and shying away from media bouncers. He is confidence personified on every ground. It was not too long ago that he was in the limelight for persuading superstar Rajinikanth (he had earlier also recorded the theme song, a different version, in Tamil to lend his voice for a duet with him in Hindi, penned by Irshaad Kaamil of Love Aaj Kal and Rockstar) for daughter Soundarya’s period drama in Tamil, Kochadiyaan—The Legend an animation film with cutting-edge special effect slated for a Diwali release in English, Hindi, Japanese and Telegu.
Still sometime earlier he surprised a big assemblage at a Mumbai five-star hotel with not only his presence but his entire family’s at a launch of an unusual autobiography, a sort of conversational narrative of his life journey , answering a set of questions, some short, some long. But the valiant attempt to put the subject’s life in a structured form, unfortunately, is like half-baked onions. At times, the questions are longer than the answers. And now yet again, by announcing a plan to set up a music studio-cum-academy (on the lines of Subhash Ghai’s ‘Whistling Woods’ (in news for wrong reasons) in Chennai for aspiring composers.
It is no doubt a rag to riches story, from a tentative beginner to a double Oscar winner, and a world famous composer now even being wooed by the West. Allah Rakha Rahman was born Hindu with the birth name AS Dileep Kumar to music composer of Tamil and Malayalam films, RK Sekar and Kasthuri (Kareema after husband’s death and conversion) on January 6, 1967. Allah Rakha Rahman embraced Islam in 1989, though not for entirely convincing reasons. He became an orphan at the young age of nine. His first earning of Rs 50 was from composer AT Ummer for operating a record player in 1981. Rahman was fourteen then. But by 1989 he was earning up to Rs 15,000 a month from jingles and bands. But at the same time he was getting restless and ambitious, desperate to be a full-fledged composer but then there was the towering Illayaraja who dominated Tamil cinema. He realised he would have to be different, come up with something that overrode the other guy’s score.
Like in the case of Bollywood protégé, the late RD Burman, Dileep’s music composer father, Sekar discovered when Dileep was barely five that he had an inherent sense of music and losing no time enrolled him under the tutelage of classical masters like Nithyanandan for Indian, and Dhanraj Master for Western, and later in Musee Musicals – a musical instrument shop that also held piano and guitar practicals from Jacob John. Apparently, Rahman wanted to be a computer engineer rather than a composer. He has confessed in an interview: “I was not crazy about music. I was more interested in technology.” In his formative years, in a five year phase he achieved fame for his single and was regarded as the fastest jingle composer, producing almost 500. He is a master of sound.
Rahman’s romance with jingles ended when he composed music for Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992) in Tamil for which he was paid a princely sum of Rs 25,000. It won him his first National Award for Best Music (the grapevine has it that the director and the composer spent nearly eight months inside the studio). He was barely 24. It is a different matter that he had been first signed by director Kathir with an advance of Rs 10,000 though the release of Ratnam’s preceded his. Since then he has composed music for roughly about 110 films in Tamil, Telegu, Hindi and English. His first Hindi film was Ram Gopal Verma’s Rangeela (95). The tally is more than 30. Globally, on rough calculation, he has sold more than 300 million records of his musical film soundtracks, including songs. No mean record by any standards. His tally of awards is not only formidable, but unparallel in the history of cinema anywhere in the world: Academy Awards (2), Grammy (2), BAFTA and Golden Globe – one each; 4 National, 15 Filmfare (Hindi), 13 Filmfare South Indian films, apart from numerous secondary ones. In 2009, Time listed him among world’s most influential people while in 2011 Songlines, a music magazine in the UK featured him amongst ‘Tomorrow’s World’s Music Icons’.
In 1992, he set up Panchathan Record Inn, a music recording and re-recording high-tech studio, which is also an extension of his Chennai residence. Reportedly, all work in the studio is in complete secrecy. No one except the boss knows for which film they are rehearsing a particular composition. According to biographer, Kamini Mathai: “The singers and musicians just go into the studio and do what they are told, the directors only find out when they are called in. Everybody usually finds out only when the CD is released. Sometimes the singers doesn’t know who or what they are singing for, which actor, what movie…” Whether it is a mere kink or religious or metaphysical reason will remain a mystery until the maestro comes out with the truth.
Rahman believes Arabic music has been influencing scores across the globe. Consciously or unconsciously every composer relies on sounds, tunes that were done by some other artist that lie dormant in his subconscious. Sometimes, even he consciously or deliberately borrows. For example, Rahman confesses: “When working on Guru, I thought why not write a song on the lines of Nusrat Saheb’s popular ‘Sajna tere bina?’ The feel of ‘Tere bina’ is similar to the original but somewhat transformed.” Because as a philosopher once stated: “There is nothing original in the world, everything is latent in the hemisphere.”
Apart from film scores, Rahman is always a big draw on shows abroad, though he admits to being nervous like a newcomer appearing for a job interview, no matter how confident or brilliant you are otherwise. Pray, what does he do in such situations? He is candid enough to admit to Nasreen Munni Kabir who did the conversational autobiography with him: “I close my eyes on stage if I’m singing ‘Khwaja mere Khwaja’, and disappear into my world. Keeping my eyes closed allows me to break free of the pressures and deadlines and be fully in the moment. Audiences seem to enjoy that. If I sing a lighter song like ‘Humma humma’, there is more interaction with the audience.”
In a career spanning a little over two decades as a full-fledged composer, A R Rahman is today an industry by himself, and is worth, according to unconfirmed reports, $280 million. And he is just 45 years of age. Wow!
By Suresh Kohli