Why A.R. Rahman feels blessed
The maestro acknowledges the love and respect he has earned from fans worldwide and hopes they will tune in to his dream project for a cause, One Heart: The A.R. Rahman Concert Film, out in UAE theatres on Thursday
By Enid Parker
Published: Tue 29 Aug 2017, 5:18 PM
Last updated: Mon 23 Oct 2017, 5:03 PM
Grammy and Academy award winning musician A.R. Rahman, arguably India's most famous export, is known to be somewhat reticent off-stage, but was in top form when he dropped into Khaleej Times today to talk about his new film One Heart: The A.R. Rahman Concert Film, impressing us all with his humility, insightfulness and sense of humour.
The versatile and soft-spoken artist (who doesn't appear to take his 'celebrity' tag too seriously) chatted animatedly about One Heart, which is not only the name of his upcoming film but also a foundation he began which benefits older musicians and funds musical education, Rahman's intention here being, he says, to elevate the profession of 'musician' to an acceptable and respectable status in society.
You are celebrating 25 years of your musical career. How does the journey feel?
It feels like the first year! Because the role is changing. I've done things as a composer and as a filmmaker, now we are producing this film One Heart, and also forming the One Heart foundation.
Everyone's excited as if it's the first year of my career! It's my first time in a movie. It started like an instinct two years back. In Austin, Texas, we had two days of concerts and I felt the energy was great, we had great musicians, and we might not have the same energy, it might be better or worse (laughs) later. Let's document it. So we got cameras and recorded it, and then everything fell into place. We got a producer and then our Ym movies producer felt this should be a movie and the money should go to the foundation I've been wanting to do for five years. The success of the movie is the success of the foundation.
You are facing the camera in a different avatar in One Heart. Can we hope to see you in any movies in the future?
No, only these kind of films, where I'll be playing myself (laughs). And this I'm comfortable with because for a long time now I've been doing music videos, playing myself and so I'm more aware of how to do that now - like if I need another take or something.
How easy or difficult was it to choose just a few songs to incorporate in this film, from your vast repertoire?
We had 30 songs originally, and I wasn't even willing to watch it because it was so much of material. Our producer suggested that we get Nasreen Munni Kabir, who does movies for the BBC, and who wrote my book A.R. Rahman: The Spirit of Music, to edit this movie. She knew exactly what to extract. So she picked the right ones and we tweaked a bit and it seemed to have found its narrative and story. It's not a formulaic film or a concert film, it's a new kind of film.
From working in different film industries in India, to gathering accolades abroad, you have achieved so much in the past 25 years - what is it now that you are looking forward to?
When I started out as a musician, to express myself, I just wanted to do music albums. But in India I think it's more convenient doing movies, and I had to change myself a bit to adapt to that. So as time has gone forward, I have reached a point where there is a lot of fame and a lot of energy and I am trying to connect things, because when I travel abroad and I see music education and musicians' benefit funds and all those things, we have a lot of things which could be done properly in India. This film, One Heart, is actually an initiative - and that is the intention that drove me to do this movie - that its success, whatever it is, will fund the One Heart foundation, which is meant for older musicians and to promote music as a serious profession. This is a profession which never gets due credit in society, no one considers it as a profession at all.
You're considered a serial innovator - is it a blessing or has it become a struggle?
If you are born with that kind of a quality or you develop that kind of a quality, you end up finding yourself. You can never stagnate. You always find a way to come out of it. I was talking recently about changing things in film music, where you are probably in the heirarchy, number six or seven, there is a script, director, actor, actress, producer - the composer comes after all these elements. So if we want to do something, it has to be a team effort. So that's the reason I started the company Ym Movies, to make musical movies, so I can do things which I can never explain to other people - make the movie to suit the music, create a script, a platform for that. And One Heart is the beginning of that journey.
A lot of people don't see music as a profession. You being a role model to a lot of people, how do you want to change that perception?
This problem is actually a universal one, but India being a very musical country, it seems more pressing. The foundation, and a conservatory that I created almost ten years ago, these are small steps. I started them but I'm sure many young people will take it forward, because they are smarter than me (laughs). And this is just a seed I've sown, which has the blessing of all the love I get from people.
You used Intel's Curie based technology to make music at the Consumer Electronics Show 2016 in Las Vegas. Do you think there will a time when musicians will make music without instruments?
An instrument is just a tool. So if you take someone like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, he's playing the guitar and he has made it into an Indian classical instrument and it's just a means, and it's about how you bring what is inside in your soul, and there's no barriers between that. It's like being a vocalist. There would be a time maybe when they crack all this stuff!
Do you have a message for teens who want to make music a career?
Music is a great profession if you take it up. You bring respect to it. Each of us have to bring respect to it so people take us seriously.
Do you prefer singing or composing?
Composing - because there's more scope to boss people around (laughs).
How important is sound to your performance?
Sound is everything. It reflects our energy, it magnifies what we are trying to do. So if it's bad, it spoils the whole show.
How do you go about picking young talents to perform with?
When I started it used to be such a rarity, I never could find someone with a unique character. Now people have opened up and they are not shy to display their talent on YouTube or wherever. So I go to YouTube, and actually there are many ways to find people like this.
Do you do concerts with a view of giving young people a break, because for them it is a huge opportunity...
And vice-versa! Because by using them we also get a new vital energy boost. Seeing them we kind of remember how we started. So it's not like a retirement house! So it's like, okay, 25 years, now what am I going to do. When they start playing like that we get our youth back.
How do you find peace?
I think that's the only gift I got in life more than music, to calm myself and to find spirituality. So once I got that I never lost it - it's been sustaining me and reflecting in me and all the music which comes out is actually the result of that.
Do you meditate?
Yes, I can meditate wherever, I can close my eyes and meditate right now (laughs).
Do musicians ever get depressed?
Always. If you don't find an audience for your songs (laughs). That's a clue for all people, just come to theatres and watch our film!
Many people feel Bollywood music was better in earlier decades...
I always feel like that. When I came I said '60s music is better' then it was '70s music is better'. Old is gold. I think it's not about the music, it's about how we remember that music - what part of our lives is associated with those songs. It's very hard to judge now - there are thousands of movies being made. How can you just close your eyes and say everything's bad or everything's good? Sometimes when I work on my music, I never want to listen to anything else, even my own music, because after hearing so much, sometimes you need to be in silence to judge.
What are your personal favourites to listen to?
I always like listening to classical music - Hindustani Carnatic, Western. There's a purity and a wealth of different things that you learn - which is kind of timeless.
How do you go about your vocal productions?
Those days Lata ji used to rehearse for eleven days and then sing a song, I sing a song in twenty minutes. But the problem is in twenty minutes there might be some notes out of tune. We don't have that patience anymore! Sometimes I get a singer and then we jam together and then we record it for three days. That has happened also. So when you spend very less time in singing, you want to correct those notes electronically.
RAHMAN ON HAPPINESS
Happiness is one of the biggest strategies of the Dubai government. So what makes a musician happy? "Happiness is in our mindsets. You can easily get depressed if you read news today. I believe that you should give hope to people by balancing the bad news with something hopeful. I was reading an article about how there was more violence in the earlier decades than now but we feel like the whole world is burning now, because of all the information that comes to us today. Music and India can play a great part in creating peace and calmness of mind. A society with inner peace progresses and reflects it much more."
ON HIS LOYAL FAN FOLLOWING
A. R. Rahman commands such a loyal following that at the recent IIFA Awards in New York, despite technical glitches and a constant drizzle, the audience refused to leave their seats, chanting for the maestro to come on stage. How does Rahman react to this love? "I feel really blessed, and also responsible. We have so many challenges when we do live shows. Sometimes the whole sound system may not arrive or an engineer may not get a visa, and here all the engineers who rehearsed never got visas, so we had to replace them! The audio systems failed. So there were so many challenges and we don't want to let people know all that - we're just like, smiling, and performing like 'everything is cool, don't worry' (laughs). That's what happened - it was a very challenging performance."
ON BEING A 'PAN INDIAN MUSICIAN'
"I never planned anything. I just went with the flow. I didn't refuse any opportunities, like England or Hollywood. I always thought, there is a call, you don't know why it's coming, you'll find out later. It's also about learning other things. I was an Academy member and I interacted with the world's best cameramen and directors and the learning process is much bigger than being pigeonholed as just a composer or a singer. And people see you as an all- round artist."