A.R. Rahman and Ehan Bhat on the journey of '99 Songs'
The Oscar-winning composer talks about what inspired his writing and producing debut alongside debutant actor Ehan.
The mindset and ideology of a creative individual - be it a musician, a writer, an artist - is not always easy to discern or interpret. In fact many pass through life without scratching the surface of what such individuals are all about, what their dreams are and why it is so important that they be allowed to spread their wings and follow their dreams.
We remain entrenched, for the most part, in dated concepts of how we should live our lives, the ‘rules’ we should follow, while choosing an academic pursuit, a job, or even, at times, our friends and partners. But shouldn’t there be something more to life? The opportunity to evolve, and broaden our perspectives?
These are some of the thoughts that passed through my mind while engaged in an insightful and inspiring conversation with music composer, singer and Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman and his protege Ehan Bhat, about their new trilingual film 99 Songs, which revolves around the inspirational power of music.
Rahman credited his debut as a writer and producer with 99 Songs to the time he spent in Los Angeles post his Oscar win in 2009. Joking about “traveling and boredom”, he elaborates, “When I was working in Los Angeles, I was doing movies and there you just do one thing at a time. Unlike here, where I work on four or five films at a time. In LA, there was a lot of spare time to study, to take workshops… and also, looking at these two lives, the life in India, the life in Hollywood, I think I learned so much and felt - why can’t we tell these stories this way? Our way, and my way.”
Talking about how those experiences, as well as friends who were established directors and professionals, “provoked” him into thinking differently and branch out into writing, Rahman also gave a shout out to Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur.
“It (this project) was also the influence of Shekhar Kapur in my life; I’ve shared an apartment with him, I’ve hung out with him. There was a time when actress Brittany Murphy walked into my room. Shekhar introduced me, and I was praying or something and was like, what are you doing? Who is this girl? (Laughs). So the past 12 years have been fun, with those crazy people around. Shekhar is one of the biggest inspirations who actually in a way made me realize that I can also tell stories.”
Inspired by life
The story of 99 Songs, about a boy named Jay who adores both music and his girlfriend but is challenged by her father over his ‘inferior’ passion, is one that could well have many parallels in real life.
How often have we come across youngsters who are forced to take up academic or professional courses they have little or no interest in, due to parental and societal pressures? How often do they crack under the strain?
When asked if there was a particular incident that inspired the story of this film, Rahman reveals that it was based on “many things” and not just the story of a musician. “Of course there is a social question or social challenge which every artist faces. If somebody does music, it’s like ‘you’re good for nothing, go find a job, a steady one that pays your rent’. Things are now different. The world has changed. This is the old world we are talking about, which is not fully educated about what is happening in the artist’s mind, what challenges they go through and what good things they can have in the future if they invest their time with art.”
I am on ‘Cloud 99’
So, according to Rahman, times are changing. And he hopes his protege Ehan Bhat, who is making his debut in the pan-Asian 99 Songs (which will release in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu), will be one of the faces of these changing times.
The charming Ehan expresses his delight at making such an impactful debut. “I feel ecstatic and so elated to have my launch through A.R. Rahman. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And to have the film release in three languages and to have songs in each language, it’s such an overwhelming feeling, you know? I am just on ‘Cloud 99’, I would say!”
Ehan who was picked from many hopefuls wasn’t a trained musician prior to taking up the film. He shares, “I went to the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai and that’s when I saw the piano for the first time in my life! While I wasn’t inclined towards being a musician I had been a big listener of Rahman’s music all my life. His aesthetics were always different. A.R. Rahman would always be in my ears.
“In the beginning I was kind of taken aback. But when you’re doing Rahman’s film all you think about is that you have to cross boundaries, limits, you have to leave everything behind and wholly dedicate yourself to this project. Because he believed in me out of so many hopefuls.
“So it was my job to not disappoint him in any way. My friend and I spent nearly one year at the conservatory, polishing the craft of playing the piano and drums. I was trained under Surojeet Chatterji, who is more like a friend, a brother, and father figure to me. He guided me and taught me the keys and made me learn pieces with him. It was a beautiful journey.”
Explaining the process of going through numerous auditions and considering, then deciding against, a prospective lead star, Rahman admits that what he finally saw in Ehan was more than just his role as Jay in 99 Songs. “I was pretty tired and audition number 38 was Ehan and I’m like, who is this guy? Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy (my director) looked at me and said, he’s not trained sir. But I said, you are there, you are an amazing actor, director, you can shape him up. He looked at me, and said, really? (Laughs). That was the magic moment of deciding that Ehan is going to be the one. So we called up and said, sign this guy. We’ll train him up and get him to the conservatory. Because I think I was not looking at Ehan’s audition, I was looking at his future. I was imagining him in various other roles in other people’s movies, not just this movie and that triggered the decision to take Ehan.”
Respect for musicians
Ehan speaks about how his respect for musicians grew after working at the conservatory. “It’s so easy for us to just listen to a track, review it, criticize it and throw it into the trash. But once I entered the music conservatory I realized it takes so much effort to create that one song. It is a lot of hard work. I observed so many musicians, all their conversations were about music, tunes, songs, bands. I developed an immense respect for them after I got to know how they do their craft.”
Rahman chimes in, “I hope the people see the movie and get influenced by that!”
The maestro also touches on the challenge of working on the film’s 14 songs in different languages. “The movie in our opinion is universal because it deals with a life in music, and with the music we stuck to things that could work, pan-India. Also, this being a new cast and it doesn’t have (that’s what the industry sees) a name, big hero, big heroine, even the director is new, it is a big gamble for the production team. So they said, why don’t you try it in all three languages, because everybody loves your music. Roja, Bombay... if you look at all my early stuff it all came in three languages. We thought that’s fair enough; though it’s mainly a Hindi-language film, because it’s our production we wanted to make sure many things were tweaked to the regional feel of Tamil and Telugu. So if you look at the Tamil and Telugu versions the words also change sometimes, so that it doesn’t look like a dubbed movie but it feels more and more connected.”
What hopes does Rahman, who will creatively lead and mentor Expo 2020 Dubai’s all-female Firdaus Women’s Orchestra and create music for its inaugural performance, have for 99 Songs?
“Come with an open mind,” he says, adding, “Wear your mask and enjoy the movie with great sound! And ask your friends to come and watch it again and again because we lived with this movie for four years and never felt bored even once. I might have watched it, like, 45-50 times! It has a new voice, and if you like that voice, we’ll be very humbled.”
Ehan also signs off with the hope that fans in the UAE will show 99 Songs some love. “It’s a universal film and a visual treat. When we showcased the film at the Busan festival in Korea we got a really good response. People were screaming in the theatre, they were so delighted to see the film. I believe 99 Songs is a film that can be shown to the world and it can demonstrate how we can make films like Hollywood, from India. I hope when it is screened in the UAE people experience the same emotions.”
99 Songs releases this weekend in the UAE.
‘Art is something where people don’t understand what you are capable of’
99 Songs is about a boy whose passion for music is challenged by the father of the girl he loves. Many parents want their children to pursue conventional careers though that trend is changing now. Does this film mean to pass on a message to viewers?
A.R. Rahman: I think it deals with multiple things - music, art, humanity. I was coming from Los Angeles and at one of the lounges in Dubai I saw two people, a girl and her mother. The girl said, we are going for my brother’s funeral. They were doctors. She said, we wanted my brother to become a doctor but he was more attuned to music. We kept pushing him and he committed suicide. This shocked me. If somebody wants to do something, believe in them, invest in them. You don’t want to lose someone. Give them the freedom to do what they want to do. Support them and they will fly. Art is something where people don’t understand what you are capable of. They expect results which are going to happen 10 years later, at the first stage. A baby can never have solid food, it can have only milk in the beginning. So imagine that baby is growing into a young man like (our debutant) Ehan, that’s how we should see the future. You need to invest your time, be persistent, then believe that things will work out.