Interview: AR Rahman reveals composing secrets

For hit movie-score composer, Hindi is about ‘a simple vibe’, Tamil about experimentation, and Hollywood about pleasing a gang of ‘accountant-type’ people
Last Updated 14 December 2018, 19:10 IST

A R Rahman is touring again, and the first concert this season will be in Bengaluru on December 22.

India’s most high-profile movie music composer was in town on Monday. He missed his flight, and took another: it turned out to be a packed day, with interviews lined up at the Sheraton Grand in Rajajinagar.

In a one-on-one with Metrolife, he spoke about the challenges of performing live and his evolving style.

How challenging are live shows for you, since you began as a studio musician and composer?

Over years, little by little, people can change. When I first started it, it was terrifying and It was almost as if I was going to kill myself there… a mob of people were going to come and attack me. But when everything is organised well and the promoters do their homework and they do it well, we have a whole team in tune. When people come in, they are half sold. They want to see their favourite artiste. You have to be honest, and the rest of the 50 per cent is what you do. Over years, refining, refining, refining… we have an amazing set of musicians and singers, who we are really proud of.

How do you find the time to rehearse? You must already have a recording schedule that doesn’t allow you too much time....

We have done so many concerts, we have a set of 70, 80, 90 songs that all these musicians know. If any new musician comes in, we have to go and rehearse again. For that one musician, we all have to play again. For that one musician, we have to play again, and everybody understands. When Mohini plays, and sometimes goes for international gigs, another girl comes, and we rehearse. When Ranjit Barot had a European gig with John McLaughlin, Louis Banks’ son (Gino) played with us and we had to rehearse the whole thing.

Looking at your career, since the 1990s, when you made a spectacular debut with Roja, and then went on to make films like Thiruda Thiruda, and you look at your more recent films like 2.0, how do you think your style has evolved and changed?

Some of the stuff remains the same. Take melodic stuff, I still want to do songs in ragas that haven’t come out before, and try to master a little more. But you know the sound keeps changing. There was EDM, there was dubstep, rap, and people are hearing all that, you can’t say, ‘I won’t do all that.’ If I don’t give it to them, they are going to hear it somewhere else. It is important for me to adapt and embrace it in my own way.

Does it come at the cost of melody?

There’s always melody. If the film has the option, there is melody. Every person is a fan of melody. The other things are also necessary. People are making movies, and the music has to cater to the movie, and what the character says. You can’t say. ‘No, even though it is modern, I’ll make retro.’ They’ll kick you out (laughs). You have to evolve and at the same time retain the integrity you have.

How do you approach a film? Does the language determine how you do it? Is there a Tamil way of making music and a Hindi way of doing it?

Hindi has a more simple vibe, I think. The more simple, the better it is in Hindi. If the lyric drives the song, they are very happy with simple songs, simple beautiful songs. Here, people are always thirsty for newness, they are like, ‘What is he going to do?’ That is great. That thirst is what makes you push: ‘Let’s see what happens now. What they say now.’

How does Hollywood work?

It depends on each director. Certain directors allow you to work... Danny Boyle, Lasse Hallström. And the mainstream movies are always about a gang of people coming in… like corporates, accountants-type of people who come in and dictate, ‘This music is not working’ (in an American accent). There are like 12 people coming and attacking you. In a good way, they go over the top when they like it. Because the first thing they can fire is a musician. The other stuff is all on film. So the risk is higher. So I had my enjoyment, and I am doing my own films.

Does that constrain your style?

Nothing is easy in life. Everybody has challenges. I have my own challenges. It’s trying to be truthful to your work.

You were part of a band called Superheavy. How do you look at the state of non-film music in India? Independent musicians and bands don’t get airtime on FM radio.

I personally think it’s going to take off very big. The time has come. People have also learnt so much. Before they were naive. And what has to stop is doing Western covers and Indian covers, and slowly trying to sharpen songwriting skills. Do music that is relevant to society, relevant to what is happening now. Songs are more like that, give fresh perspective, newness, and definitely it will work…. The energy that comes in film is because many minds come together. There’s the composer, and I’m just probably 25 per cent of the game, Lyricist, director, producer, so they put energy, money, everything in marketing and creating this stuff. But for an indie musician, everything has to come from within, till things change.

Now that the CD is dead, where do musicians not featured in films go?

So, again, be your own and be relevant to society. When you are relevant, people come to you. There’s something called publishing, where they pick up songs that are great, and they use them in films, campaigns, ads. When you made a great song, and it becomes a part of the culture, these are the things that take you forward. People are streaming freely. But how good is your emotional impact? That will make people adapt to you. That is the game changer.

Are there things you as a musician would like to do, but haven’t been able to do?

My dream is to create a full orchestra. It is coming true but very slowly. We have a chamber orchestra and we have brass. Slowly we are building a native Indian symphony orchestra. With underprivileged and privileged Indian children. Indian is always there, but we don’t have Western, which is important because of harmony. How we use them in movies. Otherwise we go abroad and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars…. Our film company Via Movies is trying to make musical movies that are relevant and edgy. Our first movies are coming out.

You used to come to Bengaluru to play and program music for Kannada films in the late ‘80s.

Correct. I was arranging for a composer called Vijayanand, and in my very first movies, I used to play for Vijayabhaskar. And then Ravi Shenoy. Vijayanand was making music for Dwarakish’s films. I was a music assistant, and it kind of helped me to learn. Also, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil, everything was in Chennai. This was at the point it moved, and we came in. I love all languages. When I come in, I can understand if you speak Kannada.

What is your connection with Bengaluru? The last time your music was played here by a German orchestra, and you couldn’t come.

Yes. The audience is amazing. There’s so much love. I remember the first concert, when it was raining, and people didn’t want to go home. We said we will do it even if we get electrocuted.

And the rain stopped.

Yes. It was memorable.

(A R Rahman will be performing on December 22 as a part of One Heart Tour (promoted by Vonamor Media) at Ozone Urbana. Tickets are available at

(Published 11 December 2018, 13:35 IST)

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