Some might find it debatable but the Oscar win has done A R Rahman good. Once uncomfortable with spotlight, the music composer has now made peace with the attention he receives. So, he is able to let his hair down during the shoot of a promotional video for his next release, Highway, and enjoy it even. In an interview with TALK, the talented composer talks at length about his working style and gets candid about the recent criticism his music has received.
After Rockstar, you’ve teamed up again with Imtiaz Ali for Highway.
Imtiaz and I first met to discuss music for Rockstar after his Socha Na Tha released in 2005. Back then, John Abraham was cast in the lead but the project was shelved and we went our ways. We met again after Love Aaj Kal; Imtiaz felt he had matured enough to tackle the subject and was ready to make Rockstar. The few songs we had earlier worked on were never used because the vision had changed for the better.
Imtiaz’s desire to make a wholesome product is what excites me. Also, he is flexible about the kind of music to be used and doesn’t come with a pre-decided length for a song, saying he needs a, say, 4.28 minute-long track, which is also how Mani Ratnam or Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra work.
Rockstar’s music was different. Part of the film’s story was in the songs, only swatches of which were in the film.
How was the concept devised?
Yes, with Rockstar, those who knew the music well also understood the film better. It was a unique experiment and Imtiaz’s idea. The biggest challenge was to make a movie about a rockstar that doesn’t ape the West; it’s something that had to also reflect in the music. I give it to Imtiaz for pulling it off so well.
How important a role does the director play in your music?
It’s important that a filmmaker be someone whom I can learn from, or that we can learn together, because whatever music I have created is already old, consumed. I need to evolve to create something fresh that excites me and the audience. I can achieve that only if the director and I take that journey together.
Do you need to connect with the film’s characters to do justice to the music?
No, I make sure I am in and out of the characters’ mindspace and don’t entirely immerse myself in it. That helps add a new layer to the music — make it complex, which is more interesting.
One approach to making music is Mickey Mouse-ing it, dumbing it down so that if the character is sad, the music should also sound that way. The other is thinking out of the box and using a different approach. I love it when music can communicate directly yet not be too abstract. For instance, once Mani Ratnam asked me to compose a marriage song for Bombay. I tried typical tracks, but nothing worked. Mani then said let’s do a sad romantic song, a request that surprised me in context of a marriage sequence. That song was Kehna Hi Kya.
Highway travels across different states. Did you have to imbibe the cultures in order to make the music?
For some songs, we have used a region’s soundscape while for others, we have utilised the character’s internal journey as a map. Maahi Ve is one such song. So we have used sounds from Punjab, another that could have been connected with Haryana has transformed to more futuristic soundscape. One song has Kabir’s poetry that Shweta Pandit has rendered. There’s also a cheeky Western pop track used to suit a sudden interesting moment in the film.
Composers like Amit Trivedi and Sneha Khanwalkar travel to places where the film is set in order to make music.
What’s your style?
I understand people get bored of the same kind of music. So a person like me with only half knowledge about any culture takes whatever is important from a culture and makes that the core of the sound. I mean, why will I compose a bhangra song when others will do it better. So I’ll take the sound typical to Punjab and add a twist, like I have with Patakha Guddi that is sung by the Nooran Sisters.
Why did you get Alia Bhatt to sing Sooha Sa?
It’s a lullaby. Imtiaz suggested that I try Alia’s voice for it and I didn’t pay much heed to it. But he got a recording of her voice and it wasn’t bad. She learned real fast; her voice has an inherent charm. It’s Imtiaz who did all the hard work of mentoring her.
Some of your recent music has met with criticism. What do you think about that?
Some? A lot of it has. When one takes up too many projects at the same time, the quality is bound to suffer. I find it tough to refuse friends and people I like. I am learning now. Also, making my own movie is a step in the direction of complete control over music. The script’s finally ready; it’ll be a musical.
What about the music for Hollywood?
In the West, they are always looking for an Indian touch to the music that I compose; that’s what they liked in Slumdog Millionaire’s music too. But after that, I consciously tried to keep my sound very Western. Now, I’m back to fusion music. My next is Disney’s Million Dollar Arm, which has a strong India angle.
When next will Superheavy record or perform?
I am not sure that will happen now. We’re all busy with our own music. Although Joss Stone and I might do something together soon. I recently went for my first Rolling Stones concert; Mick Jagger gave me passes for the front. It was such a fan boy moment for me because I never grew up with the Stones’ music; I’m taking to it only now.