“One day I got a call from A R Rahman: ‘Prasoon, I need you. Can you come down [to Chennai]?’ When I reached there, I realised that we needed to finish two important songs for the third season of MTV Coke Studio — all in one night, each being extremely poetry-heavy,” recalls lyricist, screenwriter and ad-guru Prasoon Joshi.
Even with the tight deadline looming on his head, Joshi remembers Rahman was unfazed and calm. The duo ended up finishing Zariya and Jagao Mere Desh Ko, which became hits that season. “This calm comes from his extraordinary belief that there is something called a world and something called a beyond. He is immersed in the beyond. It gives him the ability to deal with life’s pressures,” says Joshi.
Think of Rahman and his tranquil face with a hint of smile playing at the lips comes to mind. It’s only recently that one noticed a slight ripple at the surface when the Raza Academy issued a fatwa against him for his work in Majid Majidi’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God, terming it a mockery of the religion.
A rare emotional response by Rahman on Facebook took everyone by surprise. He wrote: “I am not a scholar of Islam. I follow the middle path and am part traditionalist and part rationalist. I live in the western and eastern worlds, and try to love all people for what they are, without judging them. My spiritual experiences working on the film are very personal, and I would prefer not to share these... My decision to compose the music for this film was made in good faith with no intention of causing offence.”
His response was admired by friends and well-wishers. Javed Akhtar, in an article for The Wire, questioned Raza Academy’s qualification to issue a fatwa. “I’m a rationalist and an atheist. But if people are religious in the way Rahman is, I wouldn’t have any problems with religion. For him, faith and religion is a very, very private affair. He prays and goes on pilgrimages. But as a man, music director and artist, he’s secular,” he wrote.
Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty, who has worked with Rahman on films like Ghajini, Slumdog Millionaire and Highway, feels that categorising Rahman and his faith according to religion is the gravest mistake anyone can make. “When you stand next to him or see him perform, the kind of spirituality he exudes has nothing to do with religion. It’s just that he found his path in Islam. But if he had found his path in Jainism or any other faith, his sense of belief and spirituality would have been the same,” he says.
Rahman could not be contacted for this article. His spokesperson said he isn’t giving interviews at the moment.
Rahman’s sense of spirituality extends to his working style. “He comes with no ego whatsoever,” says Pookutty. He remembers Rahman asking him for an opinion on the music of Highway. “I felt that the interval piece needed to be a little more emotional. He agreed and immediately took a flight from Los Angeles just to work on this one piece,” he says.
The film’s director, Imtiaz Ali, heard the new piece and very quietly said that though the new score was nice, he liked the original better. “So, Rahman said ‘okay’ and got back to work. This was a man who took a flight in a jiffy, recorded a piece again in no time only to have it rejected and was completely cool about it. That’s the way he is,” says Pookutty.
What drives him is an urge to experiment and enjoy new ideas and formats. “I don’t go to Rahman to get five songs. It doesn’t work like that. When I do a feature film, I am telling a story. He will then see how his music can be used as a narrative to tell that story. We discuss how the music will relate to the characters and the emotional landscape,” says director-producer Bharatbala who first worked with Rahman 25 years ago on jingles and moved on to creating the iconic album Vande Mataram with him.
Ali, whose partnership with Rahman has resulted in some seminal numbers from Rockstar and Highway, agrees. “Rahman is the purest technician I have worked with. And yet there is no fixed pattern with him. The journey of every song is different,” says Ali who is working with Rahman for his upcoming film Tamasha.
So this is how they work together: Ali tells him the story in a couple of minutes, elaborating on the situation or feelings of the character. “I don’t use direct explanatory words like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. He goes on to surprise you with his musical take on the situation. For instance, in Tamasha, music has been used as a narrative to enhance the inherent drama of the situation without dialogue. Songs are almost like storytellers or sutradhars,” says Ali.
There is one situation in which a travelling musical parade in Corsica leads up to a song inspired by European dance music. Then there is the quirky “Heer is Sad” that has been written in the same melodic meter as the original Heer.
It’s this unpredictability that excites singers like Sukhwinder Singh. “With me, Rahman has a trademark line: ‘Sukhi, let’s go. Shall we start?’,” says Singh on the phone from Orlando where he is on a concert tour. “If there is a third person in the room, he or she will have no clue what’s the song or the composition. It is only in the next half an hour that we ourselves get to know what shape the song is going to take.” Of the 40 songs they have done together, he says, 39, if not all, were created this way.
Both Ali and Singh appreciate the fact that Rahman gives flexibility to both directors and singers to share ideas. “He doesn’t stop me ever. He knows that I sing from the heart and he gives that feeling a platform. There are times when I enhance his ideas. So it’s a collaborative process,” says Singh.
His collaboration with Rahman extends to food as well. “I stayed in Kodambakkam [where Rahman’s house is situated] for a long time, and today I am the best cook of idli-dosa in my house. Of course, I add my Punjabi touch to it,” he says.
But don’t be fooled by the calm exterior, say his friends, for Rahman is actually a “goofy guy”, full of mischief. “Whether it is music gear or any kind of technology, he will react to it and play with it like a child with a new toy,” says Bharatbala. Pookutty agrees. “When we are travelling together, I am his constant source of entertainment. And when Rahman and our common friend, Tuomas Kantelinen (the Finnish composer who has given score for films like The Legend of Hercules), are in the same room, there is constant laughter. No work happens.”
Despite his passion for technology, Rahman remains rooted. “He still prefers to work out of his old studio at his home. It’s called Panchathan. This is where he initially used to record. It’s not intimidating like modern studios. It’s warm like his personality,” says Joshi.
He recalls the making of the song Arziyaan from Delhi-6. “It took me a year to crack Marammat mukaddar ki kar do Maula. Rahman had already worked on a song and was waiting for me to write it,” says Joshi. “I wanted to write something special — to tap another side of me. So he made the music my ringtone. Every time my phone rang, I would remember that I hadn’t written it.”