A R Rahman Must Stop Trying To Fit Into The Self-Serving Film Music Industry And Start Creating For Bharat

by Sumati Mehrishi - Jul 30, 2020 02:59 PM +05:30 IST
A R Rahman Must Stop Trying To Fit Into The Self-Serving Film Music Industry And Start Creating For BharatA R Rahman ... think local, sir.
  • A R Rahman must unplug music from the film industry and set a whole new circuit for the supply chain.

    Rahman must admit that he has not cracked the pan India code — yet, and to do that, he needs to stop bothering about and greying over Bollywood.

The Hindi film industry, embroiled in the charges of nepotism, bullying, and other predictable controversies, stumbled upon a new row last week.

Celebrated music director A R Rahman said that there was a gang working against him and that it is spreading rumours against him.

Rahman's insinuation was followed by Oscar Award winning film sound designer, sound editor and sound mixer Resul Pookutty posting on twitter: "I had gone through near breakdown as nobody was giving me work in Hindi films and regional cinema held me tight after I won the Oscar..." Among the ones to comment in a sympathetic tone towards Rahman were his fans, celebrated director Shekhar Kapur, and Pookutty himself.

Singer Adnan Sami expressed solidarity. The reactions came in sort of a chain. Kapur said that getting an Oscar "is a kiss of death in Bollywood”.

It is not clear what Rahman wanted to reveal, or meant or was trying to carefully not speak. But to believe that he is being slyly pushed away from the Hindi film music scene, seems a bit bulky to process.

An institution in himself, a studio and a music brand for assets, goodwill across a broad range of artistes and Indian and global collaborators, the widest diversity in playback singers looped in, and a world of themes he has produced music for. That's A R Rahman.

Maybe Rahman meant that his collaborations with Bollywood have gone down in frequency. Understandable.

The Hindi film industry, evidently, seems lost on crossroads of phases with what it wants to present and how it wants to sell what it makes.

Then, it seems tangled in a set of avoidables: curbing creativity, marketing mediocrity, pressing singers to the point of exclusion — even absence from the music scene; and the biggest crime — not using the playback singers and musicians to their full potential. Maybe it's forgetting that Rahman is a musician as well.

Criss-crossing these crossroads are ideology-inclined galleries that the Hindi film industry is currently playing to.

Impressive — that the Hindi film industry has the intellect left to wrench or prick a music giant such as Rahman.

One expects Rahman to press the reset button for Hindi film music. Not the other way round. Hindi is the new "regional" in Indian film industry as well as the Hindi film music industry.

The Language Within The Language

Rahman's music is universal in character. 'Universal' doesn't stand for the global collaborations he has been part of, with some riveting sets of tracks, alone. 'Universal' also doesn't indicate the orchestration he has gone for, for the albums.

His music is universal in the language of music. There are two people Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt would naturally think local in Chennai with. One is Chitraveena Ravikiran. One is Rahman himself.

Rahman has built a language within the language of music. His language is of instrumentation (add to it sound engineering, as his critics point, but I'd count it as embellishment).

What is Hindi film music's 'language' in 2020 and beyond? It's a question Rahman must ask Bollywood. He might, then, even realise that the "rumours" he has registered, are indeed not worth his time. This could give him the room for letting out and releasing the curbed reservoirs of jazz that must be born and reborn in India with indigenous influences.

He needs to open the gamut of singles — release those singles — unplug music from the film industry and set a whole new circuit for the supply chain. The instrumentals. The sax and sitar duets, expand them, Rahman sir. Jazz on the ECR, that, long, long, stretch celebrated and born for Jazz.

Think local, sir. Rahman must admit that he has not cracked the pan India code — yet. To do that, he needs to stop bothering about and greying over Bollywood.

There is a reason why Rockstar and several others came and failed to thrill his discerning listener.

Iruvar, Water, Maryan, Kaatru Veliyidai, Highway, Raavanan (background), a blend of Bombay Dreams and his work with Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan and disciples, as musical experiences, must give him the pan India secret for realising the next phase of his journey in music.

Duets. Choirs. A creative movement for accompanists and junior artists. Vocal for local, sir.

The Time Is Ripe For Aatmanirbhar Rahman

He must begin to build a non-film industry storm with young and upcoming talent. Would you not want him to say: "Vocal for local excited me, and this is my plan for Vadapalani-Chennai-Tamil Nadu-India"? What value to his discerning listener or the layman are the undisclosed rumours? Zero.

In the mixed bag of the music he has produced for the Hindi film industry, he has shown enough power to adapt. Now, he should show his power to adapt by minimising the adapting for the Hindi film industry. Reset button.

That will give him a renewed connection with a new generation that has not known or seen or collected cassettes of his work. The Hindi film music industry, clearly, has no space or depth for appreciation for his lorees, the viraha songs. On his part, Rahman seems to have deprived us of the repeats of "Bharat humko" (Roja).

Rahman has a firmer foot and calling in his home turf and in global collaborations. He has a following of students, whom he is shaping well over platforms and training.

Raanjhanaa (title track) reached this author nearly three years after the film's release — not from the film juke box — but from a retake from his students. What does it tell?

Rahman underrates the power of an individual platform. He underrates the base under him.

To say that he has to fall back on the film music industry down south, because the Hindi jumboree is not embracing him with the same grip, is condescending to a music-superior industry, which is the non-Hindi music industry.

This author has higher appreciation for the film music industry down south — since long before Rahman arrived (as a child, this author was allowed to watch only regional cinema on Doordarshan).

With losing Rahman, the Hindi film music industry would lose the Rahman school of thinking music (read 'thinking' as verb and noun).

It will also lose the magic he creates with certain peers. When Prasanna and legendary bassist Mohini Dey are on the strings together, you almost conclude it would be for Rahman.

When Sivamani and Selva Ganesh crack the grandest ensemble, or when Shreya Ghoshal brings the riyaz to revisit Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's Gujri Todi, you know it was Rahman behind the studio glass window.

This author was slightly disappointed with Rahman's statement.

With more than three decades of a journey in music where he has created a repertoire that's Indic, universal, prolific, global, Rahman need not betray a sense of getting sidelined by the Hindi film industry.

Bollywood is suffering from a Covid-slapped lull and some eerie noises over the untimely demise of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

In this scenario, Rahman, one would wish, used his plan B to circumvent a controversy rocked industry and expanded his creative overtures pan India.

There is much raw material waiting for him to be explored and studied. It's time to move on — from the Hindi film music industry as a destination. Rahman can afford it.

His friend and collaborator Bharatbala is currently the maestro of the art of exploring Bharat's treasures. He is giving India back something beautiful.

Singing Up The Wrong Tree

What impression does the Hindi film music industry give from the outside — on the whole — for say 10 years now (Amit Trivedi gave Dev D in 2009)? The answer to this would give you the answer to exactly what might have changed for Rahman.

The industry wants clones — in order to keep the threat of diminishing returns alive. It is still toying with stuff "jo aag laga dega market mein". Now, business, sales and bullish data are good things. But such stuff leaves people's memory as soon as it arrives.

But "small shelf life ka zamana hai" — the Hindi film music industry would tell you. Pause. Right there.

Small shelf life arrived as a consequence of Hariharan, Sonu Nigam, Kavitha Krishnamurthy, Sadhna Sargam, Udit Narayan, Shaan, Suresh Wadekar, and so many others from this set of playback singers began to fade from the plum assignments.

Who was back then, still using their voices and experience? Rahman.

Musical longevity — that's what Rahman gave to Hindi film music through these voices.

Today, there is a genius Amit Trivedi, there is pop of gold in Shashwat Sachdev (Uri), and there is something sweet, from Pritam, occasionally. Then there is Rahman. You get the hang.

The definition of achievement in the Hindi film industry is even more overrated than the industry itself.

If it was true to honouring creativity, the Hindi film industry would have given M M Keeravaani — the celebrated music director (and singer) who imagined Nippulaa Swasa Ga, put it on paper, sang it; directed the music for the Baahubali series, gave this track, gave this track, a red carpet (reverse) welcome and standing ovation. Baahubali style.

Keeravaani's work with the strings, vocals, choral layers and percussion has been a landmark event in itself. The Baahubali series redefined music for period cinema.

That the Baahubali series was Indic in soul and character would have made Keeravaani's work twice more demanding, than, say, a going for the raga-based/inspired approach and template, which, again, is not a feat many can carry. Rahman is one.

When there are ragas at hand, as per the script needs, resolving choice and assimilation-elimination issues involves lesser challenges.

Films set in the Mughal period (Jodha-Akbar) would give that rope. A film set in the British rule (Lagaan, Mangal Pandey) gives that rope, along with the free canvas of orchestration and using Western ensembles.

On the other hand, there is the Baahubali series. Completely in a musical character of its own.

It is important to talk about Keeravaani when talking about Rahman. Both have given the Hindi film industry enough material to learn from. I repeat, "learn" from.

Name the directors who made headlines for saying they are stunned by the talent and work of Shashwat Sachdev in Uri.

Amit Trivedi — the outstanding and prolific music director (and singer), fortunately, still has takers in the industry. You never know when his art gets bracketed or boxed.

The Thick Line Between Art And Giving A Hit Gaana

Hindi film industry has a high percolation rate for brilliance. It lets it drain. On the other hand, music apps and even YouTube have compilations that continuously throw Tamil and Telugu song suggestions that are becoming growingly similar to Rahman's style of the recent past. Get the hang.

The Hindi film industry is good at creating the art of diminishing returns. Yet, Rahman has given many Hindi films more than what they have deserved. His music made them "watchable".

Rajkumar Santoshi's Pukar was a gem in emotion, and hence an exception. Delhi 6, another.

On his home turf: Rahman is well known for painting the musical canvas for Maniratnam's work, and for Shankar's work, via the arresting blend of trendy and tactical sounds and rhythm, and for Vairamuthu's, glamourous and catchy ear worms. To Maniratnam's work, he gave the stroke, the impasto, the colour wash, the minute lines. He has given gender a solid presence through music in Maniratnam's work. With this team, male and female got representation in instrumentation.

For Hindi films, Rahman creates musicscapes, the art-soakers, the keepers, the curated, the abstract, the composed, the dramatic, larger than life, the celebration, the luring and craving, the freeing, the surrendering and the hopeful.

The growing demand, instead, is for creating hit gaana. What's hit in Bollywood, is success, and success is another name for hit gaana.

It's not flattering that he would still care about fitting there beyond getting some business.

Comfortably Rahman

Overall, Rahman has always got a good deal and has both his feet in different worlds — and combinations of them, one believes. He should be the last person to suffer on account of perceived north-south demarcations and crevices in film music.

He has been the one to be able to overstep it for the longest time. He has been able to let the two sides meet, on his powerful musical apparatus.

He has played around with the influences derived from musical sensibilities that lie outside his region and the film industry down south. He has been able to create a sound, style, and audience with it.

In fact, his collaboration with the Hindi film industry is a genre in itself.

One underlying outcome: Rahman, with a sense of right absorbed the qawwalis, the ghazals (not sure if people count them as hits), the Sufi compositions for his projects. He has sung the Sufi compositions and given vocals for them.

This is a comfort zone that the Hindi film industry has provided to Rahman. The scale is not reciprocated — back in his home turf. Language issues. You get the hang.

Then, he never has been questioned or cross examined over his bold and the finest experiments, as some of the greatest musicians from the Hindustani tradition are, by the audience during concerts in Chennai.

Some of these great maestroes have been ridiculed for the ragas in 'music reviews' that are constructed in a wooden office at Mount Road.

Rahman, on the other hand, is adored as the "Mozart From Chennai". Such is the power of Hindi film music industry.

Winning The Nineties, Filling The Void

In the 1990s, when Rahman's work for Roja and Rangeela reached the north Indian audience, especially teenagers, such as this author, Hindi film music was still in the 1980s. These years got Hindi music crass, cringy, directionless, deafeningly boring, repetitive, dull and most stunningly, lacking music.

The older generations had the songs and song memories given by the Hindi film industry music stalwarts of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s to fall back on.

Pause here for a moment. Roja's Hindi version reached us in 1991. The same year the great maestro Ilaiyaraaja's work in Anjali (Hindi version) stunned many of us. For me, watching Anjali was witnessing the most beautiful creative disruption in music at 11.

Anjali stayed, Bombay arrived — with children's voices cusping at places with Ilaiyaraaja's work, but nothing like the exemplary trust and freedom one saw Ilaiyaraaja placing in the children's work.

Ilaiyaraaja's thought and happiness in creating could touch us from that distant creative corner in his Chennai's T Nagar.

Rahman's reliance on percussion was alluring — for the hormones and the feet.

The Hindi film industry has changed its storytelling. Today, it would have no room for the percussive triumph — in romance — that can match Rahman's drive. Rahman's mind sprawls on percussion. O Saya, Mangta Hai Kya, Raga Dance, Rangeela Theme, Liquid Dance, Gangsta Blues and the hidden percussive treasures in the background music he has given for films, are classics.

Go to the scene where Prithviraj Sukumaran and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan are in the train compartment after he brings her back (Raavanan). Vocals for rhythm — for the tension erupting between them.

Have a parallel to it from Hindi film music? None.

Rahman must repeat the 1990s feat.

The Ragas For A Connect

Rahman's use of Indian classical music, sufficient to familiarise the layman with the ragas, was never enough, or would be for a section of his listeners.

Most folks, those who seek more and more ragas in his repertoire, have been/are those who are well-initiated into the ragas or at least one of the two traditions. The reason is not ragas — but Rahman.

You want to see what he wants to keep the mallets of the santoor shifting between over a raga.

Rahman has attempted to enrich the swara palette of Indian film music by including and inducing the true Indic and the universal. Rahman has restricted the influence of ragas to a simple and basic treatment, a limited number of ragas, and has used it for recreating.

The ragas were simply not thrown in to impress. He has moulded film music out of them and stuck to the frame of the parent for eventually celebrating it.

He follows a gradual progression through the ragas while using them for a track.It's not a coincidence that songs (taking four examples) he has used ragas in, go out to retell a story. Rahman builds a narrative through them.

To a great extent, there is a strong sense of context, the time or the season. Malhar, Puriyadanashri, Basant, Charukeshi have been used for these four tracks. Malhar —used for a story of waiting for the rains; Puriyadanashri — intense passion and intimacy; Basant: for Basant the season, narrative, descriptive; Charukeshi — for the soft night and a loree in it.

There are others, used for meaningfully embellishing the story and the narration. Rahman must himself examine if the Hindi film music industry really has room left to accommodate this finesse — anymore.

Rahman carved his own purpose through the ragas. His purpose was connecting people to them.

The Changing Relationship With Romance

If you compare the romantic songs that were a hit, and are called chart busters in his wide, wide repertoire you'd notice that tracks with the best lyrics made Rahman extra sensitive to the quality of music he was giving the lyrics life with.

That took his signature style and treatment to the back foot. He chooses to delicately and carefully adorn these songs (the category is private and personal to this author and no track revelations here).

Romance, in the Hindi film industry, today, has acquired the toxicity and fleetingness of the times. The evolution romance has undergone has seeped in. With that, Rahman's space shrinks.

Between the short span of Kalvare and Jaanu, a lot has changed in romance and romance in music. I am not even spanning back to Narumugaye. Enna Sona — is a speck of sweetness in that shrunk and shrinking space.

The Art Of Remaining Multilingual

Hindi film industry means a limitation. Limitation of spoken bhasha and related music cliches. Of lyrics. Lyrics — from the Hindi film industry's point of view — lesser, the better.

By rule, for all his releases since 1991, this author listens to only non-Hindi versions of his work (even if they do not have a Hindi version). Reason: it keeps you at his music, his sounds, percussion, programming, and what runs between the headphones and remains at the back of the head.

Knowing the 1990s and how 'language' (for lyrics) played a part (without being involved at all) in Rahman's popularity, will become easier. This song had a strangely strong pull in 1995, still does.

The lyrics are not what a conventional north Indian parent would want a 15-year-old to grasp or hear. This pushed a realisation.

Lyrics were the last thing that could matter to Rahman's audience in the north in the early 1990s. His music is born for tracks that are multilingual and for a language universal and, most crucially, for instrumentals.

Delhi 6 broke the 'no-Hindi tracks' rule for me — but on a negligible scale: with Sasural Genda and its folk call, the Arati, which is for part of the micro world; Tehzeeb — with Daag's ghazal Sabaq; and Rang Hai (Meenaxi Tale of Three Cities) for Rahman's exceptionally heartful approach to percussion for celebrating — not passion, or rhythm but colour. Vachinda Megham and Nenjam Ellam and Badal wo aaye (all versions of the same song in Yuva) are not the same.

If even Adnan Sami tells you they are, disagree. If Rahman announces that he wants to go back to the drawing board, it will be relieving. He would automatically have to step away from the Hindi music industry.

It's time to remind Rahman that he was looking for a 'Rafi and not a roughy' — as he told this author over an interview back in 2006.

He must continue to explore folk and folks at a distance from the Hindi film music industry, its obfuscations, boxes and power games. For the nation.

Somehow, getting stuck in self-serving music industries betrays low belief in serving.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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