It’s unfair to label AR Rahman as a famously shy and reticent Oscar-winning composer who prefers to let his music do the talking. Last year, the Grammy winner plunged into the world of hosting with his music docu-series for Amazon Prime and also co-wrote and produced his own multi-lingual film, 99 Songs, which premiered at the recent Busan International Film Festival. It has been a free-fall since this musical genius made an unconventional TV presenter and a filmmaker.
But Rahman, 52, reminds us of a crucial point.
“They [viewers] don’t expect me to be a Shah Rukh Khan or a Trevor Noah while hosting. I am what I am. In my own way, I was trying to interpret how I can be more interesting. All the jams were spontaneous,” said Rahman in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid! ahead of his concert at the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai on Friday. Khan and Noah are notoriously gregarious, but Rahman prefers to let his own personality shine.
“Before, I used to never talk because I felt there was no use of me talking. Now, I have to narrate things, speak to my students [at his school KM Music Conservatory] and now I am not afraid of talking,” he said.
Following are excerpts from our interview with the maestro as he discussed his music, talented son AR Ameen and his constant need for change...
What should we know about your concert in Dubai this Friday and how will it be different from your gig last year?
New songs have come up and the way we interpret old songs is evolving. There will be something new and there’s always a change because all our singers are getting better. Our collective artistic quality is getting better. We are always looking for new ways to perform and where else can we go as artists.
Your concerts are high on technology with giant LED screens flashing. How do you ensure that the technology doesn’t overpower the music and how did you decide on who should perform with you?
It’s not about technology. How can we combine new experiences is our foremost thought and why should people come and watch us if they can hear us in their car or the radio? It’s the excitement about what else can be done or how else can we perform in front of the whole world and that is what drives me to go to a concert.
Our concert is about a collection of people coming together and giving a whole new experience. It’s based on music and that motivates us to sing and perform. The singers on Friday have been a part of my music. Benny [Dayal] has been singing for the last 10 years and has sung many songs for me. It’s homecoming for him. Jonita [Gandhi] is extraordinary when it comes to versatility. It also forces us to be in the same zone — we are mature and young.
Are they ever intimidated by your body of work?
There’s no intimidation. We are actually all equal. Perhaps, on the day of the show I am getting more claps. But it’s the music that’s big and I am just the carrier.
You have reinvented yourself in the last decade by plunging into the world of films and hosting Harmony With AR Rahman on Amazon Prime. What was your motive behind this?
When the right time comes, things come to you. Hosting wasn’t my idea. They came to me with the concept and I said I will do one episode.
But they came back saying that we want you to do all the episodes. And I said: ‘If you think I can do it then I can do it’. Everybody has their own style. I don’t have to copy anyone. People know how and what I speak. It’s better that way. Some asked, ‘How did you get away with it?’. But it’s a part of me.
Are you happy in your current space?
I needed to spend time with my kids more and that’s one of the reasons why I came back from Hollywood. While doing all that stuff is fine, if the kids grow up without you then you have lost out on your role as a dad. And, that’s why I came back.
Speaking of kids, your son AR Ameen, 16, is also in the music industry now…
My son is in his second year and studying in my conservatory [in Chennai]. So I told him, you winning is like the school winning, no pressure [laughs]. He has a long way to go, but he’s a good soul. He’s a gift to his father.
Have you come back to your roots now after your successful stint in Hollywood? At one point, we thought we lost you to them…
My house is in Chennai and it’s always nice to be in Chennai. But I don’t want to be stuck here because there’s a world that’s waiting for you. The doors are open and you can never underuse those opportunities that you have been given. So I may suddenly fly out to Boston or Hollywood and will keep in touch with things that have been gifted to me. It is a nice balance.
It is also an exchange where you learn from there and you come back to use what you learnt. It’s about connecting people. One small connection can change your life. The more I go, it gets more fascinating. I would never say: ‘I don’t need you now that I have learnt from you’.
A music label honcho recently told me that he knows the formula of what would make a Bollywood hit song. Isn’t that reductive and limiting?
Nobody knows the formula and that’s the beauty about life because it’s constantly evolving. In just two movies, that formula may become old because you need to constantly evolve. If you don’t, you are not ready to imbibe life. How many people have fallen or are like a fort because they don’t want to grow? If you don’t grow, you will get old and that winning formula will become poison. What fascinates me is to go towards the unknown. More than the fear of failure, going toward the unknown always evolves you.
Talking about evolution, tell us about your film debut, ‘99 Songs’, which you have co-written and produced.
‘99 Songs’ took a lot of time because it is not easy to cater to one’s own vision. I have grown up with a certain point of view of life and a movie is the point of view of the writer. So I had to find the ideal truth from the movie. We got some great positive word of mouth during our testing round at the film festival. But I am waiting for a larger audience to see it.
It’s not your normal commercial film, nor is it an art movie. It’s going to have a big release in India with a huge corporate like Jio Studios taking it on. I have told them to nurture it like their own baby.
Are you now bitten by the movie bug? Filmmaking is often addictive…
A: What was good was the freedom to do what you want and to do it in any way you want. I look at it as an adventure and a gamble. In this case, I am happy with the results. Before its premiere at Busan, I was terrified about the feedback. But people were very kind. There were many comments about its music. But I don’t want to say too much yet. It will release in the first quarter of 2020.
OTHER MUSICIANS PERFORMING WITH AR RAHMAN IN DUBAI
— Benny Dayal: He’s a home-grown talent from the UAE and is best known for his hits including ‘Badtameez Dil’ (‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’) and ‘Jai Jai Shivashankar’ (‘War’).
— Jonita Gandhi: A Canadian of Indian origin, her songs are invariably party anthems. She was plucked from obscurity when her unplugged version of Paani Da went viral. Her hits include ‘The Break Up Song’ (‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’).
— Ranjit Barot: He’s a consummate drummer, music composer and director who has performed with Rahman for a long time. He’s a treat to our ears.
— Javed Ali: An ace singer with hit songs from films including ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’, ‘Ishaqzaade’ and ‘Jab We Met’.
— Andrea Jeremiah: She’s a multi-tasker and is a bankable actress and singer in South India. She made her singing debut in 2005 with ‘Kannum Kannum Nokia’ (‘Anniyan’) and has not looked back since.
— Haricharan Seshadri: Check out his song ‘Yaake Anta Gottilla Kanree’ to get an idea about his talent.
— Swetha Mohan: This award-winning South Indian singer has worked with Rahman in films including ‘Raavan’, for which she sang ‘Khilire’, and ‘Guru’, for which she sang ‘Baazi Laga’.
— Alphons Joseph: He is a force to reckon with in the Malayalam film industry. He’s a music director and playback singer. His song ‘Aaromale’ was a huge hit.
Don’t miss it!
When: Friday, November 15
Where: Coca-Cola Arena, Dubai.
Tickets: Tickets, at Dh300 and Dh600, available on platinumlist.net
“Dubai has been one of the most amazing places to perform. Every time I perform, there’s so much love. Canada, Malayasia, Kolkota and Dubai are places you can never forget.” — AR Rahman