AR Rahman and Shekhar Kapur
AR Rahman and Shekhar Kapur Image Credit: Supplied

They have known each other for 26 years, but Oscar-nominated Indian director Shekhar Kapur credits Expo 2020 Dubai’s cultural landmark Al Wasl Dome as the catalyst that brought him together with Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman.

Back in 2020, the dome was just being built but Kapur felt that he had just stumbled upon an architectural marvel and was keen to create “something” that would do justice to the awe-inspiring venue.

Kapur was on call as one of the cultural advisers of Expo 2020 Dubai and he has understandably seen the expansive venue transform from the ground up and become a cultural Goliath.

“When we saw Al Wasl Plaza being built, I phoned Rahman immediately telling him that he should just come in. He was in Baku at that time, but two days later he was here and we walked in together into that unfinished building. I asked him if we can do something that nobody has ever done before and ‘Why?’ was born there,” said Kapur in a Zoom video call with Gulf News.

‘Why? The Musical’, which premieres at Expo 2020 Dubai on January 20 at Al Wasl Plaza, is their landmark musical spectacle in English featuring 100-plus dancers with seven new compositions from Rahman.

The musical follows a young girl and a wise old man who embark on a journey of self-discovery. It’s going to be a musical that will trigger existentialist questions among its viewers, claim its chief architects.

“You will walk out of this musical with a few tears in your eyes. You are going to walk out of the musical asking questions that you should have asked a long time ago. You will walk out of this musical with a smile on your face and I think you will walk out of the musical saying: ‘why has nobody done this before?’,” declared Kapur, who directed the Oscar-winning period saga ‘Elizabeth’ and stirring films such as ‘Mr India’ and ‘Bandit Queen’.

His impassioned monologue describing the high points of their musical earned Kapur a high-five from his partner Rahman.

Apparently, the two have come up with a game about rating each other’s responses during interviews to promote their collaboration. If Rahman gives a cracking, quotable answer, then Kapur encourages him by lavishing a high score and vice versa.

“We have known each other for 26 years, but there’s also another strange connection. My father’s name was RK Shekhar. So he’s my uncle, I mean my brother,” said Rahman, quickly correcting himself when he spotted Kapur mockingly give off a hurt expression for making him feel like an old man. But it’s evident that they have a camaraderie that goes beyond just a working relationship. Their bond is based on respect and mutual adoration.

Shekhar Kapur
Shekhar Kapur Image Credit: Supplied

“Yes, it’s been 26 years and he’s like an addiction… I often tell people that there are two people in my life that make me feel I am close to God when they play their music — one was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the other one is AR Rahman … So how can I leave and how can I go anywhere else? I am in such revered company,” said Kapur.

This musical is just a natural progression of their democratic relationship. They have always had each other’s back. In an interview when Rahman spoke about work eluding him in Bollywood due to gang politics, Kapur expressed his support by tweeting that Bollywood didn’t know what to do with an Oscar-winning talent like him. Kapur’s grand gesture in a film industry that’s notorious for not taking a stand was a telling one. But both have moved on to greener pastures.

“This musical is about us expressing ourselves,” pointed out Kapur.

As soon as he said those words, Rahman pitches in saying that Kapur’s production company is also aptly christened ‘Kyunki’ which means ‘Why’ in Hindi. Existentialist angst is their familiar friend that pushes them to do better in their creative spaces.

“He has put all the philosophy from his whole life into making this happen. My job was how to make it entertaining,” said Rahman.

A_R Rahman performs at Jubilee Stage_Large Image_m26424-1642591906659
AR Rahman performing at Jubilee Stage, Expo 2020 Dubai

They were also clear from the outset that they wouldn’t be treading on a format that worked for their earlier Bollywood and movie projects.

“At first, they wanted me to do something exotic … But I looked at this musical as a chance to put to use whatever I learned in Broadway, in India, and put it all together in an international format … My role was to get the best lyricist and a great gang of people,”’ said Rahman.

They were ably supported by Richard Lindsay, director of Artists in Motion, who looks after the production and creative segments at the Expo 2020 Dubai. During the same interview, Lindsay told Gulf News that he didn’t have to rein in these two maverick talents. All he had to do was be up to speed with their ‘infectious craziness’.

“Richard had an emotional connect with what we were saying … And that’s what convinced us to make a musical which will bring people together emotionally and this is straight from our hearts,” said Rahman.

Both Shekhar and Rahman knew that they were taking on a project that was a departure from making Hindi-language musicals.

“In movies, the camera actually chooses what to show there and there’s just one angle. But a musical is a lot more challenging and allows you to experiment. While the venue is extraordinary, there are challenges and great things you can do with it … There will be 27 speakers from where sounds will emerge,” said Rahman. They weren’t bound by the traditional concepts of what will work and what won’t with the audiences.

“Expo 2020 Dubai has given us this opportunity to go explore ourselves through music, through storytelling … At no point did anyone ask us about what we are doing. They just trusted us,” said Kapur.

For everyone in that Zoom video call, trust was a crucial element to making their ambitious musical a reality.

“Trust is the most important factor in creativity. And if you give the people who deserve the trust, then they will give us wings,” said Rahman.

For both, working on Expo 2020 Dubai was their career’s most liberating experiences.

“The purpose of art is to liberate yourself. But it doesn’t end with your own liberation. All art is an attempt to connect what you feel is finite self to the infinite. It’s always our aspiration to connect with the infinite. Our ‘Why? The Musical’ has liberated us, but it doesn’t end with its release. Now the audience will take it forward and they will find it liberating,” said Kapur.

Al Wasl Plaza
Al Wasl Plaza's laser projected dome Image Credit: Gulf News

We have demolished all divisions through our musical. We have been given chance to create something that will unite the world through our work of art

- AR Rahman

All of life is a process of learning and unlearning. All of life is about breathing in and breathing out. So you need to know how to learn, unlearn, and then let it go again. You will experience that in our show

- Shekhar Kapur

Don’t miss it!

‘Why? The Musical’ will be staged from January 20 until February 27 with shows at 8pm from Thursday to Sunday every week