The Underrated AR Rahman Playlist, Film Companion
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Every time there is a Roja anniversary, we scratch our heads wondering in what new ways we can celebrate AR Rahman. It’s been 28 years since the boy wonder composer—the whiz kid with a synth—burst into the scene with the Mani Ratnam film. Surely there is a list to be done on his most… underrated songs? It’s a body of work so vast that it’ll never run out of things to talk about. Here’s our pick of our favourite underrated Rahman, across languages. 

‘Kulicha Kuthalam’ (Duet, 1994)

When one thinks of that great album called Duet, one thinks of ‘Anjali Anjali’, ‘En Kadhale’ or even the fun ‘Mettupodu Mettupodu’. But as a Keralite growing up on ARR there was a magic to his folk songs (but not folk enough for purists) like ‘Kulicha Kuthalam’, which was somehow left to be discovered, tucked away on Side B of the Pyramid Cassette. It’s another one of those songs you couldn’t resist dancing to but not while wearing denims or ‘baggy pants’ like his tracks in Gentleman or Kadhalan. The lyrics were easy to learn, the beats were easy to pick and the song gave us a beautiful, if unreal idea of Tamil Nadu outside of Madras (very different from the song’s Rajasthan visuals). If not for this, the album would have felt incomplete. But we were just glad it was in there. – Vishal Menon

Kizhakke nandhavanam (Taj Mahal, 1999) 

One of Rahman’s biggest gifts to film music was the cleanness of sound, which meant that the chorus voices, too, sounded utterly harmonious. This catchy track is a great example. (It’s also a great example of Rahman’s “urbanised” rural sound.) The song is sung entirely by the chorus, backed by mutterings of an older woman. The “hey girl, come out and play with us” theme of the situation is conveyed through a series of short stanzas, each one tuned slightly differently, until a big burst of brassy percussion — and then, a male voice (with a bit from another number in this soundtrack) calls out and says “stop playing with your friends and come to me”. – Baradwaj Rangan

Hum Hain Iss Pal Yahan (Kisna, 2004)

Hum Hain Iss Pal Yahan” is to the Kisna soundtrack, what “Iktara” was to Wake Up Sid. Like Amit Trivedi, Rahman composed only one song in this album, while the rest were composed by Ismail Darbar (who was coming off hits like Devdas). However the song and the accompanying themes composed by Rahman are the soul of the soundtrack. This almost meditative song clocks at a (now) astonishing 7:11, a duration enough to pack 2 songs with 2 Spotify ads today. This was the golden age of long love ballads, with Shankar Ehsaan Loy giving us gems like “Aao Naa” (6:28) from Kyun! Ho Gaya Na... and “Chup Chup Ke” (7:13) from Bunty Aur Babli. Rahman adds layers of percussion every couple of minutes with a beautiful flute-strings middle section. It’s only fitting that Javed Akhtar’s lyrics speak of leaving behind a legacy that will be remembered for ages: Rahegi Sadaa Yahan, Pyar Ki Ye Dastan, Sunenge Sadaa Jise,Yeh Zameen Asmaan… – Hrishikesh Kogje

Paigaam (Lakeer – Forbidden Lines, 2004)

Though songs like “Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera” (Swades) are rightly at the top of the list of minimalist Rahman songs, “Paigaam” (from Lakeer–one of the better albums where he re-used his own Tamil tunes) is close to the top. If “Barso Re” (Guru) is Rahman’s ode to the playfulness of monsoon, “Paigaam” captures the more contemplative mood of the rain–one where you sit by the window and stare at a swaying branch. Shaan, who is often restricted to generic happy songs, is the MVP here, delivering a beautifully reserved performance sans his usual high pitch flourishes. And sigh, when was the last time you saw the charm of John Abraham on the screen, flexing his dimples, not biceps. – Hrishikesh Kogje

Aazadi (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, 2004)

Fitting for the day – this rousing tune got lost in both the lacklustre commercial success of the film and the list of other far more popular patriotic songs credited to Rahman. The songs directly starts at an eleven, with absolutely amazing work by the Chennai Western Choir. Despite his awkward Hindi pronounciation, Rahman gets the tone right with his delivery. The crescendo of his vocals, the choir and orchestra in the last minute is enough to understand why Rahman, for years spoke of his dream of a full symphony orchestra and choir representing India, like the ones in the West. – Hrishikesh Kogje

Mann Mohana (Jodhaa Akbar, 2008)

Rahman’s Sufi songs are much talked about, but his other devotional songs not so much, like this bhajan from Jodhaa Akbar. It is sung sweetly and mellifluously by Bela Shende, but centrepiece is the grand, goosebump-inducing interlude, a symphonic swell that manages to sound Indian despite the Western arrangement. – Sankhayan Ghosh

Dil Gira Dafatan (Delhi 6, 2009)

If Rahman’s musical journey was ever leading up to an album, it was always Delhi 6. And if it all were leading up to any song, it has to be “Dil Gira Dafatan”. Given Rahman’s musical influences and subsequent legacy, it’s only fitting that the song is picturized as a dreamlike sequence gliding seamlessly between two worlds – New York and Delhi. The song is a microcosm of Rahman’s talent – a song structure that doesn’t conform to any conventions, an interlude which fuses various influences – western symphonies, eastern vocals and even celtic touches (the excellent Anbil Avan church organ-shehnai transition comes close), his keen eye for spotting new talents like Ash King (again, a singer caught in two worlds – his family roots in Indian classical music while growing up in London listening to the likes of Aretha Franklin). “Dil Gira Dafatan” shines and stands out in Delhi 6, almost as if it’s forged under pressure from all sides in this musically dense album. – Hrishikesh Kogje

Phir Se Ud Chala (Rockstar, 2011)

Gulzar once said that Rahman’s biggest contribution to film music was “breaking the antara-mukhda structure and bringing the film song closest to a blank verse”. While early signs of this prose-like form can be seen in songs like Dil Gira Daftan (Delhi 6), Phir Se Ud Chala completes the evolution. It’s like dropping something in the middle of a stream – you know it’ll eventually get to it’s destination, at a natural rhythm, but you are not sure what path it’ll take, without ever circling back to the beginning (mukhda). The song meanders along gently with just an acoustic arrangement before reaching what can best be called a muffled crescendo – with the uneasy feeling of being surrounded by happiness but not being able to be a part of it – or as Irshad Kamil puts it – Rang Birange Vehmon Main Udtaa Phiroon. – Hrishikesh Kogje

Sheher Mein (Rockstar, 2011)

Beginning with the clicks of a metronome, this is a fantastic song that’s part-musical representation of a playback singing recording session, with all its errors and double takes, and part-satire on the music industry. Karthik the straightjacketed who goes by the book and Mohit Chauhan the wayward, moody singer who goes off on his own. Piyush Mishra is the sleazy music mogul who breathing down his neck, coming in the way of creativity. It’s also groovy as hell.

Netru aval irundhal (Maryan, 2013)

When a film doesn’t do well, the songs often recede from public memory like a tide. So it was with this wistful track whose opening lines say: “She was there with me yesterday, and I was with her, too…” This is the man. The woman follows with a line soon after. The arrangements soar to anthem levels, and then quickly subside — as though taking a cue from the waves of the film’s seaside setting. The standouts are (1) the long, “un-metrical” prose-like lines that anticipate the structure of some of Rahman’s most inventive songs of the decade (say, Thalli pogathey), and (2) the pallavi/mukhda that ends on a mid-note, giving a sense of the “incompleteness” of love at this point. – Baradwaj Rangan

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