Arijit Singh and AR Rahman sound great together ("Agar Tum Saath Ho", "Jwalamukhi", "Khulke Jeene Ka"), but they could've easily been one of the awkwardest interviewer-interviewee combinations in the history of celebrities interviewing each other. Both are famously shy and introverted. Even though it would seem that Rahman has grown chattier over the years—which means he doesn't give answers in monosyllables anymore—the superstar singer has become more of a recluse who has stopped giving interviews altogether. And yet, when a professional interviews a peer or a colleague—like a director interviewing another director, or an actor interviewing another actor—it can be insightful in a way that a conversation with a journalist can never be, brimming with a comfort-level and a deep understanding of each other's work.
Last week when the singer and composer got together for a chat—on Zoom call no less—as part of All About Music 2020, an annual music conference that took the virtual route this year due to the pandemic, it brought out a side to them that we haven't seen before: Arijit, freer in front of the camera than ever, and Rahman, taking deep dives into his own work and breaking it down. The ultimate winner is the Hindi film music fan. Highlights from the chat:
If discussions on ragas weren't inaccessible enough, you have Arijit, who is trained in Hindustani classical, saying intimidating things such as 'It's very difficult to imagine a specific progression in a raga like Multani'. But you also have the singer, or the composer, and sometimes both, being unable to identify a raga while discussing the fluidity of ragas in Hindi film songs: a morale boost for the rest of us musically less gifted. When Arijit is unable to pin down "Naina Neer" from Water to a particular raga, Rahman points out that it's Misr Bhatiyar. And in a sweet 'mentor-student' moment, while playing "Tu Bin Bataye" from Rang De Basanti on the piano, Rahman pauses to note that it must be Arijit's favourite raga, Hemant.
The singer's questions for Rahman are like that of a student of music–only a notebook and pen is missing. Think of him as a disciple in the guru-shishya tradition of Hindustani classical music, but someone who talks in the language of a millennial. The conversation is punctuated with Arijit saying things such as 'I've always felt this trip while listening to your music', 'something which is trancey all the time" and "It's a trip all the time I guess". Rahman is geeky as ever, talking about how he inherited his father's keyboards—who won a ticket to Japan on account of owning the first Korg model in India in the 70s— and online shopping the latest plug-ins on mornings he can't sleep.
Watch the interview here:
Conversations such as these usually lead to great anecdotes on how certain compositions came into being. There's one about "Jaage Hai" from Guru about how it started as a plain voice recording and became a symphonic explosion based on a suggestion from Mani Ratnam. But the best one is on "Hai Rama" from Rangeela, after Arijit brings up the song for being 'rooted in a raga and yet being so hip'. The composer recalled that he was in Goa when he was working on Rangeela. One day he was watching Mughal-E-Azam when a scene where Dilip Kumar and Madhubala meet in candle light and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sings an aalap in the background stood out. It gave him the idea of 'bringing out the sensuality of an Indian raga' that fit right into the demands of Rangeela director Ram Gopal Varma. Varma was apparently "disgusted" at first but then bought into the idea once Rahman introduced the beats. But then Varma decided he needed "something percussive", which led Rahman to rope in Sivamani. Later, after the songs of Rangeela would become a rage, Rahman met Naushad, the composer of Mughal-E-Azam, who seemed to hate the song and said 'Why did you put that irritating drums in between?'
Part of the appeal of two musicians having a conversation from the comfort of their homes is the added pleasure of some live impromptu music, even if it's a fleeting brush off the keys. The conversation is peppered with Rahman illustrating something by playing a tune on the piano. Arijit, who hums occasionally and picks up his guitar to play a chord, doesn't let go of the opportunity to fulfil his fanboy fantasies. Two such moments are when the composer, on Arijit's request, plays the sarangi piece from the second interlude of "O Re Chhori" from Lagaan, and the accordion theme from Swades.
As the conversation approached its end, it turned into a lament on the lack of, as Rahman puts it, "satisfying melodies" in Hindi film music today. Arijit complained that he doesn't feel "inspired" enough by the quality of film songs being produced, adding how Pritam—his one-time mentor—is often in a situation where his best compositions are rejected and the lesser works are approved. Rahman, no stranger to a similar predicament, had an advice: 'You give them what they want, and you put an extra track that you like', he says. 'And nobody says no to a freebie.' A bonus track, as per his experience, despite it not playing in the film, could go on to have a life of its own. He recalled how an Afghan guy came up to him near the Kodak theatre in LA to say how much he loves "Yenga Pona Raasa" from Maryam, a bonus track. 'You never underestimate what the net does,' he said.