What makes AR Rahman tick? That's the question I had while listening to the composer's soundtrack for Shankar's 2.0. This isn't about how he manages to keep making music, 25 years after he debuted with Roja, but more on the lines of what makes us keep listening to him, what makes filmmakers keep going back to him. I'm not talking about that dubious criterion called "quality" – for my classic can be your crap pile. But even considering the subjectivity angle, I don't think there can be much argument about this composer's quality. You try sounding as fresh and young as Azhagiye after a quarter-century of composing. You try not just pushing the envelope but making the damn thing vanish in Thalli pogathey.
So this isn't about whether Rahman's still got it in him, but why we – the listeners, the filmmakers – persist with him, when he keeps making it so difficult. For the Azhagiye-s, the Thalli pogathey-s, the instant hits, they don't come by as often – and this is something even the most hardcore fan will agree with. Think back, now, to a Gentleman. It had En veetu thotathil and Usilampatti penkutti and Chikku bukku rayile and Paakathey and Ottagathai kattiko, whose meaning is still the cause of much mystery. (Hug the camel? Uh, okay! Maybe it's about the… hump, given that the song is sung to a blushing bride-to-be!)
The point I'm making is that Rahman – after 25 years – still makes us say "let's give it a listen." He still makes us wonder if it's really slow poison, and maybe we're not getting it just yet
Of course, it's been a while since we got that kind of instant-hits album, and part of the Rahman story is his gradual transition from songs (i.e. tunes you can hum in the shower) to soundscapes (i.e. tunes that resemble a Picasso painting; "so that is the nose, right?" "and if I squint just so, I think I see a chin!"). After a couple of listens to 2.0, I'm hovering somewhere between "Oookay, what did I just hear?" and "I'd like to see what they do with these songs on screen." Hardcore Rahman fans, meanwhile, are calling the songs "slow poison," which is Rahman-ese for "if you wake up with these songs and fall asleep with them for a month, you'll really, really begin to like them."
The point I'm making is that Rahman – after 25 years – still makes us say "let's give it a listen." He still makes us wonder if it's really slow poison, and maybe we're not getting it just yet. He's still dividing us into camps that say "that's modern art, it can be unwrapped to yield so many layers" and "it's what you'd get if you gave my five-year-old a crayon." He's still making us talk about his music, wonder about it – and also wonder about him, and our relation to him. (Are we listening to this music only because it's Rahman? If it had someone else's name as music director, would we still be as interested?)
And he's doing all this in an age whose signature quality is its attention-deficit disorder, where conventional wisdom for the composer is "grab them by the collar, and don't let them go." It's the other end of the spectrum from slow poison. Can you imagine any of today's composers sticking around for 25 years, still making music for the biggest films, still being a talking point? It's not that they're untalented. It's that I don't see us giving them the kind of respect and scrutiny – and sometimes, yes, the benefit of the doubt – we still give AR Rahman, to the extent that "Rahman is the composer" is more of a draw than "are the songs good?". (If it's both, it's a double bonanza.) He's the last of the giants. That's why we keep tuning in.