AR Rahman talks about his favourite books, how traveling inspired him to write, and how he defines failure, in this interview with Baradwaj Rangan. Edited excerpts…
Today, we are going to talk about your writing. We’re meeting AR Rahman, the story writer of 99 Songs. Before you became a musician, what were you reading?
I didn’t do much reading except for ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. And then I read a lot of mythology like Panchatantra and so on. When I did the musical version of The Lord Of The Rings, I read the books. It was very dark for me. I also enjoy reading the Ramayana and Mahabharata; I studied them so much to understand what is right and wrong.
I discovered reading after 2001 when I started traveling a lot. Otherwise it was always music. Sitting at airports and watching people, trying to understand the story behind every face. They hug each other, some are almost crying, some are confused. You realize everyone has the same struggles.
So, because of the way I see the world — influenced by multiple cultures — this fairy tale-like story came to me for 99 Songs: one guy has to compose a 100 songs.
You once said that you make sure that everything that leaves your studio is the best possible version. How do you set standards for a story?
There are many tools in filmmaking. The visuals may be interpreted with music, voiceovers, or sometimes it goes completely black and you use just sound. We explored these tools in the film. I picked up a few tricks when I worked in Hollywood, like how to make a movie engage with the audience.
What was the first piece of music that you ever wrote?
I think it was a jingle. When I told people around me that I had written a jingle, they laughed condescendingly. I still remember those people and their doubts. I felt the same kind of thing when I did 99 Songs. At least, people understood I was serious when they saw the trailer.
One of the toughest things for the creator of a story is to hand it over to other people to make it. Some people find it really hard and choose to stay away from the set. How did you manage that?
I learnt to trust. I knew that it would cost a lot of money if stuff went wrong. But I just go there and enjoy the fun. I don’t intrude or ask them to have a long shot or anything. I just keep quiet; so that helped. In my head I had the pillars of the story—how it had to go from A to B to C. In fact, Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy said they’d stuck to what I’d written in 2013. So, it was good to hear that the core of it remained the same.
You mentioned failure. It’s such a subjective thing. Many of your songs might have failed fifteen years back but celebrated now. How do you define failure?
I got used to people saying that my music isn’t good right from the first film. It’s my fault if I didn’t finish something or overlooked a flaw. Millions of people saying that something is good or bad is not as important.