AR Rahman's first film as a writer, 99 songs, releases this week. He speaks in this interview with Baradwaj Rangan about his hidden interest in photography, his yacht trip with Paul Allen and Quentin Tarantino, and how composing music for his own story was different. Excerpts…
What was your thought process after you won the Oscars?
After the Oscar, I felt a freedom, and I feel for most of the people in the world it's the pinnacle of everything. They say after the Oscars it's all done, but for me I needed to make something more and I felt like I was ready for it. And I went through life so much, too. And when you experience something rather than just reading it, it feels validating too.
From Roja, you've been in music for 30 years. Do you feel like "I have already been on the moon, now what else?" Or do you feel like, "however many years I am making music, that's all that matters: just focus on the present"?
The joy of making a song is something like cooking. You are cooking and then you serve and then see the smiles. I just liked to make music and I think from childhood, because I had bought a camera, photography was a hidden agenda but I never had time. When I was doing Jai Ho, I brought the 5D. Before that, Danny showed me how you use it and the touch bar and all that. Over the years I know how to take pictures using the white balance, frame rate and all that.
Apart from the music side, this aspect of movies is also inculcated in you…
Yeah, that's when Le Musk happened, when we went to Vietnam, and a cruise with Paul allen.
I love how you keep dropping these names….
The writer of Game of Thrones was there. There was Quentin Tarantino and it was beautiful to hangout. And I think with great minds only great things happen. I had this idea of mine, of doing a small film, and I discussed it with them. They called Danny's daughter, Grace Boyle, and she has a company which could produce it. So this whole thing came about on a yacht.
In probably 5-6 months we started shooting and it was supposed to be a 20-minute film. But then it became a 1-hour film. Unlike 2D movies, where you have seen a movie and you can leave it, here you need to see the 360 degrees. I was feeling very guilty for having to cut scenes. Like a third to two-thirds of the film!
Let's look at the main difference between a film and music. Let's say a person like Shankar comes to you for a movie. He tells you a story and then he tells you the specifics of a song. But here, it is your story, so you know it intimately and personally. So is the process here different?
It is slightly different because it's more intimate and you know the actors and how the director is interpreting things and there is a lot of trust involved. While composing, I would send a lot of things to Vishweshwar (director of 99 Songs) for feedback and he gives feedback: he says very interesting things.
Like he said something interesting the other day: "I have listened to all of AR's songs and I will say that an AR Rahman movie should be through his eyes, so whatever layers he puts will be good." That's very kind of him to say. He is actually truly a master of his art. The way he composed everything. This movie is not going to be like other movies. It's a musical but it's a human story, music is a part of it.
When you were composing, the process itself didn't require as much depth as it was your own story…
Actually, this was a difficult one because there are checks for everything. So, like, when Mani Ratnam comes and gives inputs, like I want this to be catchy, he has specific needs. Now those needs expand because I am the writer and it's my movie and I can do whatever I want. There is one thing but the thing is, will it fly with people?
Who is the gatekeeper?
Exactly. Who is the gatekeeper? Some of the songs took, like, a couple of years. The question that keeps coming is – will people accept it? I feel that's a question I have been asking all my life and this is the time to just let it go.
You have said that sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night with a catchphrase or a line, which you note down because you don't want to forget it. Would you say a similar thing happened with 99 songs or was it a more conscious effort?
There were three stories, one was this, another was about time travel, and I've forgotten the third. And then I discussed these lines with Nasreen Munni Kabir and she was giving me feedback. I love working with her always.
So, the fate of the film lies with Nasreen Munni Kabir! (laughs)
Yes, she is to be blamed for the movie if it goes wrong! She was there through the first stage. And there are many stages and the scary part is, how will the movie be? The uncertainty. We come in thinking that it will be this way or that way, but I think it has its own voice and way. We don't want something that was already done so beautifully by other people.
What our favourite cinematic devices and experiences are is what we tried to give. And there have been a lot of cuts: it's been mercilessly cut and the story moves really fast. I am incredibly proud of it.
So one part of your writing… They call it thattakaram, whenever something doesn't match your music and the lyricist tries to put in their words to a different music, you say, "do this word or that."
Yeah, that has been there from the beginning. Like some of the concepts of the songs were also given by me. Like 'Rehna Tu': be yourself, I love you with the thorns and the roses; or 'Luka Chhuppi'. There is a trust that is given by the director to you. So we as a team don't put names to it. Sometimes the director or lyricist will give a great idea, like why don't we do it like this?
What I realised is that this hasn't been done by me but by the wisdom and experiences. I realised that this is a story and I need to flesh it out. I just need the right people and a team to get it done. Because a lot of good things and stupid things have been done this way. This famous word 'content'! I say, this is not content, this is my life, soul. This is art. This is not just people coming together so that it exists. Every frame and sound goes through our system and it gets cleansed. There is so much and it's three languages, sometimes it's exhausting, and exciting always.
We spoke about failure earlier and the fear whether the audience would like it? And the pressure of failure on you right now: "I'm putting something out there in the world, which is something completely new for me."
That tension was there for four years. I am in zen mode now and I come with low expectations and high hopes. In the past four years I put the movie out of my system because I have seen people walk out here and there. We screened it at Busan and it was a great test. I don't want to say much now; it was very encouraging. This movie is really for India.
When you gave the foreword for the Mani Ratnam book, you used a beautiful Italian word that your friend told you.
Yeah! You remember that word? The feeling of making complex things appear simple. Is that something that you have with you right now?
For everything the best thing is to speak less. Like if I speak more, then they are like, "Why did he speak so much? I already get it." That's the scary thing. I would say that those who want to discover can discover the movie. I will keep quiet now.