Why AR Rahman Is Serious About Giving Back To The Arts, Film Companion

Be it with his music school KM Conservatory or his various other initiatives, composer AR Rahman has consistently worked on concrete plans to discover and nurture the next generation of musicians in India. So it’s only fitting that he be the ambassador of the British Academy of Film Television and Arts’s (BAFTA) Breakthrough programme that will reward five emerging talents from across the country. These winners will receive one-to-one mentoring, global networking opportunities, free access to BAFTA events and screenings for 12 months, and full voting BAFTA membership. The applications for the BAFTA Breakthrough are now live on their official website.

We speak to Rahman about the joy of giving back to the arts, how international exposure shaped him as an artist and his own breakthrough moment.

Edited excerpts:

BAFTA Breakthrough is a wonderful opportunity for emerging talent. For the benefit of those who will be applying, what are you looking for in the talents?  

They should have been active for the past couple of years. The whole idea is that we can connect them to talent in the UK and also give them workshops and mentoring and access to screenings. BAFTA supports excellence and original voices that need a push. These talents can be from anywhere… Hindi, Telugu, Tamil industry. That’s the beauty.

Through your school KM Conservatory and various other initiatives you’ve always been serious about nurturing new talent. Was there a specific point at which you felt that you need to give back to the arts? 

Yes. I think we all use what the previous generation has done. We go under the tree that someone else planted or go to the school that someone else started. When I started travelling abroad to places like Prague, London and Stanford University, Trinity College of Music and Middlesex University, I thought, why don’t we have this? Why can’t we encourage western classical music because we use so much  harmony in our music. Why are we not nurturing it? Then I said, ‘okay, somebody is going to start this soon’. Maybe Zubin Mehta will. Maybe the Tatas will start it. I was waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing happened. Then I realised I should start it. But I felt I didn’t know anything about it. But it’s fine if you fail.

We announced the school in 2008 and people started coming. I realised if you have good intentions, that is to give back, people will join you. And now my whole family is in it. My sister is running the conservatory, my daughter is doing the foundation work. It’s beautiful because we’re passing the mantle. The joy of giving is unbelievable. It’s what makes this life worth living. So whether it’s knowledge or kindness or smiling at someone, these things give your life a whole new meaning.

What do you enjoy most about mentoring children and working with young talent. Do you learn from them too? 

Oh, yes. There’s a beautiful quote by Confucius. It says – Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember Involve me and I’ll learn. You may have a thousand questions about something but they go away when you involve people. A lot of great directors today have in the past interned with other great directors. So when they are creating something they think, this is what my master would do in this situation, but let me try it a little differently. An original voice will always say I want to do it my way because of my influences, the way I grew up and my knowledge which is different. Somebody may have come from a village and he wants to tell a story about a challenge in his village. Now he has a platform and you can get right to it with the boring bits cut out. You know Hitchcock once said, ‘movies are like life with the boring bits cut out’.

You’ve said at the conservatory you focussed on things like teaching the right terminology so that when someone throws a word at you, especially in the West, you should not be intimidated. The BAFTA talents too will get international exposure. How has working in the West shaped you as an artist? 

All my life I had been in a studio and had very less public performances. In 1982 I started playing and in 1992 my first film happened. I was sitting in a studio creating music and you realise there’s a certain cosiness and privacy to it. All that went away because like Rumi says, ‘set your life on fire’.

I remember Shekhar Kapur called me on behalf of Andrew Lloyd Webber from the UK. Andrew said would you like to do a musical for me and I didn’t know that he had never done something he has not composed before. I didn’t know how big this invitation was. He introduced me to the world of musical theatre. I knew nothing about him and how people worshipped him. I had only seen an amateur theatre version of Jesus Christ Superstar in Chennai. Now I have done four productions. Bombay Dreams London, Bombay Dream Broadway and Lord of The Rings in London and Canada. I now realise what that whole collaboration and mentorship with Andrew did for me.

It was what you call good pressure. When someone like him is expecting a lot from you, you don’t want to do trivial things. You want to do great things for your country and for your mentor.

So like I had this experience with Andrew, what if a great director or editor mentors one of the talents on this BAFTA programme. And they should educate each other because people come from different cultures and different philosophies. Everyone is looking to embrace humanity in a new way. It’s about humanity adoring each other to celebrate diversity and India is the hub of diversity. We are a miracle with so many cultures and religions coexisting. You never know where the rough diamond is. We want people to make our lives beautiful with their art and cinema.

Do you ever wish you had these opportunities almost three decades ago when you started out? 

Yes. I think my search and thirst for learning what’s happening outside was so much. I would see some of these musicians go to the US and they would get me copies of tech, music, or jazz magazines. Here the post would never reach me even if you subscribed because someone would steal it! I would ask my friends to carry it by hand and give it to me. All of this has changed and now you just have to search and it comes to you. There’s so much you can do with this boon. But sometimes you’re not guided. Your destination could be just four feet away and you’re staking all your life to get there. This breakthrough project is all about that. Sometimes you need the right guidance to reach your potential.

You’ve had many highs in your career. But if you had to pick a breakthrough moment, something that changed the course of your journey, what would it be? 

My first movie itself. For a new person to get a mentor like Mani Ratnam was great. Whatever I played for him, he’d say, ‘Can you also sing this song AR?’ And I’d say, ‘Sir, if I sing everything they will blame me and say you stay in control and don’t give a chance to anyone else’. Mani Ratnam became like a brother to me. He was like the Spielberg of India to me and even now I feel his ideas are so inspiring for me to work on. It’s a great relationship where he doesn’t throw his weight around. We listen to each other. Sometimes we work on something for three months and throw it out because we came up with a better idea. We’re always thinking of how to get greatness. Sometimes it’s also about going back to something you threw out. Like ‘Tere Bina’ from Guru was thrown out in the first few sessions and we went back and brought it again as a love song.

While mentoring talent, is there anything you learnt from them? Anything that surprised you? 

Yes, that when you’re learning, you have to be an empty cup. Even if you’re getting information that you already know, just listen. Listening is a very good art that can change your perspective. All the stuff you think you know is actually half baked. There’s always more to learn. The more you grab the better. Sometimes kids come in and say, ‘But I already know this’. Your attitude has to be humble.

Subscribe now to our newsletter