While I was waiting for my turn to interview AR Rahman, in the lobby of a five star hotel in Juhu, I found out that I'd been sitting next to his driver, Abbas. Abbas drives him around only when the Academy Award-winning composer has come down from Chennai, where he is based in. We were both there because Rahman is promoting 99 songs—a film he has produced and conceived the story of—that has been in gestation for a long time, and is finally ready for release in October. I inevitably ended up asking Abbas what kind of music his boss listens to in his car. He said that he doesn't listen to anything, unless he is checking the mastering of some track he is working on. In other words, I was 'interviewing' Abbas (without being conscious about it), when the publicist called me in.
The event was the announcement that the album of 99 Songs has been mastered in Dolby Atmos Music. Pankaj Kedia, Managing Director, Emerging Markets, Dolby Laboratories, described the technology as something that "takes the listener as close as possible to what the composer had originally intended"."The artist puts so much focus on every note, every instrument. A lot of times, when it gets delivered through MP3 or whatever, it gets compressed so much that you lose a lot in terms of quality," he said. 99 songs—which features 15 (and not 99) songs—is a fitting film to chose, given an integral part of Rahman's compositions is discovering, with every listen, the many subtle layers that go into it.
I just heard "Jwalamukhi", the song that has been released from 99 songs. Arijit Singh is sounding different, a little raw. When you are working with a singer like Arijit—who is overexposed—do you try to find an untapped part of his voice? I felt you took a similar route with him in "Tum Saath Ho" from Tamasha as well; it sounded like his voice has been recorded in two tracks, and it created this harmony.
Actually for "Tum Saath Ho" he had done two options: one high, one low. Accidentally both went, and I said, 'Wow, that's interesting', and I kept it. So sometimes you have to be open for happy accidents. In this case, it's a male version of a song we already had. We wanted to involve Arijit because…everybody likes Arijit's voice. And when we recorded we felt, 'Oh it sounds interesting, let's arrange it differently', and so we gave it a very trap kind of a vibe. Then Sony listened to it, and said this is the song they want to put out first.
What can we expect from the album in terms of genres?
It's got two different things: one is the soundtrack album, one is his songwriting skills (the protagonist is a musician), which goes from one genre to another and then another; how he progresses internally, his evolution. They go from traditional to ultramodern, and some of them are like jazz and a little bit of classical.
Why do you have a music supervisor for the album?
Because you tend to forget things. Sometimes when a recording is going on in Mumbai and I am in Chennai, that person records and we are on Skype, so the burden is shared. (laughs). And since I am wearing multiple hats on this: producer, writer…
It's not like a full screenplay-driven film where things happen bang-bang-bang… Then you can't experience music; music's experiential. And to do that we needed to have a certain pace in the movie.
How did you decide on the director, Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy? He is also a metal singer.
Yeah. I've never seen him perform. I only saw that show with Vishal (Dadlani) and Imogen Heap, what's it called?… The Dewarists. I was super impressed. I never knew he did it, but it remained in my mind. Chandru from MTV told me that, 'AR, if you are doing a musical movie you should try this guy'. And now Vishesh is like, 'I don't even know who Chandru is'. (laughs). So he had a fan who recommended him. And so then I spoke to him. I saw his his work, it seemed like exactly what the movie requires.
This movie actually slightly different, as in there is a story, but there are things which are left to your interpretation. So there are many sequences in this movie where we didn't spoon-feed. We feel proud of that aspect. Hope people get it. It's not like a full screenplay-driven film where things happen bang-bang-bang… Then you can't experience music; music's experiential. And to do that we needed to have a certain pace in the movie.
So music is the driving force in the narrative?
Yeah, it is.
Do you think, narratively speaking, songs are losing importance in Hindi cinema?
Everybody's into survival, right? We all want the movie to do well, to make 300/200 crores. So definitely there are compromises made. But I wouldn't say that there is one way of making movies. And if you can make something convincing… Like I've got ADD. Even for Parasite—around 45 minutes—I was like, 'Okay let me pause it', but then I thought, 'No no no, it's a good movie'. (laughs). I took a loo break but then I came back. So that way, for anything that is slow, I'd say, 'Okay, can we take this off? We were into that mode of editing while working on 99 songs; we brought it from 240 minutes to 205.
Are today's directors not using songs as an integral part of storytelling?
I think that's happened unfortunately, because directors don't take decisions, several other people are taking decisions. But now it's coming back. For instance, I am working with Aanand L Rai; loving the whole journey, back to adapting some song and putting that again as a theme. So we are having fun again. And they are all feeling the same thing, that in between, something went wrong. I think they are trying to fix that.
I wanted to climb the hierarchy and started producing movies, because I knew this was happening. And by doing this I have my integrity—of at least my work. So I am not at the mercy of anybody else…
What do you think has gone wrong?
It's just that it has become a commodity rather than something with an artistic intention. It's all: Okay I need this song from this composer, this remix from this movie, so then we can market this. What happens is that the soul of the movie goes off, when things are done that way. Like it used to be in some old Southern films: Let's take a sequence from this movie, let's take a sequence from…and finally they make a khichdi. (laughs). But you know it's nice, it's nice to discover, to go wrong and come back again.
Your last Hindi film album was Mom, which was in 2017.
Yeah, in movies you don't know the release dates. I did Dil Bechara. It was supposed to come out last year, and it got delayed; so there are many factors that decide the release dates. Also I had many other things in production. I was directing Le Musk (the Virtual Reality film he is directing); I was taking it to Cannes festival. I was doing many other things which were more enjoyable for me. Harmony on Amazon Prime. Then I worked with Gurinder Chadha on Viceroy's House (2017), and a lot of concerts. So it was fun.
The way things are being done in Hindi film music right now, was that also a reason?
Yeah, in a way, I think. Because some of the movies I worked on, I'd suddenly come to know that No, they are actually using 3 remixes and songs which they had preset. I said Fine. (laughs).
They did that with your films as well?
There are a couple of movies, in which this happened. But then those movies never took off… I think that's the reason why I wanted to climb the hierarchy and started producing movies, because I knew this was happening. And by doing this I have my integrity—of at least my work. So I am not at the mercy of anybody else…
In a way, also, we can give back to the industry. We are proud of Ehan (Bhat, the lead actor of the film). He's already got 3 movies. He's got a training in piano back in our conservatory. So you have a piano player in the house. (laughs).
What's the most exciting music you've heard from India in the recent past?
I am so blank. This is so bad…(laughs) There is so much music coming out, right? There are a couple of kids. Sometimes I see this little girl called Maithili. Just 3 of them sitting in a room playing tabla, singing such beautiful stuff.
Lydian is another example. You see a little kid who's playing almost as good as Lang Lang, who is the most celebrated piano player in the world now. And we have this little kid from Chennai who is as good, going and winning a million dollars from Hollywood and coming back. So all the walls of everything are being broken down. Evolution of the DNA I guess. The next generation is much smarter… I hope they stay pure and don't get corrupted by anything. And they work towards refining humanity rather than going down to the drains.
And film music?
I found the score of Alokananda (Dasgupta, Sacred Games) very interesting. I also tweeted about it. And.. I have not listened much unfortunately, sorry.
Since the practise of getting multiple composers for one film has become the default mode, do you think, as a result, the new composers aren't acquiring the skills needed to compose an entire film?
We can never say.. Each one's evolution is different and they will come up. They will rise up to that level…Maybe there will be a new form coming out, who knows, and the traditional boring stuff will go.
I hope we don't lose out a certain beauty of our tradition, like raga based compositions and, also, refined voices. Now anybody can put a YouTube video, but many voices don't have magic unfortunately. They are talented, they are singing everything, but the voices don't do anything to you. In the olden days—whether it is Rafi saheb, or SP Balasubrahmanyam, or Lata Mangeshkar—they had a quality which was so magical because it was integrated with the recording engineer, the lyric writer and the composer preserving that quality. There was a a certain sanctity in the whole thing, which I think is going. Because anybody can sing now with autotune, pitch correction, but very few things have soul. But I think it'll come; what is good stays, what is bad goes, right? (smiles).