One of the Virtual Reality attractions at Cannes 2019 was a teaser for Scent of a Song, “a musical sensory experience by AR Rahman”. Here’s a random sampling of images from the six-minute clip. A train barreling towards you. The earth seen from space. An eclipsed sun suspended over a serene lake. A giant, silvery moon. AR Rahman in a fedora, playing the accordion. And the heroine of the story, in a variety of poses. She’s so close sometimes, it feels like she’s inside your head. Later, backdropped by what looks like the New York skyline, she sings a song that goes What’s On A Man’s Mind? She also speaks, sounding like a Terrence Malick character. “What does joy smell like?” she asks. “What does fear smell like?” After watching the teaser, I spoke Kevin Doucette, who was manning the stall. He said it’s a revenge story. The heroine’s parents are murdered and she tracks down the killers through smells. She’s skilled like that.
Doucette is an LA-based music supervisor and composer who first collaborated with Rahman on the Slumdog Millionaire world tour. Since then, he has worked on many of Rahman’s film albums. (The first one was the Jab Tak Hai Jaan soundtrack.) He said the idea for Scent of a Song came from Rahman’s wife, Saira, who loves perfumes. At some point, the couple decided a movie with scents made sense, because — why not? As Rahman said while introducing the film at Cannes, if someone says it’s difficult, he says, “Let’s do it.” At specific intervals during the VR film, specially mounted canisters (designed by a Japanese company) dispense a shot of the scent that’s appropriate for the scene. Danny Boyle’s daughter, Grace, was initially involved in the process of creating the scents with Saira. But she got busy, and finally, these scents were created by Saira and her team in Chennai.
Some four years ago, someone handed Rahman a VR headset. He had never experienced the technology before, and being the tech-wiz that he is, he was floored. He sensed new possibilities to tell a story. The result: Scent of a Song, which he has written, produced (it costs some $5 million) and, of course, composed the music for. The approximately 60-minute film has many songs (the heroine is a musician), one of which is a pure jazz number. There’s also Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Rahman’s music will sound very different here because, unlike in a theatre, the audio space isn’t fixed. As the VR image (or actor) moves around in the 360-degree space around you, you will follow the music. It’s called ambisonic sound. But I guess you could also call it AR Rahman. We’ve been following his music for a long time now.