The Alia Bhatt-Starrer Highway: My Favourite A.R. Rahman Album

With technicality, logic, wonder and magic in equal parts, I find it to be A.R. Rahman's best and most inventive album – yet!
The Alia Bhatt-Starrer Highway: My Favourite A.R. Rahman Album

After 2011's Rockstar went down in history as one of the greatest soundtracks to have come out of a Hindi film, February of 2014 saw yet another collaboration between two of the most celebrated South Asian artists in recent times, Imtiaz Ali and A.R. Rahman. The essence of Highway, the product of the collaboration in question, lies arguably in the vast, quite literal distances covered by the infamous truck used in the film, which, I believe, sat in the driving seat of this beautiful music album and, in my opinion, Rahman's finest work.

Each song spells out an otherwise convoluted emotion with care, and contributes immensely to the storytelling process of the film. The album kicks off with the otherworldly warmth of 'Pataakha Guddi', with which Rahman ventures into very familiar Sufi territory, but this time replaces the act of submission to God from heartbreak and desolation with an untamed hope and emancipation. With lyrics that promise protection from her maalik as the protagonist is introduced to a life on her own terms, the inspiriting music nods in reassurance and only builds onto the urge to let everything go once and for all. It is, down to the slightest note, a numinous reminder of who you have on your side, and why it is reason enough to never be afraid to fly free.

Drifting further into the realm of Sufi music is the mesmerising 'Tu Kuja', a humble orison seeking help from the almighty during times of difficulty. In a refreshing adaptation of Maulana Rumi's words, "Tu Kuja, Man Kuja", the translation for which is provided within the song, the lyrics further borrow inspiration from Amir Khusro's "Kirpa Karo Maharaj," and provide an interesting blend of Hindi with Farsi, a rare combination especially in terms of this particular genre. With music as enchanting as the twinkling of stars on a dark night, the song is nothing less than a profound celestial experience.

In 'Maahi Ve', Rahman lends his voice to what, in my opinion, is an indisputable anthem of love and companionship. A composition that characterises the soul of the film, be it the gorgeous valleys and peaks of the backlands, or the spirit of Veera and Mahabir's relationship, the song can become whatever you wish to make of it: a friend, a guide, or even a state of mind. Perhaps what makes it sound so special and affable is that it was never meant to be a song on its own. Previously just an extension of 'Patakha Guddi', 'Maahi Ve' only found its own individual place in the album once the Mozart of Madras decided that it deserved to, and the rest is history.

In 'Sooha Saaha' can be found Mahabir's only place of residence; one that has his fate sealed within. A lullaby that is the intersection between his beginning and his end, 'Sooha Saaha' is comforting in touch, but haunting in its realities. In the latter half of the film, when it is hummed to him by another for the first time in decades, it becomes characteristic of a new beginning, and perhaps a different end. In either case, the song's tranquil tones and umbriferous poetry are a place of respite in an otherwise tiring journey, and a short-lived refuge from the relentlessness of adulthood – be it for Mahabir, or for the listener.

Unlike the rest, 'Kahaan Hoon Main' asks instead of answering. The composer-director chemistry in this particular song is such that as it plays in the backdrop of one of the most intricate developments in the film, and it is very natural for its presence to go unnoticed, but its absence is just as difficult to imagine. The song is crucial in bringing to life the atmosphere of these moments and translating the questions that surround it, and hence, is just as significant a part of the narrative as anything else. Slow in pace, the song leaves room for the introspection it intends, and with near-perfect amounts of self-pity and determination, makes for an easy yet deeply unsettling listen.

Though in a language largely unfamiliar to myself, 'Heera', a rendition of Saint Kabir's couplets, feels cathartic. Rich in violin and tin-bell strains, it is a quaint and pleasant song.

As the album moved closer towards risking monotony, in came 'Wanna Mash Up?' and changed everything. Though in strong contrast to the nature of the film, the song fits in almost seamlessly when played with due context. It is a refreshing addition to the track list, and makes you realise why Rahman decided to compose a song instead of picking a pre-existing English track. It is dynamic, groovy and fun to dance to: what more could one ask for!

For me personally, the one piece that encapsulates Rahman's magic best is 'Implosive Silence'. As the name implies, implosive silence is the peace and quiet surrounding the bodily-form of an individual harbouring a storm within, and once heard in the setting of the film, becomes hard to detach from it. With no lyrics at all, the tune is lent words by all that it is resonant with, such as the dilemmas that bombard Veera's mind throughout her journey, and quickly becomes the sound of the film in the truest sense of the phrase. The song, a humming of 'Kahaan Hoon Main' in reverse, is raw and mellow, an emotional-cross between happy and sad. With its dream-like mystique, it finds itself a prominent place in an album full of gems.

In an era where innovation and artistic virtuosity have hit rock-bottom, Rahman's music lets you hope and dream. An album like Highway is rare. Not only does it define its course through the film remarkably well, but also has each song flow into the other in a manner that is graceful. This way, every song in the album, in one way or the other, carries distinct elements of the rest. Though one may argue that the album does not stand out so much on its own, for a film originally intended to have only background-music, it does an incredible job at seeping into the narrative, and doing so while simultaneously telling a story of its own. It gives you deep insight into the layers of the film, yet is pleasant and easy to listen to. With technicality, logic, wonder and magic in equal parts, I find it to be A.R. Rahman's best and most inventive album – yet!

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