That some directors bring out the musical genius in AR Rahman a little more brilliantly than others is a well-established fact. That Mani Ratnam is the first name that comes to mind, especially for south Indians, is an extension of this well-established fact. But another director for whom Rahman has produced stellar work is Ashutosh Gowariker. (But no, Mohenjo Daro, no one is looking at you.)
This is true of Swades and Jodhaa Akbar but my favourite AR Rahman album is the same as my favourite film of all time—Lagaan. Of course, Lagaan being my favourite film has a lot to do with why I zero in on its soundtrack as my favourite AR Rahman album. I was so obsessed with Lagaan that, for a time, it was tied to my identity. My cousins would text me when it was on TV. People adopted an apologetic tone before revealing to me that they were yet to successfully sit through the whole film. At a recent discussion on the best football teams, I obnoxiously declared that my favourite sports team is the Champaner 11. So, of course, I have watched the film several times. I can recreate scenes from the film and even go so far as to imitate the actors’ inflections in delivering their dialogue. But it is not just the dialogue that has remained with me, it is also the music and the background score.
I have often felt that Rahman’s talent as a composer of background scores is largely overlooked in the face of his grandiose soundtracks. Of course, in general, background score hardly comes to the forefront of discussions on films in India. (Sorry, I could not resist making that pun.) With Lagaan, in particular, the marriage between the soundtrack and the background score is truly one made in heaven, to the point where the background score is as important an element in the narrative as are the screenplay, dialogue and songs.
Strains from ‘Chale Chalo’ resonate through the ground during tense moments in the match. The playfulness of ‘Radha Kaise Na Jale’ tickles you when Gauri is resentful of Elizabeth’s growing friendship with Bhuvan, but all that is forgotten when Bhuvan reassures Gauri that she is the only one for him. And then, the romance of ‘O Ri Chhori’ fills the air.
Even independently, the soundtrack is mesmerising. Eight tracks span a variety of emotions—inspiration, hope, envy in love, desperate pleas to the almighty and, of course, pure romantic love. Somehow, Rahman makes the Indian–Western mishmash in ‘O Ri Chhori’ work. As an adult, I can imagine that, on paper, it probably seemed ridiculous to have Vasundhara Das’s, ‘Oh I’m in love’ alternate with Alka Yagnik’s, ‘Dil se nikle bol more’.
At age 10, having learnt all the songs by heart, thanks to the printed lyrics in the audio cassette’s pull-out sheet, I sang ‘O Paalanhare’ at a family event. It became my song. I am now teetering on the edge of 29, but even today, an uncle brings it up during our singing sessions: “Paru, sing that song from Lagaan!”
I can go on and on about Lagaan and its songs and its background score, but let me end with another personal anecdote. One time, when I was asked to sing, I decided to mix things up a little and sang ‘Ghanan Ghanan’ instead of my usual please-God-help-us-win-this-match entreaty. To this day, it makes me weirdly proud that as I wrapped up the song, singing ‘Kaale megha, kaale megha, pani toh barsaao’ one last time, it was the sound of rain splattering the window that replaced the sound of my voice. That feeling of mine is proof that the harmony between the album and film plays out like a winning partnership between the best batsmen in cricket.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.