A.R. Rahman is India’s premier film composer and songwriter. He has written songs and underscore for more than 100 movies by Indian, American, European, and Chinese directors. Notable among his hit scores are those for Slumdog Millionaire, Bombay, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and 127 Hours. He has sold an estimated 150 million records.
The son of film composer R.K. Shekhar, Rahman worked as a studio and back-up musician in India before he began composing jingles. An invitation to score the 1992 movie Roja by rising Indian director Mani Ratnam opened the door to a film-composing career. He has since received Grammy and Emmy Awards as well as countless honors in India.
To build on his foundation in Indian folk and classical music styles, and Western popular music, Rahman studied Western classical music at Trinity College London. His musical palette is seemingly limitless and the appeal of his work defies geographical borders. Also a singer and performer, Rahman has shared the stage with such stars as Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger and headlines his own tours. Additionally, he has collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical Bombay Dreams, staged in London’s West End and on Broadway.
Rahman established his own recording studio in his native Chennai, India, and founded KM Music Conservatory to train young musicians. He is also quietly involved in various philanthropic endeavors. During his brief visit to Berklee in October, (see related story on page 3), Rahman made time for an interview for Berklee today.
Did you have a musical mentor at any point during your musical journey?
[Movie] director Mani Ratnam was like a real mentor for me. He taught me from a director’s point of view how to create music and mix things to click with the people.
Is it true that notwithstanding your early composing work for jingles, you were hesitant to take on your first film score for Roja?
Yes, I felt underqualified to take on a big movie, I felt I needed to learn more. That question, “Can I do this?” always arises whenever anything [new] comes in. But that attitude also propels you to work harder and be more objective about your work.
After the great reception of your score for Roja, were you surprised that so many other directors wanted to work with you?
The thing was, my intention was purely artistic. I didn’t want to do many more movies, I was satisfied that it would be my only movie. It went well and I’d figured I’d quit. But it’s like an addiction when people start loving your work and you get awards. Then you start thinking, “OK, what am I going to do next?”
Were you always interested in a range of musical styles or is that a more recent development?
When I was a studio musician, I looked up to great music. I was in the backing band for [Indian violinist] L. Shankar. In the studio musician’s circle, you sometimes have to play commercial or cheesy music. When you get home, you listen to greater stuff—jazz or [Western] classical or Indian classical music for redemption. So as a kid, I grew up around people in a musical family looking up to greater things. I was also in a rock band in high school. I knew about Pink Floyd, Rush, Freddie Mercury, and Manfred Mann. There was a music shop that would record cuts from different LPs to a chrome cassette and you could take that and listen to all of the music. There were many influences and the dots connected much later.
How many film projects are you comfortable completing in a year?
My process is very painstaking. Sometimes in India, they start a movie and then stop; it’s unpredictable. Sometimes you think a movie is going to take off and you do three or four songs and then the work stops. They might come back after two years and resume.
So you can’t tell which movie is going to take off and which will stop. Sometimes you end up having to deal with a lot of movies at one time. This year was very busy. I had three Hollywood movies and two Hindi releases, and four Tamil releases. I think 1999 was my busiest year. Now I have a great team. I do all of the creative things and they do all the chopping to make things fit with the movie. So I do the core or the creative work, the longer versions of the songs. Sometimes the [editing] takes more time than the actual composing. After 24 years, we have a team in L.A. and two in India: one in Chennai, and one in Mumbai. They are all young people who are learning.
How have you seen the dynamics of film composing change over the course of your career?
In the old days, a composer like John Williams would just play his theme on the piano and Spielberg would say, “That’s great, I’ll see you at the scoring stage.” Now they want to hear an electronic score beforehand. The trust and surprise elements are gone. Now they know what’s going to happen before they get to the scoring stage. But still, when musicians play the score, it’s amazing. But the surprise of a director not knowing what is going to happen is gone. During my first 10 years of composing, the director would be sitting there like an excited child saying, “Oh, that’s fantastic!” I loved that, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
When you’ve done an electronic mockup of a score, have you encountered a director who disliked the sound of a patch and asked you to change the instrumentation?
I’ve run into that, but I respect their opinions because they live with the movie more than we do. I can do five movies a year but the director can do only one. If you give a director a rough version and then you make changes, they may have loved the old way and become convinced that’s how it should go. It takes time for them to understand that the new way is better. There was one song for Lagaan where I played a flute part with a keyboard patch, but at the session I had a real flute play the part. Then [the director] Ashutosh [Gowariker] said he didn’t want the real flute, he liked the sound from the keyboard better and thought it had more feeling. I think we ended up leaving the sampled flute in for that one!
What do you hope the Berklee scholarship established in your name will achieve?
There are so many bright people out there dreaming of coming to Berklee not only for the education, but for the exposure to the culture as well. These students will come to Berklee and then return to give back to India.
What is your advice for people who write music?
Lean into what you are doing and make your music the best. Make it for yourself, something you will be proud of. For me, all the hard work we did as a team in the 90s is paying us back now. We did everything with passion and with whatever level of perfection we could reach. It pays back and people look up to it.
Can you talk about the movie script you are writing?
It will be movie about self-discovery, and the script is almost complete. I am waiting now to find a director. I want to have a music-oriented film company to create music that goes beyond the surface level of songs, singing, and dancing, and integrates what music can really do in a movie. The movie thing is very exciting. A great song in a movie reaches so many people. I have both of the engines; one for movies and one for music. I want to combine both engines and see what happens.