To the cultural art brigade, the Jai Ho song from the Danny Boyle directed Slumdog Millionnaire that earned composer A R Rahman the Oscar, may have left many wondering about its quality or whether it really was worth the laurels since Rahman has composed far superior compositions to earn the sobriquet Mozart from Madras.
But clearly, even after 6 years since it earned the Best Original Song Oscar in 2009, celebration of his unique talent hasn't ended, as a documentary film Jai Ho that encapsulates Rahman's journey both personal and professional, continues to charm us. After all, how many composers from India have roads/streets named after them? That too in another land - Canada? Or how many Indians have made it internationally? Really and truly? The names of sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, conductor of western classical music Zubin Mehta, sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan figure prominently in the list of internationally acclaimed Indian musicians. But from among the present generation of composers if there is one name that emerges as a living legend who defies traditional musical conventions to create most notable works, it is the one and only, the worldwide sensation Allah Rakha Rahman, or just Rahman, as he is more popularly known as.
The documentary film Jai Ho commissioned jointly by the PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting trust) and The Public Diplomacy Division or PD of the Ministry of External Affairs and directed by the Delhi-based documentary filmmaker Umesh Aggarwal traces the history of Rahman's childhood all the way to his global success at a time when the world recognizes his unmatched talent as 'brilliant," "one of the most important composers of this era," and as Hollywood film director Danny Boyle puts it, "the invisible piper."
Watch: Trailer of documentary Jai Ho
When the National Award Documentary filmmaker, Aggarwal decided to make a film on what everyone would fondly call, the Mozart, it was a daunting task to make a film on someone who is "reticent, shy and answers in monosyllables." And just before the film was screened for the Delhi audiences this Tuesday we were warned by the director of the film that the subject of the film "rarely speaks" and we also asked "to figure out on our own" how much Aggarwal could extract from the Chennai-born arranger song writer, conductor and music director. To our surprise, there is enough of Rahman's sincere self-analysis, his humble background, his faith, his family, his conversion et al, spoken with utmost candidness. In fact, so straight- forward Rahman is throughout the 90-minute duration of the film that one wonders what the tone and tenor of the film would have been if he was more articulate. Or if there was a trace of conscious and crafty verbalization on Rahman's part to sound more appealing to people. But then, outwardly or inwardly, this maestro cannot be anything but simple, uncomplicated and unassuming.
For Aggarwal, whose idea to make a film on the renowned composer was primarily "to celebrate India and present Rahman on the world platform" there were some moments of awestruck marvel of Rahman's humility that came to the fore while filming. He also discovered nuggets from Rahman's life like how he watches a film: with the sound button on mute. For Aggarwal the most challenging part was to get Rahman's consent. And once he got the nod, he travelled with him to his studio in Los Angeles to catch him live on film making music for his project with Steven Spielberg. He also shot at Rahman's music academy in Chennai.
Aggarwal also gives us a glimpse of the now 49 year old music director's dropping out of school, and his struggles to make it big as also his life after fame, besides an insight into his personal life comprising his three sisters, mother wife and three children..
How he re invents himself and how his sound engineering catapults him to meteoric heights can be best understood if one gets to comprehend the person behind such creative compositions. Thus the film has many singing paean to his forte. If, on the one hand, many of the stalwarts from Bollywood who have worked with him like Shekhar Kapur, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Alka Yagnik, Ashutosh Gowariker, Aamir Khan have some great words of praise about his genius others like directors Mani Rathnam, Subhash Ghai, Ram Gopal Varma and singer Alka Yagnik have interesting anecdotes to share about his rather "eccentric behavior" at times. They recall with fondness how his unconventional attitude towards work made them sit up and take note of his mastermind and brilliance, but only after finding him somewhat of an oddball. Rahman's penchant for recording at night has many a tales that gives some of Bollywood's playback singers the jitters and such stories merit another film.
Gulzar highlights Rahman's breaking away from the traditional format of a song while either going back and forth with the interlude or all along changing the patterns and the refrain. Yagnik on her part "has always been intrigued by his compositions," she says. "I recorded the Taal song (Dil yeh bechain ve….) and didn't think much of what I had recorded since I was made to sing a couple of lines here and there and asked to improvise…It was only when I heard the song that I realized what he does with his orchestration."
We also come to know that the English composer and impresario of theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber while collaborating with Rahman on his pet project Bombay dreams, was not just made to take his shoes off at the time of recording in his own studio, but also had to break a coconut as a mark of an auspicious beginning of any new event or project.
These and many other such almost intuitive understanding of this self-effacing abound in the documentary. What we don't get to know is any criticism about his style, if any. Neither do we hear much about his mentor Illayaraja or the odious comparisons with him. Obviously the undiscriminating film has no negative judgements. At one level, it does seem like an admirer and a devotee following his hero. Even if one ignores such minor flaws, what is definitely missing are words from some of other Bollywood greats like the Mangeshkar sisters who have both worked with him many times, and comments from other Hindustani and Carnatic Classical musicians and fusion artists.
Nevertheless, for a mainstream Indian composer to experience such fame glory and the big bucks, is unprecedented. Perhaps, his pop icon celebrity and legendary status is changing the way people look at India. And Indian talent. The world is listening to him, and clearly so. The fans of this two Grammy awards and two Academy Awards all over the globe seem to be growing.
What remains unchanged is his retaining the humility of a common man, as he also says, "No amount of stardom will ever consume my soul and I will always remain a common man."