Why AR Rahman embraced Islam, and other pertinent questions: India’s most reticent opens up in an exclusive interview to HT Brunch
That AR Rahman is a man of a few words is a universally known and reluctantly accepted fact. He is a superbly talented musician, but interviewing him is considered a challenge.
Will he speak? Will he not? Will he answer in monosyllables? And if he does, how will I flesh out my 600-word-long copy?
So this Saturday afternoon, I am concerned; I have agreed to conduct a chat with AR Rahman in front of a live audience to launch his first authorised biography, Notes of a Dream by Krishna Trilok. In exchange, I get an exclusive interview and cover shoot for HT Brunch.
‘No questions other than what’s in the book’ I’m forewarned. But armed with an extra-long list of Qs for a reluctant interviewee, that’s not what I’m worried about. It’s the length of his answers!
Talk about it
My first question, AR, is this: knowing your almost obsessive need to say so little, what made a private person like you open up to the idea of authorising a biography? You knew you’d now have to give answers that are more than just ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
AR smiles his shy smile, and begins. “Truth be told, I didn’t know how to frame my sentences earlier. My speaking could not keep up with my thoughts. Music is easy: you can do it with your fingers and heart. Talking is not, so I thought speaking less and working more is better. Also, Krishna [the author of Notes of a Dream] is the son of my friends Trilok and Sharda, who had once introduced me to Mani Ratnam. Having a young guy write this was a double-edged sword. But after I read the first three chapters, I was sold. I knew I had done the right thing.”
The little secrets about you in the book are heart-warming, I say. They’re not technically “secrets”, but they feel like them because we didn’t know this about you. For instance, the fact that you are a cleanliness freak – does disorder make you angry?
AR Rahman laughs, and answers with an anecdote. “I remember this incident from ’94 when we were working on Vande Mataram,” he says. “A German programmer joined us, who was getting paid a lot of money: a 1,000 pounds a day. But for the first two days, he just cleaned my desktop, and did no other work. On the third day, he said ‘I can’t work on this!’ and I thought, ‘You’ve taken my money, and done no work except clean my desktop!”
Does that suggest you’re more orderly only now? There’s a story in the book by your sister Raihanah, who says that even as a boy, when her duties were to clean the house, you showed her how to do it right?
“Actually, that was recent, she must have got confused,” he clarifies. “When we renovated our mom’s house, we put a lot of passion into each thing, including selecting the perfect colour for the walls. She has a room there, and when I saw it after six months, it was a mess. I asked her about it, and she said, ‘But this is how I live.’ I said, we’ve put the house together with so much love; it’s our mom’s house and we have to keep it clean.”
That brings us to the next question: Does AR Rahman get angry? AR tries to sidestep, then concurs: “Passionate people get angry to motivate more than anything else. Otherwise, nothing happens, right?”
Meet Mr Futurist
Another not-so-secret revelation is Rahman’s love for technology. His sisters say: ‘Give him a gadget and he will learn everything about it in a very short period of time.’
“I think they meant the musical ones!” he says with a laugh. “But I must confess: I can learn the most complex synthesizers with algorithms and FM synthesis and resynthesis, but it took me a year to learn the iPhone!”
And drones, we ask. We hear you crashed the first one?
“I crashed five, actually. Not on anybody’s head!”
And you enjoy photography?
“That’s a recent thing,” says AR. “When I was young, maybe 13 or 14, my mom bought me a camera with film, and I was fascinated developing pictures. That must have stayed, so when I did my world tour in 2010, I went to New York’s B&H with my cinematographer Anup Sugunan, and both of us bought the same 5D camera. I didn’t know anything about it, and it was a very slow learning curve. But now I know where to keep the camera to make my face look nice.”
The music of movies
AR Rahman’s newest role is that of a filmmaker. His first project, One Heart, was a documentary on his musical tour, something a lot of musicians indulge in. But to direct a Virtual Reality film that’s different not just in format but also in viewing experience shows how, even at the top of his game, AR is not averse to trying something new.
“Le Musk is a film that came out of a casual chat with my lovely wife,” AR says. “She loves perfumes, and one day, she told me, ‘You’re producing movies, why don’t you do something on perfumes?’ The thought stayed with me until one day when I was on a cruise with some Hollywood friends. We were sailing through the East: Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and travelling with us were Paul Allen, Stevie Wonder, Quentin Tarantino… In the middle of the sea, I got an idea!
“Now, I must say here that before this, I had tried a VR (virtual reality) device. My friend Shanker, whose company owns Odyssey headphones gave me one, and I was least interested. I’m not putting that on my head, I said. But I did, and then realised what it does emotionally to a user. On the cruise ship that day, I sent an email to Grace Boyle – Danny’s daughter – and she said she’s working on Feelies, a multi-sensory cinema. I told her I had a story, and instead of a movie to be screened in a theatre, I wanted to convert it into VR. Is it possible, I asked, and she said, ‘Of course!’”
After commissioning a screenplay, AR says he first shot the 40-minute story with dummies, non-actors, and played it out to people. “The way they reacted made us feel, ‘Okay, now let’s do the real thing!” he says. “During the making of Le Musk, I had a lot of showdowns. The main artists rebelled one day before the shoot; they said ‘What is this script? It’s not going to work!’ We had to say we have tried and tested it, and please remember it is for VR, not for film, so the screenplay has to be this way. After we started they were cool.”
Soon, Intel came on board, and everything fell into place. “They even invited me to Rome Film University to conduct a workshop about this one,” says AR. “The only thing I didn’t realise is that in the case of VR, post production takes a lot of time. We finished in 2015, but we’re still 95 per cent there….”
But AR, when and where will this movie release? “We [will] need to create a whole new way of installing this, [and unlike cinema] unfortunately, this is not a group experience like movies are. And if you ask me whether it’ll make money, I’ll tell you this: I don’t know. But had I thought about making money when I did my first movie, or when I thought of doing West End theatre, or – all ‘not typically commercial drivers’ – I would have been nowhere!”
AR Rahman’s second film, this time as producer, is called 99 Songs. Directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, it is due to release next year. I’ve read that this musical has a little piece of his heart. AR laughs: “Almost every movie that has a musician shows him as a loser. He is kicked out of his house, his wife runs away, he gets into drugs and finally there is a funeral. Amongst families, when someone says ‘My son is a musician,’ they are asked ‘Okay, but what job does he have? This was my original thought. I said, let’s do a story with this perspective, have all the eye candy in it, and challenge myself for the music as well.”
The path to God
By now, I am ready to put to AR the most personal of questions, and his conversion to Islam tops the list.
Born Hindu and named Dileep Kumar (his birth name is mentioned in the biography just once as per AR’s request), we learn that the family changed religions only in the mid to late 1980s, a few years after his father’s death and just before the release of Roja (1992). Also a music composer, his father RK Shekhar died young after a lot of suffering that couldn’t completely be diagnosed. His mother, now Kareema Begum, was a spiritual person, and through her husband’s illness, she visited various temples and churches, consulted holy men and tried every religion-led remedy, to no avail. It is during this time that she met a Sufi preacher, who had a lasting impression on her. A few years after her husband’s death, the entire family “embraced” Islam.
I structure my question with care: The brand of Islam that you follow, AR, is fairly middle of the road. There’s an incident where you and director Rajiv Menon finish work at 4am in London, and go out to find a restaurant. You want halal food, he wants beer. How important is it, especially in today’s context, to not impose religious beliefs on others?
“You can’t impose anything. You can’t ask your son or daughter to not take history ‘coz it’s boring, and to take economics instead, or science. It’s a personal choice,” he says. “What is inside me comes out as my character. I don’t have to tell everyone about it. I don’t tell people what chords I use in my music, do I? I use a Major seven flat and fifth; that makes my music sound great. In the same way, the religious beliefs that make my character are personal. A lot of people have come to me and said, ‘Hey AR, if I convert to Islam will I be successful too? I’m ready!’ I keep quiet. It’s a trick question!”
AR laughs, and I am stunned at the ease at which this reluctant interviewee has opened up. “It’s not about converting to Islam, it’s about finding the spot and seeing whether it presses the button in you. The spiritual teachers, the Sufi teachers, taught me and my mom things that are very, very special. There are special things in every faith, and this is the one we chose. And we stand by it.
“Prayer,” he adds, “has been extremely beneficial. It has saved me from many falls. In between prayers, I think, ‘Oh, I have to pray, so I can’t do this mischief’. People from other faiths do the same thing and are peaceful too. For me, this works!”
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From HT Brunch, November 18, 2018
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