He has proved that music may have languages but not boundaries. Here's the reticent A.R.Rahman, who has left no award unturned in the last six months, in a midnight chat from Chennai that brims with rare candour.
For two years in succession, you have clinched both the Best Music and Best Background Music Screen trophies. What do you have to say about this unique achievement?
I always feel that nothing can be planned, and sometimes things just fall into place! Just a few years ago, a lot of things seemed to be going off-track. Mani Ratnam's Lajjo, Shyam Benegal's Chamki and Krishna Shah's Baiju and one or two other musicals were wonderful subjects that inspired me then - and none of them even took off! On the other hand, Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na that got me your Best Music trophy this year was almost shelved - till Aamir Khan took over its production. Last year, a lot of my films came all together - Jaane Tu..., Jodhaa Akbar, Yuvvraaj, the music of Ada, Ghajini and then Slumdog Millionaire. So I have stopped expecting anything in life. If good things happen, it's okay, but if they don't, at least you are not frustrated! (Laughs).
Do two background music trophies indicate that the background score is gaining more importance nowadays?
Background music is something that needs ten times more energy than making songs. You can do songs for four more films in the time you take for composing a background music score for just one movie! In the West, they are amazed that in Indian films the same person composes both the songs and the background score. But over here, whether it was Naushadsaab in Hindi films, Ilayaraja down here or most other composers, we have had this tradition almost as a culture. Speaking for myself, I like to do both and it is about my credibility and sometimes when I get both right, it is a great high for me
Why do you use the word "sometimes"? Why are you so modest, almost Bachchan-esquely so, in your statements?
I have so much to learn and so much to achieve. And things can go wrong despite hard work so often. You can't orchestrate results and the magic just happens sometimes. When it does, every aspect of the film and the music blends together, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally!
Well, sometimes you are trying to do your part right and it may or may not happen. Or things can just go wrong elsewhere. Just one slip - like in an expression on the face of one actor, or in the way a director expresses himself, or even some technical point can prevent everything from falling in place. So when everything turns out perfect, as in my Tu hi re in Bombay or as in Pyar kiya to darna kya in Mughal-E-Azam, you feel blessed like an angel.
Gulzarsaab tells us that you light a candle when your singer enters the recording cabin. Have you always done this?
I began to do it after my first visit to Khwaja Gharib Nawaz at Ajmer Sharif. The candles lit there have an effect I cannot describe. In my studio too, it is so inspirational and organic amidst all the electronic gadgets.
He also tells us that over the decade since you first worked with him in Dil Se..., you have become much more familiar with the Hindi film mijaaz or temperament. Would you agree?
I have become more conscious of the language. Subhash (Ghai)ji and some others made me conscious about that when I began working with them. I always had this belief that music has no language and that a tune could be converted by extraordinary lyrics into a great song in any language. But Subhashji taught me otherwise. In Taal, Anand Bakshisaab wrote most of the lyrics before I made the tunes. The same was the case with The Legend Of Bhagat Singh and Sameerji. I realised that you cannot express certain words just anyhow. The elongation of syllables or of words - the syntax, that is - is something that is peculiar to every language. So I am learning Urdu for the last 2-3 years and my Hindi vocabulary is also up by 40-50 per cent!
And did that also apply to English?
English was easier for me, though when I took up Bombay Dreams, I did not know whether I could pull it off. But I managed, I think, though the first song, Journey home, was already made before I took up the project. And with the passage of years, as you get the time to evolve and be more of yourself, you begin to learn which song to hold back, even if you have liked it yourself, when you are offering a director your compositions.
How upsetting is it when a film like Delhi - 6 does not work and your music does not get its due?
Initially I would find such a contingency very painful, but now I have learnt to be detached. I explained to myself that the next assignment is waiting and that you can't spoil it by brooding on this but should aim to score there instead! With Rakeyshji, I was very happy with both Rang De Basanti and Delhi-6, but when a film does not work I think that all of us should admit that we have gone wrong somewhere. Music alone may not have ever helped a film become a hit, but it is definitely one of the major factors.
And yet, even success or failure of a film is relative: I know people who have watched Dil Se... 30-40 times just for one sequence and I know of people who loved Delhi-6. Like I said, it's all about the right timing. Society's state of mind and its concerns are all important. People do not like darkness in films now because I guess there is so much of it in real life! (Laughs)
And coming to Slumdog Millionaire, a cliche that you will have to answer again for us, Did you expect the film and your songs to reach where they have?
No way! (Laughs). But yes, I loved the film when I watched it. All I was thinking about is that I wanted to work with a filmmaker as loved and respected as Danny Boyle. There was something strangely positive about the film - I remember feeling inexplicably relieved at the end of the movie.
So you worked on the music after the film was complete.
Yes and after putting in the songs Danny re-cut the film.
How did you get the idea of working with M.I.A.?
I find her an extraordinary artiste who makes political statements with her music. Some years back, she had come down to record her music at my studio because she needed some specific kind of percussion and had expressed a wish to work with me then because she liked the energy in my music. At that time, I was busy. But when this opportunity arose, I naturally took it.
How do you react to Indians slamming Jai ho as nowhere compared to your best songs, even though its versions abroad have rocked charts too?
Well, I had to make something that was right for the film. It wasn't a situation that demanded a Beethoven's Symphony or a Ba-ba black sheep! Composing for films is not about showing the world what you can do. You have to get something right first and then try and excel in it. The reverse way would be disastrous.
The other criticism is that you have reworked Choli ke peeche from Khal-Nayak as Ringa ringa. But despite the story you gave to a section of the press, it just had a similar flavour.
I was misquoted in that story - I never said that I was remixing the song. I only said that I was influenced by that song as the most important anthem of the 1990s, which is the era being shown when Ringa ringa is playing in the film. That was the reason why I chose not to compose a completely diverse song for this situation and also why I took the same singers - Alka Yagnik and Ila Arun. It was my ode to Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Subhash Ghai and the song's team.
Digressing a bit, don't you feel that Subhashji's Yuvvraaj was very underrated among your scores from last year?
I agree. Of late, Subhashji has been repeatedly unlucky - in the 1990s, I was to do a fantastic subject called Shikhar with him. In 2003, there was Motherland. Neither film took off. And now it is Yuvvraaj, on which we worked for almost two years and made some extraordinary songs, that went unnoticed for various reasons, while Slumdog..., on which I worked for two weeks, went so far. Life can be so unpredictable!
And what were your first thoughts when you won first one trophy and then another - and we do not mean the words you spoke at the Oscar ceremony where you also have to keep in mind the audience?
I was extremely happy that my mother, my wife and my sister Ishrat, who is a singer, were all there with me. Such occasions are less about personal happiness and more about what precious people around you, especially your family and friends, feel. My first thought when the first award was announced was nothing - my mind went blank since I was due to sing in some 20 seconds! (Laughs) When the second award was declared, I just wanted to take the trophy, go into my room and sleep!! (Laughs again). The one week of anticipation, rehearsals and tensions all dissolved into that!
And what do you feel - sorry again for the cliched query - about being the first Indian to clinch two Oscars?
I can't gauge anything now - maybe I will know after a couple of years. Let's see what good things come out of it.
And now we have so many fans in India depressed because you will be working here for a less here.
(Laughs) Honestly, after Bombay Dreams I had scope to do work outside but never used the opportunity. I was not ready then - not that I am ready now! (Chuckles) - but I came back here then and as it happened did some pretty ordinary work! But now I want to work there - for me, it's more about developing relationships, collaborating, culturally connecting and doing the right organic stuff. I have an agent there and have taken up one major assignment that I can reveal only after a while because of a non-disclosure clause in my contract. All I can say is that it is a proper American film that will also demand music of the kind that I am at home with.
And what are the Indian films in your bag?
I have Anthony D'Souza's Blue, Mani Ratnam's Ravan, Abbas Tyrewala's 1 - 800 - Love and one more film. In Chennai. I have Robot and the animation film Sultan with Rajnikanth and a film with Gautham Menon.
What changes do we get to see in your music after the Oscar win?
There will not be a change in my music but I have to be more careful - because I guess my music will be noticed by more people now. I guess we have to culturally accommodate as much as we can. There is definitely a sense of pressure but that's good. Good music always comes with honesty and when made directly from the heart and by being conscious of melody.
A lot of new composers have come in of late. Have any of them impressed you?
I like their spirit and also their desire to experiment. At the same time, however, I miss excellent melodies and life-changing lyrics in today's music and I am looking forward to hearing some of those. Lyrics, for example, should be much more than about Soniye and Maahiya! The new music directors must also realise that it is a team that consolidates your work - you need a director who understands you. Ismail Darbar got one in Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in Farhan Akhtar. A composer cannot be like an island. The director has a huge hand in decisions about both creativity and also dignity - dignity about what you should and should not do, about a mission for reviving something good and other firm convictions.