Back when he hung out more on land and less at 38,000 ft above, A R Rahman had a lair on top of Palace Theatre, London – a Victorian red-brick landmark barely a 6 minute walk from Leicester Square in the heart of the city’s theatre district.
“Andrew (Lloyd Webber) had given me a room there, it was the first time I was away from home. It was cold, dark and full of pubs. I used to walk back to my room at night with no car and driver to pick me up,” laughs Rahman.
It was 2001, Rahman’s first crack at composing for “western sensibilities”. He banged out Shakalaka Baby and more than 10 other tracks that swept up London’s musical scene into its throbbing, tidal wave energy.
“It was a surreal experience,” Rahman says of his first overseas fling.
Bombay Dreams tells the story of Akaash, a young slum dweller, who dreams of becoming a huge movie star, and of his fateful encounter with beautiful Priya, the daughter of one of Bollywood’s greatest film directors.
When Lloyd Webber succeeded with his “Rahman obsession”, critics called the show “the bravest attempt at a West End musical in years.”
London was a “turning point”
“I never knew what a turning point that would become,” Rahman recalls.
This coincides precisely with the time ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ‘ was being filmed.
The London experience, in many ways, became Rahman’s equivalent of Harry’s platform 9 and 3 quarters – from where Harry could walk through a solid brick wall and be transported from the humdrum to the magical, on board Hogwarts Express.
For Rahman, whose success in India came lightning quick but the path to western markets remained arbitrary at best, songwriting on cold nights on top of a Victorian red brick opera house in a strange city sealed his first boarding pass to Hollywood.
At the time, Rahman was 34.
On 6 January, 2015, he turns 49.
In these 15 years, Rahman’s voodoo, among other awards, has won 2 Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire – “that’s enough for a lifetime.”
“The next six months were horrible. All I did was shaking hands with people,” says Rahman.
After the hangover, Rahman has worked the soundtrack for 11 foreign films – from Warriors of Heaven and Earth in 2003 to the latest one, Muhammad.
“Rahman can do a 360 degree turn on any piece of music, it’s difficult to explain to people in the West just what a superstar this guy is,” gushes Danny Boyle.
“I remember the crowds that used to come to watch MGR speak…after that, the first time I saw anything like it is for A R Rahman,” says one of Rahman’s favourite lyricists – Vaali.
Rahman has a simple explanation for the superlatives: “I worked like a slave for the first 14 years. That’s what made me who I am, that’s what made me patient.”
Happy not doing “dancing songs”
As Rahman gets more selective about domestic work, you often hear his die-hard fans complain that they’ve heard so many of his tracks that whatever he comes up with for Indian cinema has a touch of deja vu.
Since Roja in 1993, Rahman has arranged the soundtrack for an entire generation of Indians, at once mystical and frenetic. While devotees play catch up with his seemingly endless repertoire, Rahman has travelled to new gigs – screenplay, philanthropy, more playback, lyrics. He says he’s happier when he’s “not doing dancing songs” and instead mentoring kids at his KM music conservatory in Chennai.
The Rahman moment
These days, the superstar from Chennai is spotted most often on planes to Los Angeles, devouring in-flight movies or humming the next masterpiece into his iphone in a quiet corner.
Like Henri Cartier Bresson gave to photography the decisive moment , Rahman has done the same in song, where he breaks the rules because he has mastered them like no other.
“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera,” said Bresson.
In ARR’s signature songs, there’s invariably a Rahman moment that explodes; but unlike photography, this is melody, giving us a rewind button for the ephemeral.