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Dil Se - The Biggest movie to Hit India In 1998

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A N   I N T E R V I E W

by v.s.srinivasan

He used to be like that -- quiet and soft-spoken as he let his music speak for him. But A R Rahman, India's most famous and most expensive music director, has changed. Either that, or V S Srinivasan caught him in an expansive mood when he was in Bombay recently.

Rahman, hidden behind a stubble, was only recognisable because of his innumerable rings, talismans and ever present cheeky smile. He has become savvier, more Bollywood-ish. "What do you mean by Bollywood-ish?" he asks innocently.

How does one tell him that his creativity seems to have diminished? That he is lifting tunes from Beethoven and Mozart once too often? That he is recycling old tunes? That the man who never copied himself is now copying others? One seems to have touched a raw nerve -- the Rahman who smiled away accusations of having lifted his own tunes two years ago now frowns and tries to justify himself.

He has come a long way from the struggling Dilip Sekhar whose only assets were the musical instruments willed to him by his father. A conversion to Islam and a reputation as the music director who created the craziest ad jingles transformed his life forever. It did not take long for Mani Ratnam to offer him Roja. After which phenomenal success, there was no looking back. As he moved on to super-duper hits like Bombay, Gentleman, Kadalan, Minsaara Kanavu, Pudhiya Mugam, Rangeela, Duet, Thiruda Thiruda, Hindustani and Sapnay.

Lately, of course, there has been the occasional flop like Daud, Love Birds and Kabhi Na Kabhi. But they have been offset by the phenomenal success of Vande Mataram -- Maa Tujhe Salaam. And Dil Se.. which was released across the country on Friday, has received rave reviews for its music.

A R Rahman
How would you rate the music of Dil Se..?

I have tried to be different from what I have composed earlier. At the same time, I have followed Mani Ratnam's instructions and concept. Mani is very happy with the final product.

Mani Ratnam has been very influential in shaping your career...

I owe my success to Mani's Roja. He had asked me to create music that would appeal to the nation, which is exactly what I did. And it worked. Success and failure are but two sides of the same coin. I had scored good music earlier too, but Roja got me the fame. It is all the will of Allah. Bombay followed, as did Rangeela, Gentleman, Hindustani, Chor Chor, Hum Se Hain Muqabla and Jeans.

Then why do you copy music?

Uhh! Copy? I don't copy. Music from the same raga always sounds similar.

Doesn't Roop suhana lagta hai from Gentleman and Dil hua hai deewana from Bombay sound similar? Moreover, isn't Verapandya kottayile from Thiruda Thiruda (Chor Chor) the same tune on a higher octave?

Oh, is it? (He shrugs.) They may be the same, but I haven't realised it. I am not here to try and copy anyone. I try and give different music.

Do you think your music sounds similar because you work in loops?

Oh! You seem to know my style well. I always try and compose more youthful music, music that could lend a lot of meaning to the film. Music is an integral part of the film. You can tell the story just by using music. Don't you feel I have changed my style of music after Rangeela?

Many of the Bombay-based music directors think so. They also feel you have become predictable.

(Rahman frowns for the first time and shrugs again.) Many of these so-called music directors keep on copying from me. I cannot take them to court for that. They lift my music from a Tamil film and use it in a Hindi film. That's what is called lifting a song. If you feel that my songs sound similar, that's because it is my style.

Which means that Rahman has become predictable.

That's exactly my point. You call it predictable, I term it as my style. They are ways of looking at it. If you call my style predictable, that means you have understood that Rahman has been dealing with a particular brand of music alone. Once you hear the music, you know it is has been composed by Rahman. That is what I am all about. That is my identity; that is the identity of my music.

But, then, as I told you earlier, I am trying to change all that. I have much bigger critics in the south who rip me apart whenever they get the slightest opportunity. After all, I am creating music for the common people. So I have to give them my best. As long as they are happy with what I am giving them, fine. If they feel that they deserve something different, I will give it to them. After all, they have a right to listen to what they want.

How did Vande Mataram happen?

Bharat Bala and I are schoolmates and have worked together in over a hundred jingles. Bharat was earlier making small films. One day, he approached me with the idea of Vande Mataram. I liked the idea very much. I accepted it because it gave me an opportunity to work with a great musician like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. We worked very hard on the music and the concept and the effort paid off. Bharat and Kanika's idea clicked well. We got a great response. I was happy because I got to do something that was different.

And we got to see the other side of Rahman -- the actor who posed in front of the camera.

(Smiles) It was a different experience for me. It was fun. Initially, I was nervous and refused to go before the camera. Bharat told me not to be childish and I had to go ahead. All in all, it worked out very well.

What is your opinion about the current trend of pop music and of actors who are trying to sing their own songs?

Pop music is an international phenomenon. If the right people enter this field, it will certainly be good. As for actors singing their own songs, I would say it is essential that every actor know to sing. If he does, then he can do a much better job on camera when he is acting the song out. But I don't think actors should sing too many songs unless they are very good at it as we have many good singers in Indian cinema.

The music of Priyadarshan's Kabhi Na Kabhi was more of a letdown except for the title song which, finally, was not seen in the theatres.

Yeah, I was told that the song wasn't shown in some theatres. But, then, one can never get 100 out of 100 from the audiences. The audience is, as Kamal Haasan often says, a multi-headed creature. We have to feed every mouth with a different item. Finding something that will appease all the heads simultaneously is very difficult. Still, I try and give music that will make everyone happy at all times. I am just a human being and my keyboard is just a machine. Insha Allah (if god wills), I will continue to give good music that will make everyone happy including you, my dear critic.

You charge a lot for every film. It is said you charge Rs 10 million for a non-Mani Ratnam film.

(Goes on the defensive again) No, no, not Rs 10 million. But I do charge what I am worth. I give quality stuff and if people want me, and they want my kind of music, they pay for it. So what's so wrong about my fees?

What makes Rahman click?

It is all the will of Allah. I just do my bit and leave the rest to Him. It is He who decides the fate of us mortals (smiles).