I first met him not for one of my own films, but one to be directed by my assistant Shivendra Dungarpur (nephew of cricket supremo Rajsingh Dungarpur). He’d always wanted Rahman to compose music for his film. Now everyone knows how choosy Rahman is about his work and how you really have to chase him to get him to say yes. What’s more, he works according to his own rhythm; you can’t dictate terms to him.
So imagine Shivendra’s excitement when he called me from Chennai to tell me that he’d got the scratch tune from Rahman. “You have to write the lyrics for it,” he told me. When I asked him how soon he wanted it, he told me, like all directors, “Yesterday.” Shivendra had already signed Sanjay Kapoor and Karishma Kapoor for his film and the project was on a roll. “Come down to Chennai to meet Rahman,” he said. So I did.
The first time I saw him I thought Rahman was the exact image of Bal Bhagwan (the baby Krishna) with an innocent smile playing on his lips and his hair scattered all over his face. He was so simple and childlike.
I thought I was meeting him for the first time but later Rahman reminded me that we’d met earlier when I was writing the songs of Sadma with Illaiyaraja; he was an assistant to the great music director then.
The next thing that struck me in his dimly-lit studio was that he was a lone ranger, a one-man studio. He was fiddling on his huge keyboard all by himself and he had just one assistant to plug in his instruments. He liked to work through the night. Rahman’s clock ticks in reverse. Also, he’s a namazi aadmi, extremely religious.
We got down to work. He played me the tune, and to my surprise it was far from scratchy. In fact, it was a complete tune with the mukhda, antaras, hook line, everything. Then he asked me to react to another tune. That’s one of Rahman’s specialities—he never composes just one tune for a situation. He always gives you a multiple choice, unless he’s re-composing one of his own Telugu or Tamil songs. That shows his complete involvement with his work. He isn’t like other composers whose attitude is, okay, the tune is ready, let’s move, book a recording theater, get the singers, record the song, and move on. He takes his time composing a song and that’s why Rahman’s work always makes a mark. There’s a lot of hard work behind it.
The meter of his songs is quite intricate too. There is no set rule and he has his own pattern, unlike the typical Hindi film song. In that sense his compositions and his meter always remind me of Salilda. Salil Chowdhury’s compositions had the same intricate pattern.
Much to my amusement, I found that Rahman’s Hindi was as good as my Tamil—just a few words. Communication would have been a problem if it weren’t for what I call our working national language: English.
Though most people don’t believe me, I can’t sing to save my life. So I encountered some problems explaining to Rahman which words in the song needed to be stressed, how certain words need to be enunciated. Here, playback singer Srinivas, who has sung a lot of Rahman’s Tamil and Telugu compositions, came to my rescue. Srinivas, who has also sung quite a few Hindi songs, sang the scratch version for us to work with till Hariharan arrived on the scene and recorded the song. Later on, every time I had to work with Rahman, I would call upon Srinivas for the scratch singing.
Unfortunately, despite all that work, despite the song being filmed on Sanjay and Karishma, the film was shelved.
But for me, my experience with Rahman had been very enriching. His compositions are like poetry in blank verse and it is a joy to work with him. Rahman’s contribution to Hindi film music is that he has broken the form of the traditional Hindi film song, which had been passed down for decades. I see that kind of innovation in Vishal Bhardwaj’s music today, which is why it’s fun working with him too.
I had to wait a whole year till I got to work with Rahman again. One day, I got a call from Mani Ratnam. The movie was Dil Se. And it was chal chhaiyan chhaiyan all the way for us. But more of that next time.