It is one of the most surreal moments when someone tells you to write about an artist you grew up admiring. It took me exactly the same twenty-nine years just like his career span to come face to face with Oscar winner AR Rahman. Thanks to Mr Sethi of G’day India for presenting me with this opportunity – interviewing the maestro AR Rahman courtesy Mind Blowing Films.
I guess Mr Rahman and I are both doing our share of debut. Me for interviewing an academy award winner and him for co-writing and producing his first feature film 99 songs made in three different languages- Hindi, Tamil and Telegu.
Along with Mr Sethi and the mind-blowing film team, we sit ourselves to zoom. Suddenly Mr Rahman lights up the screen with a ‘Hello’, as if we just walked into a movie set. With our interview face on we dive straight into it.
A poised, relaxed Mr Rahman tells us that he has been making music for over 29 years and after the Oscars lot of things opened up, the whole world was in adulation. As a musician, he had the time to learn new things and had access to a whole lot of things. In 2010 the idea for this film came to him like a fairy tale. If one guy was asked to write a hundred songs for a girl. So, he told his friends and they were interested to learn that he had a story. He actually told three different plots on this one story. He was so determined to make this film he took workshops on story writing. As he was already in LA, he had a lot of time. He was already doing a lot of Hollywood movies so he had access to a lot of information and people. Like going to parties and meeting Spielberg and JJ Abraham and Disney. Who does that? Only a Maestro.
Mr Rahman explains, to go deeper into music one gets a certain commissioning like one knows what songs one wants and to get deeper one need to create their own platform. So, writing a story, producing a movie was his challenge to himself to go that deep.
He also wanted to work with someone who saw the world through his lenses and he found a director who believed in his vision. There was a lot back and forth, constantly checking whether people really liked the concept or was it just for his name? As it’s a huge risk working with new names but also rewarding as its one of the most cathartic experience.
Replying to Mr Sethi’s question, why the name 99 songs? Mr Rahman simply explains that it’s a fairy tale of 100 songs. The idea was originally 100 songs, but he was already composing music for the film The Hundred -foot- journey – (Dream works and Oprah Winfrey productions directed by Richard Osmann) he knew people will be confused with the name, thus giving birth to 99 songs.
He assures us that’s the idea for YM movies to make more musical because there are many interesting filmmakers in South India and North India who want to get away with songs pre-set of remixes. Composer going in and doing a whole soundtrack, the respect and investment of time and trust is gone. That’s why he wanted to empower himself by creating a door. In his own words he says, “If there’s not a door then create a door or make a door.” In this day and age, people emphasise money or content as if it’s a factory – a never-ending factory of content. The passion for film making is missing so he wants to do a film that he is passionate about, it is his extension of what he can do. A humble start in a glorious way and bringing out the tradition.
Film making is a team effort, there’s a lot of encouragement and exhaustion that goes with it. Mr Rahman points out that they have taken a certain courageous move; the film is about his personality, his vison and he has found the right team who is willing to see this vision with him. He also explains that if one sees the trailer one can see how ambitious the project is, with the same he requests not to come with too much expectation. I thought to myself it’s the nerves of the writer taking over the musician.
Talking about cinema he says that there are many great voices in cinema – they are amazing! But he wants the audience to see his world, with his voice and narrative. If the audience knows his personality, the way he sees the world then they will know its him his visions in the film.
Then I ask him what is the message he wants to convey with 99 songs that has been made in three different languages. Again, with his humble vision, he sees this like a fairy tale, an engaging cinema and music. The audience has changed. Like things are so much available, even with storytelling at a press of a button people are in Australia or in Korea. He sees this as a new format in storytelling bridging with the younger generations.
In the current climate of COVID and lockdown he still took the risk of releasing the film. To that he says like for many things in life we don’t have answers. Like in his life every time he has a concept he starts doubting himself. Mr Rahman metaphorically gives the example of cloud and rain, for example, if it’s cloudy, it will rain but then again, the concept will still happen. Even with adversaries, one has to full fill their karma. There is a lockdown people are eating because they have to eat, people are breathing because they have to live and people have to entertain because it is about mental health, and discovery. There were so many movies coming out last year so Mr Rahman explains they were waiting and this quietness will set a new dawn.
On casting on his new female lead Edilsy Vargas Mr Rahman explains that there were 600 – 700 auditions and he originally wanted Alia Bhatt for the role. In 2014, he met with Alia Bhatt during a music video Pataka Guddi. He spoke to her about the film, she was interested to hear his narration. But when they started the film it was already 2016 -2017 and by that time she was already a very big name and he knew she wouldn’t have a lot of time. For Mr Rahman and his team, they had already invested a lot of time in shaping and laying the foundation for the film. Ehan Bhat, the lead actor, had to learn music at the music conservatory, piano lessons, and Hollywood for his acting lesson. According to him the foundation has to be very strong not just for this movie but also for the future of his production house.
Mr Sethi asks him what’s so special about 99 songs? Very candidly Mr Rahman replies that there is a lull for a musical in the industry at the moment. It has been almost eight to ten years since Ashique 2 and Rock star. As the trailer suggests with a new writer, director, producer and actors’ writer, he invites us to see the film.
Lastly, Mr Rahman says that he is very grateful for the love that the Australian and New Zealand audiences including radio stations has bestowed on him. He can never forget that. He encourages all of us to support the cinemas its good for us and also the industry and in these challenging and odd times it gives all of us hope. We not only wish his entire team a huge congratulation for pulling this together but I, on behalf of G’day Indian, The Indian Weekly and Mr Sethi cannot help but quote Tagore – “If I can’t make it through one door, I’ll go through another door – or I’ll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.”
By Nandita Chakraborty
For more information visit: www.mindblowingfilms.com