AR Rahman, Music

Rahman 2 Dot Oh

Indian music changed in 1992.

It’s fairly obvious that every musical milestone since that year has had one man’s shadow looming large over it. From the sheer de-genrification of film music; the price of audio cassettes – it was Rahman’s Rangeela that pushed the price point to Rs 30, and then Hindustani to 32, and so on; the prominent display of the music director’s credentials in the publicity stills for films; a new generation of fresh, unconventional voices; an infusion of musical trends that were several levels above copying the latest Billboard Top 20 hit; even the move from cassettes to audio CDs, A.R. Rahman and his music has influenced Indian Film Music like no one before him. A lot of people would disagree – hey, individual opinion and all that – but if your ears cannot detect the difference between pre-Rahman film music and what came after Roja, our discussion is pretty much moot.

Over the years, Rahman’s contemporaries have picked up and internalized the superficial aspects of his musicmanship – the use of technology to layer sounds and to smoothen the harsh edges of any voice or instrument, the melding of a Western ensemble with a traditional lead instrument, employing sequenced bass and drumlines. The older guys – Anu Malik, Nadeem-Shravan ( when they were still around), Jatin-Lalit –  they quickly came up to speed with the changing aural taste of the populace, employing the help of resident techmeisters – Tabun Sutradhar, Ranjit Barot et al- to polish their tunes and add that extra vim to their otherwise humdrum compositions. The new guard that followed – Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, Pritam, Harris Jeyaraj – took the template that Rahman had perfected over the decade, and applied it everywhere. What this has wrought is – sometimes, these people can out-Rahman Rahman, using just the right kind of orchestral flourishes with saccharine-sweet tunes, perfectly blending east and west into a musical muesli. Music that is gelatineous, easily-digestible; tunes that run through your brain, find its pleasure centers, hit the right neurological spots; songs that exist for the few weeks they run on the telly, and are then vaporized by the next aural offering on the air. They are, and then they aren’t.

So that brings me to the question that’s been bothering me for quite sometime – what’s next?

Rahman’s obsession with aural perfection continues, his newer soundtracks going boldly where no Indian composer has gone before. On a good day, ARR’s musical skill is unparalleled, his proficiency at his craft, the way he is attuned to an evolutionary sound that must meet a particular standard he has set for himself – all of these are beyond doubt or question. The man has proved himself over and over again all these years, and it would nearly be criminal to assume that his well of creativity is about to dry up anytime in the future. But this unrelenting obsession with crystal-clear sound – what does it lead to? What will a film song sound like in ten years?

In some ways, the fall-out of the Rahman Age of Music is the antiseptic nature of the musical package we hear around us. I hear the sheen of the voices, the precise cutoff of the violins, the perfectly looped beats, the synthetised warmth of the pads embellishing the music with pleasant chord progressions in the background. An example – listen to the title track of Rang De Basanti, where Daler Mahendi’s robust earthy voice is jostled playfully by Chitra’s tinkly pitch, punctuated with a multitude of Punjabi-sounding “aha”s. But listen again, a little carefully. The beat of the dhol is incessant, yet non-intrusive. The notes on the thumbi are flawless. The pads, when they come in, round off the song excellently.The song is bubbly, it makes you want to dance, but it’s manufactured in such a way that it evokes the spontaneity of a Max Martin number. Martin, for the uninitiated, is a Swedish music producer who provided the trademark sound for a number of Britney/Backstreet Boys/NSync albums in the early nineties.

One of the Ramones ( just went and checked, it was Tommy, the drummer) once made a comment in an interview about how, following the musical innovations of the 60s, the scene was inundated with a number of wannabe Jimi Hendrixes, none of whom could match up to the legend. What they ended up with was endless guitar solos – and punk rock came out as a reaction to that, the need to have pure, stripped-down version of rock n’ roll. This new music did not just distance itself from the Hendrix-Beatles-school of virtuoso guitar-and-word-play, it pissed all over it and created something completely new.

The more I think about it, the more I see Amit Trivedi, member of a little-known band called Om and a new entrant to the Indian film music scene as the next logical progression of Indian film music. He’s just two films old, but those two – and a couple of stray songs in private albums here and there – are enough for me to arrive at that conclusion. The first time I noticed Amit Trivedi’s music – without knowing it was by him – was when I heard a song sung by Indian Idol-winner Abhijit Sawant. Sawant had previously released a generic, yawn-inducing album as part of his Sony/BMG contract, and when the trancey Junoon’ began to play on TV, it was like hearing a different person altogether. There was a husky undertone to his voice, and a feel hard to describe in words – like the guy knew how good the composition was, and was giving it a personality that it deserved. The song made use of the distortion guitar as a new-agey, post-rock-flavored instrument; the 4/4 beat, played on a classic drum-kit, was almost classic rock n’ roll, and the intoxicating, rhythmic lyrics pushed it into squarely into the genre we call Sufi rock. I assumed that the composer was Mithoon, an up-and-coming composer specializing in importing Pakistani music into the Bhatt camp by the barrel, and almost concluded that it was another of those imports.

A friend went and watched Aamir, a film that ran for a long time in local theatres, getting good crowds and favorable press. To my surprise, she went to Music World during lunch the next day, and bought the soundtrack. “That good?”, I asked, and borrowed it off her after she ripped the music to her laptop. After forgetting all about it for a few weeks, I finally took the CD out of my bag and gave it a listen. And another. Brilliant, unconventional songs. Voices rawer than sushi in an authentic Japanese restaurant. ( I suck at analogies, thank you ) That’s when I was first astounded by Amit Trivedi and his musical choices. ‘Haara’ and ‘Chakkar Ghumyo’ are songs that Trivedi sang himself, in a voice that, I shit you not, oozes with unselfconscious chutzpah. Make of that what you will. I saw the film, my respect-o-meter went all the way up to eleven. The slightly irritating tics in the music – like a particular drum riff in the song ‘Haara’ that got on my nerves – actually made sense in the way they were introduced and used in the songs in the context of the visuals.  – ”Haara’ ended up giving me the goosebumps. Obviously, the low-budget trappings of Aamir ensured that both the film and its music were little-known gems of 2008.

Obviously, it’s the eighteen-track genre-mashup called Dev D that has brought Amit Trivedi to the forefront of the music scene, a universe removed from composers churning out disposable Soni-mahiya pap. Dev D has its own share of Punjabi numbers, but it’s a far cry from the pop bhangra that tries to pass off as the real thing in film music. Trivedi has Labh Janjua, a singer primarily known for the chartbusting Mundian Toh Bachke Rahe and a number of stray songs in Hindi films in 2007-08, sing a rollicking bhangra number (‘Hikknaal’ ) and a song (‘Mahi Mennu’) that has two versions – a primarily vocal track, and the other a raucuous beatfest that throbs with a primal energy of its own. Shilpa Rao’s dulcet vocals glide over ‘Dhol Yaara Dhol’ ( the song apparently got Trivedi his gig with Anurag Kashyap, who in turn introduced him to Rajkumar Gupta, the director of Aamir ), and a multitude of unknown voices – Aditi Singh Sharma, Toshi, Joi, Anusha Mani – proceed to shower your aural senses with a plethora of musical wonders. Trivedi and his voice take centre-stage in some of the most entertaining songs I’ve heard in a long time – ‘Duniya’, ‘Aankh Micholi’, ‘Saali Khushi’ and ‘Nayan Tarse’ are not songs that hit your pleasure-centers immediately. They sound and feel rough, woven out of homespun cloth; the very antithesis of your typical Rahman song that evokes satin and velvety down. The beginning of ‘Duniya’ in particular is a complete assault on your average film-music mind, where Trivedi mixes the sound of an accordian ( or is that the much-maligned harmonium?) with a caterwauling chorus. The drums kick in with the frenzy of a demented 12-year old, tripped up on crystal meth. Trivedi layers his voice over and over in his own songs,  adding interesting – often debauched – counterpoints to the lines he spits out. (Note for instance, how the second disembodied voice says “Zindagi” after every line in ‘Aankh Micholi’, almost as if it’s struggling to find the correct scale to latch on to, and manages to, but just barely) Bereft of slickness, artificial sweeteners, or familiar musical cues. Raw.

It’s not as if Trivedi’s music is completely rough and earthy, far from it. The two Dev-Chanda themes, one a whistling melody backed by delicate piano tinkles, the other a playful scat with the male and female vocalists complementing each other, as a mandolin trills in the background – are examples of how ethereal the soundtrack becomes at times. The first of these themes beautifully segues into ‘Dil Mein Jaagi’ by Anusha Mani, with shades of orchestral music and the opera. Much has already been said about the two versions of the song with possibly the catchiest title of the decade, and everybody and his uncle has seen and heard the surreally-shot ‘Pardesi’. The one track that hits the pleasure centers from the first second is Shruti Pathak’s ‘Paayaliya’, its vocal percussion gelling splendidly with the veena, the song a brilliant blend of east and west.

With two films down, both with directors who seem to know exactly what they want, it’s probably too early to make a sweeping statement about Amit Trivedi’s career. So far he’s been in his comfort zone, working in close collaboration with lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, experimenting with fresh voices, doing his own thing. It’ll be interesting to see how his style  – if you can call it that, at this stage – evolves with his subsequent offerings. Will he sustain the manic energy in his sophomore album? A lot depends on the films he signs – I can see him carve a niche for himself with gonzo directors like Kashyap. A true test would be a Yashraj Productions film, a cinematic house that has reduced S-E-L, Vishal-Shekhar and Salim-Sulaiman to interchangeable drones.The Next Big Thing in Indian Film Music? Rahman 2.0? Only time will tell. He’s the only composer after AR Rahman who’s excited me so much ( Vishal Bharadwaj, technically, is not just a composer) and hopefully I’ll be following his career with interest in the years to come.

AR Rahman, Music


Isn’t it irritating when a tune you hear reminds you of another bit of melody from some corner of your musical memory, and inspite of repeated attempts to map the older tune, its just impossible to figure out where it’s from?

This happened to me with ‘Sahana’/’Sahara’, one of the songs in Sivaji, present on the CD in two versions – one by Udit Narayan and Chinmayee ( the lady who sang ‘Tere Bina’ in Guru), and the other by Vijay Yesudas and Gopika Poornima. The opening tune was SO SO familiar when I heard it, but I distinctly remembered hearing the tune on orchestral violins, and a number of times over the last couple of days, I tried humming it to myself to figure out where exactly I had heard it. Was able to pinpoint it to the correct genre, it was definitely from a piece of Indian film music, and knowing Rahman, it was from one of his earlier compositions. That was as far as I got, until just now, the skies opened and I knew what the tune was.

It was the closing theme of Dil Se, a melancholy tune that was my ringtone for a couple of months back in 2003 or thereabouts. It creeped out quite a few people in my office, but I loved it, and even downloaded a proper mp3 version when I could. And that also explains why I didn’t figure out a Rahman tune – background soundtracks are excluded from the RAT ( Rahman Acknowledgement Time) factor. I still win!

The feeling of relief I have now is like the aural version of the experience of having removed a bit of food stuck in your teeth after dinner.

Albums, AR Rahman, Music

Muhuh Thuhuh **

The first thing everybody says about AR Rahman’s music is that it takes repeated listenings to dig it. That you don’t really “get” Rahman’s music unless you have listened to it over and over again.

Which is completely bollocks, let me tell you. Try listening to a godawful Anu Malik track over and over again 12 times, you will find out that it gets into your head, whether you like it or not. Which is why new releases have repeat airplay on TV and radio, the principle is that if you are bombarded with a bad song and you don’t have anywhere to escape, you will ultimately cave in and start humming it to yourself, and pretty soon you will be telling your friends what a good song Anu Malik composed for that latest Dharmesh Darshan film.

Why then, you might ask, do some songs grab your attention immediately? What makes a Harris Jayaraj song sound so hummable the first time you hear it? Why is Himesh Reshammiya so popular? I get you, I get you. Let me try and explain this in detail.

I huhuh thuhuh. Goddamn you, tandavdancer. I have a theory. Call it the earworm theory, if you will. What I say is, the most hummable songs, the ones that stick in your head the first time you hear them, the ones that sound so freaking catchy – they are piggybackers. They are the bastard children of familiar tunes. The effect they produce the first time is – “where have I heard this before?” Now, you would know, without having to tell you myself, how difficult it is to hum another song when one song is playing right in front of you. It’s even harder to think of a wisp of a melody as it floats by in a composition. What actually happens when you think of the song this new song reminds you of is – the new song sticks in your mind. Voila, instant earworm.

Easy example: Listen to Harris Jayaraj’s Vettaiyaadu Villaiyadu, if you haven’t already. The last song on that album – Neruppae – is so catchy it can give SuperglueTM a complex. Until you think about it and realise the tune is just a reworking of the middle portion of Aashiq Banaaya Aapne. That’swhat I mean by piggybacking.

Now, back to Rahman.

The deal with Rahman music is that most of it, the stuff that has stood the test of time, is music that does not really have a template from previous film music. You sure as hell hadn’t heard an acoustic guitar and claps and a growling bass – and those instruments only – backing Chitra’s voice, until you heard ‘Kannalanae’ (That’s ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ for you non-purists) in Bombay. You heard Shweta Shetty singing herself hoarse on TV channels, but did you really think she could pull off the kind of high-pitched vocal violence that Rahman subjected her to in ‘Mangta Hai Kya’? Fine, so Iruvar was based on 70’s MGR movies, but were you really prepared for the scat portion in ‘Hello Mr Ethirkatchi’?

Let me tell you a secret. These three songs I mentioned above? I hated all of them the first time I heard them.

Why can’t we love AR Rahman’s music the first time we hear it? Because we are minor mortals. Because we have limited attention spans and equally limited aural capabilities, rendered sterile by the kind of puerile sonic experiences we are subjected to in the name of music. Please note that the previous sentence was bereft of irony of any kind. It’s true, you know it.

This is how a Rahman track affects you. Don’t take my word for it, try it out yourself the next time an album comes out. Listen to the album once. Just once, oh well, alright, listen to it one more time if it makes you feel better. Forget that it’s Rahman music, treat it as a generic album that has come out and you are listening to it because your friend recommended it or because you have nothing else to do. The important thing is – don’t tell yourself you have to like it. That’s the first mistake a Rahman fan makes. This is music that has been laboured on for days and weeks, probably even months. You do it a disservice by treating it as a disposable bit of loopyheadedness. Hmm, a better analogy – would you gulp down a glass of vintage champagne? Of course not. You would take it in slowly, let it into your system in delicate little sips.

So there. You have listened to the album. Your work is done. Keep the CD aside. If you are listening to it on, shut down the player and go to or something. (You might also consider stabbing yourself with a blunt object. You listened to a Rahman album foir the first time on a dinky mono compressed version, you sick freak. You should be made to listen to Another Brick in the Wall in a Hyderabad pub. Especially when there are skimpily clad women around dancing Farah Khan steps to it. Sorry, I digress.) Get on with your life, because you have got better things to do.

Of course, you are free to go and read reviews about the music. Check out the buzz. Smile at the obsessive fanboyness of music-lovers across the world as they dissect the album. Half of them will say it’s the next best release after Dil Se, the rest will hate it with a vengeance. You don’t care.

Now comes the interesting part. By Day 2, there will be these bits and pieces echoing around in your head. Maybe a “miaow” will creep in just when you’re about to go to bed. Or a snatch of a piano riff that you frantically try to complete in your mind. You will try to hum some of them to yourself – maybe you will hear bits of it playing in a music shop, or your friend humming a bit of it. Some guy will write about how cool this middle part of track 2 is, and you will try and remember how that part sounded like.

Give yourself a week, if you are a strong man and can digest all of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles in one sitting. (To be frank, I can’t.) A week, and then go listen to the album again. Wipe away your tears as you realize how completely cool the album is, and how intricate the songs are, and how Rahman can cram each of his song with details that would make a lesser composer quail. Listen and learn.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t cringe at the back-cover.

To the anonymous commenter who left the link to the ‘New York Nagaram’ mp3 a couple of days ago, thank you. I bought the Jillanu Oru Kaadhal album as soon as I could, and indulged in a little social experiment with myself ( the part you read about above. You did read it, didn’t you?), the same thing I do with most Rahman albums, at least the ones which do not have infectious thumbi loops as part of their promos. I didn’t listen to ‘New York Nagaram’ for quite a long time, letting the lightheadedness of ‘Kummi Adi’ sink into my system. It has Thenni Kunjaramma in it, man. How long has it been since we heard the lady with the cutest cracked voice EVER? Taj Mahal was the last album in which she figured, right? And who is this Tanvi lady and how can she sound like three women on three renditions of the same line? How could Shreya Ghoshal produce such orgasmic moans without the musicians running out of the studio? Was Rahman watching Trigun when he thought of putting in the random miaows in the title song? Why does the female chorus on ‘Munbe Vaa’ give me goosepimples on every listen?

Excuse me while I ponder over such existentialist questions. Feel free to go buy Jillanu Oru Kaadhal, available in Rahman-friendly stores across the world.

** Music Theory. Go read Preacher already.

AR Rahman, Comics, Mixtapes, Movies, Music

Of movies, blankets and mixtapes

What really annoyed me after watcing Darna Zaroori Hai is the knowledge that RGV’s scriptwriters are so starved of scary ideas. Between this movie and its precursor, there have been five storylines involving cars on lonely roads. Hey, I know lonely roads are scary, and I understand that you guys drive to Khandala every other weekend and it’s a long frigging lonely drive, but get off it already. My point is, if you want to make a horror movie, you need to understand horror. Are you being scared by what you just wrote and translated to screen? I think you need to go out a little more, read a lot, watch a bit of Argento and Fulci and Hitchcock and Park Chan-Wook. And then maybe you will get out of this loser-level walk-up-behind-me-and-say-boo level of scriptwriting. And someone needs to take a jackhammer to Amar Mohile’s keyboards, there, that’s a horror story for you guys – loony music critic ends up with a jackhammer because the music had subliminal messages in it.

Sasi was here for all of half a day, and just because I was dying to share Blankets with someone, asked him to borrow it off me and read it in the next couple of days. I loved that book. Once upon a time, I totally hated reading autobiographies, but it’s books like Blankets that renew my faith in the fact that people can talk about themselves without laying it on too thick. The book is beautiful, romantic without being cheesy, graceful without being highbrow, poetic without being inaccessible. One of the few books this year ( Yes, I know the year isn’t even half-over yet, but I know that this statement is true, period) that I read in one sitting. And the artwork, oh my goodness, what I wouldn’t do to get ONE PAGE of Craig Thompson’s pencilled art. I had read that he was inspired not by other comic-book artists ( though there were definite Will Eisner influences on the storytelling style), but by post-Impressionist painters like Pissarro, Modigliani and Matisse, and his influences show themselves in flowing panels, full-page thoughtscapes that give me goose-pimples as I read the book.

(So what is Blankets? It’s a graphic novel, by this gentleman named Craig Thompson, an autobiographical retelling of his childhood, his relationship with his brother Phil, and his first love, a girl named Raina who he meets at Christian winter camp. He spends two weeks at Raina’s place, and a greater part of the book deals with these two weeks and their repercussions on Craig’s life. GRAAAH, I am bad at describing things like this, just go and read the Wikipedia entry already, huh?)

This would perhaps be the most beautiful book you won’t read in your lifetime, if you are in India. The steep price-tag (29.95$) ensures that even if it’s imported, the price will be high enough to dissuade people from buying it. Plus, yeah, no scanned versions available yet. It would be tough to scan this without destroying the book, it’s 600 pages. So don’t ask.

I made a mix-mp3 collection, again, part of the weekend project. I call it my Ultimate Though Slightly Biased Feel-Good AR Rahman Mix. Slightly biased because these aren’t songs that have been dubbed (and hence not part of the “national consciousness”, so no Bombay, Roja, Rangeela, Dil Se – you hear?) or are easily associated with ARR Hits package – these are the gems that lie in dormant brain-cells, songs that give me a high everytime I hear them because I have not been saturated by them at any point of time in my life. Each of them has a story, of course, and maybe someday I might get around to wearing off your collective ears with them, but for now, the songs will do. 14 tracks in one zip-file, meant to be listened to in the order in which they are arranged.

You can download the zip right here.