No Rahman For A Year

I turned 30 last year, and I realized that for the last seventeen years of my life, AR Rahman’s music has been a constant companion to virtually everything I’ve done. It was what converted me from a casual listener to a rabid music enthusiast, and it is to this music that I map most memories of growing up, my college years, a lot of significant events of my life. Every Rahman release would be ( and still is) a mini-event, the only thing beating it would be the anticipation of what would come after this one. While I cannot confess to having listened to *every* song produced by him, the number comes very close to his complete output.

But hey, seventeen years is a long time, man. While there was a time that I listened exclusively to his music alone, it also got me to sample new composers in the Indian film music scene, and even go beyond my comfort zone and try out different genres – Qawwali, world music ( I remember hunting down and buying Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ just because it was recommended by Rahman, in a Filmfare interview, then the only way to keep track of what was on the cards for the next few months for the Rahman fix), good ol’ rock and roll, ambient music, EDM – and lots and lots of soundtracks.  And while my tastes in other genres and kinds of music has morphed and evolved in various directions, I find my predilection for Indian music often gauged by the strict barometer of the standard laid down by Rahman. (And not just Indian music, mind you – there is an instant liking to some international artistes based on how Rahman-like their music sounds on the first hearing – Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ comes to mind, as does Owl City’s ‘Fireflies’ ) Which is to say that, every new composer or artiste I listen to has to stand up in a podium while I, with my halo of Rahman-love shining brightly over my head, pass judgement – the result is more often than not a thumbs-down.

Last December, while walking through the streets of LA, the album that played in my ears was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Now this is another of those college-level albums that was internalized to such an extent that I could not only sing along to all the songs, once upon a time, but also murmur the words that Kurt Cobain says in between song. True confession, I would do that, and even laugh along with the studio audience. During boring classes, I could play the album in my head all the way through – ah well, you get the picture. It was an album that I heard so much that after some time, I realized that I need not listen to it again ever again. And I didn’t, for quite some time – I remember hearing it again sometime in 2003 or 2004, and then relegating it again to the “been there, enjoyed that, time to move on” pile. But listening to it this December was a revelation. I frequently found myself being surprised by which song followed another, I could not remember most of the lyrics, and Cobain’s dry banter between songs actually had me smiling not by force of habit, because I found them genuinely funny. Needless to say, I loved that feeling.

So the deal with not listening to Rahman’s music for a year is this – I want to get back that unfamiliar feeling of discovering something new about an oft-heard song. The number of times I’ve heard ARR’s discography borders on the ludicrous ( check out my profile for the extremely skewed statistics) . I seem to use his music as a stress-busting choice or a mood enhancer, and sometimes plainly as a default playlist filler when I run out of ideas of what I want to listen to. In a way, Rahman has become comfort food, and I don’t think I am too comfortable with that idea. Hence, this experiment.

Sure, there are new releases lined up – I believe Gautam Menon’s latest release is already out ( Vinnaithandi Varuvaiya) and Mani Ratnam’s Raavan is coming soon, but hey, I’ve heard Justice, Leslie Feist and Katie Melua three years too late, and even now, discover artistes whose prime albums were released many years ago. There is no pressing need for me to listen to a new Rahman album other than the fluttery feeling that accompanies the first listen. The fear of that experience being marred by reviews and other people’s opinions is why you need to listen to the songs on the day of release, because you can be sure that every other blog, column and radio station would be talking about it in the weeks to come.  Ah well, one has to live with that.

This does not mean I will run away if you play a Rahman song, or that I will cover my ears and go “la-la-la” if ‘Chiggy Wiggy’ starts playing in the mall when I am shopping. It’s just that I won’t actively add a Rahman song to my playlist if I can help it – I can spend that time listening to something new, something I haven’t heard before. It’s embarrassing to know that I hadn’t heard Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album until a few weeks ago, or hadn’t succumbed to the pure joy of listening to Lady Gaga’s Fame. Maybe seventeen years later, it’s time to go cold turkey and hey, if things get really bad, I am sure I can just press play in my mind.

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, 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 goosepimples 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.



Confirmed news of the Rang De Basanti music release came in at 1:30 PM, from Vasu, who informed me that Sudhir had bought the CD on the way to the office, in the morning.

On the way to Planet M, I told myself that there was a fair chance this might be the CD that breaks the 200 Rs price barrier, and I talked myself into agreeing that I would NOT buy it if it were so. Well, it wasn’t. 160 Rs, 10 songs. What makes me crack up is that I also saw the CD of Rajkumar Santoshi’s Family, on sale for the same price, along with a couple of songs from Khakee included. Would really like to know how well sales of that soundtrack fares…

First Impressions:

Current count: two listens. And counting.

Begins with a one-and-a-half-minute Punjabi track ‘Ik Onkar’ which is all vocals ( songer: Harshdeep Kaur). Neat mutitracking. The title track, by Daler Mehndi and Chitra comes next – though pretty catchy, I thought it a trifle too long. The banjo beginning was not a banjo after all – sounds like a very familiar (Korg?) sample. ‘Paathshaala’, both the normal and the remix version ( which guest-stars Blaaze) is the kind of dance song that you really cannot dance to. I sincerely hope Blaaze’s version stays on the album and does not appear in the film. Boys was the pinnacle of his career – let’s leave it at that. ‘Khalbali’ was the most interesting song – faux Middle-eastern percussion, faux Middle-eastern lilt to the singing, authentic Arabic lyrics/vocals by Rai singer Cheb Nacim ( Or is it some other Nacim? No idea, really), Rahman’s grating accent when he sings it being the only minus to the song. I shan’t let my occasional hatred for Madhushree’s voice taint my judgement of the song ‘Tu Bin Bataaye’, but it sounds run-of-the-mill, really. ( Which means I will consider this the favourite song of the album after about two weeks.) Naresh Iyer’s voice sounds fabulous on this song, though.

One good thing about the album is that it gets better, or seems to, at least, with every song. ‘Khoon Chalaa’ by Mohit Chauhan ( of Silk Route) is a soft ballad that would sound like a Silk Route number if you replace the violin with the recorder. Minimal percussion, orchestral strings, well-written lyrics. Two very acoustic guitar-driven songs round off the album – ‘Luka Chhupi’ by Lata Mangeshkar and ARR, which is decent. Would have been catchier with a different female voice, but I feel that about every Lata song nowadays, so nevermind. ‘Roobaru’ is radio-friendly 90’s alt rock. The much-hyped Aamir Khan number, called ‘Lalkaar’, is more of a poetry recital, sounds like ‘Unnodu Naan’ from Iruvar than anything else, the words being nearly the same as “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna” from the Legend of Bhagat Singh.

How’s Rang De Basanti going to fare as far as the charts go? Not too much, I guess. Aashiq Banaaya Aapne will win the Filmfare Award for best music, probably best singer too, beating Salaam Namaste in a close race. Do I look like I fucking care?


Random Nostalgia

It kind of gives me a kick to think that two years ago and a day ago, at this time, I was standing about eight feet away from AR Rahman. They were arranging the stage at Gachibowli stadium for the concert, and I was up on the top level of the three-tiered structure, holding a tabla in one hand, waving at the orchestra with the other, and trying very hard not to giggle/dissolve into hysterics/faint, as I thought of the two All-Entry Passes in my pocket.

Four long trips, one fight, and one heckuva concert, all in one evening. Man, that was a night to remember. And not just because of AR Rahman and the rest of the crew.