How A.R.Rahman has almost perfected the art, or should one say the business of continuously re-inventing himself
Over a good part of the last twenty years, my journey from an unabashed, unrestrained and fawning A.R. Rahman fan to a more mellowed and, I daresay, a mature fan has been an enjoyable one. People close to me will disagree for they can hardly tell the difference. To them, I am still a rabid and biased Rahman worshipper. But the fact is, while a few years ago, I would have tried selling the music of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar like there is no tomorrow, today I just make a take-it-or-leave-it passing recommendation. I have come to the realisation that ‘Rahmania’ like religion is best kept personal. Even if you do not admire the music the man makes, it is hard not to respect the fact that in an industry where fame is fickle and the fans are fickler, Rahman has managed to maintain a sustained following for over 20 years. Even today, the buzz and anticipation his album release creates is remarkable. Intentionally or otherwise, many of the things he does are not very different from what a good business would do to survive amidst competition.
Collaborations and Credits
Rahman is constantly collaborating with disparate individuals, who have little or no connection with Indian film music, and immaterial of their popularity, he ensures that they are part of the credits of the album. Be it bassists, flautists, drummers or even backing vocalists, or anyone from Apache Indian to guitarist Orianthi (who recorded with Rahman for the track Sadda Haq), everyone gets their due on a Rahman album. It is not uncommon for cars to advertise the brand of the music system they come with; Computers do that for the operating system and the processor they are built with; Rahman does it for the people he works with. It is true that he does it more to acknowledge their contribution to the song than to use their name to sell it, but the curiosity the collaboration evokes, the potential to draw people who might not have been interested otherwise, and the freshness it brings to his music is undeniable.
Keeping up with technology
When Roja released in the early 90s, the marked difference in the sound, both in terms of musical and technical quality, was what grabbed people’s attention immediately. Rahman has always been an early adopter of technology and constantly uses it to bring another dimension to his music. When today, many a young, upcoming composer is struggling to break free of being branded as someone with the ‘Rahman Sound’, and the use of technology to improve the quality of music is far more widespread, Rahman continues to stay ahead in the game. He finds newer, exotic gadgets like the Continuum – developed at the University of Illinois – and incorporates it quite seamlessly into his music. In addition, his studio is probably one of the most modern and sophisticated ones in India and the mastering of his albums is definitely a class apart. Businesses should be willing to recognise the benefits of technology and be ready to adopt it, and adapt to it. But when everyone around you has done it and it has become a level playing field, staying updated with the latest and the best becomes all the more essential.
Making any genre his own
More than the delicate act of balancing cost and quality, the bigger challenge that product companies face is in trying to make their product unique and stand out amongst the competition. Rahman has a characteristic style of taking any genre, interpreting it in his unique way and making it his own, and this is all too evident in Rockstar’s music. Take for instance, Kun Faya Kun, a traditional Qawwali based number, a musical style that has been done to death in Indian cinema, and for that matter by Rahman himself. But here he puts a completely different spin on it by unexpectedly infusing a guitar. While more often than not, an attempt to bring together such contrasting styles can be quite incongruent, here it just seems like it is meant to be. His stamp on the angst filled Sadda Haq, the pensive Jo Bhi Main and the melancholic Nadaan Parindey, makes one wonder if these songs should be slotted in the rock genre or ‘The way Rahman does rock’ genre.
The X factor
Above all this, for a business to last in the long run, it’s not just the safe choices that are made that matter, but also the choices made by instinct, that goes against convention and popular opinion, that matter as much. In choosing singer Mohit Chauhan as the voice of Ranbir Kapoor in Rockstar, Rahman has made one of the latter choices. Given that he doesn’t have a voice that instantly appeals and that he is not formally trained, to have him sing the majority of songs in the album is something only Rahman can do. After listening multiple times to the album and having seen the songs on screen, there is certain vulnerability in Chauhan’s voice, which beautifully conveys the ability to achieve the extraordinary even if one is but ordinary, like in my mind a rockstar would. And I have to admit that his imperfect voice is indeed a perfect choice.