From Isai Puyal to Oscar-winner and beyond: 30 years of AR Rahman

Roja was released on 15 August, 1992, and a musical storm hit Indian cinema. Here's where it stands with AR Rahman, 30 years later.

ByArkadev Ghoshal

Published Aug 15, 2022 | 3:08 PMUpdatedAug 21, 2022 | 11:35 AM

30 years of AR Rahman

I clearly remember hearing my first AR Rahman song. The TV was tuned to DD Metro, and Superhit Muqabla — the countdown show that aired movie songs and had inherited the mantle of Chitrahaar — was on air, as was the case in most houses with TV sets those days.

That day, six-year-old me came across a very “bare” song. It had none of the violin flourishes or the usual tabla beats of the other songs on the countdown. Even the voices were different: Heck, one part seemed like it was sung by old women in their shaky voices!

This experimental-sounding song belonged to a film that itself had been made by its director as an experiment. Today, as Roja celebrates 30 years, its debutant composer is one of the reasons the film persists in public memory.

As for the song, it was ‘Rukmani Rukmani’. Yes, my first AR Rahman song was in Hindi. And yes, it was one of the few Bollywood songs with voices by pop-music meteors Baba Sehgal and Shweta Shetty.

This one:

The early years

Most people know the story of how AS Dileep Kumar, son of composer RK Shekhar, started learning piano at the age of four.

They also know that when Shekhar died in 1976, his son was merely nine years old, and was pushed to work on small music assignments to make ends meet for his family.

This included playing instruments for Ilayaraja as the Isai Gnani himself composed music. He would grow up to start composing jingles that any person who saw Doordarshan in the 1980s and 1990s will remember.

Over the years, his fans have chronicled them on platforms like YouTube. Here’s one, inspired heavily by Western classical genius Mozart:

He converted the Islam in 1988, and was already making waves by the time Roja was offered to him.

Initial setbacks

Playback legend Alka Yagnik — then a rising star — has said in interviews that AR Rahman wanted to record the songs of Roja in her and Kumar Sanu’s voice, but it didn’t happen.

By her own admission, she called up Sanu and asked whether he was going to record the songs for this “new boy”, and when he replied in the negative, she didn’t fly down to Chennai either.

She said in these interviews that she regretted the decision quite a bit, but she did eventually lend her voice to Rahman’s tunes several times.

However, Sanu didn’t have as much luck. One of his only collaborations with Rahman — that we know of — is the song ‘Mil Gayi, Mil Gayi’ from the eminently forgettable 1998 Priyadarshan-directed Bollywood film Kabhi Na Kabhi.

As for Bollywood, it would have to wait till 1995 and a series of events to bask in the glory of Rahman’s music through the Ram Gopal Varma-directorial Rangeela.

For one, Rangeela wasn’t even supposed to be Rahman’s Bollywood debut. Composer Kaushal S Inamdar, who works mostly in the Marathi industry, notes that it was supposed to be Govind Nihalani’s 1994 film Drohkaal. However, Rahman lost all the music to a computer crash, and the rest is… well, history still had a few twists and turns up its sleeve. Also, Nihalani would eventually rope in Rahman for Thakshak (1999).

Meanwhile, RGV had in the mid-1990s planned two films. The first was a gangster saga with Sanjay Dutt. But the Mumbai blasts, recovery of weapons from Dutt’s house, TADA, and his imprisonment happened, leading him to shelve a film that he would resurrect as 2005 Godfather-tribute Sarkar.

His other was a project with Jackie Shroff, Aamir Khan, and Urmila Matondkar, with Rahman as a composer. When RGV asked Rahman to start with a sensuous song, the latter delivered a cassette in a few days. Varma’s first impression of the song was the feeling that he was sitting at a Carnatic music concert. But the song grew on him as he continued to play it again and again. What Shekhar Kapur would years later describe as “Rahman’s slow poison” was at work.

And that poison seems to be at work even now!

Asha Bhosle once recounted how her very-humdrum encounter with this “small boy” snowballed into a cascade of accolades for her. She recalled singing in a bathroom for a young Rahman, who recorded her voice only to a flute track. She then jetted off to a foreign tour, and returned to the country some time later to great praise from all quarters.

Unable to fathom it, she asked these people what they were praising her for. They pointed to the song, and she couldn’t recognise her voice at first! Even the song had transformed into a beast of its own! That was her introduction to her own voice in ‘Tanha Tanha’ from the RGV film.

Bombay and beyond with Mani Ratnam

However, India had already begun to understand why this diminutive, soft-spoken man — Karan Thapar once called him the most difficult person to interview because he rarely answered in anything more than monosyllables, a trait he has thankfully gotten over — was being equated with a musical storm: Isai Puyal.

The film was Bombay, the impact was bombastic, and the financial verdict was “blockbuster”! Backing it was a soundtrack where — as would be the case with the best of Rahman’s works — every song was a hit, and widely heard.

That Mani Ratnam somehow manages to bring out the best in Rahman is a widely-held view today. Even for commercial flops and semi-performers like Raavanan (Ravan in Hindi), Yuva, Guru, O Kaadhal Kanmani (OK Jaanu in Hindi), the music he elicited from Rahman was top notch.

But Bombay, and then 1998’s Dil Se (Uiyere in Tamil), are still considered two of the best examples of the Rahman-Ratnam collaboration.

Here’s a video essay on how the two collaborated for Bombay, so that the music augments the storytelling rather than being the old tool for producers to make money:

Over the years, Ratnam has had more collaborations with Rahman in Tamil than Hindi. Of these, Alaipayuthey was remade in Hindi by Shaad Ali Sehgal, giving the North Indian audience a taste of the continuing Rahman-Ratnam magic.

Most of them, however, have little-to-no idea of the web of wonders the two have been weaving since Thiruda Thiruda. The percussion-bereft ‘Rasathi’ is still a melody-lover’s dream, while ‘Konjum Nilavu’ is one of the best-interpreted songs when it comes to translating the lyrics into vocal intonation.

Then there are the likes of Iruvar (Aishwarya Rai’s overall film debut), Kannathil Muttamithal, Kadal, Kaatru Veliyidai, and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, which are waiting to charm any non-Tamil-speaker if they are willing to just listen.

Hopefully, all that will change with PS-I, the first of the film saga that Ratnam has planned, based on the five-part Tamil epic Ponniyin Selvan. And if the first song from the film — ‘Ponni Nadhi’ — is any indication, he is in sublime touch!

International accolades

A commonly-held belief is that Rahman broke into the international music scene with his Oscar wins for 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. However, he had been earning plaudits across the globe well before that.

For example, he had already caught the attention of noted Broadway producer Andrew Lloyd Weber by the turn of the century, and the two were already producing Bombay Dreams in London in 2002, before taking it to Broadway in 2004.

Weber has said he was surprised the production did not do well in the US, but industry people there would finally learn to appreciate the true talent of Rahman only with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Jai Ho — a song whose tune, according to the grapevine, had been rejected by Subhash Ghai in his Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif-starrer Yuvvraaj.

Meanwhile, films with his music were already making waves across the world. For example, the 2001 film Lagaan was shortlisted for the Oscars, and missed out by a whisker. By 2004, the Time magazine had already christened him the Mozart of Madras. And, a year before Slumdog Millionaire, he had already given music for the Oscar-winning Elizabeth: The Golden Age, directed by Shekhar Kapur.

Here’s a look at his evolution, as chronicled by the Acapella group Voctronica:

Not immune from controversies

Despite his stature, Rahman has not been immune to controversies. One was when Gulzar — the noted author-filmmaker who wrote the lyrics for ‘Jai Ho’ — said he was never invited to the Oscars when the song won.

Then, the theme song he composed for the 2010 Commonwealth Games was widely panned by many, because they felt it was well below par, especially for a composer of his calibre. The fact that he charged ₹5.5 crore for the song did not help either. With days to go before the games, he rearranged the music of the song, and it was finally a hit with listeners!

Rahman also composed a song for the India release of Avengers: Endgame (2019), the blockbuster conclusion to MCU Phase III. However, it too received a lukewarm response. In fact, social media was abuzz with how cringey the song felt.

Global rediscovery

With the era of reaction videos upon us, people across the world are rediscovering the gems of AR Rahman, fuelled by requests from their fans and followers.

Some of the most-requested videos are ‘Chhaiyya Chhaiyya’ from Dil Se, but his Tamil fans are also introducing a new crop of listeners to his classics across all three decades.

Here’s an example of how two people — both of them Hollywood actors at some point of time or the other — reacted to ‘Kara Attakara’ from OK Kanmani:

As a fan, I can only paraphrase a line from Leigh Hunt’s poem Abou Ben Adhem, and pray: May our tribe increase!