Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - Text by Ja­mal Shaikh Pho­tos shot ex­clu­sively for HTBrunch by Prabhat Shetty

“A lot of peo­ple have come up to me and said, ‘Hey AR, if I con­vert to Is­lam will I be suc­cess­ful too? I’m ready!’ I keep quiet. It’s a trick ques­tion!” [ AN HTBRUNCH EX­CLU­SIVE ]

on his AWK­WARD­NESS dur­ing in­ter­views



T hat AR Rah­man is a man of a few words is a uni­ver­sally known and re­luc­tantly ac­cepted fact. He is a su­perbly tal­ented mu­si­cian, but in­ter­view­ing him is con­sid­ered a chal­lenge.

Will he speak? Will he not? Will he an­swer in mono­syl­la­bles? And if he does, how will I flesh out my 600-word-long copy?

So this Satur­day af­ter­noon, I am con­cerned; I have agreed to con­duct a chat with AR Rah­man in front of a live au­di­ence to launch his first au­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy, Notes of a Dream by Kr­ishna Trilok. In ex­change, I get an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view and cover shoot for HT Brunch.

‘No ques­tions other than what’s in the book’ I’m fore­warned. But armed with an ex­tra-long list of Qs for a re­luc­tant in­ter­vie­wee, that’s not what I’m wor­ried about. It’s the length of his an­swers!

talk aBout It

My first ques­tion, AR, is this: know­ing your al­most ob­ses­sive need to say so lit­tle, what made a pri­vate per­son like you open up to the idea of au­tho­ris­ing a bi­og­ra­phy? You knew you’d now have to give an­swers that are more than just ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

AR smiles his shy smile, and be­gins. “Truth be told, I didn’t know how to frame my sen­tences ear­lier. My speak­ing could not keep up with my thoughts. Mu­sic is easy: you can do it with your fin­gers and heart. Talk­ing is not, so I thought speak­ing less and work­ing more is bet­ter. Also, Kr­ishna [the au­thor of Notes

of a Dream] is the son of my friends Trilok and Sharda, who had once in­tro­duced me to Mani Rat­nam. Hav­ing a young guy write this was a dou­ble-edged sword. But af­ter I read the first three chap­ters, I was sold. I knew I had done the right thing.”

The lit­tle se­crets about you in the book are heart-warm­ing, I say. They’re not tech­ni­cally “se­crets”, but they feel like them be­cause we didn’t know this about you. For in­stance, the fact that you are a clean­li­ness freak – does dis­or­der make you an­gry?

AR Rah­man laughs, and an­swers with an anec­dote. “I re­mem­ber this in­ci­dent from ’94 when we were work­ing on Vande Mataram,” he says. “A Ger­man pro­gram­mer joined us, who was getting paid a lot of money: a 1,000 pounds a day. But for the first two days, he just cleaned my desk­top, and did no other work. On the third day, he said ‘I can’t work on this!’ and I thought, ‘You’ve taken my money, and done no work ex­cept clean my desk­top!”

Does that sug­gest you’re more or­derly only now? There’s a story in the book by your sis­ter Rai­hanah, who says that even as a boy, when her du­ties were to clean the house, you showed her how to do it right?

“Ac­tu­ally, that was re­cent, she must have got con­fused,” he clar­i­fies. “When we ren­o­vated our mom’s house, we put a lot of pas­sion into each thing, in­clud­ing se­lect­ing the per­fect colour for the walls. She has a room there, and when I saw it af­ter six months, it was a mess. I asked her about it, and she said, ‘But this is how I live.’ I said, we’ve put the house to­gether with so much love; it’s our mom’s house and we have to keep it clean.”

That brings us to the next ques­tion: Does AR Rah­man get an­gry? AR tries to sidestep, then con­curs: “Pas­sion­ate peo­ple get an­gry to mo­ti­vate more than any­thing else. Other­wise, noth­ing hap­pens, right?”

meet mr Fu­tur­Ist

An­other not-so-se­cret rev­e­la­tion is Rah­man’s love for tech­nol­ogy. His sis­ters say: ‘Give him a gad­get and he will learn ev­ery­thing about it in a very short pe­riod of time.’

“I think they meant the mu­si­cal ones!” he says with a laugh. “But I must con­fess: I can learn the

on speak­Ing less “I dIdn’t knoW hoW to Frame my sen­tences ear­lIer. my speak­Ing could not keep up WIth my thoughts”


on d Irect Ing a v Ir­tual real Ity fIlm “I had a lot of show­downs dur­Ing the mak­Ing of le musk. the maIn artIsts re­belled say­Ing ‘what Is thIs scrIpt?’ I had to ex­plaIn It Is for vr, not for fIlm!”

most com­plex syn­the­siz­ers with al­go­rithms and FM syn­the­sis and resyn­the­sis, but it took me a year to learn the iPhone!”

And drones, we ask. We hear you crashed the first one?

“I crashed five, ac­tu­ally. Not on any­body’s head!” And you en­joy pho­tog­ra­phy? “That’s a re­cent thing,” says AR. “When I was young, maybe 13 or 14, my mom bought me a cam­era with film, and I was fas­ci­nated devel­op­ing pic­tures. That must have stayed, so when I did my world tour in 2010, I went to New York’s B&H with my cin­e­matog­ra­pher Anup Su­gu­nan, and both of us bought the same 5D cam­era. I didn’t know any­thing about it, and it was a very slow learn­ing curve. But now I know where to keep the cam­era to make my face look nice.”

the mu­sIc of movIes

AR Rah­man’s new­est role is that of a film­maker. His first project,

One Heart, was a doc­u­men­tary on his mu­si­cal tour, some­thing a lot of mu­si­cians in­dulge in. But to di­rect a Vir­tual Re­al­ity film that’s dif­fer­ent not just in for­mat but also in view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence shows how, even at the top of his game, AR is not averse to try­ing some­thing new.

“Le Musk is a film that came out of a ca­sual chat with my lovely wife,” AR says. “She loves per­fumes, and one day, she told me, ‘You’re pro­duc­ing movies, why don’t you do some­thing on per­fumes?’ The thought stayed with me un­til one day when I was on a cruise with some Hol­ly­wood friends. We were sail­ing through the East: Brunei, Malaysia, Viet­nam, and trav­el­ling with us were Paul Allen, Ste­vie Won­der, Quentin Tarantino… In the mid­dle of the sea, I got an idea!

“Now, I must say here that be­fore this, I had tried a VR (vir­tual re­al­ity) de­vice. My friend Shanker, whose com­pany owns Odyssey head­phones gave me one, and I was least in­ter­ested. I’m not putting that on my head, I said. But I did, and then re­alised what it does emo­tion­ally to a user. On the cruise ship that day, I sent an email to Grace Boyle – Danny’s daugh­ter – and she said she’s work­ing on Feel­ies, a multi-sen­sory cinema. I told her I had a story, and in­stead of a movie to be screened in a theatre, I wanted to con­vert it into VR. Is it pos­si­ble, I asked, and she said, ‘Of course!’”

Af­ter com­mis­sion­ing a screen­play, AR says he first shot the 40-minute story with dum­mies, non-

on thIngs too per­sonal “I use a ma­jor seven flat and fIfth, but I don’t tell peo­ple what chords I use In my mu­sIc. In the same way, the re­lI­gIous be­lIefs that de­fIne my char­ac­ter are per­sonal”

ac­tors, and played it out to peo­ple. “The way they re­acted made us feel, ‘Okay, now let’s do the real thing!” he says. “Dur­ing the mak­ing of Le Musk, I had a lot of show­downs. The main artists re­belled one day be­fore the shoot; they said ‘What is this script? It’s not go­ing to work!’ We had to say we have tried and tested it, and please re­mem­ber it is for VR, not for film, so the screen­play has to be this way. Af­ter we started they were cool.”

Soon, In­tel came on board, and ev­ery­thing fell into place. “They even in­vited me to Rome Film Univer­sity to con­duct a work­shop about this one,” says AR. “The only thing I didn’t re­alise is that in the case of VR, post pro­duc­tion takes a lot of time. We fin­ished in 2015, but we’re still 95 per cent there….”

But AR, when and where will this movie re­lease? “We [will] need to cre­ate a whole new way of in­stalling this, [and un­like cinema] un­for­tu­nately, this is not a group ex­pe­ri­ence like movies are. And if you ask me whether it’ll make money, I’ll tell you this: I don’t know. But had I thought about mak­ing money when I did my first movie, or when I thought of do­ing West End theatre, or – all ‘not typ­i­cally com­mer­cial driv­ers’ – I would have been nowhere!”

AR Rah­man’s sec­ond film, this time as pro­ducer, is called 99 Songs. Di­rected by Vish­wesh Kr­ish­namoor­thy, it is due to re­lease next year. I’ve read that this mu­si­cal has a lit­tle piece of his heart. AR laughs: “Al­most ev­ery movie that has a mu­si­cian shows him as a loser. He is kicked out of his house, his wife runs away, he gets into drugs and fi­nally there is a funeral. Amongst fam­i­lies, when some­one says ‘My son is a mu­si­cian,’ they are asked ‘Okay, but what job does he have? This was my orig­i­nal thought. I said, let’s do a story with this per­spec­tive, have all the eye candy in it, and chal­lenge my­self for the mu­sic as well.”


By now, I am ready to put to AR the most per­sonal of ques­tions, and his con­ver­sion to Is­lam tops the list.

Born Hindu and named Dileep Ku­mar (his birth name is men­tioned in the bi­og­ra­phy just once as per AR’s re­quest), we learn that the fam­ily changed re­li­gions only in the mid to late 1980s, a few years af­ter his fa­ther’s death and just be­fore the re­lease of Roja (1992). Also a mu­sic com­poser, his fa­ther RK Shekhar died young af­ter a lot of suf­fer­ing that couldn’t com­pletely be di­ag­nosed. His mother, now Ka­reema Begum, was a spir­i­tual per­son, and through her hus­band’s ill­ness, she vis­ited var­i­ous tem­ples and churches, con­sulted holy men and tried ev­ery re­li­gion-led rem­edy, to no avail. It is dur­ing this time that she met a Sufi preacher, who had a last­ing im­pres­sion on her. A few years af­ter her hus­band’s death, the en­tire fam­ily “em­braced” Is­lam.

I struc­ture my ques­tion with care: The brand of Is­lam that you fol­low, AR, is fairly mid­dle of the road. There’s an in­ci­dent where you and di­rec­tor Ra­jiv Menon fin­ish work at 4am in London, and go out to find a restau­rant. You want halal food, he wants beer. How im­por­tant is it, es­pe­cially in to­day’s con­text, to not im­pose re­li­gious be­liefs on oth­ers?

“You can’t im­pose any­thing. You can’t ask your son or daugh­ter to not take his­tory ‘coz it’s bor­ing, and to take eco­nom­ics in­stead, or science. It’s a per­sonal choice,” he says. “What is in­side me comes out as my char­ac­ter. I don’t have to tell ev­ery­one about it. I don’t tell peo­ple what chords I use in my mu­sic, do I? I use a Ma­jor seven flat and fifth; that makes my mu­sic sound great. In the same way, the re­li­gious be­liefs that make my char­ac­ter are per­sonal. A lot of peo­ple have come to me and said, ‘Hey AR, if I con­vert to Is­lam will I be suc­cess­ful too? I’m ready!’ I keep quiet. It’s a trick ques­tion!”

AR laughs, and I am stunned at the ease at which this re­luc­tant in­ter­vie­wee has opened up. “It’s not about con­vert­ing to Is­lam, it’s about find­ing the spot and see­ing whether it presses the but­ton in you. The spir­i­tual teach­ers, the Sufi teach­ers, taught me and my mom things that are very, very spe­cial. There are spe­cial things in ev­ery faith, and this is the one we chose. And we stand by it.

“Prayer,” he adds, “has been ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cial. It has saved me from many falls. In be­tween prayers, I think, ‘Oh, I have to pray, so I can’t do this mis­chief’. Peo­ple from other faiths do the same thing and are peace­ful too. For me, this works!”

On THE POwEr Of PraYEr “In bE­TwEEn PraYErs, I THInk ‘I HavE TO PraY, sO I can’T dO THIs MIs­cHIEf’. PEO­PlE frOM OTHEr faITHs dO THE saME and arE PEacE­ful TOO”

Lo­ca­tion cour­tesy: House of No­mad at Taj Lands End, Mum­bai

“I now know where to keep the cam­era to make my face look nice”

Ar rah­MaN’s fiRst au­thO­RisEd Bi­Og­Ra­phy ti­tlEd nOtEsOfaDREaM is wRit­tEN By KR­ishNa TRilOk aNd is NOw ON staNds

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