All my life, I had a choice of hate and love. I chose love. And I am here. God bless,” said Allah Rakha Rahman as he received his second Oscar, jointly with lyricist Gulzar, for Best Original Song for Jai ho from the film Slumdog Millionaire. Simple words, spoken from the heart, conveying volumes.
In Krishna Trilok’s authorised biography of A R Rahman, Notes of a Dream, it is anecdotes like these that give you a detailed understanding of an amazing personality. Rahman’s life has been one of both, severe hardships and spectacular triumph. The triumph happened because he did not allow life’s tribulations to knock him down, points out Trilok. Nine-year-old Dilip Kumar, as he was known then, could have turned bitter when he lost his father and was thrown into the deep end of earning a living after school hours, often losing his night’s sleep as he played delivery boy of his father’s musical instruments that were rented out to augment domestic income. He could have resented playing the keyboard at recording sessions when only 13, or composing advertising jingles while still in his teens, but he didn’t. Opting to love rather than hate, the diligent boy plunged himself into every activity with sincerity. Learning, creating at every stage, he became the best in every field, and by the time he was in his 20s, he had become one of the most sought-after music composers. This is what his biographer finds most inspirational.
Amongst filmmakers, Mani Ratnam was one of the early ones to enquire about ‘this boy’ who was creating a name for himself. Trilok’s recounting of how these two talents finally got together for Roja makes interesting and amusing reading. After dropping in at the music composer’s studio and listening to his music for several hours, Ratnam left without saying anything! Twenty-five years later, Ratnam revealed, “I was stunned… the music he played for me was fabulous!” But on that fateful day, AR, as he is popularly referred to, thought Ratnam would never come back.
Come back, he did, a few days later. With a decision to sign the young prodigy. “It was a decision that would end up altering the course of AR’s life, as well as Tamil, Indian and world music and cinema,” Trilok points out.
Roja rained awards but AR accepted them with equanimity. No going wild with jubilation. His sisters pointed out to Trilok that he accepted his success just as he had the hardships, believing that it was all part of the plan of a higher power.
“Indeed,” says Trilok, “AR’s positivity at this time was tied to a deep spiritual rootedness which came with his formal embracing of Islam… only days before the release of Roja.” AR, who was born as Dilip Kumar to Hindu parents, got drawn to Sufism after the death of his father. In a moment of deep introspection, he told Trilok, “I thought to myself, ‘What if I have this infinite source of strength and joy?’…that’s what Sufism and spirituality are to me. They are my fuel.”
If spirituality is AR’s fuel, his backbone during his growing years was his mother. It was she who made him give up studies to concentrate on music, who sold her jewellery to buy him a 16-track mixer-recorder for his studio, who bought rugs to clad its walls for better sound absorption, who had her son’s name changed to A R Rahman in the credits of Roja just before its release, who found a lovely bride for him who is as supportive of AR’s work as she is. His mother means the world to AR, and Trilok believes that Maa tujhe salaam, AR’s moving ode to his motherland, was sung so passionately because of its metaphor of a mother. “It is easy to view the track as AR’s tribute to Kareema Begum (his mother’s name after converting to Islam) as much as it was to his country,” opines Trilok.
The blurb on the cover of the book by Danny Boyle sums up AR’s personality rather aptly. “His talent is matched by his modesty and generosity,” states the director of Slumdog Millionaire.
Trilok’s book is studded with instances of all three qualities. While AR’s talent is acknowledged globally, his charitable deeds may not be known to too many outside Chennai. Trilok says his generosity is not a one-off activity but a constant and endless process. From giving opportunities to his staff to widen their horizons, to starting foundations for underprivileged children to learn music, to financing penniless, aged musicians, to setting up a state-of-the-art college of music and technology… A R Rahman is constantly devising means to share the bounty God has given him. Helping others to find a foothold is as important to this devout man as setting global benchmarks in music.
Being the son of Sharada and Trilok Nair, well-known advertising filmmakers and very dear friends of AR, no doubt gave the 23-year-old writer of this book easy access to AR’s family and friends. What emerges from his interactions is a rich tapestry with Allah Rakha Rahman at the centre, perfectionist, humorous, kind-hearted, uncompromising.
For fans who would want to know the where and how of A R Rahman’s work, the book is packed with information about it. It also tells the reader a lot about the evolution of music, advertising, and filmmaking in Chennai.