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Always dil se
Director Mani Ratnam may not have found AR Rahman if not for his cousin Sharda. But to be honest, Rahman may not have found himself if not for Mani Ratnam. It's been 20 years and 10 great movies since the two first met and to date no one can dispute the fact that they have one of the best director-composer rapports the Tamil film industry has seen.
In 1991, AR Rahman was Dileep Kumar, a keyboardist by day for several composers in the Tamil film industry, and a jingle maker by night. A young man who kept to himself, who seemed calm and composed on the outside but who was fighting his own demons on the inside. Mani Ratnam was fresh off one of the biggest hits of his career - Thalapathy - but fresher off a tiff with his long-time composer Ilayaraja. A little matter of egos, but enough to set Ratnam off in search of a new composer - a search that led him to a nondescript house in Kodambakkam, where he was first introduced to the ponytailed Dileep by his ad filmmaker cousin Sharda. Ratnam listened to Rahman's music, and left the studio without saying a word, leaving Rahman to think he might not get his big break after all.
But six months later, Ratnam returned to Rahman's studio signed him on. And that was the beginning of a journey that has been only getting more spectacular by the year.
What makes the two click? For Ratnam, who always wanted a composer he could discuss his film's music with - something that was taboo as far as Ilayaraja was concerned - young Rahman was perfect, open, flexible, willing to listen. For Rahman, who was looking for a break into the film world, there was no better launch pad than a Mani Ratnamdirected, K Balachander-produced movie. It was the reason he said okay to a full fee of Rs 25, 000, something he knew he could make from a couple of jingles.
But more than business, it was almost a mentor-protege relationship that was blossoming. Ratnam saw something in Rahman that he clearly wanted to nurture. Rahman saw someone he clearly could trust.
Rahman remembers that all through the making of the music for Roja, Ratnam would keep encouraging him to dig deeper, go further, experiment. Ratnam, in fact, was the reason Rahman found the courage to sing. Yelelo, the first musical phrase in the Roja song Chinna Chinna Asai - literally the opening sound in the movie - is Rahman's voice. The first complete song Rahman ever sang was for Ratnam's Bombay - the Tamil version of the song Humma Humma. Rahman admits he was so shy about singing in front of Ratnam that he turned off all the lights and closed his eyes before he started to sing.
In more ways than one, Ratnam gave Rahman a voice. When the music for Roja was complete and the cassette jackets made, they read 'music by Dileep Kumar'. But when Rahman's mother insisted it be changed to Abdul Rahman, Ratnam relented but said he thought the name was too common. That was when the family came up with AR Rahman (with the initials not really meaning anything in the beginning), which was later expanded to Allah Rakha. The name change for Rahman was truly the game-changer in his personal life.
"As Dileep, I felt like a failure. Everything seemed to be going wrong. My father died, I didn't do well at school, my bands flopped. But as Rahman, things seemed to be looking up, " Rahman has maintained. Finally, when Roja released it got Ratnam noticed by the entire country. And got Rahman noticed. Period.
From then on, his house in Kodambakkam became one of the most crowded spots on the street, with directors from Kollywood and Bollywood lining up. But Rahman's best remembered songs seem to come from Ratnam movies. The haunting Bombay theme song featured in The Guardian's '1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die' list.
Chaiyya Chaiyya, from Dil Se, was the single biggest reason Andrew Lloyd Weber signed Rahman on as composer for his Broadway musical Bombay Dreams. In 2003, in a BBC World Service poll to pick the 10 most popular songs of all time, people from 155 countries voted Chaiyya Chaiyya ninth.
No matter how packed his schedule, Rahman never says no to Ratnam. Rahman, who is known to ask a lot about a movie before signing on, does not demand details about Ratnam projects. The director didn't even share the storyline of Dil Se, but just outlined the kind of songs he wanted. And, Rahman delivered exactly what Ratnam wanted. Rahman remembers that all through the making of the music for 'Roja', Ratnam would keep encouraging him to experiment. He was also the reason Rahman found the courage to sing
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