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It is difficult to hold a sane debate on AR Rahman. One end is held up by fervent fans who believe that he is an infallible genius, the other by cynics who have all along believed that he is a poseur. Rahman is, perhaps, the first film musician to have his creative block discussed as a national issue. The immediate provocation is, of course, the mediocre CWG theme, which many believe firmly are used song scraps warmed up;throw in the banal lyrics and you have a dash of pure applesauce.
The irony of Rahman's celebrity today is that around the time that he made a splash in the world, he began losing admirers back home. It was in the post-Oscar euphoria that he came up with some of the biggest duds - Raavan, Blue and now Enthiran (Robot). Going back further, Ghajini's soundtrack was nowhere near inspiring; and as for Bombay Dreams, Slumdog Millionaire and Couple's Retreat, even veteran Rahman fans are stumped - ecstatically so - by the way the West fussed over him.
So, what exactly is up with the man who once revolutionised the way film music is composed in the country by bringing in a multiplicity of sounds, layering them beautifully using fresh and even charmingly flawed voices, and flowing in classical and folk elements so naturally that it made you sit back and wait for every new turn. Most of his new music sounds give you a sense of aural dêjà vu.
"The CWG theme is a very mediocre piece of music and I am being nice when I say this. Every component used in it is almost exactly the same as the Tamizh anthem that he composed a few months ago for a world Tamil conference in Coimbatore," says Carnatic whiz T M Krishna, pointing to the repetitive nature of the composer's current music. "The work Rahman did in his initial days was outstanding. Puttam Pudhu Bhoomi and Rasathi from Thiruda Thiruda, for instance, or Pachai Kiligal Tholodu from Indian are unforgettable because they tapped into our musical roots. "
Krishna has an interesting theory why Rahman's appeal has begun to pall. Over the years, he points out, Rahman has started using too much technology in his music, not as a support but as a creative input. There are fewer natural sounds and lots more digital elements. The result is that his songs have started sounding alike, flawlessly packaged and sound-engineered for perfection, but soulless. "All this talk of creative block is pure bunkum," says Krishna.
Musicians believe that the tedium in Rahman's music started setting in much before the current bad patch. This they trace back to about a decade ago, when the composer started moving away from his roots, patronising more sleek but synthetic sounds. "However international you might be, you should know where you started from. That base has moved away from his music now," concludes Krishna.
For 18 years since Roja, Rahman has been doing some prolific composing. There have been huge highs and some lows. A string of great soundtracks have often been punctuated by a dull phase and, to be fair to the man, he was the first to admit so when he was just three films old. The periods preceding huge hits like Rang De Basanti and Taal, for instance, have all seen Rahman run into a familiar rut with some really tiresome music.
The burden of expectations is perhaps overwhelming after every huge success. "He is not superhuman, he cannot break the barrier of excellence each time. Why can't he be less than the best once in a while? Just as he needs to watch his quality, we need to watch our expectations of him. But he definitely needs a break, he's become really boring. Maybe he should do something else for a while so he stops sounding like himself all the time," says pianist Anil Srinivasan who regularly works in close conjunction with the band of young musicians Rahman often uses in his works.
But fans who will admit to the recent Rahman disasters say he should be beyond flaws. Bangalore-based brand consultant Ashutosh Wakankar says he sees the maestro as a part of the holy trinity that has Sachin Tendulkar and Aamir Khan. "But I can't recall a single recent song of his. He has lost that spiritual quality in his works, " says a dismayed Wakankar. "When does he get the time to work, he is forever jetting around for projects and accolades?"
Rahman is not the nation's best loved music director by unanimous choice. He has always enjoyed greater adulation in the South and the body of his best works has always been in Tamil. Some of these have been used in vapid versions in stray Hindi films, but they never really left the same impact. Some of his seminal works were heard in Thiruda Thiruda, Kannathil Muthamital, Kadal Desam, Minnale, Kandukondein Kandukondein and Kadhalan.
Not just that, the complexity of the Rahman sound and the hype around the man have not always gone down well with Bollywood. Jatin Lalit once famously pointed out that Kuch Kuch Hota Hai sold more copies than Dil Se and that they were No. 1 even though they "don't wear our hair long and keep producers waiting outside our door". With the exception of some like Shankar Mahadevan, who has done great work with Rahman, the man doesn't have too many fans in the fraternity. "Rahman is a hugely talented composer and, of course, also very lucky, " points out composer Aadesh Shrivastav.
But the greatest thing about Rahman's music is not that it has flown off the shelves and made him billions. It is that it has flung open the doors to sound experimentation. He made the use of multiple and seemingly incongruous sounds a reality. He has thrown in an accordion into a string orchestra in Masakkali (Delhi 6), used a capella singing in Rasathi (Thiruda Thiruda), made Miya Malhar earthy enough for anyone to enjoy with drum pads and a full swing orchestra in Oru Deivam Thanda (Kannathil Muthamital), introduced a harp into a folk song like Ori Chori (Lagaan) and broke every filmi norm by framing a riot scene with a soothing piano-voice combination in Khoon Chala (Rang De Basanti).
"He made possible the kind of sounds that young composers now use freely. His trailblazing songs have given them the confidence because he has proved that experiments are commercially viable too, " says Srinivasan.
The staunchest Rahman loyalists, however, are the many young musicians he has given very generous breaks to. Most of them he plucked out of total anonymity - Blaaze, Chinmayi, Mano, Karthik, Naresh Iyer, Pravin Mani, Mohammed Aslam, Shahul Hameed, Minmini, Anupama... often, as admirers point, you don't know the voices behind his new songs.
Most of his proteges, a critic quips, toe the 'party line' that Rahman is beyond criticism. Ask Chinmayi, the singer who sang her very first film song at 15 for Rahman (Oru Deivam in Kannathil Muthamittal) and bagged a National Award for it. "When Rahman composes a song, others follow him with 10 similar songs. His ideas are plagiarised so often that he does not have the luxury of sticking to an idea. Now he has moved on to a point where he cannot be aped. He has become a singer's composer. Perhaps he is beyond the lay person's comprehension now, " says the singer.
THE JURY IS OUT
Rahman is no stranger to debates. Here are some arguments around his music that may never end
WHO IS THE REAL MOZART OF MADRAS?
Comparisons as they say are odious, but fans of Illayraja and Rahman have been at it for years. Ilayaraja, say his worshippers, showed the way and is way more knowledgeable than Rahman. That is all very well, say Rahmaniacs, how about using this wisdom to churn out more popular musical fare that even auto-drivers can enjoy on their stereo system?
WAY TOO MUCH OF THE SYNTHETIC IN HIS MUSIC
Not true, say Rahman admirers - he uses technology but is not dominated by it. Critics say his compositions and their success have almost killed the wonder of accoustic music. This is a dangerous trend because young composers who ape him today rely so much on technology that they get away with very little talent and even less originality.
HE IS TOO COMPLEX, HE IS TOO SIMPLE |
One faction believes that his music hooks listeners because it is simplistic. Sample the jingleesque Chhoti si Ashaor Roja Jaaneman, for instance. But those raised on the staple fare of traditional Indian film music believe he is way too complex for easy listening. There is folk and classical and comodo drums and string orchestra all melding into one song saying many different things. Whatever happened to film songs as we knew and loved them?
Inputs from Bharti Dubey
malini. nair@timesgroup. com
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