That’s the best part of being a journalist, even a freelance one—you can go with a question to anyone, anywhere, and get your answer straight from the horse’s mouth. If you know how to reach it, of course. Rahman was easy—I just had to call the Channel V pro. Within hours, I was sitting in a hotel suite with this quiet young man with large, still eyes and hands, dressed all in black—black jacket, black trousers, black shoes—chatting not only about the genesis of his award-winning song (the brainchild of ad film buddy Bharatbala—they both wanted to create a song that would make patriotism hip). But as often happens in such moments of enforced intimacy, we ended up talking of much more. Such as how he converted to Islam 10 years earlier, when he was 21.
It started, he said, when his father was dying. Rahman was only 11 years old then, the middle child between two sisters. Having tried everything else and failed, the family turned to a local pir. "My father was very ill then, bed-ridden, and the pir sahib couldn’t do anything for him at that last stage." But even after his father died, Rahman’s family still turned to the pir for emotional support. And then one day, nearly 10 years later, the pir sahib came to Rahman’s home. "He blessed a room which is very special to me because my father died in it, and which I had turned into my studio. The pir sahib said we were destined to go through some unique experiences, including much suffering, and some very hard times." His prophecy had a curious effect on Rahman: "The moment he said that and blessed the room, I felt such peace. As if everything had become green, and my whole life had started afresh."
Within six months, the pir was dead, but the mystical power he had unleashed on the family lived on. That’s when Rahman says the family decided to embrace Islam. "I felt that, OK, this feeling that I have is God. It’s not about Hindu or Muslim or anything, but there is that one feeling, and that is God." It was not anything dramatic, he explained, "like it is in films".
"It would be hypocritical," he felt, with the dawning of this feeling, if he didn’t change his name. And so, Dilip Kumar became Allah Rakha Rahman at the age of 21. For Rahman and his family, the conversion was more a change in their attitude to God than anything else. "In fact," he pointed out, "if you take ancient Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, it says God is one." It’s the mystical aspects of the namaaz that he valued the most, Rahman said. "Prayer is more like a meditation for me. And it helps me clean my inner self. I go through death five times a day when I pray and I am born again. When I start, I feel I am dead and my soul has departed and when I finish my prayers I am back. I am born again."
Is it like that each time, I wanted to know. He laughed at my atheist’s curiosity. "I try to make it like that each time, but sometimes there is so much turmoil in the head, so much happening...." And what if he’s recording when it’s time for his prayers? "I have a small prayer room next to the studio, and my sister takes over the recording till my prayers are done." And if he’s travelling? "I carry my prayer mat wherever I go."
In all faith: with wife Saira
Did it make any difference, getting work as A.R. Rahman instead of Dilip Kumar? "In my field," he said, "it doesn’t matter whether you are Hindu or Muslim. If you are good, you stay; if you are bad, you get thrown out." On the other hand, he said, his new religion helped him get the right attitude to work: to keep his sense of balance and distance. "It’s your attitude in life that brings you success," he said. "So I’ve taken (from Islam) whatever helps me to get into that attitude." His music and Islam became inextricably linked together.
Interview over, Rahman started his own grilling. I was working then for a street children’s organisation and he wanted to know more. It’s written in the Quran, he said, that a person must donate one-third of his earnings to charity, and he was always on the lookout for deserving organisations he could send a donation to. Soon he left to catch a plane, and I forgot about the promise. Until several months later, when there was a call from his office in Chennai: could I please tell them who Mr Rahman should send a cheque to? The cheque arrived, I forget for how much—Rs 1 lakh, I think, or more. But what touched me most was that he should remember, and had taken the trouble.
We met again four years later. By then Rahman had film producers queueing up night and day at his state-of-the-art studio in Chennai, and was also a world celebrity, having worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Jackson and J Lo. When we arrived at his hotel room, a pretty young woman was slipping out. "A girlfriend," guessed the photographer, experienced in the ways of celebrity lifestyles. "Probably a journalist," I said, not wanting the pir-like man I remembered to have gone the way of other film celebrities.
It was November ’02, possibly the worst time in independent India’s history to be a Muslim. The talk inevitably strayed to what it must be like to be a Muslim in these post-Gujarat riots time. But he had no regrets: "You can’t change your identity just because of politics," he told me wisely. "I am also a Tamilian—I can’t say, no, I won’t be a Tamilian because I may be mistaken for the LTTE."
He was still devoutly religious, insisting that it was what inspired his life and music. "Within religion’s boundaries, I am very free. It helps me to take success and failure in a balanced way, rather than jumping up and down or brooding."
The mystery woman returned, possibly because we were lingering for longer than either she or Rahman had anticipated. But he didn’t introduce her to us, and all of us complied silently with the rules of mental purdah that he set: pretending as if there was a wall between her and us.
But today, watching her walk the red carpet arm in arm with Rahman, I know who she is: his wife, Saira. And thank (his) God that he hasn’t changed.