I saw Rahman at work while working for Mani Ratnam’s Bombay. There used to be these late night sessions when he prepared scratches, improvised on themes. It would take hours and he’d be quietly working on the computer. He would wake us up at 2 or 3 to make us listen to a new creation. There was a humility and curiosity about him. "Do you like it? Is it good?" he would ask.
Without Rahman where would we be? He raised the bar for everybody.
The magician like quality was always there. He can transform a song by layering it. He is a great sound engineer. He tweaks sound and frequency to get it just right. He has the best of equipment and is very quality conscious. I remember how he listened to the cassette of Bombay in the small 2-in1. His take was that if the music sounds good in that dabba then it works. That’s how a majority in India would listen to him.
I remember listening to the theme of Bombay which was to play along the riot scene. The theme done with violin brought tears to our eyes. The full impact of what we had shot got conveyed in one stroke, lifted the sequence to another level. On the other hand Rahman would work as well with a guy like Shankar who treats songs like songs in his films, as fantasy breaks rather than a thematic thread.
He has been unafraid to try out new things. He never plays safe, is never lazy.
He bridged the North-South divide. He has been a patriotic, not regionalistic person. He sees India as one entity. His desh bhakti songs have that dignity.
He imbibed world music. His very first song Chinna china asai is actually reggae mixed with Tamil alaap. He has assimilated jazz, rock, orchestral, opera, western classical, Tamil folk, all into his music. He has been a world musician from day one.
He has tried all kinds of voices, broke monopoly of singers, gave chance to unknown singers.
People often say his music is monotonous. My argument is: would you call Picasso monotonous? Every artiste has a distinct style, a leitmotif running through his work. His songs grow on you. The layers get to you slowly. His songs are complicated creations but come across very simply.
Srinivas Bhashyam is a film-maker who assisted Mani Ratnam in Bombay. As told to Namrata Joshi
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