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Lunch With
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Travel to Chennai (Madras)


Lunch with AR Rahman

28 March 2017

Forget about the Oscars and the Golden Globes. For musician AR Rahman, it’s not the fame but the faith that really inspires him.

In his homeland of India, AR Rahman is famous. Not the type of entry-level fame that comes with winning a reality TV show or having a one-hit wonder but fame of the Michael Jackson or Marilyn Monroe variety.

Not only does everybody here know him, but they love him to the extent that, in a country where music and movies reign supreme, the musician, composer, singer-songwriter and philanthropist has achieved an almost superhero status.

The knock-on effect of this is clear, certainly to me today. While he might well be a regular here in Chennai’s Golden Dragon restaurant in the Taj Coromandel hotel, as I patiently wait for his arrival the staff are visibly flustered, just at the thought of his appearance. Even the fact he’s late is viewed through a prism of sympathetic awe. “A person of such genius mind is often preoccupied with loftier concerns than time and space,” says the restaurant manager.

They prepare his personalised chopsticks.

Once he arrives, we’re ushered quickly off to Rahman’s favourite private dining room and, as we take our seats, the 50-year-old’s discomfort at being fawned over is matched only by the manager’s enthusiasm in doing so.

The musician’s life is the type of triumph-over-adversity story that Bollywood thrives on. The son of composer RK Shekhar, Rahman lived an ordinary middle-class existence in Chennai, until – when he was nine years old – his father died. “When he passed away my mother felt I should take on his legacy,” he says. “To be honest with you, at the time, I didn’t really know what that meant.”

His father’s legacy was far from their only concern. Without the male breadwinner, life was hard in 1970s India. With four children to care for, Rahman’s mother Kareema made ends meet by hiring out her husband’s recording studio. When Rahman was 11, the budding musicican began touring with various orchestras to earn some extra money for the family. He eventually left school to concentrate on music. “My mother’s burden became my burden – a good burden, in a way.

“I had to leave high school, which was very confusing at the time. Not the leaving school, exactly, but the effect it might have on social status. I thought: ‘If I leave, will that make me a dropout?’ Thankfully, another door opened for me.

“Usually parents will say: ‘Don’t take up music, become a doctor or lawyer’. That’s a typical Indian family response. But mine were the opposite. My mother could see the bigger picture and she didn’t care about anything else. It’s a good thing too, as it would have been a completely boring life without that decision.”

With a natural leaning toward technology and an upbringing steeped in music, Rahman felt instinctively at home in the studio. In 1987, following more than 10 years of music scholarships and playing in bands, he began making advertising jingles. It was here that he began to formulate his own sound – he’s known for combining traditional Indian music with electro – and eventually saw music as more than just a way to support his family.

Unfortunately, just as Rahman’s career was taking off, his home life was in crisis. His sister was suffering from a seemingly incurable disease that rocked the family’s Hindu faith to the core. Following the prayers and blessings of a Sufi pir (a spiritual guide) she made a full recovery and as a result, the entire family converted to Islam.

“I came into the religion with a true spiritual sense. It transformed and brought something amazing out of me. I didn’t know anything about Islamic history, its luggage or baggage. I didn’t even see it in religious terms. I was simply blessed by the teacher. He never said: ‘You have to become a Muslim.’”

The musician’s Hindu name was AS Dileep Kumar, one he had never really felt comfortable with and in 1991, under guidance, he took the name Rahman. The change brought new energy and with it, his first big break. In 1992, Rahman met the renowned Tamil film director Mani Ratnam. Ratnam loved his music and asked him to work on the score for his next film Roja. The film, and the soundtrack, were huge hits and in 1995, he wrote the songs for his first Hindi movie, Rangeela. The doors to Bollywood had been well and truly smashed open in just a few years.

In 2003, Rahman made his first move into international movies, and in 2008 he worked with director Danny Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire. The film won him two Oscars and pop star status, thanks to the internationally successful song Jai Ho. Only the second Indian to win an Oscar, Rahman became a national treasure in his homeland and in big demand in Hollywood. “It was like one person having 11 plates to eat but you can only have one... it was a confusing period.”

Success meant more time – and a home – in LA from around 2006, but by then it had become something of a fame-driven necessity. “There I have a free life,” he says. Although, even there, that freedom is buffered by the renown that comes with two Oscars, a Bafta, a Golden Globe and, in 2009, a place on the Time 100 most influential people list.

It’s evident that Rahman struggles with the notion of success, and having to split what he does and where he lives. Nine years after Slumdog, he’s still spinning those plates. “I’m torn by the different things I’m doing,” he says. “I started as a Tamil composer, then moved to north India, which was huge. Then London, then the US. But people start to feel left out so I have to go back and do something for them. Then you realise that you’re only human. You have to make a choice, you have to ditch something, otherwise you’re neither here nor there.”

Continuing to live with his feet in several worlds, Rahman has his pick of projects. He recently completed Muhammad: The Messenger of God, an Iranian epic based on the early life of the Prophet Muhammad. A film close to his heart, he feels it captures the essence of Islam as a religion of kindness.

Still questioning where his own destiny will lead him, Rahman seems to be leaning more towards his homeland and he’s currently working on his own Hindi language movie.

“When you’re making music you’re dependent on a script that comes to you. But what if I want to do certain things with the music and there’s no script that allows for it? That’s why I’m writing my own stories,” he says. After four years of planning and scriptwriting courses, Rahman’s story should start filming this year. Will he direct it?

“I’m an introvert,” he says in answer. “If I see just 10 people I get, well...”

One thing’s clear. While Rahman might have started out as a musician to support his family, his motivation is now very different. “After getting the money, the awards, the fame – faith is the only real foundation for me. Without faith, you always want to prove something, to show off to someone. I read somewhere that Michelangelo made his work for God and no one else. And that the folk musicians out in the rural areas, they play for just three or four people at a time and you know... they don’t want anything more than that.”

Words: Kaye Martindale / Images: Geoff Brokate