This is a post I wrote a year and a half ago for the last Rahman/Ratnam movie, but I thought I should repost it today in honor of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. It’s important to know why it is so especially exciting when a new Ratnam-Rahman movie comes out, and why that director-composer relationship is so special. (also, usually in this posts I try to use images instead of songs, but because of the topic, this will be an all songs post. I encourage you to actually watch all the videos too)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: Tamil film is NOT my area, I am NOT an expert on it, there may be errors or things I miss in this post related to the Tamil industry. But Ratnam/Rahman in particular have broken through to Hindi film, and are related to a history of directors-composers in Hindi film, so I can give you the some information on them.
There are two ways film songs are written in Indian cinema. Way number one is that a producer goes to a composer’s house, hands him a check, says “I need a club song, a love song, a college song, and a sad song”. The composer picks up 4 songs he has laying around and hands them over to the producer. And then those songs are handed to the director, who films a club song, a love song, a college song, and a sad song off of them. The rest of the film is made separately, and the songs are slotted in at the times marked in the script for “songs”.
In some ways, this is the wave of the future. Now you have composers who specialize in certain kinds of songs. So you might hire Yo Yo Honey Singh for your club song, Armaan Malik for your ballad, and so on. And then you have the 4 best possible songs from 4 separate genres for your film. And you will hire 4 separate choreographers to make the 4 best possible visuals for them, and 4 separate teams of playback singers and studio musicians and so on and so on. This is how you end up with movies like, say, Baar Baar Dekho, which has 5 different composers on it and 4 different choreographers.
(I think Jasleen R is my favorite of the 5 composers. And also of the 13 playback singers)
So, what’s the problem with doing it like this? Well, maybe nothing. Baar Baar did have a great soundtrack, every song was good. And the song sequences were the best part of the film. But what you’ve lost doing it this way is the idea of the songs and the rest of the film being two halves of the same coin.
The truly Great directors and composers worked together differently. It’s not about money changing hands, it’s about driving each other to greatness. Rishi Kapoor in his biography talks about song sittings that would last for days, as the director rejected idea after idea, because it doesn’t fully match the emotion he wants for the scene. And it wasn’t just the director back then, the playback singer, and the actor who would do perform the song, and the scriptwriter, and the producer, the whole creative team would come together to work with the composer.
(This is a song from one of the movies Rishi was talking about. Look at how Madan Mohan integrated the sound of the single anklet into his song.)
The end result was a soundtrack that didn’t have the “best song” every single time, but did have the best songs FOR THIS MOVIE. Look at, for instance, the title song from Kabhi Kabhi. It’s very simple musically, lovely tune, but not particularly outstanding on its own. However, in context, and as a leitmotif through out the film, it is perfect. Sahir Ludhianvi inspired the film, and his words inspired this song, and the words and story and performances onscreen all came together to make it into an undividable whole. Compare that with the way “Kala Chasme” lifts right out of Baar Baar Dekho, could come from any film of the past 10 years, or even be just a single released by Badshah with no film attached at all.
(See how Khayyam built the song around the poem, and Yashji built his visuals to let us focus on the sound of the words? And all of this supports the central idea, the sacrificing love story of a poet)
The Great Directors always worked like this, and the Cheap Directors always went the route of picking up the leavings, paying for those songs the Great Directors had rejected for their films. There’s a certain artistic freedom in that for the composer. You can have random musical experiments like RD Burman’s “Duniye Main Logon Ko”, an all time classic, popping up in a minor Rajesh Khanna movie because it wouldn’t fit in any really good movie, too odd to match the mood of a script. Or (I think) Rahman’s decision to put “Jai Ho” in Slumdog Millionaire.
But what is really amazing, and incredibly rare, is when a director can spur a composer to greater heights, can inspire them to make songs that are both brilliant on their own, and perfectly in keeping with the film. And that’s what Rahman and Ratnam do for each other (and before them, Shankar-Jaikishen with Raj Kapoor, Yash Chopra and Shiv Hari, Guru Dutt and SD Burman).
(Shankar-Jaikishen weren’t even composers until Raj asked them to help him with his first movie, Barsaat. And look at how they brilliantly weave together the different energies of the love story, pure village girl Nargis and tormented artist Raj Kapoor)
Rahman, no matter who the director is, always works in the “old-fashioned” manner. He does an entire soundtrack himself, often providing the playback singing for one or two of the songs as well. He spends days talking with the director, getting a sense of the film, and only then does he start composing. Most Rahman songs, you can listen to them and know immediately which film it is from, what the situation was, who were the stars, and so on.
I say “most”, because even musical geniuses have to eat, and Rahman has also done his fair number of songs for the paycheck. Mohenjo Daro, for instance, pretty sure “Tu Hai” wasn’t necessarily originally written for that film. Pretty sure he didn’t agonize over the soundtrack for Couples Retreat for Hollywood either. And from the limited knowledge I have of his Tamil work, especially his early work, that is a definite mixed bag. All the songs are brilliant, of course, but the films as a whole don’t always have that perfect union with them, and vice versa.
(Gorgeous song, but the visuals don’t quite capture the beauty of it. And it doesn’t really match the characters in the rest of the film exactly)
But now Rahman is the acknowledged king of music in India, he can pick and choose his projects. And he tends to pick the ones where he has a deep connection with the director, and can craft his songs around the story and the story will be crafted around the songs. Whether he works with Gautham Menon or Imtiaz Ali, he has to be enticed by the artistic collaboration before he will consider it. If you listen to the soundtrack for Highway or Delhi-6, you may think “that’s it, this is the highest possible musical achievement in relation to film.”
If you watch the videos for “Thalli Pogathey” or “Saada Haq”, you may think there is no way that a director could better capture the spirit of a song. But that’s just because you haven’t seen a Ratnam-Rahman film yet!
Mani Ratnam is the whole reason that Rahman is in films. Mani Ratnam was already an established and beloved director in 1991 when he began planning Roja, which would become his first major crossover hit, from Tamil to Hindi. Ratnam had worked with Ilaiyaraaja in all his previous films. Ilaiyaraaja is a great composer as well, again Tamil isn’t really my field, but I do know that. And yet, I’ve seen their songs in Geethanjali, and there is something missing. Maybe I wouldn’t even know it was missing if I hadn’t seen what Ratnam did with Rahman later. But the Geethanjali songs, they are lovely and appropriate and all of that, and yet they don’t feel like they get right to the soul of the film the way the Ratnam-Rahman ones do.
Maybe that spark, that moment of “I’ve found my artistic other half” is why Ratnam sought out Rahman and why Rahman agreed to work with him? Rahman at that time was a very successful advertising jingle composer. He could make a lot more money cranking out songs for ads than he could in film, at least as a composer just starting out. Not that he was totally divorced from the film world, I don’t think any working musician in Chennai could have been, that’s where the jobs were. His father had been a composer working in film before his death when Rahman was a child, and Rahman had started as a studio musician in film soon after, while still a child (going back to my nepotism posts, I’m guessing they started giving him work at a young age partly because he was capable of it thanks to having been trained by his father, and partly because the industry knew his father was dead and the family would need the money Rahman could bring home). But film is always an uncertain business, and he had built an artistically fulfilling and financially stable career writing commercial jingles and performing and arranging for rock bands. I remember him saying in one interview that if it weren’t for Ratnam, he would probably be playing clubs in New York and London right now. That was the track he was on, art for the live performances and money from the ads.
I got to see Rahman live a couple years ago, and I got to see that club music artist. I know he has done stadium concerts as well, but at least the show I saw was all about the music. At a smaller venue that is world-renowned for its acoustics, with 4 other musicians on stage with him, no bells and whistles, just playing the music. Needless to say, the crowd HATED it. We wanted him to play “Chaiyya Chaiyya” for 3 hours straight and nothing else.
(there was a lot of stuff like this when I saw him. Brilliant musicians experimenting together)
And I assume that is why Rahman avoided film music, along with everything else. The “play ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya”!” affect. Doing small live shows in his free time he was never going to get rich and famous, but he could perform for people who really loved the music, which is all he cared about.
And then Mani Ratnam heard one of his ad jingles, and tracked him down in his studio, and asked him to work with him. And Rahman agreed, because he so loved Mani Ratnam’s movies, he couldn’t say “no”. It sounds all bland the way they describe it interviews, “I had heard his ad jingle at some award show” “I never considered film but I respected Mani sir as a director”. But read the between the lines, and see what came out of their creative collaborations, and you get more of a vision of “this is the person I was put on this earth to work with, we have to work together”. Kind of similar to that feeling you read about when Salim-Javed first started writing together, or Karan started directing Shahrukh.
Anyway, then they made Roja. Roja was one of the first Tamil films to be dubbed into Hindi, and was a massive national hit, especially the soundtrack. And AR Rahman was instantly recognized as a music genius. But if you go back to Roja now, from the perspective of having seen everything else Rahman has done, you can see that it isn’t just the brilliance of his music (he was more brilliant later to less effect), it’s the way the songs echo the characters and the story and everything else in the film. We all know that Roja wouldn’t be Roja without that title song.
(It’s so similar to the Geethanjali song above, but it’s just slightly better. The visuals perfectly fit with the music, you can’t see one without hearing the other and vice versa. And that cry of “ROJA” manages to convey all the love and longing of the character that we only see hints of in the rest of the script)
But could Rahman have written “Bharat Hum Ko Jaan Se Pyaara Hai” without Ratnam driving him on to it? It doesn’t even appear in the film, just over the ending credits, but it still became the most memorable song of the film, the one that perfectly captures the feel of the whole thing.
After Roja, AR Rahman’s career took off. He worked for every director from Shankar to Ram Gopal Verma. Composers always have to work much harder than directors, so Rahman was making 5-10 films to Ratnam’s one. But he would drop everything for a new Rahman film. Their second collaboration, Thiruda Thiruda, wasn’t a stone-cold classic, but still had some good songs.
But then Bombay changed everything, for both of them, again. Roja, driven by the soundtrack, had made Rahman an overnight composing superstar, and broken Ratnam out of the Tamil industry and into Hindi. Bombay is the all time highest selling album in India. It made Ratnam into the most sought after composer in India, and Rahman into the most respected director.
But the follow-up put both Ratnam and Rahman firmly back into their local industry, making a thinly veiled biopic of Tamil film star/politician MGR which allowed them to explore both Tamil history and film history. And let Rahman and Ratnam experiment with re-creating the whole history of film songs.
After Iruvar came Dil Se, which suddenly made Rahman an international sensation. And again, it would never have happened without Mani Ratnam driving him on to greater heights.
Then came Alaipayuthay. And my favorite Ratnam, Kannathil Muthamittal. Then Aayutha Ezhuthu / Yuva. Every couple of years, we would get the treat of a brilliant film and an all time classic soundtrack.
(Honestly did not realize until just now that this was a remix of “Jana Gana”)
What’s really amazing is that Ratnam famously hates doing songs in his films. And so now Rahman will write an amazing soundtrack, it will be released in advance, and then the film comes out and we see that the songs are barely there, just kind of glimpsed out of the corner of your ear (does that make sense?). With maybe one set-piece playing in full. But it doesn’t matter, because even if you only half hear them, they still perfectly match and elevate the rest of the film.
(The only real full song sequence in the film, and it perfectly captures the heart of the film, not the rise of Abhishek, but the relationship between Abhishek and Aish)
OK Kanmani, their last great film together, it was Rahman’s interests which drove the songs and feel of the film as much as Ratnam’s story concept. His deep sufi faith creating this lovely hymn, song by his own son. It perfectly captures the spiritual feeling of the characters in the moment that they are slowly falling in love, but it is not something Ratnam would ever have considered including in this film if Rahman hadn’t brought it to him. It matches the mood perfectly, but has nothing to do with the plot or characters.
And then we have Kaatru Veliyidai. Expectations were so-so, there hasn’t been a truly brilliant Ratnam movie since Aayutha Ezhuthu / Yuva (I am awfully fond of Guru, but it’s not on the same level as Bombay-Dil Se-Roja-Alaipayuthay-etc.). And the film was good, as good or maybe slightly better than OK Kanmani. It wasn’t as great as the early films, but the songs were still something special. Some magic alchemy of Mani Ratnam inspiring AR Rahman to top himself and bring out the deepest purest emotions of the characters.
And now there’s another chance for brilliance. With a gangster movie, a genre Rahman has worked on twice before (both time classics, Nayakan and Thalapathi) but not with Ratnam. A new kind of collaboration for them.