It is 25 years since the Hindi film Rangeela released. It also marks 25 years of composer A.R. Rahman’s association with the Hindi film industry. Bollywood, known for its pomp and show, was stumped by this quiet and diminutive composer, who worked out of a small and unpretentious studio in Chennai.
He hardly spoke, and unlike most other debutant composers, made no grand presentation of his tunes. In fact, by his own admission he watched too much television and even missed the deadline to turn in his songs. He was unusual in more ways than one.
Asha meets Rahman
Recollecting her first meeting with Rahman during the recording of the ‘Rangeela’ song, veteran singer Asha Bhosle says: “In that dark, small studio, the lyrics were handed to me and the composer sang the tune. I decided not to disappoint the youngster. So, I dressed up the tune and we recorded the song. There was no objection to any of the improvisations I made. He thanked me, and I left.” Months later, when Ashaji listened to the song, “I couldn’t believe my ears. What he had done with it was stunning. I thought here was a composer who could imagine a song not just musically, but also technologically.”
The Roja moment
The late S.P. Balasubrahmanyam felt the same after the recording of ‘Kadhal Rojave,’ the song from Rahman’s first independent assignment, the Tamil film Roja (1992). “How can a cinematic song be produced in this studio?” SPB had wondered on seeing the cubicle-like space. Like Asha, he eventually admitted that this composer could transform the very sound of a song.
In the early part of 1995, the dubbed Hindi versions of Roja and Bombay had already set the stage for Rahman, but Rangeela defined him in a big way. He radicalised an industry that had quite definitively fixed its aural idiom. He yoked seemingly opposing musical syntaxes, different styles and worldviews, clearly establishing himself as unique from the beginning. Rahman defied categories of pathos, joy and romance and wove multiple moods into a song.
Having worked in the southern film industry for several years, he was aware of the film music tradition, but was under no compulsion to stick to convention. Instead of catering to the market, he created a new one.
Rangeela is clearly among Rahman’s best even after 25 years. The sheer variety of compositions is remarkable. Rahman’s strategy was wonderful: to rope in all the top singers — Asha Bhosle, Kavitha Krishnamurthy, Suresh Wadkar, Chitra, Udit Narayan and Hariharan.
Just as what he had done with ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ (Roja) with the singer Minmini, he introduced relatively lesser-known voices like that of Shweta Shetty and Swarnalatha. He also broke standard narratives. If you listen carefully to the introductory passage of ‘Mangta Hai Kya,’ you will recognise it is tonally different from the rest of the song.
In fact, the song works in different scales, registers and styles, giving us a glimpse of what Rahman would do in the future. The rap bit popped in as a surprise in the peppy ‘Rangeela’ song. Rahman packed such unanticipated moments into every song of the film.
Striking a balance
Rahman was clearly carving out his space, but he did not dissociate himself from the melodic tradition. For instance, in ‘Tanha Tanha’ (Asha Bhosle), a song with a new age tune, he suddenly introduces a Carnatic grace. The operatic style of violins contrasted with the flute and violin overlays before the first antara; or the lush violin passages before the second, are clear indications of Rahman placing himself in the tradition. He does something similar with ‘Hai Rama’ (Hariharan and Swarnalatha) — the song opens to the tanpura drone, with faint strains of the Purya Dhanashri bandish, ‘Payaliya Jhankar’. Drawing intensity from both the bandish and the raga, Rahman gives a sensual texture to the song. ‘Pyaar ye jaane kaisa hai’ (Kavitha Krishnamurthy and Suresh Wadkar) strikes you for its absence of rhythm. It has a seamlessly flowing melody with brilliant solo violin passages. The sitar and wistful alaap juxtapositions are unforgettable. But just as one gets familiar with his style, Rahman departs from it and throws in a surprise.
Striking a balance between innovation and tradition, Rangeela sets the stage for everything that in the later years came to be known as quintessential Rahman. He overwhelmed you with style and sound, and captured the aspiration of India’s new music audience. It is another story how this avant garde musician changed not only how music was conceived, but also its practices. Two years after Rangeela came Rahman’s independent album, Vande Mataram. In its techno-pop avatar, Rahman fuelled the idea of a modern India, global in its ambition.