Bollywood's favourite sore thumb: the much-loved and mysterious AR Rahman
AR Rahman is Bollywood's resident genius. So why is there no documentary about him yet?
It is easy to hyperbolise Rahman, of course. But it is difficult to overstate his importance. Everyone from Gulzar to Mani Ratnam to Andrew Lloyd Weber swears by his prodigious talent. Some say he transformed Bollywood music, others concede him as the only exception to a blanket dismissal of it.
It's clear Rahman is a defier of genre, a guarantor of freshness, a prospector of unknown talent.
One wonders whether Amit Trivedi or Sneha Khanwalkar would have been possible if not for the ground laid by Rahman. One suspects Roja, Rangeela, Dil Se, Lagaan, Saathiya, Swades and Rang De Basanti were crucially enhanced by his contribution - and that Taal, Jodhaa Akbar, Delhi-6 and indeed Slumdog Millionaire were rescued by it.
Who else could have scored Elizabeth and 127 Hours, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Highway? Who else could reinvent Vande Mataram and make an ad jingle profoundly likeable?
Relatively little is known about the man behind this illustrious and wide-ranging career. Here and there are quiet interviews about particular albums, stories of his surrender to his faith, whispers about his intricate recording process, and everywhere there are packed stadiums. But there is no real document of Rahman's story.
Into this vacuum comes Jai Ho, which director Umesh Agarwal calls "the first ever definitive documentary on AR Rahman". "Even he says it's the first," says Agarwal, who made the film for a PSBT initiative to "Celebrate India" in 2012. There are plenty of noteworthy classical musicians, of course, but, Agarwal reasons, "touching a popular chord" - as Rahman has done - "is perhaps far more difficult."
The film tracks Rahman's life and career - spanning more than 20 years and 130 albums - and seeks to uncover what defines his music. In the film, says Agarwal, Rahman talks about "his faith, his embracing of Islam, his childhood, his parents, his school."
The film takes in everything from his time as a 12-year-old session musician and his work as a jingle-maker, to the global scale of his work and fandom now. It tells his story in his own voice, and in the voices of some of his most illustrious collaborators.
"The film reveals how he turned Indian music around," says Agarwal. "He has changed the entire concept of a song. It is no longer 'mukhda antara mukhda antara'. Also, the way he records a song is totally the opposite of others in the industry. Most music directors have the entire track ready and the singer comes in last, [but with Rahman], the singer is the first to be recorded."
This brings to mind a sequence from Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar, in which a music director attempts to get Jordan (played by Ranbir Kapoor and voiced by Mohit Chauhan) to sing a canned melody over a pre-recorded synth track. Jordan, for whom Rahman created a self-contained body of work, is too playful, too inventive to play it straight.
The effect is what you might get if you tried to put the man who created Urvashi into a Rajesh Roshan song: Rahman's renegade genius sticking out like a sore thumb against a generic Bollywood sound.