A young biographer goes with the beat to bring out the inner world of the shy genius, A.R. Rahman
For people of a certain vintage in Tamil Nadu, 1992 was nothing short of a revelation. A theatrical revelation. We were uncharacteristically late for the film Roja, and as we scurried up, the usher pulled the heavy door open just a wedge to let us in to the hall. In that one moment, we stood transfixed, forgetting even to breathe.
As young actor Madhubala waded about in a pool, flipping her hair around, splashing in the water, singing ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’, the music, a strange music, washed over us. It made us joyful, raunchy, set our hair on edge, even patriotic, in turns. The music, it was playing us, and we were powerless to resist.
There are, today, generations of young people who have grown up listening to the music of A.R. Rahman, and they are passionate fans too, but for someone who was groomed to the genius of Ilayaraja’s music, the sounds of Roja were an epiphany. Tamil cinema as we knew it had changed, we could tell. How far Rahman, who was credited with the music, would go though no one could even fathom at that point.
Any biography, even an authorised one, at this stage in Rahman’s life, can best be considered a work in progress. But the body of work that he has produced and his sheer range has given Krishna Trilok over 300 pages. As the son of Trilok Nair and Sharada Trilok, close friends of Rahman who introduced him to director Maniratnam, and thereby helped with the big break, it can be assumed Krishna probably had a few doors already open for him. But what he has taken on, indeed at the ridiculously young age of 23, is no mean task. To write of the man everyone knows to be shy and retiring, to bring his inner world out for the others to see, is no walk in the park. He does a fair job, swinging alongside for the ride with Rahman in the latter’s breathless, talented, inspired, beloved-by-all avatar, with all the energy of a young fan.
Stuff of legend
It is legend by now, but biographies by their very nature, are crafted not only to tell the tale well, but also inspire. Born Dileep Kumar, the talented son of R.K. Shekhar, a musician in the Tamil film industry who died early, Rahman became the breadwinner of his family right from the age of nine. His sheer talent, strong work ethic and pleasant nature took him, through the years, to a couple of Oscars, Grammys and into living rooms across the world, not to mention into the hearts of fans.
Where Krishna succeeds is to provide a ringside view of the world of Rahman to his readers — from the minutiae — from describing the way his studio looks, to how divinity meets his music, to what he has for lunch, the jokes he cracks, the way he is kind with people, to his role as a producer and director, his love for technology, the hectic activity that goes into live performances, and the army of people that keep the wheels turning. These are the details that fans hunger for, and in them is couched a by-now popular classic rags-to-riches tale about the man whom power, money or fame left apparently untouched.
As the book weaves in and out of Rahman’s life, slipping seamlessly across various points of time in the subject’s work, it delivers a well-researched filmography volume, with trivia packed in. But of course, the book would have been far short of where it falls now, had it stopped with just that. Krishna brings it a heart through interviews with people closest to Rahman — his music and film teams, his collaborators, sisters, and wife, besides the man himself, sometimes in mellow mode too.
While the book would have been richer with insights from Rahman’s mother Kareema Begum, his bedrock, and his children, there are clearly lines drawn here. One only has to look at the brief chapter with Saira, Rahman’s wife, to see how much value that kind of thing adds to the telling of a life that people already know a fair bit about.
After all, Rahman is no stranger to the world. In 2002, 10 years after the stunning Roja debut, he was busy in London, making music for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams.
Walking down a rather warm subway after a night show, there was a bit of deja vu. A blond woman is skipping past, twirling her umbrella reminiscent of the way Madhubala was flipping her hair. She’s singing to herself, and in a particularly joyous moment, she pirouettes up and lands with one high heeled foot on the floor. ‘Shakalaka baby,’ she croons audibly, turning her umbrella in a graceful final swish. Yet another continent had clearly been colonised, and by then, there was no doubt, others were just waiting for the music to wash over them too.
Rahman, the obliging genius that he is, did just that. It is this prodigious tale that Krishna Trilok has attempted to tell.
(Notes of a Dream: The Authorized Biography of A.R. Rahman, written by Krishna Trilok and published by Penguin Random House. It is priced at ₹599)
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