It isn’t really a major surprise that we, as a nation of armchair critics, would lash out against AR Rahman after his Oscar win. Failing to take that award in perspective — foolishly and redundantly yelling that he has made other, greater music in the past — we have been writing off his recent work, confident that he has peaked, is overrated, and we can gleefully tear down another hero we have ourselves deified. This doesn’t come as a shocker at all considering, for example, the fact that The Times Of India jubilantly ran the headline ‘Endulkar’ a few years — and roughly twenty centuries — ago, pointing prematurely to the end of a road for even that superhuman so far beyond reproach.
The Commonwealth Games Song was one that didn’t appeal to several. Fair enough, but who is to dictate what is a perfect track? I don’t know many who like Rahman’s theme from the disastrous Blue soundtrack, but current Bollywood toast Amit Trivedi spent twenty minutes explaining to me just why it was sheer genius, and among his favourite tracks of last year. Conversely, there are those who hate even the sublime Rangeela theme. You can never please everyone, and no artist should attempt to pander thus. Going from the outraged reactions from people who went on and on about how much Rahman has charged for the song, it seems they expected Waka Waka and Jai Ho rolled into one. Clearly the expectations are becoming defiantly impossible; it seems we do not want to like Rahman anymore.
The question of cost is a ridiculous one. Sure, Rahman charges more for a film than several leading men, but this is extremely well-deserved, since he is often the only performer holding his end up while a cinematic innings goes through collapse. His last unanimously acclaimed soundtrack came with Delhi 6, a film with fantastic songs but absolutely nothing else. Looking back at his best work, you’ll see this is the norm — even with cinema being the most collaborative of creative arts, you see Rahman working despite mediocre scripts, actors, directors, doing his own thing with elan despite all odds, odds that shouldn’t rightfully exist.
Cinematically, the man has been tragically boxed in. The new, radical Indian cinema is looking elsewhere for its tunes: Anurag Kashyap brings in spectacular talents like Trivedi and Piyush Mishra, Vishal Bhardwaj does everything on his own, and Dibakar Banerjee discovers brilliant people like Sneha Khanwalkar. This leaves Rahman, that virtuoso artist, to deal mostly with the fatcats, the filmmakers loaded with dough — and little else. The lack of creative inspiration must be stultifying for a man of his calibre. Just try and imagine an artiste forced to seek the muse in films as vacuous as Ghajini, Sivaji, Yuvvraaj and Raavan.
Which is why he must look abroad. Toward Danny Boyle and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Western shores where background score is treasured and composers work with different parameters. I do not say that they make better music, but the artist in Rahman has to hope that they present him with fresh challenges. It is why a Naseeruddin Shah goes and does bit-roles with Sir Sean Connery, in the desperate hope that he can expand instead of shuttling between a Mohra and a Krrish, which is all our industry doles out. It is only now that Shah, like his contemporary Pankaj Kapoor, is thankfully being given something with enough meat to justify a bite.
We must start giving Rahman something delicious to work with. Or else we’ll just have to get used to applauding 127 Hours from afar.
First published Mumbai Mirror, October 20, 2010