In 2015, Umesh Aggarwal made a feature-length documentary on AR Rahman, titled Jai Ho. The filmmaker isn’t finished yet with the famed music composer. Last month saw the launch of a YouTube series directed by Aggarwal exploring aspects of Rahman 30-year-career that couldn’t be included in the documentary.
“A documentary offers a limited time-frame, and there were many things that we couldn’t get into it at the time,” Aggarwal explained. With episodes range from 10 minutes-12 minutes, the series was launched on August 15 to mark the day when Rahman’s first film project, Mani Ratnam’s Roja, was released.
Ratnam, who has used the Oscar-winning musician for all his films since, kicks off the series by revisiting the making of the wildly popular soundtrack. The music of Roja was “an earnest attempt”, Ratnam says, that went on to “became a rage”.
Ratnam will feature in six episodes, followed by other directors who have worked with Rahman, including Ram Gopal Varma, Imtiaz Ali, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Shyam Benegal, Bharatbala, Ashutosh Gowariker, Shekhar Kapur and Deepa Mehta.
Varma, whose Rangeela (1995) was Rahman’s original soundtrack in Hindi, has “very interesting stories” to share, Aggarwal promised. Rahman, whom Aggarwal interviewed afresh in the light of his recent projects, including the home production 99 Songs, will show up later in the series.
The series will also feature Mehoob, who wrote the lyrics for Rahman’s soundtracks in his early years in the Hindi film industry, as well as Gulzar, who has written for the songs of some of Rahman’s biggest hits, including Dil Se and Guru.
Aggarwal hopes to include conversations with singers, including Chitra and Sukhwinder Singh. The music labels that have distribute Rahman’s music will also be a part of the series. “We never celebrate music companies, and I wanted them to be a part of the series,” Aggarwal said. He pointed to Sridhar Subramaniam, the top-ranking Sony Music Entertainment executive who has worked with Rahman since the non-film album Vande Mataram in the late 1990s.
How has Aggarwal managed to tackle the forbiddingly high cost of using snippets from Rahman’s film music, especially since the web series is self-produced? Aggarwal has sidestepped the question for now by featuring covers of Rahman’s tunes by fans and professionals. These range from instrumental to acoustic renderings of Rahman’s often-complex arrangements.
“Using the original music was an option, but I felt that we have heard these tunes many times and know them by heart,” Aggarwal said. ‘Since the series is meant to be a celebration, and Rahman is the first artist from India who has taken popular music beyond our shores, I found artists across continents and have used their recreations with their permission. They may not speak our language, but they have recreated the songs. Can there be a greater validation of his music?”
Aggarwal hopes to put put over 50 episodes by August 2021. Thirty episodes are already in the bank, and others will depend on whether he can get access to his intended subjects, such as filmmaker Shankar, who has worked with Rahman in 12 films, from Gentleman to 2.0.
Rahman Music Sheets is a labour of love, a project that close enough to Aggarwal’s heart to warrant the time and money he has invested in the interviews and production.
Aggarwal also hopes to capture Rahman’s evolution from a hitmaker and Oscar-winning composer to an self-exploratory artist. “There is a time in an artist’s journey where he feels strongly about what he wants to do – I feel that Rahman is doing just that and doing it very successfully,” Aggarwal said, citing the music of 99 Songs and the recently released Mimi.
“Rahman has a capacity for reinvention, and his best is yet to come,” Aggarwal added. “He continues to surprise us. Can he surpass what he has already done?” Perhaps some answers might emerge from the conversations featured in Rahman Music Sheets.