‘99 Songs’ can be our ray of hope in tough times: AR Rahman

Going live on Twitter Spaces, the music maestro talked about the nuances of filmmaking and romance in his debut film as a producer and writer

‘99 Songs’ can be our ray of hope in tough times: AR Rahman
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Garima Sadhwani

No, it doesn’t actually have 99 songs, but A.R. Rahman's upcoming film's 14-strong soundtrack is powerful, nonetheless.

Debuting as a writer and producer, Rahman has been working on 99 Songs for the past decade. He has had many leading singers lend their voice for the musical romance, that explores an artist’s life—how risk-taking is an important trait of an artist, and how art and life inspire each other constantly.

Going live on the newly launched Twitter Spaces, Rahman, along with the team of 99 Songs, spoke candidly about the passion project in a session moderated by Nirmika Singh, executive editor of Rolling Stone India. Taking a quantum leap from music to filmmaking, Rahman knew there was a chance that he might fall flat, but he carried on with the inner calling.

It was the win at the Oscars that stoked the writer in him. He believes that there can be a million different narratives that can be woven around every single thing in this world. However, cinema has the power to make you feel as though the one narrative you are seeing on the screen is the ultimate truth. That is what Rahman has tried to do with the film. “I felt I had to give this generation, this beauty and magic. This is an experience we are proud of,” he said in the Twitter session.

Another thing he has tried to do through this film is breaking some of the set patterns in the business of filmmaking. He remembers being told that he should release the soundtrack only a few weeks before the movie’s release. He decided not to adhere to it. He wanted the audience to have the option to listen to each song, fall in love with it, and then watch the movie after having lived with and internalised the soundtrack. A more challenging thing, he says, was limiting the use of various experimental cinematic tools. He wanted to tell the story in a simple and wholesome way. "It was daunting to be breaking so many stereotypes," he said.

Rahman has experimented with jazz and punk rock in the musical score because he wanted to bring out the excitement that a beginner feels when he’s exposed to umpteen new styles of music. But there too, he faced a new challenge-- you can’t have just music in a musical—there needs to be enough of a story for people to enjoy the movie.

Since the movie is a musical drama, a lot of thought and effort has gone behind each composition and the lyrics. One of the songs in the film, sung by Armaan Malik, had been written and composed by Rahman nearly two decades ago. Nikita Gandhi spoke about how she recorded parts of her song three years ago in a jamming session with Rahman.

Shashaa Tirupati, who has sung “Soja Soja”, said: “The beauty of it was that through the span of many years, we got so familiar. Till the time we recorded the Tamil version, it was like wearing your old comfortable clothes”. She thinks having sung in three languages, she got to explore the nuances of not just the lyrics but the language and cultures too.

Benny Dayal agreed with Shashaa. He said that Rahman pushed all the playback singers to their limit and brought out the best in them. Rahman chuckled in response: “When you find gold, you don’t make a tap out of it. You make an ornament.”

Working with a talented set of singers, Rahman too constantly pushed his boundaries. Even though he had a preset melody for all the compositions, he improvised at each recording session. Some songs even had multiple reiterations to bring them closer to the script. In some cases, Rahman even took a drive after the recording and listened to the song in his car, to figure how it would sound to the audience on FM.

Like the music, even the cast was chosen with care. Rahman wanted someone to whom music came easily. He also wanted a new face; someone he could nurture and who’d have the time to learn music. He finally zoomed in on Ehan Bhat after over 800 auditions.

Interestingly, the musician feels there’s a lot that he learned through this film. For one, as someone who had abandoned many songs that were almost complete, he learnt the value of responsibility. There was also value of collaborative team effort.

Rahman credits his director, Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, for blending chords and melody with the traditional and modern tools of cinema to bring out the magic in 99 Songs. “We wanted to make a movie about a musician’s relationship with the world, since music heals people out there every single day,” said Vishwesh at the Twitter Spaces event.

Rahman’s advice to everyone? Creativity is the key to realize dreams. Bring meaning to the world! Pick music, art, and storytelling as careers. Everyone has the potential, what they need is a little courage.

And courage is what Rahman needs too, with his film releasing just as lockdowns are being imposed all over again. But he is optimistic that it might turn out to be a ray of hope in these adverse times and will help light up a few lives.

In spite of that Rahman doesn’t want to overhype the film that releases on April 16 in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. As he said in the virtual Twitter session: "Go with low expectations, that's how you'll come back surprised."

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