Bollywood is in a fu*king mess right now. It’s in such a mess that the release of the late Sushant Singh Rajput’s last movie, Dil Bechara feels like a distant memory, and everything about him has become about drugs, politics, and whatnot. But why am I talking about that in relation to a Mega Icons episode on A.R. Rahman? Well, ahead of Dil Bechara’s release, Rahman had revealed that he has been put in a corner by a gang in Bollywood. Yes, the A.R. Rahman was complaining about not getting work. And it made me wonder the kind of highs and lows this reserved person must’ve faced for all these years. After watching a 40-minute video on his life, I am still wondering.
So, here’s the thing. If I do a cursory Wikipedia search on Rahman, I’ll get to know that he was born A.S. Dileep Kumar on January 6, 1967. He’s an Indian composer, singer, and music producer who works predominantly in Tamil and Hindi movies. He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, and he was won six National Film Awards, two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe Award, fifteen Filmfare Awards, and seventeen Filmfare Awards South. He used to do ad jingles. He had an in-house studio Panchathan Record Inn. He began his career in film with Roja. He collaborated with Ratnam for the longest period of his career. He was included on the Time list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2009. Now, imagine getting the man himself for a period of 40 or so minutes and the people who have worked with him and talking about those same exact things. What a waste!
Alright, before getting into everything that’s wrong with the Nat Geo’s Mega Icons episode on Rahman, allow me to list down some of the things that they did get right and piqued my interest.
- No coffee for Mohit Chauhan: In my opinion, Bollywood kinda sorta peaked in terms of marrying music and filmmaking with Rockstar. The story is too heartbreaking to rewatch. But I find myself listening to its songs a lot. Like, a little too much. Yes, I am obsessed. Hence it was interesting to know the kind of conversations Imtiaz Ali, Irshad Kamil, Rahman had while making ‘Kun Faya Kun‘ and how Rahman refused to let Mohit Chauhan have coffee during a recording session to emulate the angst of Jordan. It just goes to show that Rahman is a dedicated human being. He knows the pulse of the story that he’s trying to tell through his music. And he’ll try various tactics to get that job done.
- Kavita Krishnamurthy on ‘Main Vari Vari’ from Mangal Pandey: Throughout the episode, it’s emphasised and re-emphasised that Rahman loves to record sounds that seem arbitrary. Then he mixes them in such unique ways that nobody would even think about doing and create, well, magic. Rahman mentions briefly how bits and pieces of ‘Jiya Jale‘ from Dil Se.. are actually from the rehearsal recording sessions. But we technically to hear it in action when Kavita Krishnamurthy talks about the time she sang ‘Main Vari Vari’ from Mangal Pandey. She recontextualises the song so that when you go and hear it, you can actually understand how it was made. That’s beautiful.
- Crediting musicians and how that’s reciprocated by them explained by Thumba Raja: If you go to IMDb or Wikipedia, you’ll find little to no mention of Thumba Raja, who’s a renowned percussionist. However, since Rahman credits everyone (Even the chorus singers), he’s in this episode telling us about how differently they use the instruments they love to play. The reason why that is intriguing is, based on some personal experience, I know that musicians can be a stickler for tradition and won’t break it even if you hold a gun to their head. But Raja completely alters the way an instrument called Resa-Resa to create a sound that’s synonymous with not theirs, but Rahman’s style. I know, it’s a small thing that we won’t even notice while hearing his songs but once you know it, who knows, maybe you will, thereby enriching your experience of listening to Rahman’s music.
- Why does A.R. Rahman create music?: Not enough time is dedicated to answering this question but since beggars can’t be choosers, I am glad that the episode at least addresses it in some capacity. I have asked artists why do they create art. And the common answer that I usually get is to earn money. They do say it sarcastically or because they don’t take me too seriously. But it was satisfying to hear Rahman say that he creates music to ease everyone’s pain. That’s such a spiritual thing to say. It’s like he knows how much pain everyone (Excluding people with heaps of privilege) is enduring and he just wants to give them a few minutes of bliss through his music. I wish more artists do that because holy hell do we need it.
And apart from all that, the rest of the episode is just crap. Please keep in mind that I am not dumping on Rahman and/or all the artists shown in the episode. This is a criticism of the work done by Creative director Shruti Takulia, Executive producer Raghav Khanna, Commerical head Reena Gandhi, and the individual in charge of research, Divya Shukla. The most glaring problem with the episode is the background music. How in the world do you make an episode on the one and only A. R. Rahman and manage to have basic-ass motivational music playing in the background? How? You’re National Geographic FFS. Okay, you’re the Indian branch of National Geographic but you’re still National Geographic. You couldn’t license some of his scores (FYI there are so many!) and play them in the background? It’s such an insult. I am sure Rahman has better things to do and probably won’t even look back at this. But what about the fans who know him for his music? You couldn’t have thought about them? Absolutely pathetic.
The second-biggest problem about this episode is that retreading of Rahman’s past via narration and recreating parts of his life. Biopics are so tricky. They have to have accurate casting. The story doesn’t just need to be accurate. It also needs to evoke a certain emotion. And National Geographic here thought that they can get anyone to play Rahman and various other important people in his life, slap some Snapchat-esque retro filter on it, and help us visualise his journey while the whole thing is narrated to us who has little-to-no interest in Rahman. That leads to a secondary problem, which is that focusing on his past doesn’t give the episode enough time to delve into his present trials and tribulations and get into his relation with Mani Ratnam (In fact, there’s a video essay by Vinit Masram on how the music of Bombay was created which tells us more about Rahman’s craft than this episode). But I won’t spoil that for you. You can find it out by yourself. Coming back to the issue at hand, the barebones nature of dissecting Rahman’s past, his present, and the future of music that he has crafted is grating. It doesn’t give any additional insight and the poor acting and direction just make Rahman look tacky. Why was this creative decision taken? We will never know.
In conclusion, National Geographic needs to get their shit straight. If you have decided to do episodes on icons, Indian or otherwise, then do the research that they deserve and then show it accordingly. I don’t know if it’s some kind of company mandate to limit it to 40 minutes. But if you want to do something substantial, you have to do away with that. You’re competing with many other documentaries on these various icons. If you want to stand out, you’ve to do better. You’ve to dig in and try to know what went on in the lives of these individuals when they were at their highest, their lowest, and somewhere in the middle. Stop deifying them. They’re already practically deities in their respective professions. Try to tell why they are what they are without resorting to the cliches that documentaries are usually associated with. And, on a final note (Pun absolutely intended), get people to cover these icons who actually love them.
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India