Suganth M (BOMBAY TIMES; April 7, 2017)

Twenty-five years, 15 film albums, innumerable chartbusters...Mani Ratnam and A R Rahman are arguably the greatest director-composer duo of our time. Ahead of the release of their latest offering, Kaatru Veliyidai, the celebrated duo takes a walk down memory lane with BT, talking about everything -from the moment when Mani Ratnam heard Rahman's music for the first time, to how their composing sessions are today. Read on...

What was the first thing that struck you when you listened to Rahman's music, way back in 1992?
Mani Ratnam (MR): When you listen to music, you listen to music. You like it very much or not. For me, his music was just amazing. It took me out from where I was sitting and transported me to a different world.
A R Rahman (AR): Not everyone gets a Mani Ratnam movie for their first film. So, imagine how cool it must have been for me!
MR: And not everyone gets A R Rahman's first film, too! (laughs)

Did you feel any pressure at that time?
AR: I had a lot of pressure. He was very kind, but outside, they were all looking at me like, 'What! You, composing for a Mani Ratnam film? What are you gonna do?' I wouldn't play the songs to everyone, but some people would come and listen. There was this gentleman who supplied music equipment. He had helped me get all my equipment. So, he came and listened, and he was silent. After a while, he asked, 'What have you done? This is a disaster. Where's the tabla? Where's the violin? They are what make a song. Not this stuff.' I was really concerned and told Mani Ratnam 'I'm going to add tabla and violin', and he told me, 'Don't do any thing. This is perfect.'

Were you concerned if the audience would find Rahman's music for Roja too ahead of its time?
MR: No. I looked at it as a director. And a director is a very selfish person. His first priority is his film. The film was set in Kashmir and the music that he played had the feel of winter - the cold of that place. I thought it was absolutely fantastic and it was just going to lift my visuals.

After Roja came Thiruda Thiruda, which, again, had a totally new sound, again...
AR: I think Roja's success made us work really, really hard. We were kind of masochists, and we were destroying ourselves. Vairamuthu sir, in fact, said, 'Anybody else would have died living up to what we did with Roja'. We were pushing ourselves and I think that's why it still stands the test of time.
MR: It was an experimental album, but we didn't think of it that way then. Still, Rahman tried every thing. The film was a wild film, so he could go that expansive in the music. It was a chance for us to open up a lot more.

Do you choose tunes that would work well in all languages?
AR: It is one of the most torturous things. We didn't even know that the music of Roja was going to work in Hindi, but it was so big in Hindi as well. So, Bombay was a challenge. This is one of the reasons why we settle for phonetics, like Humma Humma or Chaiyya Chaiyya. This way, we get away with not being region specific.

When you have Rahman, people expect songs. Are songs a compromise in your films?
MR: I like songs. It's a weakness that I have. A song is a burden that you carry happily. When you have a song, it is like a mini-film within a film. It has a wholesomeness within itself. And sometimes, the song is so good that it stands out more than the film. You know it is bigger than the film, still you are greedy and try to fit it in as much as you can. It's your love for it that matters.

Where does the journey of a Mani Ratnam-AR Rahman album start?
AR: Anywhere. Sometimes he doesn't even tell me the story.
MR: Yes, these days, I don't.
AR: He will ask me to play the tunes and say, 'I like this tune, this one' and pick them up.

Do you generally have tunes ready for him?
AR: Not exactly. I have a melody element that reflects feelings... like love, passion and so on. I keep sending him ideas and ask him to check them out.

How do you decide that he will like a particular tune?
AR: It's not about him liking a tune. When I compose something, I have to like it first. I have to be proud of it and feel, 'Ah, this is beautiful' or 'This chord progression is nice'... If it emotionally moves me, then I'm sure that he will like it as well. Sometimes, he might not like it, too. For instance, while composing for Kadal, my favourite was Nenjukkulle while his was Moongil Thottam. Both had the same tempo and were on accordion, with extraordinary lyrics. Finally, we ended up using both.

Is there any difference between how your composing sessions were earlier and how they are at present?
AR: I think we used to hang out more. I miss going to Maldives or to Bangalore for such sessions.
MR: Today, Rahman travels all over the world, but that doesn't stop us. He still sends me tunes whether he is here or abroad through Skype.
AR: But for background scores, we need to be face-to face, as the momentum is much better then. For lyrics, again, we have to sit together, which is what is beautiful about the process.

How is a typical session like?
AR: We will show it to you, on Periscope once (laughs). Actually, it is both fun and stressful.

Is the discussion only about the song?
AR: When he is doing a movie, if you talk something other than the subject, he'll just say, 'I don't care what you are talking about. Is it related to my movie?' So, I wander around, but he is very focused.
MR: I think that's good to wander once in a while because Rahman gets some random ideas and they work very well. When the three of us sit together, you can really feel the synergy.