'99 Songs': A R Rahman's 'passion project' to come out in UAE cinemas this week

The two-time Oscar winner reveals how he made the leap to producing with his latest film about an aspiring music composer

Indian music director AR Rahman waves at fans during an event to celebrate ten years since winning the Oscar award for Best Original Score in 2009 for the film 'Slumdog Millionaire', in Mumbai on February 4, 2019. - Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars including best picture at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009. (Photo by Punit PARANJPE / AFP)

A R Rahman's new romantic musical 99 Songs will be released in UAE cinemas this week and the musician is very modest about his self-described "passion project".

"Go with low expectations, but high hopes," says the Oscar-winning composer of Slumdog Millionaire, who co-wrote, produced and composed the music for the new film, directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy.

"I hope I have made something which will be a foundation for things to come in the future."

The story follows Jay, an aspiring music composer, as he embarks on a journey of art and self-discovery.

Set to hit cinemas on Thursday, it's being released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu and stars first-time actor Ehan Bhat and actress Edilsy Vargas, who has only featured in one other film, Peppermint, alongside Jennifer Garner. Aditya Seal, Lisa Ray and Manisha Koirala will also star as part of the supporting cast.

The film is the culmination of many years of dreaming about creating his own project from scratch.

"After the Oscars, I lived in Los Angeles from 2009 to 2016, working on all sorts of projects," he explains in a press conference held via Zoom on Sunday. "My life revolved around the stars ... the Academy Awards alumni."

He spent two decades thinking about producing and writing something himself. "I have been doing this for other producers. All my career, it has been seducing me ... I have been trying to fight it. I was always curious about the other side."

He had many questions for the people he worked with – "How do zoom lenses work in shooting a film? What is a green screen? How do big producers fix things when something goes wrong?" – but it was easier to simply ask than to do it himself.

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We took a lot of courageous decisions with the digital concert and the movie's release in cinemas, which we believe is the right way to do justice to this project

In 2016, however, he finally took the plunge and started working on 99 Songs.

Rahman admits he took numerous risks on the project, from his choice to cast Bhat in the lead role to hiring a director with only three credits to his name (two others for TV series) and using a digital concert to promote it.

He's also releasing it at a time when Bollywood is cutting back on major releases, as coronavirus cases soar in India.

"We took a lot of courageous decisions with the digital concert and the movie's release in cinemas, which we believe is the right way to do justice to this project," he says.

This is why he chose to release some of the music first, to build hype around the film. "In old times, people would listen to music on cassettes and then come to the theatres. Now people listen to the radio.

"I always feel music connects to the soul. People do action films, but music is what I care about. It is tough, but I would like to promote the path less taken [of making musicals]. And I believe cinema is the right platform to do justice to what we have created."

The choice to cast Bhat was a tough one for the Mozart of Madras, who says his gut kept taking him back to "audition No 38". He kept doubting his choice, even after Bhat was on board. But an incident during shooting in Ukraine managed to assuage his fears.

MUMBAI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 20 : Ehan Bhat  attends the Song and trailer launch of  the film '99 Songs' on February 20,2020 in Mumbai, India (Photo by Prodip Guha/Getty Images)

"There was a minor accident with Ehan and he fell. I was not there on the set, but I was told at least 50 girls came to his rescue. That vindicated my choice," Rahman says with a laugh.

As for choosing Krishnamoorthy, who was in marketing prior to taking the director's chair for 99 Songs, both producer and director have complimentary tales to tell.

"I met Vishwesh and we got talking," Rahman explains. "I was bouncing off thoughts about how to get my film on reel. I showed some random work I liked and he said it was his work for the first two to three things I showed as reference. It was great; a match made in heaven."

Krishnamoorthy then flew to the US and spent a month talking things over with Rahman. "If you know [Rahman], like I do now, he is quite a storyteller," the director says. "He knows his stuff, any musical instrument ... you name it. He experiments and is more well-aware than any about the latest technology.

"He does wonders and can express himself just with his music."