AR Rahman on fame, fireworks and philanthropy

The legendary film composer talks to us ahead of his performance in Dubai this weekend

Indian star AR Rahman performed at Dubai's Coca-Cola Arena, but failed to wow the crowd. Courtesy Arun Titan Studio
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AR Rahman is best known as a composer for the big screen: he's the Oscar-winner behind the original soundtracks on Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, and he has received 15 Filmfare Awards for his musical work in Indian cinema. As his legions of fans will doubtless be aware, however; Rahman is also a prolific performer of his own work, having toured his live band and bombastic stage show all around the world.

In person, Rahman is surprisingly mild-mannered and softly spoken, despite his international fame. It's a trait that fits well with stereotype of the shy composer, locked away for days on end as he or she creates their latest masterpiece. It sits less comfortably with the all-singing, all-dancing extrovert of his glitzy stadium shows. How does Rahman deal with the irreconcilable nature of the two professional roles he plays?

“When I was growing up, there were only film composers,” he says. “There were a couple of pop stars around, but they weren’t really a thing. I wanted to be an independent artist but there wasn’t really an outlet for that, so I wanted to combine what I had in myself as an artist and as a film composer.”

Rahman, 51, heads to Dubai this weekend to perform his show The Journey: Celebrating Music, which will bring highlights from a career spanning 25 years, with live orchestra, light show, dancers and some of Bollywood's biggest voices. Performers include Neeti Mohan, Harshdeep Kaur, Javed Ali, Benny Dayal, Jonita Gandhi, Keba Jeremiah and Haricharan Seshadri.

Rahman's live shows may be of epic proportions nowadays, but the multi-instumentalist says he wasn't always such a showman. "I started out very quiet – just me hiding behind the keyboard," he says. "But then it got to a point where I realised I was bored watching myself on TV; that was when I thought, 'Let's liven it up.' What compels a person to come to a show? I decided to dress up, we got the dancers in, and offered a bit of spice."

As Rahman's career took off, so the shows became bigger and bigger, but he was determined that the music's message should not be lost among the spectacle and pyrotechnics. With this in mind, in 2015, Rahman decided to dramatically downsize his touring show for a series of 21 intimate shows in the United States. The tour was filmed for the movie One Heart, and Rahman was clearly pleased with the results. "My music is cinematic music," he says. "There are layers of strings and brass. It's big, epic music, and that connection to the music is what really matters, not the spectacle so much."

Fans in Dubai need not worry, however, as Rahman will be back to his spectacular best for the Dubai show, which is also a celebration of India’s National Day. It will take place in Bollywood Parks.

With all the success Rahman has achieved, it is refreshing to see he is prepared to give back to musicians less fortunate than himself. Last week in Dubai, he watched a performance by the 1,000-strong girls’ choir of Our Own English High School.

In 2008, meanwhile, he founded the KM Music Conservatory in his native Chennai, initially using his own garage to house the fledgling facility. Rahman reveals the background to this particular piece of philanthropy. “I just felt I’d hit a wall at 40 and wanted to do something great,” he says. "I realised no one was nurturing musicians in India. I go to Prague, London, all over, to record and have these great free holidays, but in India nobody was moulding people into artists, so I started in my garage. I built a studio and people from Calcutta, from Kashmir, would come to learn.”

It wasn’t just the students who benefited from Rahman’s project – the composer adds that his neighbours were fans too. “It became like a dream street,” he says. “People would love just to walk down the street because there was always beautiful music playing.”

Since 2008, the facility has extended to 30,000 square feet, still neighbouring Rahman's home and still entirely funded by the composer and his family. His sister has taken on the day-to-day running of the academy, which is also home to the classical Sunshine Orchestra, a group made up of children from India who would have been highly unlikely to have received a musical education, let alone a classical one, without Rahman's help.

He’s clearly proud of his work. “We did this all by ourselves. We had no support from anyone, no funding, just us, and for no reason other than we wanted to nurture talent. The Sunshine Orchestra is maybe my proudest achievement,” says Rahman.

With so much success in Hollywood, Bollywood and even in European cinema, Rahman is one of a handful of Indian artists who have achieved true, global success. But what does he think the differences are between working in Bollywood and Hollywood?

“The expectations are totally different in Hollywood compared with Bollywood. You have to understand the state of mind,” he says. “You don’t get the same pampering in Hollywood as you do on set in India. No one’s too important to be fired, even Spielberg could possibly get fired. No single person is more important than the others and in a way that’s terrifying. ‘Oh no, the board didn’t like it.’ It is scary, but it’s also really interesting because the whole world is going to see you. I still get messages today saying ‘Oh, I love that score’, from something I did years ago. Hollywood stays out there in the public realm much longer than Indian films. It’s a very privileged position to be in.”


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