99 Songs is a result of my life experiences and the luxury of exposure I enjoy, says AR Rahman
Back in 2010, when Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman was working in Los Angeles, he would follow the ideal ‘one thing at a time’ process, which is the opposite of what he would do in India. The spare time he found for himself paved the way for him to reflect on his life in India and Hollywood. These thoughts led to a creative process that eventually birthed 99 Songs — a romantic musical comedy that’s releasing worldwide in theatres today.
All set for the release, this is the first time Rahman is turning writer and producer for a film. The musician tells us that his heart is set on this movie and he is proud of himself for finding the right director for the film — Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy. He’s also proud about finding the perfect cast in protagonists Ehan Bhat and Edilsy Vargas, who both debut with the film. 99 Songs also features Manisha Koirala, Lisa Ray, Aditya Seal, composer-drummer Ranjeet Barot and Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram in supporting roles. We catch up with the singer, music composer, Grammy award and Oscar award winner for a quick tête-a-tête:
Why is the film called 99 Songs?
So initially, it was to be called 100 Songs, inspired by a film I was working on called The Hundred-Foot Journey with DreamWorks in 2014 by Lasse Hallstrom (co-produced by Steven Spielberg) and I felt like people will get confused by their similar names. So, I had to either change the title or do the simpler thing and just take one song out and make it 99 Songs. This made more sense and the name stuck.
What inspired you to become a writer and producer at this stage in life?
My life, travelling, the Oscars, spending time in LA, and the luxury of exposure I enjoy gave me the sense of empowerment and self-confidence that I could do it now, it helped me take this decision. I narrated a couple of stories to my friends and they encouraged me to make this film. I thought about it for three years and then realised that I wouldn’t be able to direct the film because I don’t have the time. So, I found a director (Vishwesh) and I decided to produce the film. 99 Songs gave me the opportunity to discover the writer and producer in me.
You’ve chosen to release the film in theatres, despite the pandemic?
We had the option of an OTT release. But I noticed many big movies going on OTT platforms and disappearing. This is a movie about music, sound and visual experiences and when it comes to OTT, people are probably going to watch it at night, reduce the volume and watch it with the subtitles on — that’s not what I wanted for this film. I chose to release the film in theatres so that people will have that experience, irrespective of where in the world they choose to watch it.
Did you feel pressured while donning the hat of a writer?
Whether it is my music or anything I do, I do it with a lot of self-assessment. I check whether the song is good enough or not. In this case, I have been narrating the story for a long time to a lot of people before I finally decided to make the movie. I felt this film needs some more time, so, I spent a year more than the stipulated period to write it. I wanted to flesh it out; I wanted it to be a new voice.
It is said, when there is a team of creative people working together, creative differences are bound to happen, was there any such situation and how did you deal with it?
I think movies are about owning the idea. This is where my spirituality helps. When you don’t trust people, they don’t deliver. When you are constantly policing them then their internal wisdom stops working and they go into a slave mode. You need to keep a balance. You need to trust people and also need to be careful because there is a lot of money involved and people’s careers are at stake and the success of the product is important. If one person makes a mistake, the entire project falls. You can’t be narcissistic. It’s like taking all the good things from everyone and putting it into the project. It’s a collective vision that becomes one vision. We did have arguments, but we chose to sit down and discuss them and sort them out — everyone needed to understand why this project was important.
There have been instances where your songs have been liked more than the film — how have you balanced the content and music in this film?
It’s not like a movie that’s driven by its item songs. The characters and multiple layers of life and art drive this film. We have done 300 per cent more work with this movie. It’s like a complete meal. The good thing about cinema is you can keep tweaking it and only then you get the whole experience. This movie is an experience in itself. It aspires to have a different voice from what is happening and I think that is the voice that this generation is looking for. This movie is ahead of its time and this is the right time to release this movie. I think the movie is a musical fairy tale.
Lastly, where do you find the energy to do so many things?
(Chuckles) I get excited when I get new ideas. I get excited by something that could inspire anyone because I get inspired by so many things. I am enjoying the work of young illustrators from Mumbai and Kolkata these days. I send them Instagram messages saying: I love your work; I follow them for a week. This whole new energy of young people inspires me a lot. I guess that’s where I draw my energy from.