Allah-Rakha Rahman, known popularly as AR Rahman, turned 50 two days ago. Come May 11, he would have completed 25 years, or two-and-a-half decades since he first burst into the Indian music scene (Roja, his debut movie album, was released on May 11, 1992).
This is also his year silver jubilee year. And to reach the silver jubilee, Rahman had swept away all possible awards that he could possibly obtain to recognise the quality of his work- from the Indian National Award to the coveted Academy Award.
And he had never changed his trademark saying for 25 years- “Ellam pugalum iraivanekke.” (All praise belongs to God).
Needless to say, listening to his music has been a spiritual experience. When I got my very first Mp3 player when was 16 years old, the first album I purchased was a cassette for Aayitha Ezhuttu (2004).
My own personal journey with AR Rahman’s music began then, via Madushree’s effervescent “Sandaikozhi” and Rahman’s own rhythmic hum halfway through the song.
Here, I am charting down 10 best AR Rahman compositions (in my gestation), in chronological order of the song (album)’s release:
Nila Kaigiridhu Male version (Indira, 1996)
The female version of this song, sung by Harini, has been the more popular composition for the decades that have ensued. The female Nila Kaigiridhu was filled with childlike innocence, sung in the child-like voice of Harini- like a beautiful nightingale.
But the male version, rendered by Hariharan, is an often overlooked crown jewel. The male version is tinged with rueful lyrics and an enveloping sadness. Vairamuthu’s lyrics were stupendous is bringing out this beautiful form of sadness, matched only by Hariharan’s passionate crooning and Rahman’s melodramatic music setting.
“Intha Boomiye Poovanam, Enthan Poovitazh Saruguthey”, he sings, with such regret, as if looking at the skies and wondering where all the innocence espoused in the female version had now disappeared to. If sadness can be described with beauty, this song is probably the best example of it all.
Kannai Katti Kollathe (Iruvar, 1997)
AR Rahman was bringing a new music that was blanketing Tamil Nadu like a phenomenon. He was bringing new sounds that came with the advent of technology, marrying them gorgeously with classical melodies and raagas that made his music stand out in every stanza.
But nothing demonstrates the marriage of old and new age music, and everything encompasses, than the music in Iruvar, another Mani Ratnam production. A period film set in the 1960s and 1970s, loosely inspired by the times of MG Ramachandran, the film presented an unique musical challenge- one that Rahman turned to his advantage to demonstrate the genius of his work.
Kannai Katti Kollathe was a fresh take on the decades-old classic MGR “I am here for the struggle of the poor” songs. It did not lose the essence of the Viswanathan-Ramammurthy days- but at the same time retained new arrangements and sound that made it catchy for even modern listeners. The piece of reimagination itself is 20 years old this year, but like everything that Rahman churns, is there to last a while longer.
Sandosha Kannire (Uyire, 1998)
Rahman is also a great singer when behind the mic, and in the 1990s, the song that best encapsulated this was Sandosha Kannire (Dil Se Re in the Hindi version).
Vairamuthu’s lyrics work like a charm in describing an obsessed man’s plea to the woman he loves. Rahman raises the tempo masterfully in the middle stanzas, throwing in Carnatic fusion at parts. The ambiguity of passion on an uncertain terrain was beautifully brought out, also aided later by Mani Ratnam’s masterful picturisation- including that iconic shot of Shah Rukh Khan pushing a small packet of fire in a war torn, ravaged scenery looking for his femme fatale.
Yu Hi Chala (Swades, 2004)
There’s something earthy about Yu Hi Chala. It’s a song about a traveller, about lighting up hope, about illuminating darkness, and generally about the beauty of travelling and discovering new roads. It’s not your common Bollywood song- not even your common Indian song.
And the way Rahman brings variety to this seven-minute long song is something that has lingered for more than a decade and will linger for even longer because of the sheer quality it has packed.
Udit Narayanan’s mix of classical Raagas, with the “nisa” and “gaama” at the beginning, and when he is later joined by Kailash Kher’s earthy, saadhu-like voice enabled by some inspirational lyrics by Javed Akhtar- is like an assembly of legends.
Not to forget, Hariharan joined in with his own Carnatic humming at the final stretch for what I can only describe as a deeply spiritual and meaningful composition.
Arziyan (Delhi 6, 2009)
There was a period of compositional trilogy that Rahman undertook in a span of three years as he probably came across consecutive film projects that required a Sufi-infused qawwali composition.
First, there was Khwaja Mere Khwaja from Jodha Akbaar, and also Kun Faya Kun from Rockstar. But, Arziyan stands heads and shoulders above these two above-mentioned compositions- which are masterpieces on their own.
Arziyan is probably best, most lasting AR Rahman masterpiece in this list that I have compiled. That fragrance of pure spiritualism that first came through in 2009 had never once lost its magic or appeal, let alone wane, some eight years later.
Running at over eight minutes long, Javed Ali and Kailash Kher combine and both provide one of the best vocal ranges they had individually offered for any film track, backed by Prasoon Joshi’s lyrics which are deeply coated with fundamental musings about spiritualism above religion.
Arziyan swept across listeners like a phenomenon, with the use of tablas in the middle stanzas, and the shifting tune with each part of the song- as was the case in most of Rahman’s sufi and qawalli compositions.
The video of the song was also shot at the Jama Masjid on Old Delhi- an iconic mosque that is a landmark for India’s capital.
Arziyan, independent of the film, is a story and a piece of art entirely in its own space.
Usure Pogudhey (Raavanan, 2010)
Has ever been a song more sumptuously pictured, chiselled to so much perfection that the weight of an entire narrative process rested on that song’s ambiguity and passion?
Usure Pogudhey is not just an AR Rahman composition- it is also the best picturised song in Mani Ratnam’s celebrated career, and also some of the best bits of poetry ever written by the legedary Vairamuthu. That takes some undoing.
It also featured some first-class acting from both Vikram and Aishwarya Rai in video.
The song is about the forbidden fruit and forbidden love- the lyrics talk about flower’s bond with a sun it never gets to touch (Ettai irukum suriyan paarthu mottu virruthu thaamarai), encapsulating Raavan’s inability to touch Sita despite being strongly attracted to her.
Karthik, in what is also probably his best number behind a mic, encapsulates love and also lust- Usure Pogudhey usure pogudhey uthada nee konjam sulikayile (The flick of your lips is killing me).
And there is also a comparison to how a small match can light up an entire forest. If there was ever going to an assembly of musical and art “jaambavans” (giants), this song would probably be the result.
Tum Tak (Raanjhanaa, 2013)
Raanjhanaa starts pretty much with Tum Tak. It is encapsulated by Tum Tak. The very definition of the movie is in this song.
With a variety of festival tempo and the spirit of Benaras, Rahman belts out a masterful composition about a man describing the woman he loves his doing and undoing.
Irshad Kamil wrote the lyrics while Javed Ali as usual, is impeccable in his crooning.
But the icing on the cake for what in itself is a magical composition is the second stanza- when Javed starts singing “Naino Ki Dhaank Le Ja..” with such pain and beauty.
“Patwaar Tu Hai Meri, Tu Hai Khevvaiya” (You are my paddle and also the boatman). With the unlimited reference to the rivers, the love song is something truly made with Benaras roots, and that is why it will stay on for a very long time.
Pattakha Guddi Male (Highway, 2014)
When Highway was released, people were more familiar with the Nooran Sisters’ rendition of Pattakha Guddi (fiery kite), the central theme song that describe the fierce yet ambiguous nature of the film’s lead character Veera (Alia Bhatt).
But as a bonus track that did not appear in the movie until the final credits (and what timing too), Rahman had his own rendition of Pattakha Guddi, and how.
With slightly different lyrics compared to the female version (lyrics written by Irshad Kamil), the music and tone set by the song was also quintessentially different compared to the female version.
The female version was earthy, and was almost completely rooted to folk music inspired rendition. Rahman’s was, well, in true Rahman style- a fusion of so many things. And with the subtle strain of his voice- he magically makes it work. And I doubt anyone could easily sing this version of the song as effortlessly as Rahman had done.
The song starts with folk music influence, and moves to more Maahi Ve-influenced beats, and then moves on to a short bit of rock music, which then gives way to the tablas.
The transition between rock and tabla in the second half of the song is probably where he demonstrates the full range of his genius, before ending with his voice straining to say “Saayire”.
Parandhu Sella Vaa (OK Kanmani, 2015)
In the first listen, there’s something very sweet about Parandhu Sella Vaa, but not so much that made it stand out from the many masterful AR Rahman scores for Mani Ratnam. But towards the second half of the song, it hurtles into a different zone within a moment of heightened tempo- sprinkling beauty and magic with its verses, singing and the overall treatment of the song itself.
Parandhu Sella Vaa was more about lust than it is about love- but the way it was composed was so beautiful, was so celebratory, that at no point do anyone wonder what the lyrics actually imply.
“Nanaintha kollava Mazhai illamale,” Karthik croons as the tempo is raised. It means “Shall we get wet without rain?”.
Translate that into any other form and it comes across as direct and maybe crass. But put in Vairamuthu’s hands and AR Rahman’s musical sense and you are left with such a delectably composed piece of music- from that iPad shuffling imitations to the slow hums of Shashaa Tirupathi. Delicious.
Tum Saath Ho (Tamasha, 2015)
Beauty. Love. Loss. Depression. All rolled into one- in probably the composition that is closest to my heart in all these ARR works of mastery. Tum Saath Ho has an ingredient like nothing he had ever done before- or since. It is probably the pinnacle of the kind of emotions that Imtiaz Ali had tried to bring out with AR Rahman’s music. Rockstar worked like charm, Highway was a bigger charm, but Tamasha hit it closest to home.
It was beautiful, but it was yearning and suffering all the same. It was like Evano Oruvan from Alaipayuthey- but three times richer in context, and definitely richer in terms of singing. Alka Yagnik returns and weaves her magic. Arjit Singh steps and sings some of the best lines ever written in modern Hindi cinema-
“Tere nazron mein hai tere sapne, tere sapnon me naarazi, mujhe laagta hai baatein dil ki, hoti lafzon ki dhokebaazi, tum saath ho ya na ho kya fark hai, bedard thi zindagi bedard hai”.
(In your eyes I see dreams, in those dreams I see anger. I feel all these talk about the heart, is a deception. What difference does it make, whether you are with me or not? Life was merciless, and still merciless.”
A man’s refusal to open up to the consuming power of the love offered by the woman he also loves. A small power play. Lots of pain. But filled with magic. Mic drop.