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AR Rahman on 99 Songs: This movie is from India to the world

AR Rahman barely utters a sentence without crediting yet another music producer, designer, or engineer who helped breathe life into his 99 Songs. The maestro, always eager to put the work of his team on a pedestal, evidently held his dear ones close when presenting what is arguably his most ambitious project. In an interview, he discusses juggling duties as producer, writer and composer of his upcoming release.

There is evidently anticipation around a film coming out from your stable. But what drew you to this one, which you have also co-written?

Because I have worked with the top guys in Hollywood, and being a member of the Academy, I had the idea that India should reach out to the world with a film [that matched the] sensibilities of all. We wanted to create a new voice that [represented] the Indian film industry. This movie is from India to the world.

In a previous interaction, you had stated that musicals in India fail because they are not tested, like they should be. What campaigns did you run to address this for 99 Songs?

We did a previs [visualising a film in 2D or 3D before creating it], following which we changed many things. I tried to be true to the script. I didn't just create five songs and use them. We thought of the mindset of the [protagonist]; the things he would compose in the beginning [of his career], and how his music would evolve and become deeper. Like the film, the music too has an arc that comes full circle. We sent him [Ehan Bhat, leading man] to the KM Music Conservatory [Rahman's music school in Chennai] for a year-long training, and subsequently to Hollywood for a four-week acting workshop, where my friends [taught him].

Having worked in Hollywood films, what were the learnings that you directly applied?

Most of these films [Hollywood films] are poverty oriented. I wondered what were the things that could obstruct people [from around the world] from watching [an Indian] movie. So, everything, including the casting, was done such that it could be easier for them to transition and watch it.

While a lot of the singers are those you have worked with, did anyone particularly excel?

For each voice, my supervisor Dilshad [Shabbir Shaikh] and I heard 20 to 25 singers, before we arrived at one that sounded right. The surprising [pieces of work] were by Arijit [Singh] who sang Jwalamukhi, and Armaan Malik, who rendered Humnawaa. With their voice, it felt like a new cast was being backed by new voices. So the whole [creation] felt fresh. They created an identity that resonated with the characters, and helped build a sense of credibility.

Everything with regard to the music was carefully created. There's a lullaby, and a godh bharai song, and several songs that people can use in real life, as part of our Indian culture. I decided to create cool versions so that the songs could live beyond the life of the movie. [Creating the soundtrack] in three languages was torture. We finished composing it in Hindi, and then had to [do it again] in [my] mother-tongue [Tamil], without making it seem like a dubbed piece. We went back and forth at least 11 to 12 times on each song. But, I have seen the Tamil [version] and, to an extent of 99 percent, it is aligned with the native language.

Is there something about film composing that you now see differently, after taking on duties as producer-writer as well?

Sometimes you make a song, and then wonder if it can hold in the screenplay. I had to cut my own songs, sometimes, as much as 15 bars, or one minute. The decision to truncate it was needed. A movie, like food, is an emotional ride. If you have too much, [you are uncomfortable]. With films, sometimes you must cut out the most favourite scene if they obstruct the flow [of the story]. A consulting editor added a lot of beauty to it.

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