Friday, November 9, 2007

The ten best AR Rahman film tracks

1. Satrangi re
In an album studded with diverse gems, this Indian equivalent of blueswailing was the song with the least initial appeal. But over time, things which seemed like weaknesses – complex, non-catchy tune, tonal ambiguities, an unusually ragged Sonu Nigam – have aged wonderfully and become the song’s strengths. The song chronicles the seven stages of love – from first meeting through to infatuation and obsession and finally death. The vaguely mid-eastern instrumentation in the background becomes more and more delirious as the song progresses, especially the flutes, which come in mid-way through the song and seem to taunt the tortured singer with their low hisses. Sonu Nigam, the king of aural candy floss, has described this as the most challenging song he’s had to sing. Few would disagree; ‘Satrangi re’ is one of those rewarding, rare songs that is a challenge for the singer as well as the listener

2. Udi Udi
No song captures the undercurrent of jazz in a lot of Rahman’s music better than this number from Saathiya. The bass has always been an important instrument for him, and he shows a willingness to put it right up there in front, unlike other composers in India. Here, the combination of bass and Sivamani’s inventive percussion provide the texture around which Adnan Sami’s voice is allowed to roam free. Everyone seems to be having fun – composer, singer, and lyricist Gulzar, who follows up the fire-and-brimstone of his collaboration with Rahman on Dil Se with funny, melodramatic lines such as "Tum keh do/ sab la de/ bas itna socho toh/ ambar pe/ pehle hi/ sitaare thode hain".

3. Kehna hi kya
What makes this tune so haunting? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say because its left been left suspended so brilliantly - not so much of the heavens that it become otherworldly, but neither so earthy that it become commonplace. The ethereal Chitra vocal is contrasted perfectly by the wordless, prayerful Sufi interlude by Rahman, which is further contrasted by the playful choruses that rush into the song like a bunch of breathless schoolgirls. Its very difficult to listen to this song passively, it stirs up all the emotions hinted at in the lyrics – desire, hesitancy, a little less conversation, a little more action…

4. Radha kaise na jale
Why this song? Because its a simple concept, steeped in tradition (but not bogged down by it), and is executed perfectly. Asha Bhosle and Udit Narayan, who had worked devastatingly well in combination on Rahman’s path-breaking Rangeela soundtrack, sing in character here, one as an utterly smitten and utterly frustrated Radha, the other as a typically smooth-talking Krishna. The song somehow emerges without falling into the three typical traps Hindi film songs set in a villages usually fall into – it sounds neither rustic, nor dated, nor so devoid of spirit that you cannot distinguish it from the million other spiritless songs which composers other than Rahman churn out periodically like soulless, talentless hacks.

5. Urvashi Urvashi
Hands down the funniest lyrics ever in an Indian film. An introduction to Rahman for all those who had missed his debut Roja, Humse Hai Muqabala was a manic Tamil film by a truly strange director called Shankar. His conceit for this song was a fibreplastic bus, and Prabhu Deva dressed as a nun. The lyrics were even weirder; jingoistic, ridiculous gems like “If a girl winks at you in the dark/ what’s the point” and “Upliftment of women/ won’t happen without revolution”, and my favourite, “Cats are not vegetarian”.

6. Chhoti si asha
There are people who insist till this day that Rahman’s first song was also his best. This was the anti-debut, the song sounded like it had always been there and that Rahman had merely discovered, rather than composed it. Hearing it for the first time, the easy charm of the song belies the preciseness of the execution. It happened once, and did not repeat itself; the closest he came was ‘Aawara bhawren’, similar in most respects but missing that vital innocence which made the original so special.

7. Strawberry aankhen
Sapnay was Rahman showing everyone he could do an out-and-out musical. The music in this album is a tour de force of invention – in one song, he shifts from jazz to Rajasthani folk to blues harmonica. According to Javed Akhtar, ‘Strawberry aankhen’ was initially supposed to be ‘Ras bhari aankhen’; more poetic but less fun. The music mirrors the title perfectly, it dips and falls and amuses with clever use of standard Hollywood-musical clich├ęs.

8. Chaiyyan Chaiyyan
Its not hard to imagine AR Rahman giving his singers a subverted version of Robin Williams’ philosophy in Good Will Hunting – “You’re not perfect. This song that you’re gonna sing, its not perfect either. But what matters is whether you are perfect for each other”. Its unlikely any other music director would have picked the gravel-voiced Sapna Awasthi and an unknown Punjabi singer called Sukhwinder Singh to duet on what was obviously the big crowd-pleaser in the Dil Se OST. But Rahman did, and they nailed it so hard that the walls of the cinema halls still seem to reverberate with the sound. It wasn’t just the singing – this number (and the title track, sung with tenderness and feral force by Rahman himself) was rock music re-imagined in purely Indian terms, proving that you didn’t need loud guitars as long as you had forceful new ideas.

9. Raat ki daldal
Deepa Mehta’s partition-era film, 1947 Earth, showcases Rahman’s ability to judge the mood, character and period of a film and adjust his music accordingly. Few modern composers have had to bring so much to the table and it speaks volumes for his astonishing facility with just about any form of music that the end result always sounds unmistakably his (even when its bad). This number turns up in the second half of the movie, just before the whole region explodes into random, senseless violence. The opening line, with Sukhwinder Singh’s voice breaking the still of the night, sends shivers down one’s spine.

10. Yeh jo des hai tera
Another song which breaks the stillness of the night, but this time the mood it evokes is not fear. This is a love song, sung not to a lover, but to a nation. It is also of a nation – it doesn’t give the impression of belonging to some specific corner of India, unlike ‘Ghar aaja pardesi’ and other songs in the increasingly gimmicky motherland-calls-out-to-its-sons-and-daughters-abroad genre. Which says more about Rahman the man than Rahman the composer. His music has always been remarkably inclusive. In the course of his career he has composed hymns and bhajans and Sufi chants, and included music from all corners of India and through all of this, shown that intermixing is not only very much possible but in fact makes for a more potent mixture.

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