Interview Hindi

Krishna Trilok on AR Rahman biography: His life has been a series of transformations

On the occasion of the music composer's 52nd birthday today (6 January), we share a conversation with the writer of Rahman’s 2018 authorised biography about the usually reclusive man and his music.

Photo: Krishna Trilok Instagram

Sonal Pandya

Young author Krishna Trilok says his book on globally acclaimed composer-singer AR Rahman was an exercise from the heart. He wrote the book as a seeker and talks about Rahman’s inspiration story, growing up as a young musical genius in Chennai to winning the Oscar for his score for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

“My idea is to give the fans a good reading experience, or even anyone who feels that the world is hard and it’s not possible to progress, I just want them to know that this man has done it from nothing, just by virtue of his purity. So you can too,” he shared.

After writing the fantasy novel Sharikrida in 2017, he embarked on writing Rahman’s biography, inspired by the many transformations the music man had had in his life. But besides speaking with key professionals who shaped his life, Krishna makes keen observations about Rahman’s work from his ability to connect with filmmakers on another level to produce iconic soundtracks to the myriad innovations and techniques to Indian film music. His parents, Trilok Nair and Sharada Krishnamoorthy, worked with Rahnam back when he was a jingles composer.

Over the course of a year in 2017, Krishna spoke with Rahman about his life, work and future aspiration, bringing us closer to him than we have ever been before. The book includes interviews with his wife Saira Banu, his children and sisters, AR Reihanah and Fathima, who reveal another side to the shy composer, and share his working patterns and habits.

In a telephone conversation, Krishna spoke about the pressures of writing the biography, how he approached the assignment and the important life lesson he’s learnt from Rahman. Excerpts:

You’ve grown up knowing Rahman, how daunting was it for you to write this book?

Like many Indians born in the 1990s, I have grown up with his music. Actually those were my lullabies, when I was falling asleep as a child. It was daunting because it meant a lot to me personally. On one hand, you have one of India’s greatest cultural treasures. He is loved by so many people across India and the world. When you are receiving love from someone, how do you treat it with respect? In this sense, it was so much more magnified. More than anything else, my personal love for his work and who I discovered as a person was so great as time progressed because I [felt], how can I do justice to it? Because this man has defined various phases of my life. I just wanted to be true to what I was feeling. I realized then that it was going to be fine.

When did you take on the assignment?

I finished my first book in January of 2017 and then I was thinking, what shall I do next? I was thinking shall I write another fantasy? Shall I study? Then I heard Mr Rahman was getting into filmmaking. He had written and he was starting to produce 99 Songs and he had started directing Le Musk. I was really fascinated because I was thinking, why on earth would someone whose on the top of his game, in terms of music, would want to get into something that’s completely new? Why would he want to be a beginner again? What gave him the courage or the push to do something like that? Why would you want to step out of your comfort zone? That was the question.

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That was interesting for you to take up the assignment?

Exactly. I realized that his life had been a series of transformations. From jingles composer to music composer, from Tamil movies to Hindi movies, from Indian to international, with [stage] musicals and [private album] Vande Mataram in between. I sent him an email [asking], can we not do a book that explores this current transformation of yours by looking back at all the previous transformations? Let’s start with the present, and go back to the past, and see how the seeds for this have always been there. I wasn’t even expecting a reply, because it was an idea that suddenly came to me, but he replied, saying I love this idea, let’s go ahead with it. It was really like a shot in the dark, and it just happened.

At the end, you say this book attempts “to know the thought processes of one such human”. What was your plan to show readers behind the curtain of Rahman’s life and work?

Definitely. That line you pointed out, it’s an attempt. I don’t think it’s possible for a human to fully ever understand another as a human being. Everyone has their past which they never reveal to anyone else, so you just try to understand another person as best you can. If we’re talking about someone like Mr Rahman, who has a real spiritual outlook at the world, it’s very positive and mystical. It is essential to understand him as a whole, so that you can explain this. It’s not just any one part of it, it’s the whole that makes something happen. So if we are talking about his transformation, we have to talk a little bit about how he felt hungry to be heard internationally, how he felt stifled early on and wanted to break free. It was definitely an exercise to understand how he thought so as to create the results he was giving us. It’s very easy to put it down to [the fact that] he’s very talented and hard-working.

That would be an understatement.

It definitely would be an understatement for him. It’s much more than that. It’s not just these few things that make him who he is. For example, his overriding dream is to put India in the world map of entertainment. He is intent on making sure that India is there. Those kinds of thought processes are what help you understand why exactly he has become the phenomenon he is.

You’ve spoken to key collaborators of Rahman’s musical career. Over how long did you speak to them and gather research on him?

We first had to identify who we were going to talk to and because this was going to be a book more on the person than the career. At the same time, we had to include key figures.

Of course, for the early days, we chose Mani Ratnam because he is the key player there. For his later career, we took Mr Imtiaz Ali Sir because of [films like] Rockstar (2011) and Tamasha (2015) [and then] Mr Shekhar Kapur, and Mr Ram Gopal Varma. The second was also to talk to the people who would not be heard otherwise — the people who work in his office, his sisters, a lot of people who behind the scenes know him and have been with him for a very long time, but who don’t necessarily get the chance to talk in public.

Once we picked them, Mr Rahman was in Bombay and Chennai over a period of a few days at a stretch. We started in March and finished in December 2017. The interviews were all done by that time. Then it was just the matter of putting it all together.

You’ve gotten them to talk and give very valuable insight about the way he thinks and works. He’s not opened up like this before.

So it was always questions like what did you feel at this time? What were you thinking of this time? It was a conversation style question, not only with Mr Rahman, even with his family members and all, it was just warm personal kind of discussions. Because you need to have them comfortable. You need to get to the heart of the matter, not the brain of the matter. That’s the approach we took.

You make an interesting observation in the book that AR Rahman was at the right place at the right time. This is because music became consumed en masse through Walkmans, cassettes and CDs. You felt that was important in his journey?

Mr Rahman will be the first person to say [that] at the end of the day, despite everything, there is a power from above. You can work and do everything, but at some point of time, that higher power also needs to be with you. And that’s what we call the right place at the right time sometimes.

Roja (1992) happened at a time which could have been the best for him. If it had happened 10 years earlier, it wouldn’t have had the reach that it did at that time. It would have been drowned out by other composers and other music. And if it had been later, maybe somebody else would have come to the scene and it would have been a crowded musical scene.

I’m not putting down his talent, ability, hard work, any of that, at all. But definitely the sanction of a higher power, the right place at the right time, that is any one who has gone to achieve great things, it could be Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson or Sachin Tendulkar.

As you’ve charted his career in the book, beginning from the 1990s to now, how would you say he has changed as a composer?

As everyone who I’ve put this question to, I would say it’s his confidence. If you look at his stage performances or his interviews or his US tours, and if you see footage back from 1999, you can see that he is so much more comfortable and at ease with being there. Even if you look at his music, he is far more willing to invest more of his personal self. Now, they are musical diaries almost. There’s a lot more of his personal feelings in them and I think that’s definitely a sign of how much more confident he’s become as a person. I think the biggest change, that we can all see [is] he’s become a lot more confident and a lot more daring.

As he is transitioning into filmmaking, have you had a chance to see Le Musk or 99 Songs yet?

Yes, I’ve seen versions of them. It’s not fully ready, but yes, I’ve seen parts of them.

What do you think of him as the producer-filmmaker?

I think he’s going to do the same for Indian films that he did for Indian music once upon a time. I think he’s going to push the envelope in terms of aesthetic, and the ideas that he has. Le Musk, especially because of its technology and all, it’s going to be spectacular. [For] 99 Songs, I’ve heard the songs and I think it’s among the best music he has done in recent times, and visually, it’s absolutely up there with anything international. It’s just a stunning piece of work.

As you’ve grown up listening to his music, what do you think is his best work?

I would probably go with ‘Meherbaan’ from Ada... A Way of Life (2010). That is my favourite song of his. Then I would put the Yuvvraaj (2008) album. I love all the songs and in terms of Hindi, I think it’s one of his best. Then Bombay (1995), Dil Se... (1998), and Rockstar (2011), those three, of course.

What have you learnt from him in this time you got to spend with him?

I learnt positivity and goodness. Because getting into this, I had a certain way of looking at the world and being with him, I just realized that there is absolutely only one way to look at the world and that’s through positivity. It helps how the situation pans out. He calls it love, you can call it positive vibrations, you can call it whatever name you want. But basically, if you just keep looking at it positively, things will pan out positively, no questions about it. I have seen him doing this time and again and it’s always worked out well. Not just him, but everyone around him. That’s something I’ll definitely carry for the rest of my life.