Article Hindi

25 years of Rangeela: AR Rahman, jazz, classical and the magic of a score that elevated cinema

AR Rahman's score was one of the highlights of Ram Gopal Varma's tribute to Hindi cinema, Rangeela, which captured the romance, inventiveness and magic of the big screen.

Shriram Iyengar

For anyone who accidentally, or deliberately, came across the conversation between Arijit Singh and AR Rahman on 31 August this year, it would have been an education. The singer and the composer indulged in a back and forth of lessons, tidbits and explanations on the latter's creative process.

At one point in the discussion, Rahman said, "Doing a song for me is a means to show people something I have been holding up. To show people a side of what could exist."

Twenty-five years ago, the composer made a splash in Hindi cinema with his score for Ram Gopal Varma's Rangeela (1995).

Rangeela was released in the same year as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Barsaat, Karan Arjun and Coolie No 1. Each of the other four hits conformed to a stereotype, a formula, in Hindi cinema, from a classic love story (though set partly abroad) to revenge and rebirth sagas and slapstick comedies. The industry was in need of a revolutionary new style. That arrived courtesy of Ram Gopal Varma. The filmmaker, who has now fallen prey to his own image, was the man who changed the direction of the film industry in the 1990s. Rangeela was his tribute to Hindi cinema.

25 years of Rangeela: Celebrating a sensuous joie de vivre and the innocence of starry-eyed dreams

The story of a young woman who turns into a matinee idol, whilst caught in a love triangle, is as staple as they come. To be honest, it is not very different from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. But it was Varma's cinematic style and the musical score that kicked off its blockbuster parade.

The film marked the arrival of AR Rahman in Hindi cinema. The composer had already made his mark down South as a genius with scores for Roja (1992), Kadhalan (1994) and Bombay (1995), which had proved to be a new grammar in Tamil cinema music. Rangeela, similarly, changed the soundscape for Hindi cinema.

In his conversation with Arijit Singh, Rahman described his work as a product of multiple influences. He said, "We are all multicultural. We are born in this India, which is now 74 years after Independence, we are absorbing many different cultures. The foundation is Indian culture, then what the British left, what the Moghuls left, the influence of China, Africa, advertising. I wouldn’t call [it] Western as a blanket name."

This is clearly marked out in Rangeela's score, particularly the strong fusion of jazz into Hindi commercial cinema. Jazz had earlier been experimented with, notably by RD Burman. But with Rahman, its flavour is unfiltered. Two songs from the film, 'Kya Kare Kya Na Kare' and 'Mangta Hai Kya' are precursors to the more mellow jazz style that would flow in Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na (2008) and Delhi-6 (2009). As Aamir Khan said at the Rangeela music launch event, "It is difficult to perform to Rahman's songs. His beats come from anywhere."


In a decade that saw heavy orchestration based on traditional classical rhythms, Rahman's infused synth-pop and jazz felt refreshing. In his conversation with Arijit Singh, the composer admitted that as a student in the music studios of Chennai, he found the emphasis on classical ragas to be rigid and limiting.

"We come from classical traditions where if you go out of a raga, people look at you as if they are going to slap you," he said. "Jazz was like being in an open green field and you are running all over the place. It influenced me, in a very small way, when I am playing chords against ragas. Jazz helps a lot. The trap you are in, that you can't go out [of the raga], will change."

Speaking of influences, a key influence on Rahman's use of Hindustani classical music was the late Naushad Ali. The legendary music director's use of thumris was praised by the Oscar winner in the conversation, but Naushad also had a strange but key connection with Ram Gopal Varma's film. Varma himself revealed in an interview with the website FilmCompanion, "The reference I gave him was ‘Kaate Nahi Kat-te’ from Mr India (1987). Now he sent me the tune of ‘Hai Rama’ and I thought it was a mistake. It sounded like a Carnatic classical song with the tabla and all that. I thought look at the reference I gave and he comes up with this! He also sang in a very classical manner."

In the conversation with Arijit Singh, Rahman offered further key elements. The composer was in Goa, the most un-Rahman of places, when he struck upon the idea. "I was in Goa and watching Mughal-e-Azam," he said. "There is a scene where Dilip Kumar brings a candle to Madhubalaji’s face. There is an alaap by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan which goes on. I thought, ‘My god, this is unbelievable.’ Why can’t we do this for what Ramu is asking." The composer went on, "If there is a formula for sensuous songs, why can’t you bring in the sensuality of the ragas?"

The composer, perhaps, mistook one of the most famous moments of romance in Hindi cinema for one with a candle. The scene has prince Salim (Dilip Kumar, whose screen name was Rahman's birth name) romancing Anarkali (Madhubala) with a feather, while Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sings in the background.

The Rangeela song, sung by the inimitable Asha Bhosle, has influences of the raga Puriya Dhanashri. How AR Rahman transforms this into Asha Bhosle and Urmila Matondkar's sensuous 'Hai Rama' is a credit to his skills. 

Incidentally, Rahman also revealed that Naushad was not too pleased with the composition. While the legendary composer had no problems with the use of the raga, his question to Rahman was, ''Why did you use those irritating drums in the middle?" The composer had no answer, but it is easy to surmise that the answer might have been close to George Mallory's riposte on being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest.

In the 25 years since Rangeela, AR Rahman and Ram Gopal Varma have travelled in opposite directions. While Rahman has emerged as a unique, distinct and inventive voice in Indian cinematic music, Varma has slid from revolutionary to staple to stale. Regardless, for one blinding moment in 1995, the two came together to create a film, and music, that paid tribute to and replenished the creative energies of the Hindi film industry.