Interview Hindi Tamil

I was baffled that AR Rahman took a chance on me: 99 Songs director Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy


The frontman of indie rock band Scribe had almost dismissed Rahman's first approach as a prank call. Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy relives his 99 Songs journey.

Shriram Iyengar

Not everyone gets a call from an Oscar winner, or dismisses it as a prank. Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy is that rare individual with whom both things happened. The former frontman of indie rock band Scribe has a rebellious streak that shows up in his humorous talk, defiance of conventional attitudes, and deep love for music.

"In my house, there would be music all the time," he says. "Devotional songs till 11am. After 11am, my father would play film music. Of every language. So Malayalam songs, Telugu songs, Tamil songs and devotional songs, Hindi songs Yesudas, Bhimsen Joshi et al." Interestingly, in his world at the time, AR Rahman was not mainstream. He was kind of left of centre.

Music was not the only bug that caught Vishwesh early. "I went to a school [Don Bosco, Matunga, central Mumbai] which was known for sports and for winning almost every tournament. I had more of a knack for prose, dramatics and elocution. I used to be the commentator, could never be the player. For some reason, I was always asked to read something in front of an audience. Even my principal would call me on the intercom and ask me to read the news. On some level, communication was a major part of my development as a child."

This drove him further towards music, particularly indie music. "As I grew up and started to buy cassettes myself, I went into Sound Garden, Pearl Jam, Blur, Nine Inch Nails, that kind of stuff," he recalls. "As I started learning the guitar, I wanted to pursue music. I continued the elocution pursuits, doing stuff in front of the microphone, which eventually became some point of voice acting, from where I latched on to theatre."

Vishwesh is a well-known ad-filmmaker and was at the helm of the first season of the popular music show The Dewarists (2011-13) and the MTV mini-series Bring On The Night (2012). Yet, directing a film for the writing debut of AR Rahman was a stroke of luck even he did not expect.

"I was really baffled," he says. "This man, he literally could pick up the phone and ask Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, anyone to direct his film! I would give him credit for being that open to influence. It genuinely comes from intention, and from the effort of the person making it."

The film was conceptualized back in 2018 and the first trailer was released in 2019 before the pandemic laid waste to any plans of a theatrical release last year. Although the pandemic is still raging, the film is scheduled for release tomorrow. Excerpts from the interview:

I was googling you and found that you were the frontman for Scribe!

Yeah, that was the closest to my real identity. Indie music is actually something I was plugged into since I was a teenager. Scribe is the ninth band I was part of. It is a part of me that expects nothing in return.

So, how did the transition from frontman in a rock band to filmmaker happen?

There are a couple of things I used to do ever since I was a teenager. I was always in the realm of creative pursuits. These things were more personal. I guess it was some kind of compensation. I was raised in a Tam Brahm [Tamil brahmin] household, in a school [Don Bosco] which was known for sports and known for winning almost every tournament. I had more of a knack in prose, dramatics and elocution. I used to be the commentator, could never be the player. For some reason, I was always asked to read something in front of an audience. Even my principal would call me on the intercom and ask me to read the news. On some level, communication was a major part of my development as a child.

As I grew up, I found more radical ways of doing it. I found music which was not mainstream. Dare I say, at the time, in my world, AR Rahman was not mainstream. I was a Tam Brahm kid in a Mumbai scenario. Listening to AR Rahman was left of centre. Not the norm.

In my house, there would be music all the time. Devotional songs till 11am. After 11am, my father would play film music. Of every language. So Malayalam songs, Telugu songs, Tamil songs and devotional songs, Hindi songs, Yesudas, Bhimsen Joshi, et al.

As I started to buy cassettes myself, I went into Sound Garden, Pearl Jam, Blur, Nine Inch Nails, that kind of stuff. As I started learning the guitar, I wanted to pursue music. I continued the elocution pursuits, doing stuff in front of the microphone, which eventually became some point of voice acting, from where I latched on to theatre. Most of this was from someone who noticed what I was doing and proposed 'Would you be interested in doing this?'

At the time I was doing everything. All I wanted to do was to be given the express chance to be creative. As I grew up, I became a bit more of a rebel. My mum was supportive but nervous. My dad, who was most into the arts, was really supportive.

I read in Rahman's biography that you actually thought his first phone call to you was a prank. How did that go down?

He was pretty chilled about it. I kind of mentioned that I am known for pranks. My friend circle recognizes me as someone who would prank. I do this purely as an experiment to test if I can sound like a completely different person. I have done this a lot. People have also egged me on.

This sort of made me certain that It can't b... how can it be real? I was quite stand-offish on the call. I must have been borderline impolite. He was really chilled. I don't know how he did it. He said, "Maybe we should Skype?" So we Skyped, and he showed up, and I didn't know what to think. I was just formulating apologies through the length of the conversation. I always thought that someday he will bring this up. He still hasn't.

When you are out to make your first film and someone like AR Rahman says "I've got a project for you", what's the first thought that comes to your head? It is a big name with expectations around it.

I think no part of filmmaking is without challenges. It is not easy. As an artist, a number of times you question your past decisions. There are a number of things I've done that I've done because of something else. You take on projects that occupy your time and mind and exploit your creative energies. You don't take those decisions because of their creative nature. It is a bit foolhardy, but it is the only way I am able to reach a deeper part of me. It is like giving someone a promise and you have to keep it.

I was actually baffled. This man [Rahman], literally, could pick up the phone and ask Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, anyone, to direct his film. Why would he take a chance on me? I figured this is one of those things where your faith gets tested. All these lofty things that you say about cinema and what's wrong with it and what India is getting wrong, the universe has suddenly turned and said, "Okay, let's see how you fare!" You want to change it, that's why you chose this. Let's see how you change it.

The film was just a thought in his [Rahman's] head. There were some stories among which was 99 Songs. We were in general talking about what can happen. He never made it official to me. He just said, "Let's vibe." Every hanging out became a musical thing. He is very spontaneous with stuff like that. He would throw someone into a vocal booth and say "Try doing this. Try doing that." That's what he started doing with me as well. It was a fledgling relationship that kind of blossomed with time.

What was the timeline of working on the script?

I don't think there was any to start with. It took several drafts. I stopped changing it after draft 12. The changes were just in my head. That is, quite often, I have made long format in my head. I stop documenting change. If I see anybody with a script on the set, I get nervous since I feel they are misleading themselves. So I would snatch it away.

That's interesting. From what I have read, Rahman is also quite spontaneous in composing...

Yeah, it did work well. It is not always production-friendly, but I am that way within the means of production. The reason is that I don't document everything, because you have to account for the reality of production. Sometimes a location does not allow it, or sometimes an actor is unable to get through a stunt owing to injury. If I have to alter that, I am just going to execute it. You use your judgement as with anything. I was improvising for the sake of making it happen, not as a whimsy.

You did have one advantage though. Most directors would give their right arm to have Rahman compose for them. For this project, it was a given. As director, how much freedom could you take in suggesting change to a song? Or a theme?

That's the thing about him. He gives you a stake in it, puts the responsibility on you, and treats you like a friend, a partner. I would give credit to him for being that open to influence. It genuinely comes from intention, and from the effort of the person making it. He could very well sit back and say, "This is how I want it." He does sometimes insists on some things, which might be a location, a cast, etc. But at each point, he would let me do what I have to do at the end of it. That's his graciousness, his choice to be that way.

I have been fortunate that it was AR Rahman on music. I am really fortunate that AR Rahman is this way. You put your entire life on hold for a couple of years to make a film. The only reason filmmakers do it is because they get to make a film they want to make. In this case, I got to make a visual film, at the treatment level, exactly the way I wanted it to look, or sound. It was something he was quite supportive of.

The album has 14 songs. As good as they are, how does one keep the story element and music together without one overpowering the other?

I think the fact that there are 14 songs shows there are only 14 songs that feel like they can be on an album. There's much more. In 99 songs, you cannot separate the music from the story. It is about a musician and his relationship with music, and the dichotomy of the world and the musician is something that only people who have chosen the art can talk to you about. 

If you had to write a poem in your living room and wrote it. You'd write something. If I took you to a vast desert and asked you to write there, it would play out differently. If I took you to a desert, after something enormous has happened in your life, it would be different. The relationship of any person who has chosen the expression of art, their environment, circumstances, has always been the dichotomy of humans. One of the things you do is reflect on that period of your life.

That's the reason there are that many songs. It is more a reflection of their lifetime and a milestone. There are many more songs. This seemed to fit the commercial scenario of albums. This film is music and visuals walking hand in hand from beginning to end.

You mentioned the dichotomy of art, the artist and the world. These are heavy philosophies that might find expression in music. How difficult was it to translate this visually on screen?

I don't want to rub anyone the wrong way, but I have always felt that there are very few pieces where AR Rahman's music had matching visual element. There is a lot of detail, avant-garde stuff that he has been doing for the past decade. You can't fault it. His songs and the best Grammy-winning music record of any given year, on a production level, can stand shoulder to shoulder. They represent the very pinnacle of music production and arrangement.

I can't really say the same about the visual element that carries the music. It is a lot of pressure on your crew to make visuals like this. I am not filming this in an exotic place. I am filming it in the same spaces that any other film is being made. The vision far surpasses the means I have. I have to put a lot more pressure on the crew, on my team, to be quicker on turnarounds. I have to wake up before sunrise every day. Today, when I look at the footage, I can say that wasn't bad. I am glad I woke up and put everyone through that. I knew that this film has to be worth the details in AR Rahman's music. Not just in this album, but in every album he has made.

If I were a singer, and I were in an AR Rahman song, I would have to sing better than I have ever sung. If I were a guitar player, I would have to play better than I have ever played. In that sense, if I have to tell a story, it has to be told in the most technically superior way I can. It was difficult, but I knew the effort had to be maximum. I would have to skin my knees, break my back, and end each day with a headache. If that didn't happen, then the shoot was not worth it.

Casting Ehan Bhatt and Edilsy Vargas to lead the film must have been the key decision. Tell us what led to the casting choice, and how it came about.

We started off by wanting to choose characters based on their skill set. Often we would find excellent pianists, but they were less than desirable actors, or vice versa. This film revolves around one character a lot. It is about this main character and his relationship with the world, and the one he loves.

Ehan had been part of an audition bank. We had auditioned hundreds of people by then and started going back in clips. He was the right fit for the character.

You often look at clips and you are not looking at nationality. That's how we found Edilsy. One scene was sent out, I wanted people to go in one particular direction in that scene. Everyone enacted at home or wherever. One girl went in the other direction than anyone else; that was Edilsy. She didn't look like she was from New York or the Dominican Republic. She looked like an Indian girl. It was only her name that gave it away. 

Just did some final touch ups on visuals for #Jwalamukhi - the female version from #99SongsTheMovie. While this one's...

Posted by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy on Wednesday, 4 March 2020

You don't say someone from this country, you look at the actor/actress. I can say without a shadow of doubt that she was the perfect person to play the role. As fortunate as I was for AR to be the composer for this film as I was for Ehan and Edilsy to do the film.

Yes, there was a worry when it is not her first language. When we spoke, my worries were satisfied. In fact, Ehan was very young when we first cast him. I was a little concerned about will he be able to carry off the story, since it demanded so much. Then I realized we were better off with someone as hungry as he was since he was moulded on the way. All my choices to wake them up at sunrise and push them as much as required to achieve was something I thought was priceless. 

Does the delay caused by the pandemic, and even the resurgence now, worry you?

It does worry me. But I would rather have a release than not have it. Specifically this, the amount of heart that has gone into making it, the sacrifice that has gone into it. The whole team can feel proud that it has achieved completion and is waiting for closure. It is not so much to do with it being successful as with it existing in the world of cinema. It does worry me, and nobody expected this kind of a pandemic in our lifetime. That's again something I can worry about, but it won't help.