The Sound of Music

Nandhu Sundaram is an Ooty-based freelance journalist
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A fan tells the AR Rahman story

Notes of a Dream: The Authorized Biography of AR Rahman | Krishna Trilok | Viking | 360 Pages | Rs 599

AR RAHMAN IS 51, so writing a ‘definitive’ biography of the acclaimed composer is premature. His work is unfinished, the book feels like an interruption. However, Krishna Trilok’s ‘authorized’ biography is designed to hit the bestseller list, as this is a great chance for his fans to rediscover his music.

Disappointingly, the book fawns over its subject, and Rahman is portrayed as a man with near-divine qualities. The well-written epilogue makes a strong case for his greatness, and perhaps that is why there is hardly any criticism of the composer or his music. Clearly, biographers in India treat their subjects with too much deference.

Trilok, rather curiously, guesses information that he could have easily cross-checked with the composer himself (he did have access, after all). There is little evidence of any depth in the interviews with Rahman. For example, Trilok chooses to extensively quote cinematographer and director Rajeev Menon even as one expects to hear from Rahman himself.

When it comes to covering all the angles of the composer’s story, Trilok is exhaustive (space is even given for the composer’s ‘Unplugged’ performances). His insights are simple and surprising, especially in the latter half of the book (identifying Kaviya Thalaivan as Amadeus set in 1920s’ Tamil Nadu shows an impressive understanding).

We get fresh material about Rahman the filmmaker, especially of his movie 99 Songs, directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, and produced and written by Rahman.

The early story about him working for the Telugu composer-duo Raj-Koti is fascinating. The countless hours that he put in for eight years as a key board player for the duo must have perfected his skills long before he shot into the limelight.

Rahman’s school life is chronicled in an interesting fashion. The boy—for whom music assignments took precedence over his schooling after the untimely death of his father—is not romanticised, as has often been the case in the past. His famed relationship with his mother, Kareema Begum, and with his sisters is also told here in a relatable way. Trilok portrays the relationship between Rahman and his wife Saira Banu as both romantic and practical. Rahman’s conversion to Islam, however, is treated with kid gloves.

Trilok wisely chooses to narrate his story in the tongue of the common man. Written in a breezy, effervescent tone, this biography, however, lacks meticulous detail and depth of research.

Also, is the part on Rahman’s advertising days targeted at an international audience? This might be wearisome for the ardent fan. His jingle days end with the rather interesting story of how he met Mani Ratnam. However, one gets the feeling that a potentially great adventure going back to Rahman’s ad days was lost in a non-linear narration.

A funny story pertains to the ‘secret tunnel’ at Rahman’s house. We learn he is pretty ‘strait-laced’ when it comes to matters of sex (despite the fact that many of his songs are playfully erotic). More such details would have added to the book.

The story of how Rahman came to compose for Roja, however, is deeply satisfying; so are the chapters on Slumdog Millionaire and the Oscar night. But again Trilok is not nearly opinionated enough. In a chapter on Rahman’s post-Oscar journey, the writer endlessly defends his subject’s perceived stagnant period. The lack of vim in Rahman’s later scores is attributed to his maturity and several of his lesser-known albums are called ‘criminally underrated’.

As the book progresses, the language gets better. But facts and events repeat. Is this tailor-made for readers who pick up the book at intervals?

This could have been a captivating book about one of India’s most creative minds. Instead, it is merely adequate, as Trilok—whose parents knew Rahman for years—and his publisher chose to take the safe and easy path.