On a sunny afternoon in suburban Long Island, elevator music is piping into the atrium lobby of a Marriott hotel. Or perhaps it's some kind of very smooth jazz. It's the type of tune that you barely hear, deadening the ears and perhaps the brain.
It feels absurd, somehow, that this musical slush will serve as the backdrop for a meeting with the reigning maestro of Bollywood. This is the man whose thumping, soaring anthems have bewitched millions, making him one of the bestselling musical artists on the planet.
In India, where chart-topping songs come almost exclusively from films, A.R. Rahman occupies a position for which there is no equivalent in North America. Imagine a cross between a renowned film composer (John Williams, say) and a blockbuster recording artist (Michael Jackson, maybe) and you'll start to have a sense of his celebrity.
Among his fellow Tamils, he's known as Isai Puyal, or Musical Storm, an apt description for the way his songs have thundered across the Indian film industry and into the national consciousness. His Oscar-winning soundtrack for Slumdog Millonaire is a source of national pride, but redundant in a way: Everyone in India already knew that Rahman's music rocked.
He doesn't write the lyrics for his songs, but they have a distinct style, as Slumdog's tracks showed: groovy beats, plaintive melodies, and a global cache of instruments from the sitar to violins to Japanese taiko drums.
During my own exceedingly brief stint as an extra in a Bollywood film six years ago, it was Rahman who wrote the movie's score, and also sang on one track, as he often does. So it's fair to say that I experience a minor jolt when the revolving door in the lobby turns and I see him in person: a small man wearing jeans, a denim shirt, and a frayed green cap. We repair to a nearby restaurant, beyond the reach of the smooth jazz.
Rahman, 43, flops onto the banquette seat with his can of mixed-fruit soda. His flight from Los Angeles arrived the previous night, and after sleeping through the morning, as is his habit, he headed to a nearby mosque for afternoon prayers.
He is in New York to launch a new concert tour, dubbed the A.R. Rahman Jai Ho Concert: The Journey Home World Tour. The travelling two-and-a-half hour spectacle will touch down in 16 cities worldwide, including Toronto on Sunday and Vancouver on June 30.
Bringing the show to life requires a cast and crew of 75, including musicians, singers, and a troupe of insanely energetic dancers. As is fitting for a Bollywood blowout, there are colourful sets and costumes, often accompanied by stunning backgrounds projected onto a huge screen. Rahman sings, jams with other musicians, plays the piano, and even takes a turn at the harmonium.
Asked about the show, whose opening night is now just hours away, he jokes about the "trauma" involved in the months of preparation, adding that all the rehearsing has made him "a bit numb." He laughs easily and speaks so softly that at times I strain to hear him.
Beyond concerns about the show, he seems preoccupied. His youngest daughter, 11, one of his three children, recently had heart surgery in India to address a birth defect. While he was in rehearsals, she developed complications and had to return to the intensive-care unit. "It's such a tug of war, an emotional tug of war," he says. When the tour ends, he'll head home, but in the meantime, there are video chats. "It's a boon, isn't it, Skype," he says.
Then there's the work. Back in Chennai, formerly known as Madras, there are three soundtracks awaiting his attention that need to be finished over the next month. Rahman is also in talks with a major Hollywood studio, but worries about the pressures involved in movies where the budgets run to $100-million or more. "If something goes wrong, blame it on the music," he says. "They can't throw out the actor, they can't throw out the director."
These days, Rahman moves in a kind of musical stratosphere. He is on a first-name basis with Australian singer Kylie Minogue. He bonded with Michael Jackson not long before the star's death. He was particularly tickled to meet Peter Gabriel, whom he cites as an inspiration. (Also on his list of influences: Indian classical singer Kumar Gandharva, film composer Ennio Morricone, Czech classical composer Leos Janacek, and the band Queen).
Rahman met Gabriel at the Golden Globes, though in a somewhat awkward twist, they turned out to be competing at the Oscars in the category of best original song (Gabriel, for a track from the film WALL-E). "You know inside you want to win," says Rahman. "But you feel like, 'Oh my God, he's almost like my teacher. And he has to win.' " Rahman hoots with laughter. (He won the Oscar for Slumdog's Jai Ho).
The key turning point on his journey to stardom, he says, was a spiritual one. Born A.S. Dileep Kumar, he converted from Hinduism to Islam in his early 20s, an unusual and potentially contentious choice given India's religious politics. He later changed his name to Allah Rakha Rahman.
Rahman says his path toward Sufi Islam began with the death of his father, also a musician, who passed away when Rahman was only 9. "It's a deep story, I could write a book on it," he says. "It'll offend a lot of people." There's more to say, but he won't talk about it on the record. A recent biography of Rahman notes that he believes his father was killed by a kind of black magic.
Sufi devotional songs and writings have helped inspire some of his biggest hits. "Poetry like that, it's got its own potency, its own truth," he says. "Whatever you throw on it, it comes like gold."
A talented keyboard player, Rahman started out writing advertising jingles before his big break at 25. A director named Mani Ratnam asked him to write the music for the 1992 film Roja. Rahman took six months to produce the score, an eternity in the Indian movie industry, where it wasn't unusual to expect a full complement of songs from a composer in five or six days.
The waiting paid off. Made in Tamil, Roja was dubbed into Hindi and other Indian languages, turning into a major national hit. Ratnam and Rahman went on to collaborate on two more films in the 1990s, Dil Se and Bombay, whose soundtracks were also monster hits. The trilogy introduced Indians to a distinctly Rahman sound: inspired by Indian traditions but possessing a chameleon-like quality, blending such influences as rock and reggae.
As our interview wraps up, I can't resist asking Rahman about the film in which I played that tiny role, a historical epic called Mangal Pandey: The Rising. He groans. It turns out that five years after the movie's release, the producer still hasn't paid Rahman in full for the music.
Later that night, he takes to the stage. The show - a collaborative effort between Rahman and Los Angeles-based Amy Tinkham - is alternately dazzling and perplexing. There's a beautiful virtual duet between Rahman and Lata Mangeshkar, the aging queen of Indian women singers, whose apparition hovers over the stage. But there's also what may be a prison-themed instrumental number complete with dancers writhing on bars. By the last half hour, a series of rousing hits has the crowd on its feet.
In the days after the show, I find myself humming the songs on the subway, at the office, back at home. They refuse to yield, proof that Rahman's magic has worked again.
The Journey Home World Tour stops in Toronto on Sunday, and in Vancouver on June 30.