The maestro turns 50.
An A R Rahman soundtrack is like an event everyone looks forward to.
Or a festival, which if we are lucky, occurs more than once in a year.
What’s the secret behind the success of this modest, mild-mannered man the world lovingly calls the Mozart of Madras?
In the beginning of his career, Rahman’s style was distinctive yet easy to identify but over the decades he has evolved into a musician who doesn’t play safe but enjoys challenges and experiments.
Whether they click or not, his compositions wear a new skin and soul in every passing album.
And it’s this refreshingly adventurous approach to his boundless creativity that makes Rahman a bona fide magician.
On his 50th birthday, here’s an unranked list of my 20 favourite Hindi melodies composed by the maestro.
P:S: Given his vast body of work and my limited exposure to his regional oeuvre, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
So please feel free to share your Rahman playlist with us.
1. Yeh jo des hai tera, Swades
It doesn’t matter if you live outside your country or homesick on a holiday, Rahman’s stunning vocals and throbbing notes in Yeh jo desh hai tera are loaded with just about enough emotion to tear up even the most cynical among us.
Also, what an utterly gorgeous use of shehnai.
2. Roja jaaneman, Roja
Mani Ratnam’s Roja introduced us to the mastery of Rahman.
Even in its dubbed glory, one feels nothing except awe for the innocence of Choti si asha, enchantment of Yeh haseen vadiyan and feverish fervor of Bharat hum ko.
The one that gives me goose pimples, however, is S P Balasubramanium’s stirring rendition of Roja Janeman conveying the isolation and yearning of the hero against Sujatha Mohan’s haunting trill.
3. Kehna hi kya, Bombay
Chithra starts off intently and doesn’t ever lose grip.
In between Rahman hits out of the ballpark with his alaap that elevates Kehna hi kya to another level.
In retrospect, I feel it could have been tuned better but these imperfections give it a strange, inexplicable character.
4. Rehna tu, Delhi 6
It’s an impossible task to pick one favourite from this flawless album.
In the beginning, I was head over heels about Dil gira dafatan but now I find myself playing Rehna tu on repeat mode.
Ever wondered what Sting would sound like in Hindi? Listen to this.
5. Aye ajnabi, Dil Se
Rahman’s ‘less is more’ treatment to this ethereal, ‘doodh dhuli’ composition from Dil Se.. renders it pristine, pensive and poetic.
6. Tu hi tu, Kabhi Na Kabhi
Kabhi Na Kabhi vanished without much trace but the soundtrack is pure gold.
I can never get enough of its sultry, trance-inducing Tu hi tu high on the classic Rahman touch.
7. Tanha tanha, Rangeela
What excellent rhythm!
On screen, Urmila’s flaunting her newfound oomph; off it Rahman’s unleashing his magic with an irresistible Asha Bhosle in tow. What’s not to love?
8. Raat ki daldal, 1947: Earth
Incredible how Rahman transports you not just into the emotional space of a character but his music actually can tell day from night with his precise understanding of a scenario.
And that’s what is overwhelming about Sukhwinder’s delivery of the ominous ambience of Raat ki daldal.
9. Nahi saamne tu, Taal
It’s not really a rain song but every time I hear Hariharan’s smooth-pitched ‘Priyaaseeeeeeeeee’ in Nahi samne tu, I smell petrichor.
So sublime, so heartrending, so perfect, it could only be Rahman.
10. Mangalayam, Saathiya
In this recreation of his original song for Alaipayuthey of which Saathiya is an official remake, Rahman imprints the Mangalayam shlokas with the lilting love song Oh humdum suniyo re to lend it individuality, the upshot is romantic beyond belief.
11. Lukka Chuppi, Rang De Basanti
Never been able to finish this song performed by a 70-something Lata Mangeshkar and Rahman without getting teary-eyed or a lump in the throat.
Songs like this reveal so much about a person.
And one big hug to Rahman for what I learned.
12. Aye Hairathe, Guru
In an interview, Rahman called Aye Hairathe one of the best songs to come out of his association with its lyricist Gulzar.
I heartily agree. Aye Hairathe has the sort of joie de vivre that makes music the food of love.
13. Khwaja Mere Khwaja, Jodhaa Akbar
Whether it’s capturing the fondness of Javed Akhtar’s words “Shahon ka shah tu, Ali ka dulaara,” or appealing to the divine force with his pitch-perfect might in the magnificent Sufi symphony, all I can say is play it again, Rahman.
14. Khuda hafiz, Yuva
Rahman plays with the pace of Khuda Hafiz -- slow and simmering to pulsating and escalating only to add a dash of jazz.
The concoction is a surreal, showy and quirky offering from the eclectic Yuva album.
15. Kaise mujhe tum, Ghajini
That thrilling ‘thud’ one feels in the heart when left completely awed and speechless by someone breathes in every single pore of this poignant Ghajini ditty.
It’s meant for the plot’s premise but it reaches out beyond, much beyond.
16. Nadaan parindey, Rockstar
As much as I adore Sadaa Haq and Tum Ho, Nadaan parindey’s mixed elements temperament, combination of Mohit Chauhan and Rahman on the vocals and a Slash-reminiscent guitar solo in dramatic spurts just seals the deal for me.
17. Piya milenge, Raanjhanaa
If Dhanush nails his ardent character’s complexities on screen, Rahman offers an intricate understanding of his impassioned state behind it as witnessed in the electrifying Sufi beauty, Piya milenge.
18. Radha kaise na jale, Lagaan
It’s like Rahman recorded this soothing melody in the dead of night, stirring its peace, in a manner only mythical beings can, employing an arrangement that’s elaborate yet restrained.
19. Muqabla, Hum Se Hai Muqabla
Craze of gimmicky songs usually dies down after a while. But even after two decades and super absurd lyrics -- Jurassic Park mein sundar se jodey jazz music gaaye milke-- Rahman’s galloping ditty hasn’t lost an ounce of its foot tapping flavour.
20. Sarfaroshi ki tamanna, The Legend of Bhagat Singh
Rahman has a gift for bringing out the human face of historical heroes.
There are two versions of the revolutionary poem by Ram Prasad Bismil in the soundtrack of The Legend of Bhagat Singh.
One blazing with spirit, the other is mellow, moving and rich in Sonu Nigam and Hariharan’s patriotic, purposeful appeal.
I am a huge fan of the latter.
And, goes without saying, its creator.