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A R Rahman: Composing a winning score

Surajeet Das Gupta and Soumik Sen

A R RahmanThey make an unusual duo. One half of the partnership is a temperamental music maestro who prefers to stay away from the camera's glare.

The other half is a corporate telecom giant that is beating back competition in the cellular phone market.

But this is the combination that has made it to the small screen in the Bharti Group's recently launched Airtel campaign starring Allah Rakha Rahman, and which is generally acknowledged to have become an instant hit.

If the figures are to be believed, the ad has had a sledgehammer-like impact. The company's brand tracking research shows that top of the mind recall for the Airtel brand has gone up from 73 per cent of customers interviewed to 78 per cent.

And, buoyed by the success, Airtel has signed up Rahman on a one-year contract for a rumoured Rs 1 crore to compose tunes for five exclusive ring tones.

There is no doubt that Bharti has a winner in Rahman. In the music industry, which is facing a serious financial crisis with falling sales and box office flops, he is the most saleable and bankable brand.

What's more, he is on the verge of international stardom. Next summer, the London musical Bombay Dreams, for which Rahman composed the music, will travel to Broadway.

If it clicks in New York, the world will be beating a path to the composer's door. In fact, the offers are already coming in.

Is Rahman about to follow the path of Shekhar Kapur, who has become a celebrity on the international film circuit? Certainly, he is in all the right places and his name is being mentioned by all the right people.

Bombay Dreams is now ranked as a must-see in London theatre circles and even critics, who initially panned Bombay Dreams, acknowledged from day one that Rahman's score was a winner.

Later this month, Rahman will be taking a bow when Queen Elizabeth II inaugurates a Red Cross organised show of Bombay Dreams.

In terms of sales, Rahman is already bigger than the biggest. His music has already sold over 200 million cassettes. That's more than Madonna and Britney Spears put together.

And, last year, when there were only very few hits on the Indian scene, Rahman's score for Lagaan topped the charts, selling over 3.5 million copies.

That outdid the year's other big hits like Gadar, which sold 2 million copies and it equalled Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.

The music maestro also notched up a record of sorts when the music for Bombay - a bilingual film in Hindi and Tamil - sold a massive 12 million copies in both languages.

Says Shivaji Gupta, general manager, Polygram, which produced Bombay's Hindi version: "For us, this film was one of our biggest all-time grossers after Sholay and Qurbani."

In India too, the Bombay Dreams score has turned into a chart-topper, hitting the number one spot for five continuous weeks on MTV India World Chart Express - the list includes top albums from the US and Australia.

And Sony Music, which has the rights to the music, says it has a hit on its hands and has already sold 150,000 copies - despite the fact that it is priced at a premium like other international numbers and is in English.

At home, he has over 10 projects lined up. These include a film with Subhash Ghai and Taj Mahal with Bharat Bala and Imax. Besides that, he is working on music for Khalid Mohammed's 18th century period epic on a ghazal artist, Deepa Mehta's Water, and M F Hussain's Meenakshi.

He is also doing another film for Airtel - he will both make the film and compose the music.

His parade of hits has turned him into the country's most expensive music director. Industry sources say Rahman demands around Rs 1.5-2 crore (Rs 12-20 million) - and gets it.

That's as much as what superstar Amitabh Bachchan charges for a film. Also, he insists on royalty payments if the movie and its music are dubbed in other languages.

His price tag is double that of nearest competitors like popular music director Nadeem-Shravan.

Says trade analyst Komal Nahata: "With the industry in the doldrums, music directors like Anu Malik or Jatin Lalit have cut rates by at least 20 per cent to 25 per cent. But not Rahman. He still demands his old rates and gets them."

So what explains his magic? One main reason is that unlike other music directors who work on over a dozen films a year, Rahman has made himself a scarce commodity and works on only a limited number of projects.

That strategy has worked. Says Amit Khanna, chairman, Reliance Entertainment and also a lyric writer: "He's not imitative, he spaces himself out unlike other directors who sign up whatever they can get and are looking at quantity rather than quality. As a result, in 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the cases he delivers."

Producers and directors like Rahman because they believe that he brings fresh music to the table. Says director Mani Ratnam, who has worked closely with Rahman: "He works less but he has given Indian music a completely different sound which has worked."

Producers also cash in on Rahman's ability to score music in bilingual films and, therefore, cater to a larger potential market than merely the Hindi market - which his competitors can't do.

For instance, Roja was made in Hindi only after its success in Tamil, while Bombay and Sapney were made as bilingual films based on the same music.

Predictably, it is these advantages that attract music companies to him. Says Harish Dayani, executive director of Saregama HMV, which released Sapney: "He is the most bankable star of all and I wouldn't hesitate to pay a premium of as much as 50 per cent to him compared to other music directors."

The music maestro has also cleverly marketed himself as a recognisable brand. Bharat Bala, for instance, projected A R Rahman through two patriotic videos of Vande Mataram - a unique project to mark the 50th year of India's independence.

The company invested over Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million) in the project and produced 250 one-minute films in which Rahman appeared on screen. The film was shown across all channels throughout the country and in 400 cinema halls - transforming Rahman into an instantly recognisable face.

Rahman has also played his financial cards with reasonable skill. He is one music director who prefers to be paid royalty rather than a one-off lumpsum amount. Now that sales are dipping, music companies are suddenly discovering the advantages of this system.

Rahman's popularity is undoubtedly incredible especially at a time when the music market is facing hard times. Sales of cassettes and CDs in the over Rs 1,200-crore market have in fact fallen by 20 per cent over last year - largely because of piracy.

But there is also a quality issue, says Aarti Poddar, general manager of Tips Music: "While piracy is a serious issue, the music which is being churned out is not hot property."

Even Rahman can't assure a sure-fire hit. Even the biggest movies have come a cropper in the last year and so has the music. Take the music for Legend of Bhagat Singh, which released this year and bombed swiftly. Even last year, Rahman's Nayak did not boost takings at the box-office.

However, all said and done - Rahman will be taking a bow before the Queen. Can he make the transition from Bollywood to London and New York?

A huge amount is riding on the coat tails of Bombay Dreams. And even at home, Rahman will always be only as good as the last tune that he has turned out.

But he looks superbly confident as he moves from one high note to another.

Rahman unplugged

He has come a long way from a jingle composer in ad films to being the country's most expensive film music director.

Allah Rakha Rahman (36), has been in London for the last three months promoting Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Bombay Dreams for which he has created the score. He was briefly in Delhi. Excerpts from an interview.

Why did you decide to work on the Airtel ad?

The Airtel ad actually was a true account of what once happened while I was recording - I chanced upon a tune and had it played back to my studio on the mobile.

So when Bharti approached me with the creative I was quite surprised. I was apprehensive about how I would look before the camera, but I think the reactions and response show that I haven't been too bad after all.

Will you now be composing more music abroad with the success of Bombay Dreams?

I have no intention of shifting base abroad. But the work environment there is certainly more lucrative. In India, you are pushed to write more as music directors do not get paid through royalties.

As a result, an artist abroad can do an album a year and live off it, which is unthinkable here. I am composing music for a Columbia Tristar production.

I was offered a film by Miramax but Shekhar Kapur dissuaded me from accepting it since it was originally rejected by another composer.

What do you think of the practice of giving a one-time payment to music directors here in India as opposed to the royalty system prevalent abroad?

I think musicians here get ripped off. Music production houses take good care of artists abroad and though the upfront signing amount is much less than what I get here, the royalty takes care of future returns.

Are you very prolific as a music composer? What is the optimum numbers you want to maintain in a year?

Though I did about 14 films in 1997-98, I prefer not to exceed five films (Tamil and Hindi scores combined) in a year. I have about 10 projects in hand that are either completed or under production.

Which was your most successful score in terms of sales?

Bombay, which sold about 120,000 copies, is widely rated as my most successful work, though Roja is definitely the score that brought me where I am today.

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