AR Rahman may have been jamming in US night clubs had Mani Ratnam not ‘discovered’ him

Mani Ratnam launched AR Rahman, but a lesser-known director first placed faith in him.
AR Rahman may have been jamming in US night clubs had Mani Ratnam not ‘discovered’ him
AR Rahman may have been jamming in US night clubs had Mani Ratnam not ‘discovered’ him
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By Kamini Mathai

Every music director in Tamil Nadu was on their toes because they knew Mani Ratnam was making a movie for K. Balachander, one of the biggest producers in the South. They also knew that Mani Ratnam had fallen out with Illayaraja. It meant one of them could get an opportunity to work with two of the biggest names in the South. For the first time in years, Illayaraja wasn’t in the picture and other music directors had a chance. Everyone except Dileep that is, because he was just a jingle-maker and he didn’t even know that Sharda and Trilok were busy selling him to Mani Ratnam, who had just been turned down by his friend Mahesh, another jingle composer.

Mani’s cousin Sharda and her husband Trilok told him about their find Dileep, a young chap, just twenty-four, who was making music for their ads. He was phenomenal, they told Mani, and he ought to give him a shot.

Dileep and Mani Ratnam met for the first time at the preview of Thalapathy. It was a meeting arranged by Sharda and Trilok, who had been invited for the special screening. Dileep didn’t know Mani Ratnam preferred to keep his preview shows closed and brought along his excited mother and sisters. According to Sharda, Mani was a little miffed at the size of the entourage but let is pass. At the end of the film, a nervous Dileep congratulated Mani and left quietly. He didn’t think Mani had noticed him, but what he didn’t realize was that the entire evening Sharda and Trilok had been singing his praises.

‘When we first told Dileep that Mani Ratnam was interested in trying him out, he got so flustered, he started asking so many questions, so many things were going on in his head, there was no way you could calm him down,’ remember Sharda and Trilok.

Mani called Dileep and said he was coming over to check out his work. Dileep got even more flustered. He sent Trilok an SOS, who rushed over and helped him prepare a tape of his best work to impress Mani. They put a tape together almost overnight.

Still, despite the preparation, disbelief is perhaps the only word that can describe the expression on Dileep’s face the day Mani Ratnam walked into his studio and asked to see him. Dileep wasn’t even thinking of Kollywood, but more on the lines of getting out of Chennai and the country. He had everything worked out. He would earn enough money through his jingles so his mother could pay off her debts. He would also simultaneously set up his studio so his mother could rent it out, while he would go to the Berkeley School of Music in the USA, living his dream of studying music and jamming at night clubs. He had even got L. Shankar, who by this time had become world famous, to write him a recommendation letter.

But now, there was Mani Ratnam standing at his doorstep, asking if he could hear some of his music. Dileep was nervous, but he said yes. Mani Ratnam walked into his studio. Everything changed after that—Berkeley was forgotten.

After listening to some of his music, the reticent Mani left the studio and Dileep did not hear from him for months. That got him tense. He thought he had goofed up and told Trilok he was scared Mani Sir did not like his work. But a few months later, out of the blue again, Mani Ratnam called him up.

Mani Ratnam had an offer for Dileep; it wasn’t for Roja though, because at this point in time K. Balachander hadn’t yet broached the topic of Roja with Mani Ratnam. It was an offer to compose music for a movie he was producing called Thiruda Thiruda, inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A week after Mani signed Dileep on for Thiruda Thiruda, K. Balachander approached Mani for Roja and when Mani’s friend Mahesh declined, Mani came back to Dileep, who again said yes. It was possibly the luckiest break Dileep could have asked for because Roja went on to become a national phenomenon both for its storyline and music, while Thiruda Thiruda bombed—though its score is still considered one of Rahman’s best. Roja, A.R. Rahman’s debut in the movie world, won him the National Award for music direction, the best debut he could have hoped for.

What many people do not know was that around the same time Mani Ratnam approached Dileep, another director in Kollywood—Kathir—had already signed him on. Kathir was working on a movie with Illayaraja but the composer and he had a fight and Kathir ended up storming out on Illayaraja and straight into Dileep’s studio because he had heard through his ad agency friends that Dileep was good. Kathir walked right up to Dileep and handed him Rs 10,000 as an advance and said ‘Work with me’. Dileep was shocked because he had never done movies and here was someone putting all his faith and money on him. He agreed to work on the movie. Another stroke of luck for Rahman that Roja released first. If it had been Kathir’s movie, Rahman wouldn’t have had the launch and the reach Roja gave him. Kathir’s movies are best described as forgettable, although Rahman has never forgotten him—since he was technically the first person in the industry to put his faith in him. That’s why Rahman continues to make good music for every movie of Kathir’s despite the fact that the director has never delivered a hit—the last movie he made, Kadhal Virus, in 2002, ran for two days to empty theatres before it was removed. But Rahman will always continue to make music for Kathir’s movies even if the director does not have the money to pay him for it.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from the book “AR Rahman: The Musical Storm” by Kamini Mathai

You can buy the book here

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