As a young boy, he used to hang around when his father, RK Shekar used to compose music for films.
At nine, Dileep Shekar lost his father and had to don the mantle of the family’s breadwinner soon after. Renowned music directors like Dhanraj and M K Arjunan took him under their wing and young Dileep could by then play the synthesizer like a young pro.
After the family embraced Islam, Dileep was re-christened as Alla Rakha Rahman and came to be known in the field of music as AR Rahman. With music in his genes, he soon gained mastery over several instruments and with a group of friends, he formed a music band called. ‘Roots’. From there, he graduated to composing music for jingles.
He also earned expertise in his craft by freelancing for music directors like MS Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja and Raj Koti and also found opportunity to accompany stalwarts like Zakir Hussain, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan and L Shankar.
In 1992, veteran director Balachander produced Roja under his home banner with Mani Ratnam as director. The duo decided to introduce a new music director for their film and the opportunity came Rahman’s way.
Until then, Ilaiyaraaja had been Mani’s favourite composer and his scores had embellished films like Mouna Ragam, Agni Nakshathiram and Nayagan among others. But the gamble paid off and Roja heralded the arrival of a new composer who would eventually conquer the world of film music in the years to come.
With a baton like a magic wand, Rahman would regale audiences around the globe, working not just in Kollywood and Bollywood but in Hollywood films as well. Roja became a trendsetter for its music score and Rahman made bold by introducing singers like Minmini (Chinna Chinna Aasai) while relying on proven performers like SP Balasubramanian, Chitra, Sujatha, Unni Menon and Hariharan.
Vairamuthu’s lyrics set to Rahman’s music in Roja became a rage and the two of them would later work together in several movies, enthralling listeners of all ages. If Kadhal Rojave had a ring of pathos to it, Rukkumani Rukkumani was a foot tapping number and Hariharan’s rendering of Thamizha Thamizha was rich in its soulful quality.
Rahman might have worked in any number of films after Roja but there are many admirers who still feel that he is yet to surpass Roja, the lyrics of which also became chartbusters in Hindi and Telugu. And incidentally TIME magazine has included Roja in a list of top ten soundtracks of all time.
A commonly heard quip is that Rahman has always reserved his best for films directed by Mani Ratnam who was instrumental in giving him his first break. And logic supports this argument as Rahman has won two of his four National Awards for Mani’s films (Roja and Kannathil Muthamittaal) and their combination turned Bombay into one of the largest selling albums in Tamil cinema.
Rahman has also been an integral part of Mani’s Hindi films like Dil Se, Yuva, Guru and Raavan. The soundtracks of other Mani films like Kadal, O Kadhal Kanmani and Kaatru Veliyedai too bore Rahman’s stamp. Apart from Mani, Rahman has also shared a great rapport with director Shankar who has repeated Rahman in all his films right from his debut film Gentleman. Their latest collaboration 2.0, starring Rajnikant which is slated to hit the screens next year, is eagerly awaited by the diehard fans of the actor, the director and the music director as well.
While most of the films for which he composed the music were set against an urban backdrop, Rahman was not found wanting when working for films with pastoral themes either. His films with Bharathiraaja, Kizhakku Cheemayile and Karuthamma amply proved that rural themes were right up his street. Sangamam was another classic example of Rahman excelling in compositions with a distinct folk flavour.
Jana Gana Mana and Vandhe Madharam, his non film albums too were huge hits. Rahman was no stranger to Bollywood as the lyrics in the dubbed versions of his films like Roja and Kadhalan had turned out into smash hits. However, his first break in Hindi cinema came through Ramgopal Varma’s Rangeela, the Aamir Khan starrer which was a runaway hit.
A number of films like Taal, Swades, Rang De Basanti, Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar enabled him to establish himself firmly in Bollywood. Veteran director Subhashi Ghai who directed Taal once confessed that he was almost driven to despair by the unique working style of the maestro whose composing generally began after all the cows had reached home and went on till the wee hours of the morning. But Taal was an inspiring score that was instrumental in the success of the film at the box-office.
Rahman won a National Award for Lagaan a film based on a rural subject and the tunes became chart toppers in no time .His scores in films like Rockstar, Ranjhaana and Highway too were highly appreciated.
While Rahman also composed music for stage productions like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams and Deepa Mehta’s Water, the crowning glory came with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire a blockbuster which had riveting music. Two Academy Awards, BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe and two Grammy’s were among the honours that have come to Rahman for his overseas assignments.
While fast, peppy numbers like Chikku Bukku Rayile (Suresh Peters, G V Prakash), Muqabla Muqabla (Mano, Swarnalatha) have been his forte, his melodies like Munbe Vaa (Naresh Iyer, Shreya Ghosal), Mannipaaya (Shreya Ghosal, A R Rahman ) and Yaarumilla Thiraiarangil ( Swetha Menon) have tugged at the heart strings of listeners across the world.
There is hardly any genre of music that the Mozart of Madras has left untouched and his versatility has been the hallmark of his musical career. Experimentation has been a key word in his dictionary and in instrumentation, using non-traditional voices and so on, Rahman has blazed a new trail. Rahman’s expertise has stretched to classical, western, pop, reggae and sufi, music and he has left his stamp on all of them.
Apart from his international awards, Rahman’s tally includes four National Awards, 15 Filmfare Awards, 16 Filmfare Awards ( South) and a Padma Bhushan as well. His state of the art Panchathan Studio in Chennai and a highly popular music school are among his abiding passions.