Over 20 years since AR Rahman's 'Vande Mataram', Bala and Kanika revisit iconic video

Released in August 1997 to commemorate 50 years of Indian independence, the album became a bestseller in no time.
Over 20 years since AR Rahman's 'Vande Mataram', Bala and Kanika revisit iconic video
Over 20 years since AR Rahman's 'Vande Mataram', Bala and Kanika revisit iconic video
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It’s been over 20 years since music composer AR Rahman released his album Vande Mataram. However, every Independence Day or Republic Day sees TV channels, radio stations and programmes in educational institutions across the country still playing songs from the album as a mark of celebration.

At the time, Rahman, who had just turned 30, still had his flamboyant hairstyle and it had been only five years since he'd blazed into the national music scene with Roja. The idea of making a patriotic album reportedly came from his school friend Bharat Bala, an ad filmmaker who is the son of a freedom fighter. 1997 was also the year that Sony Music entered the Indian market and sought to promote local artistes internationally. AR Rahman was the first artiste they signed for a three album contract.

Conceptualized, funded and directed by Bala and Kanika, Rahman came on board to make an album to commemorate 50 years of Indian independence. The Hindi lyrics for Maa Tujhe Salam, the title song from the album, were written by Mehboob, who’d worked with Rahman for albums like Rangeela and Daud. The Tamil version, Thai Manney Vanakkam, was written by Vairamuthu.

The Vande Mataram album released in August 1997, three days before the 50th Independence Day. The cassette became a bestseller in no time.

In an email interview with TNM, Bharat Bala and Kanika, who created the film for the title song, recall those heady days when it was played in every street corner. Do they feel the film has aged well?

“What will never age is the immensity of the emotion that unified this nation that so recently was ruled by another. That empowered common folk to an uprising which was instrumental in the British exiting India. The film captured that and re-awakened its energy across states. Because the face of India has urbanised rapidly in two decades and much of her landscape altered by development, it is important to have recorded her untouched beauty on film format for all time to come,” they say.

Image courtesy: Bharat Bala/ www.bbp.co.in

Over 20 years ago, it wasn’t easy for the team to travel to remote corners of the country to ensure that there was adequate representation from everywhere. One may look at the video now and feel that there is some degree of exoticisation or tokenism in it, but for Bala and Kanika, it was an earnest attempt to capture the diversity of the country.

“The core thought was to showcase the real beauty of India – that is her people set across her contrasting landscape, re-instilling pride in all Indians. That, layered with hoisting a giant flag and having the mass of India stand below it in their traditional attire was a poetic representation of the inner patriot that each Indian is,” they say.

Explaining how they decided on the visuals, Bala and Kanika say, “Travel was not as accessible nor affordable to both the urban and rural Indian as it is today, and so we made the journeys on their behalf to create images of cultural beauty intrinsic to India. It was designed by both directors, from a distinctive personal visual style.”

Image courtesy: Kanika Myers/ www.bbp.co.in

The album, however, had to appeal to the youth and AR Rahman was very clear about that from the beginning. In fact, that was the brief that Mehboob had been given by Rahman – not to create something that the youth would respect but never sing. The visuals, too, had to complement this.

“It was not documentary type filming but a lot of scripting and creating of images that would evoke an emotion of vigorous pride in the hearts of all Indians,” Bala and Kanika note.

AR Rahman was closely involved with the direction of the song, they say.

“Rahman took time from his feature film schedules to understand the vision of the directors and work on a song and album that appealed not only to adults but to the youth. To transform the sound of Vande Mataram from a song of the past into a chant for modern times, and to be relevant across all ages.”

Though the subject was patriotism, the team chose the best talent from across the globe to collaborate. The two directors had the composition and album produced in London by Yak Bondy, an accomplished song producer, who they say lent “a global sound to a very Indian emotion”, making the song relatable to youth.

Apart from Yak Bondy, Pakistani Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was also involved in the project. A choice that may have attracted outrage in the current political climate. However, back in 1997, Rahman was quite insistent that he collaborate with the singer for the Gurus of Peace song from the album. In fact, the composer went all the way to Pakistan to do this.

Even though the album was a superhit, there were grumbles about how patriotism was being “commercialised”. The modern repackaging of the national song did not go down well with some.

Bala and Kanika say, “Criticism is the flip side of a popular piece of work. The regenerating of that basic emotion worked at so many levels, yet the film was presented to all Indians for no cost. Only the album was made available via Sony Music.”

The two of them also worked on Rahman’s Jana Gana Mana in the series they call ‘India Ideas’. They are still keen to bring out more such films: “There is a very vast series of films now ready for launch on aspects of India not seen prior… untold stories of India coming soon.”


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