Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Magic of the Man

Umesh Aggarwal has made an absorbing 85-minute documentary called 'Jai Ho', on double Oscar winner AR Rahman

Photo by Satish Yadav

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8.30 p.m. on October 28, Umesh Aggarwal went to the Toho theatre during the Tokyo International Film Festival. His 85-minute documentary film, 'Jai Ho', on double Oscar winner AR Rahman was being screened. But Aggarwal had no illusions. He expected about 10 people to view the screening. So, he got a shock, when he found the hall nearly full.

The audience watched raptly and when the songs were played, the Japanese hummed along. The ensuing question-and-answer session, which normally lasts 20 minutes, continued for 50 minutes. “The organisers had to step in, since another screening was scheduled,” says Aggarwal. The next two screenings were also well-attended.

That's Rahman for you,” says Aggarwal. “He is a global icon.” Asked the reason why,Aggarwal says, “Rahman is able to mix Indian sensibility with Western technology. As a result, his songs have an international feel.”

Rahman has other qualities, too. Says British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber: “He is a most extraordinary melody writer. But he writes melodies in a way that a western composer can’t.”

The other talking heads, in this absorbing documentary, which is produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, in collaboration with the Ministry of External Affairs, include Rahman's mother, Kareema Begum, sisters Fathima and Reihana, lyricist Gulzar, actor Aamir Khan, singers Hariharan and Alka Yagnik, and directors Mani Ratnam, Danny Boyle and Ramgopal Verma.

Verma recounted that the first time he heard the theme song of his film, 'Rangeela', both he and his cousin felt it was rubbish. So did his driver. But on the sets of the film, when he played it on the loudspeaker, by lunch time, everybody was humming the tune. Verma smiles and says, “Rahman always does a slow-poison on his listeners.”

But Aggarwal has also focused on Rahman the person and the turning points in his life. One day, when he was studying in Class 4, at the Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan School, at Chennai, two teachers came up to him and said he had to go home. And when Rahman did, he received a jolt: his father RK Shekhar, a music composer, who had been ailing, had died, at the age of 43.

Because of his father's death, Rahman began working at the age of 12, to support his family, and, at age 14, he had to stop his education,” says Aggarwal. “So you can imagine the struggle he has faced in his life.”

In fact, there is a poignant section when Rahman says that when his three children complained that he did not spend enough time with them, he told them, “You have a Dad. I did not have a Dad. Your Dad keeps travelling, but he always comes back. You have to see what we are blessed with. And not what we are denied.”

Aggarwal portrays, with affection and respect, Rahman's change of religion, from Hinduism to Sufi Islam, thanks to his mother's devotion to a pir, Karimullah Shah Qadri, his relaxed way of life in Los Angeles, and the creativity behind many of the songs. And all along, Rahman comes across as a down-to-earth person. “I have met many celebrities, but he remains unaffected by stardom and wealth,” says Aggarwal. “I am so glad that I made this film.”

And Aggarwal is also happy that, on November 29, the documentary will be the closing film in the Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India at Goa.

Jai Ho!

(A slightly different version appeared in the Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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