Some reports say that he has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide; others put the number at a cool 100 million. Dozens of hit movies bear his name in the credits. With one musical already on Broadway, he is busy penning the score for a version of The Lord Of The Rings that’s slated for a West End bow in winter 2005. This, clearly, is a man playing at the top of his game.
And yet, for most Americans and Europeans, the question is still, “AR who?”
AR Rahman, that’s who. Just over a decade ago, the now 38-year-old Chennai (Madras) native broke out of a life writing commercial jingles and playing keyboards as a studio musician to become one of the most lionized figures in the vast and churning world of Indian film.
He was born AS Dileep Kumar to a musically inclined family. His father, KA Sekar, who passed away when his son was nine years old, was a well-known music director in the Chennai film world. (Although Mumbai’s “Bollywood” is far better known to foreigners, South India has its own separate film industry that is by some reports even bigger than that of the north, which itself sees somewhere around 800 new releases every year.) Rahman began studying the piano at age four, and dropped out of school to begin work as a studio musician by the time he was 16 years old. He eventually earned a scholarship to attend Oxford University’s Trinity College of Music, from which he earned his degree.
From early on, Rahman’s family environment shaped his joy in music and in making music. “My earliest memory of music,” the composer recalls, “comes from when I must have been five or six years old. In front of some of his friends, my father pulled out a harmonium and asked me to replicate the notes.”
When his first film break came in 1989, it was thanks to the award-winning music he had written for a television advertisement; the director of that Leo Coffee commercial, Sharada Trilok, introduced him to her cousin, Mani Ratnam. Ratnam, in turn, signed Rahman on as the composer to what became a hugely successful 1992 Tamil-language film called Roja, set against the backdrop of the bloody Kashmiri separatist movement. Roja’s soundtrack—which wove pop, rock and reggae elements into the filmi sound—was not just the composer’s calling card; it was also the movie to catapult him to fame.
After Roja’s initial release, Rahman garnered the Best Music Director nod in both the Tamil Nadu state film prizes and in the prestigious Filmfare Magazine Awards (within the southern India category). Rahman’s Roja fame surged once again in 1995, when the movie was dubbed into Hindi and re-released in northern India; at that point, Rahman won
A selected AR Rahman Discography:
Note: While A.R. Rahman is a household name in India, Pakistan and wherever Bollywood films hold sway, the prolific artist’s many soundtracks are often unavailable Stateside. The following list represents those recordings most readily available to American consumers.
Between Heaven and Earth
Bombay Dreams 2002 Original London Cast