They don't call him Isai Puyal – "musical storm" in Tamil – for nothing. An AR Rahman album is still a musical event for fans around the world, and come award season, songs from it are a staple in the nominees. He is often considered the reason Hindi film music grew out of the 1980s-90s' mould and began exploring new territory.
Therefore, choosing just a dozen songs to highlight a career spanning nearly three decades is a difficult task for anyone. However, we at International Business Times, India, are prepared to take the risk, despite the fact that the Oscar-winning composer has gone well beyond Bollywood. So, on the day the great man was born in 1967, here are 12 songs that define his career:
1. Rukmini Rukmini – Roja (1992)
AR Rahman really kicked off a storm with his first album, originally in Tamil with lyrics by Vairamuthu, and then in Hindi with lyrics by PK Mishra. Mani Ratnam was in absolute form, as was Rahman. And it was Rukmini Rukmini – the Hindi version, sung by then upcoming rap sensation Baba Sehgal and the sultry-voiced Shweta Shetty – that caught the nation's fancy.
Never before had such music arrangement been heard in Hindi cinema music. This song, along with Roja Janeman and Dil Hai Chhota Sa ruled the charts for quite some time, and would force many a music director to reinvent themselves and bring new sounds to their films.
2. Muqabla – Humse Hai Muqabla / Kadhalan (1994)
What do you get when you pair an explosive dancer with an explosive musician? A blast in almost every sense of the word! That was Kadhalan, dubbed in Hindi as Humse Hai Muqabla. And the song that simply demolished its competition – barring Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast from Mohra – was Muqabla.
The song would go on to be copied without credit by Rajesh Roshan for Sabse Bada Khiladi, and by
Anu Malik for another film with bare-minimum changes in lyrics and music. In 2014, another song from the film would go on to become an international hit: Black Eyed Peas performer will.i.am adapted Urvasi Urvasi as It's My Birthday.
3. Tu Hi Re – Bombay (1995)
AR Rahman and Mani Ratnam teamed up for this one again, and the magic was repeated! This song stands out in an album chock-full of memorable melodies because of its creation process, which highlights Rahman's process of creating music, despite the tale being probably anecdotal.
The story goes that after the primary vocals had been recorded for the song, Rahman's engineer removed all the breathing sounds from the song. Rahman heard that version, and immediately asked him to put them back, because the song's soul had disappeared with those sounds. The rest, as they say, is history!
Start from the 11-minute-7-second mark:
4. Hai Rama – Rangeela (1995)
A rising Ram Gopal Varma got Rahman to give his first original Hindi score in a film, and of course the Mozart of Madras did not disappoint. Songs from the film, like Tanha Tanha, are remembered mostly for their racy visuals of Urmila Matondkar, and Yai Re, for how Asha Bhosle had sung the vocals only to the accompaniment of a flute track, and was surprised months later to hear how the song had turned out.
But the choice has to be Hai Rama, simply because it showed AR Rahman's prowess with Indian classical and semi-classical music at a time when he was being accused of being too Western for Indian tastes. Some had even begun to call his music repetitive. Hai Rama – despite its sensuous video – is remembered more for the vocals by Hariharan and Swarnalatha.
5. Maa Tujhe Salaam – Vande Mataram (1997)
Rahman had by this time released a number of studio albums, but none had had the publicity, success and criticism this one gave him. Released in the 50th year of India's independence, Vande Mataram had great music in a number of aspects, including the Gurus of Peace number, for which ARR collaborated with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Maa Tujhe Salaam was a runaway hit, and continues to be played on national holidays, eliciting goosebumps whenever Rahman hits the high notes. However, it was heavily criticised by people who had not heard the entire album, or even seen the album cover, where the name of the song was mentioned. Their argument was that Rahman had corrupted the patriotic song, this was a different song altogether!
6. Chaiyya Chaiyya – Dil Se (1998)
Need we even explain this one? Coming from an album that is considered one of Rahman's finest, this song actually made it to the BBC World Top 10 in a poll from listeners across 155 countries. It has also since been used in a number of other films and TV series, making it one of Rahman's best-known songs.
Contrary to popular belief, this was not Sukhvinder Singh's first song for Rahman. And it would definitely not be his last.
7. Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000)
This is one of the most complete albums of AR Rahman till date. Pick any song – from the bubbly Konjum Mainakkale to the hauntingly romantic Enna Solla Pogirai – and make it your song from the album. We do not have a single recommendation from this one.
8. Chale Chalo – Lagaan (2001)
It was a toss-up between this one and Ghanan Ghanan, but the peppy sports anthem won because of how cleverly it disguised its sporting metaphors. Before the film's release, it was a good morale-boosting number.
After India swayed to Bhuvan's last-ball sixer that won the match, this was the go-to sports anthem before Chak De India came along. Nevertheless, this still manages to charge up any Indian sporting crowd at any venue.
9. Masti Ki Paathshala – Rang De Basanti (2006)
Wacky lyrics by Prasoon Joshi added an extra dimension to this Gen-Y song, and it features in this list for its timelessness. One could put forward the same argument for other songs in the album, like the tear-jerking Luka Chhupi or the energetic Khalbali. But talk of a maturing AR Rahman, and Rang De Basanti comes to mind, and with it this song that schools you in having fun!
10. Jai Ho – Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Please don't roll your eyes. This song is here for a reason, and its not just the popularity it gained across the world, besides the fetching an Oscar, even as the album fetched Grammys. This song is a great example of what can happen when the tune is good, but a director cannot recognise it.
AR Rahman, by this point in his career, had started working in a way that was different from most of his peers: He would compose a clutch of tunes, and let directors take their pick. The grapevine has it that Subhash Ghai rejected this song for his Salman-starrer Yuvvraaj, and his loss was Danny Boyle's and the world's gain.
11. If I Rise – 127 Hours (2010)
Based on the story of real-life hiker Aron Ralston, who had to cut his hand off to survive after it got wedged between rocks, 127 Hours saw Rahman and Danny Boyle collaborating again. The track in question is special because of Dido's vocals and ARR's use of the Harpejji, a really difficult instrument to play.
It was a testament of Rahman's musical prowess when Ralston, in a letter addressed to one AR from another – and signed accordingly – wrote: "...If only I'd had your soundtrack in the canyon, I could've lasted another 127 Hours."
12. Jagaao Mere Des Ko – Coke Studio India Season 3 (2013)
Two geniuses collaborated – one posthumously and from another century – to create musical magic. And before the Bengali bhodrolok can turn up his nose, take note that this was not the first time ARR was using lyrics from Rabindranath Tagore. Bose – The Forgotten Hero featured parts of the Rabindrasangeet that urges people to walk alone if no one answers their call.
Sure, we could have chosen Aao Balma, or more obviously Zariya, but this one has more layers, and so deserves to be on the list.