Born as AS Dileep Kumar, AR Rahman’s life could as well be scripted. From being compelled to shoulder the responsibilities of his household at a tender age, converting to Islam at the age of 23 to emerging as one of the most successful music composers in India and finally walking up to the stage and collecting an Oscar in 2011, Rahman’s story was waiting to be told.
With the help of the reclusive composer, author Krishna Trilok has written Notes Of A Dream, an authorised biography of Rahman. The book, published by Penguin, traces the highs and lows in his life and makes for a compelling read.
Read an extract here:
The 81st Academy Awards ceremony commenced at 5.30 p.m. at the Kodak Theatre (today known as the Dolby Theatre) in the Hollywood and Highland Center complex on Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. AR arrived at the venue with Saira and Kareema Begum.
For the red carpet—the publicity blitz that takes place outside of the auditorium before the presentation ceremony, the swirl of photographs and interviews—he wore a black Lanvin tuxedo with a light pistachio green tie, though he would change into a black sherwani designed by Sabyasachi Mukherjee for the rest of the evening.
Mani Ratnam’s production company Madras Talkies had wanted to give AR an outfit for the event as a gift, but Saira (the ‘fashionconscious one in the marriage’) had approached Sabyasachi directly to design something for him. Australian actor Hugh Jackman hosted the Academy Awards and opened the night by saying ‘the Academy loves to salute range, ladies and gentlemen’. (Something that it is often panned for not doing.)
The show was a departure from the Oscar ceremonies that came before (including the previous year’s show, which garnered very mixed reviews and earned the lowest viewership for an Oscar telecast since the figures began to be recorded in 1974). For the 81st Oscars, in a bid to shake things up, everything was new. Apart from the host, the producers of the event, Bill Condon and Lawrence Mark, announced that they would not be disclosing the names of the presenters or performers at the ceremony in order to build up suspense.
A short while before the ceremony, a purported list of winners was posted online. According to the list, Kate Winslet had won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in The Reader and Heath Ledger had won for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Other supposed winners named on the list were Mickey Rourke (Best Actor for his part in The Wrestler) and Amy Adams (Best Supporting Actress for Doubt).
The list made no mention of any winners in the musical categories. A spokesperson for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which presents the Oscars) rubbished the list as fake and said that the professional service firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (which has tallied the votes for the Oscars since 1935) had only just begun counting the votes.
The fake list apparently bore the signature of Academy president Sid Ganis. But the spokesperson assured the public that the ‘president is not advised of the winners in advance and that a master list of the winners was never compiled. However, on Oscar night, Kate Winslet did win Best Actress for The Reader. Heath Ledger did win Best Supporting Actor (posthumously; he had accidentally overdosed on prescription medication over a year earlier) for The Dark Knight. The fake list had also mentioned The Dark Knight’s winning the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing. But that prize went instead to Slumdog Millionaire and, by extension, to the first Indian to win an Oscar that night—Resul Pookutty.
The two other men who had worked with him on the film, sound engineers Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke, went with him on stage to get their golden statuettes from actor Will Smith. Danny Boyle watched Resul and the others walk up to the stage, hand over his open mouth and eyes wide with joy. Dev Patel and Freida Pinto were laughing. The joy in the auditorium was palpable. Indian actors Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan (who featured in the film as the cop who interrogates Patel’s character) beamed with pride. ‘This is unbelievable,’ said Pookutty in his acceptance speech. ‘We can’t believe this.’ He was overcome with emotion. ‘I dedicate this award to my country. This is not just a sound award, this is history being handed over to me.’ That set the bar high. But the rest of the evening had more to offer.
Shortly after Resul’s win, actors Alicia Keys and Zac Efron appeared on stage, holding hands. Keys announced the nominees for Best Original Score and the five men sat, almost motionless, gazing at the stage, their faces etched with the torturous anxiety known only to Oscar nominees in the moments before the winner is announced. After Keys read out the nominees, Efron began to open the envelope that contained the card with the winner’s name.
‘Tattadada,’ Keys hissed, grinning, as Efron pulled out the card. ‘A.R. Rahman,’ Efron announced, smiling slightly, ‘for Slumdog Millionaire.’
As the auditorium erupted in applause around him, for a moment, AR himself sat as if he had not heard the words. He seemed oblivious to what was happening. The instant following the announcement saw no reaction from him. Then he said, ‘Oh,’ as if he was thinking, ‘Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise?’ and then his face lit up with a smile, and he stood and began walking towards the stage. The applause continued as he made the walk. Several members of the audience stood up to clap for him.
In India, on the streets, fireworks were arcing into the skies in cities across the country—especially Chennai. Jyothi Nair Belliappa, the head of preparatory programmes at KM Conservatory, says dreamily, ‘Oh, there was so much romance in the air that day in the school! So much joy.’ ‘I and a few others woke up early in the morning and went to AM to watch the telecast,’ says Jerry Vincent. ‘We watched it on the big screen there. Something told me that he was going to win. And when he did, we were all so happy. We were all jumping around and dancing and clapping.’
In another part of the city, Fathima, AR’s sister, was watching the Oscars at home. ‘It was something,’ she remembers, laughing. ‘The press was gathered outside the house and they literally broke in with all their cameras. Some journalists had come down from Delhi and they wanted me to speak in Hindi! They refused to let me go. They wanted to film me watching the Oscars. “You have to get excited at this point,” they said. And I had to do it. Somehow, I managed. Then they wanted interviews. Please don’t see those interviews. I didn’t know what to say!’
In faraway LA, AR climbed on to the stage, triumphant. He accepted the golden statuette from Alicia Keys and shook hands with Zac Efron, his lips pressed tightly together. He then smiled his mysterious, gentle smile and joked that he’d not felt so terrified and excited since his wedding. Once the laughter had settled, in a speech that has since become legendary in India, he thanked his mother, the team of Slumdog Millionaire and his own team of musicians in Chennai and Mumbai.
Finally, he said, ‘I want to share something in Tamil which says, which I normally say after every award, which is: ella pugazhum Iraivanukke. God is great. Thank you.’ It was the first time Indian languages had been heard on the stage at the centre of cinema’s highest honour and celebration. AR spoke in both Hindi and Tamil. He didn’t really have the time to think after that. Even before the gravity of what had just happened could really sink in, Rahman had to perform.
As soon as AR got off the stage, Keys and Efron got started with the presentation of the Oscar for Best Original Song. AR appeared again, to perform ‘O . . . Saya’. Dancers in traditional Indian dance garb charged on to the stage, taiko drummers emerged and pounded on their instruments with a forceful passion, almost like heralds. And AR began to sing. Never had he seemed so in charge, so present as he had during this performance. AR has always been a shy performer.
This time, however, it was different. This was his party now and some switch of confidence seemed to have clicked in him. One could see that he felt right on top of the world. Sometimes, when the man performs, it is almost like his spirit is on another plane and it is simply his body that is creating music, channelling music to his audience from another world. But on Oscar night, he was bringing his music to the earth, and at the same time, he was totally there, almost as if this world at this moment, as a rare and pleasant change, seemed too good to leave.
As soon as he was done singing his snippet, singer John Legend appeared to perform Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman’s ‘Down to Earth’ from WALL-E. (Gabriel himself said he did not want to perform it due to the short window of time he was given to do so.) Once Legend had finished his rendition, AR emerged yet again and broke into ‘Jai Ho’, literally bouncing with energy. Towards the end of the performance, Legend appeared on stage again—singing ‘Down to Earth’—and the two men sang their songs together with glorious abandon, almost like two kids brimming with all the hope and dreams in the world while jamming in a garage, until both fell silent and struck a pose as the lights dimmed, the music climaxed and the audience erupted in applause.
Alicia Keys and Zac Efron appeared once more. Efron read out the three nominees for Best Original Song—‘O . . . Saya’, ‘Down to Earth’ and ‘Jai Ho’. Keys announced the winner of the Oscar—A.R. Rahman and Gulzar for ‘Jai Ho’. This time around, while back in India the viewers of the Oscar telecast went wilder than they already were if such a thing were possible, even those men and women in the Kodak Theatre for an instant seemed to forget all of their celebrity dignity. Several members of the audience stood up and applauded, knowing that they were watching history being made.
AR’s older sister Raihanah was watching the show on TV. ‘Some of his fans came home. I was in touch with them because of Rahmania—a talk show with his fans that I used to host. They came home and we saw the telecast together. It was like Eid for us afterwards. I did a lot of interviews after that. I was making tea for everybody during the red carpet, I remember. He’d already won the Golden Globe so I was pretty sure he was going to get an Oscar. But we weren’t expecting two. That was a surprise.’
Truer words he could not have spoken. At every point in his life he had faced this crucial choice. When his father died. When he had to start working before he was even a teenager. When he had to drop out of school. When he had to grow up faster than any child could have reasonably been expected to; when he had to become the man of the house at eleven, had to take care of his family. When he felt creatively stifled during his days as a sessions player and wondered if this was all his life was going to be about. When he felt his music wasn’t being appreciated widely or truly enough before Roja. When it seemed he was all alone, with no one to turn to. When he became famous. He could have chosen to be bitter, prideful or sad at every stage. But he didn’t. If not for his music, then simply for his capacity to choose light over dark, A.R. Rahman deserves every bit of adulation he got that day and ever since.
His speech done, AR lowered his mic, as if not trusting himself to keep his composure for much longer, and walked off the stage. Oscar night 2009 belonged to Slumdog Millionaire