AR Rahman battles nepotism in Bollywood as a debut film producer

AR Rahman
AR Rahman
Image Credit: Arun Titan

Bollywood is often called out for being nepotistic while casting for lead roles, but Oscar-winner AR Rahman, who takes his plunge into film production and script writing with his debut romance ‘99 songs’, has fiercely bucked that trend.

For the first film of his career as a writer and producer, releasing in the UAE cinemas on April 15, Rahman has picked newcomer Ehan Bhat who he chose based purely on merit and not the acting dynasty he was born into.

Ehan Bhat in '99 Songs'
Ehan Bhat in ’99 Songs’
Image Credit: Jio Studios

In recent months, Bollywood has been criticised for being hostile and toxic towards new talents breaking into the industry.

“He [Bhat] comes from a humble Kashmiri family background with no connection with film people. In a way, we are proud that we are getting a person and promoting them based on their merit,” said Rahman in an interview with Gulf News.

In a Zoom video call earlier this week, Rahman was with his prized discovery and was visibly proud of his find. The global music icon, who’s one of India’s most famous cultural export, says his team conducted around 800 auditions before finalising the lead for his debut production ‘99 songs’.

“But I think its destiny that somebody from Kashmir represents their voice and they stand for peace. He can inspire the younger people of Kashmir. I think Ehan is destined to do that; how he got selected was destiny. You have a greater role to do many great things for the peace of the country and the welfare of your own people and bringing things together,” said Rahman, alluding to the troubled region that has seen several conflicts.

As a producer, Rahman had several big stars and directors in Bollywood on speed-dial, but in an unprecedented move, he groomed his actor for more than a year to play the role of a musician.

Ehan Bat in 99 Songs
Ehan Bhat in 99 Songs
Image Credit: Supplied

“We had a checklist. He had to act, sing, play a musical instrument, and be good-looking. But we didn’t get all those tick marks, so went back and said: ‘let’s invest in a person’ … Ehan was open, hard-working and studied music in my conservatory in Chennai for a year and then we sent him to Hollywood to my friend’s acting classes [Bernard Hiller in Los Angeles]. He was there for a month. He did all the hard work. If we had gotten one more year we would have gotten him to sing all the songs too,” said Rahman. But though he was tempted to make his lead actor sing all his songs in his debut production, Rahman refrained from doing so over this reason.

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“Then the movie would have taken two more years to come to you all,” he said with a laugh.

Directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy ‘99 songs’ is Rahman’s painful labour of love and not merely a vanity project done in a hurry to make a quick buck. The ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ music composer claims he took several leaps of faith with this film, starting with employing a new face to tell his story.

“In Tamil, there’s a proverb which goes: ‘The calf is more fearless than a cow’. I am a new writer and I have great director friends. But I knew that I will be intimidated to tell anything to them because they will be so good that if I say something about directing they will ask me to mind about my music alone. So I wanted to go with new people, a new director, and a new cast. We all felt like we were discovering something together and bringing out a new voice,” said Rahman.

AR Rahman talent hunt in the UAE for Expo 2020
AR Rahman in Dubai

Keen to find novel ways of storytelling, ‘99 Songs’ will subvert the dominant narrative that musicians are troubled, drug-addled, or suicide-prone dark figures. And Rahman – who is one of India’s most disciplined, diligent, and talented musical figures – has a bone to pick with films showing musicians as train wrecks.

“When I see musical stories in most films, I always find that the musician finally dies on the road and the corporation finally cleans his corpse off the street and his wife kicks him out. You know the story; he’s a drug addict etc.,” said Rahman.

The musician, who now has his own production company called YM Movies, points out that the world is now competing against artificial intelligence where normal and creative jobs could be taken over by machines. But this story of musicians being disturbed and self-destructive isn’t fading.

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“But we are still on this clichéd narrative about musicians being losers,” said Rahman.

His discovery Bhat, who was pleasantly surprised about playing an earnest musician in a multi-lingual film presented by Jio Studios, claims his mentor was his inspiration while playing his debut role.

“My character was a lot like sir. He was passionate and kind. He only wants two things in his life: music and the girl that he loves. So when I was looking for inspiration his face – the kindest and passionate – came to me. Most of what you see on screen is taken from Rahman sir’s personality,” said Bhat. Upon hearing this, Rahman bursts out laughing at the unexpected show of admiration from his find.

“It’s my alter ego, eh … But in all seriousness, ‘99 songs’ is not based on my life,” said Rahman.

But he admits that he took time with this film. His project was announced in 2015 and took over seven years to release.

“But things take time … Even though this film is not based on my life … it’s born out of the challenges that were thrown at me. Sometimes I had to create songs because a hero has a holiday to go to in three days and I had to create one before he goes on his holiday. I am talking about the ’90s where I had seven or 12 films and I had two days to finish a song. And if it’s a big her, then I had to come up with an idea, otherwise, there will be humiliation. It touches upon the trouble that creators go through,” said Rahman.

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For this musical genius, he was particular that his debut film will not be a formulaic, hurried cinematic quickie.

“I have been through all those storms in my life where you mess it up because of your haste. Even if you take ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the score was done in two weeks. In 2008, the mixing had to be done so that it could go to [the] Toronto festival. The movie came to me late. So I was like; how do I make a score for this movie? But I learned to rise and face the situation. I took a leap of faith and then I got the Oscars,” said Rahman.

A still from 'Slumdog Millionaire'
A still from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’
Image Credit: IMDB

Even though he’s not expecting to scoop any awards for his career’s first production, Rahman has a simple dream.

“I never even dreamt of getting the Oscars when I did ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. If people like our voice in filmmaking and our sensibility that itself is enough to encourage us to do more. This movie has got a different voice. The movie is made by the next generation … It’s fun working with crazy people,” said Rahman.

Is AR Rahman the perfect, dream boss?

“If anything goes wrong, I take responsibility for the whole team and it’s my fault. But if it goes right, then it’s my team’s goodwill and talent. Without risk and courage, there’s no life. There are easy ways to do things. You can make money by following a hit formula. But ‘99 songs’ is what I have after years of patience, penance, and guidance from friends and film people.”

‘99 Songs’ is out in the UAE cinemas on April 15

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