The best part about AR Rahman’s concert film One Heart is the music.
The 80-minute concert film encapsulates performances of Rahman and his band across the United States of America and Canada in the Intimate concert tour of 2015. Between splendid footage of the performances is Rahman talking about stage fright in his initial years, the process of getting the band together, and broad-stroke impressions about making music and dealing with fanfare. The talky parts are filler material, but it is hard to complain if the individual is as genial and forthcoming as Rahman.
The documentary has been produced by Rahman, and does not feature a director’s credit. With no authorial voice in place, Rahman is the subject and the overlord in One Heart. The interviews featuring the composer are, therefore, as milquetoast as they can get. The music is what stands out here. The film is currently available on Netflix.
The principal leaders of the band are Rahman and his longtime collaborator Ranjit Barot. When they set out to cherry-pick the rest of the 10-member team, the memo was to sound like a 25-piece orchestra. And do they deliver. It is an incredibly well-oiled machine that is not afraid to improvise.
Everyone gets room to showboat. From the young bass queen Mohini Dey to Barot (on drums) and violinist Ann Marie Calhoun to vocalist Annette Philip, all musicians get their time of the night as a popular song is allowed to veer into unexpected directions like a jazz piece. (A special mention for singer Jonita Gandhi, who can pull off any Rahman composition with flair.)
A particularly entertaining moment comes when Philip scat sings to her heart’s content as part of the band’s performance of ‘Tu Bole, Main Boloon’ from Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008). It is heartening to see the audience applaud when Barot steals the spotlight by doing a drum solo in the beginning of the song ‘Naadan Parindey’ for no apparent reason.
This audience respects music quite unlike the one the maestro had to encounter in Wembley earlier this year, where people walked out when he began singing in Tamil. The audience appears to be enjoying the songs, regardless of them being in Hindi or Tamil, making Wembley seem like a bad day. That said, the number of Hindi songs featured in the film is more than half the number of Tamil tunes. Considering that Rahman’s best work is unarguably in Tamil, it appears that Hindi was given preference in One Heart to give it more widespread appeal.
Rahman and his band chose the setlists mostly by instinct with some thought put to the ease with which the songs can be performed live. Songs involving a lot of orchestra are avoided. Rahman does speak of the inevitable scenario where regardless of what he will play, an audience member will shout “Telugu!” or “Punjabi!”
There are classics such as ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ (Roja), ‘Dil Se’ (Dil Se) and ‘Munbe Va’ (Sillunu Oru Kadhal) and recent hits such as ‘Nenjukkule’ (Kadal), ‘Patakha Guddi’ (Highway) and ‘Naane Varugiren’ (O Kadhal Kanmani).
The odd surprise includes ‘Warriors in Peace’, the theme song of Warriors of Heaven and Earth, a 2003 Chinese film Rahman worked on.
They all sound perfect. There are great bands which have been out there for years but sound terrible live. But Rahman’s band for the Intimate concert seems to have been playing together for ages.
What is fascinating is how Rahman is able to rearrange the studio sound with which we identify his songs as a watertight mix of electronic and acoustic elements for a live audience. In One Heart, Rahman admits that in the beginning of his career, he did not know how to recreate the polished sound of a film song in front of an audience. He would record parts of the songs, play the pre-recorded pieces through Pro Tools on stage, and then the live instruments would kick in.
In the Intimate concert, Rahman turns his songs, even angst-filled ones such as ‘Dil Se’ into funky and cheerful tracks. He is not following the script, but simply having fun. This is the maestro at his peak and at his sassiest. Watch him sway and swing while playing the accordion during the Nenjukkule performance – it is everything that the soft-spoken Rahman in interviews is not.