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Take it Easy: How AR Rahman’s ‘Urvasi’ influenced will.i.am, and a generation of Chennaiites


A recent virtual interaction between the two musicians reminds one of why the iconic song from ‘Kadhalan’ is still a beautiful musical ode to Madras in the 90s

What’s common to American rapper will.i.am and 90s kids in Chennai?

The reaction to ‘Urvashi Urvashi’ from Kadhalan.

In a recent virtual conversation with AR Rahman, the popular rapper spoke rather excitedly about this Tamil superhit number, which served as the inspiration for his track, ‘It’s My Birthday’. Said a very animated will.i.am to an amused Rahman, “When I first heard it, I was like ‘Yo, what is that?”

Back in Madras in the Nineties, we experienced the same ‘what-is-that’ feeling. When the beats and claps kick in in this number, it was nothing like we had ever heard before. For a generation that grew up primarily on melody and folk numbers, the “international” beats of ‘Urvasi’ set the tone of what music would rule Tamil films in the years to come.

A lot has been spoken and written about Rahman’s association with Mani Ratnam, the man who gave him his first break with Roja. “With Mani, I can do what I like. There’s a Thirukkural that states: ‘If you’re with learned people, you also become learned’,” Rahman told The Hindu in an interview when he celebrated 25 years of their collaboration.

That sound he has created for Mani Ratnam over the years is indeed unique and precious, but then, what do we say of his collaboration with Shankar? If Mani Ratnam forced Rahman to introspect and delve deeper into himself, Shankar got him out of his shell and made him do “young things” that he otherwise would not have. If Mani was that elder brother who would egg him on to achieve musical greatness, Shankar was the equivalent of the cousin with whom you spent your summer holidays: just hang out together, have a blast and become excited kids, all over again.

What Rahman told will.i.am

  • The word ‘Bollywood’ blankets everything coming from India. India is like an ocean. While the Mumbai industry is called Bollywood by the West, there are also South indian film industries coming from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam industries, and films in Punjabi, Marathi and Bengali too.
  • You should work with Indian musicians, You should work with Asha Bhonsle someday; she is an amazing diva.
  • We get awards, fame, money and then what? The joy of giving and leading people towards the light is super important. We are privileged and we should use them to make changes in whatever form.

Rahman said this to will.i.am about films in general, but this could well be his take on his work with Shankar. “It takes away from the mundaneness of life, and puts you in a fun mode. That’s what films are. Movies tell us stories and bring us so much joy.”

That sense of joie de vivre is present in all their albums together, and very evident in ‘Urvasi’. Like the shriek that Rahman croons in the song, during which Prabhu Deva, after dancing like a dream, just slithers down a pole. Shankar’s films have been criticised for being bloated, over-the-top creations, but his demand for a new sound design probably made Rahman discover a side he never thought he had.

 

“I go with the vibe of the director. We jam, and we see references from either my own music or something international and explore how we convey this feeling in a newer way,” he explained to the rapper about the way he goes about doing his music for movies.

That vibe with Shankar has resulted in some exciting commercial musical experiments, in films such as Indian, Boys and 2.0. But it started with tiny little experiments, in Gentleman and Kadhalan, two Tamil films that made India sit up and take notice.

The music of ‘Urvasi’ is fun and nostalgic, but the picturisation too has several delights to offer: it takes us back to an unhurrried, laid-back Madras that loved to ‘take it easy’. There is the green Besant Nagar road, something that would have probably made a comeback during the recent lockdown. There are also the green MTC buses that we miss on the roads these days. And, there is the humour that comes through in the lyrics by Vairamuthu: pakkathu seat la paati okandha… (what if a grandma sits next to you in the bus?). In many ways, ‘Urvasi’ is a beautiful musical ode to the memorable 90s of Madras.

 



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