The musician AR Rahman has recently been castigated in certain circles for speaking out strongly against a lobby working against him in Bollywood. This has caught many by surprise. The huge fan following of the Academy Award-winning composer commanded has not really translated into popular support. The politics of music and the ideologies inherent therein and possible feebleness of its political impact is on display in this issue.
The most political thing about Rahman has been, let us face it, his conversion to Islam. But this happened in his childhood, a period of innocence. India, especially the southern region, too was communally innocent. It was a time when the nation too was less corrupted by hatred and the morbidity that hate brings. Rahman has not only been unapologetic about his religious piety but also foregrounded this spirituality and mysticism in his music, even turning into, for some people, a latter-day version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The saffronisation of Bollywood and the attempted eradication of Islamicate vestiges therein has been an elaborate institutional project and not confined to individual predilections. The situation was not so rife before when bits and pieces directors from Malayalam like Major Ravi had to be imported to helm the officialdom of Indian cinema. Cinema, cricket, and politics form the major loci of popular culture in India. All these three have been appropriated in such a way that unique talents and voices are all but snuffed out.
Majoritarian hatred and shenanigans in the recent past have snuffed out the career of someone as universally admired as Michael Jackson. Rahman somewhat shares many facets of the pop idol’s personal and career trajectory. Rahman himself seems painfully aware of this. Gossip and other legerdemain that can seem harmless can destroy careers in show business, as the lives of stars like Silk Smitha and Kalabhavan Mani amply demonstrate. The powerful film financiers and producers like Harvey Weinstein getting their just deserts, unfortunately, remains an extremely rare instance.
The plot against AR Rahman operates on two fronts. On the one hand, the merit arguments so beloved of savarnas is applied to his oeuvre. Strangely, Rahman is pitted against himself, highlighting an early phase in his career, beginning with the Mani Ratnam period which includes movies like `Roja’ and `Bombay’, as superior to later periods which are derided as meritless. Thus, by pitting Rahman against Rahman himself, in different phases of his career, this ploy seeks to undermine the artist’s credibility. Rahman is also accused of self-plagiarism, a maliciously motivated allegation. Self-plagiarism is a categorical impossibility according to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Thus the `quality’ of his records, especially his Academy Award-winning song `Jai Ho’ from Danny Boyle’s `Slumdog Millionaire’ are characterized using adjectives such as `shitty’ and `crappy’. A similar evocation of the same epithets in the context of any other music maestro remains unthinkable. (The merit argument is not invoked for Ravi Shankar or Bhimsen Joshi, the voice of God himself. The same goes in the academia, in the case of someone like Gayatri Spivak who translated Derrida’s work without sufficient grasp of the French language, and still proudly gloats of her ignorance of French and right to translate all the same, despite lamentations from the French, hardly eliciting a demurral from desi fans.)
The twin prong of the anti-AR plot comprises character assassination. The rare integrity and charisma that Rahman still combines are sought to be tarnished with mere gossip, which as the saying goes, travels faster than light. The global success and veneration of Rahman have earned him not a few foes in the industry. Someone from Chennai, espousing a different credo, storming the citadels of desi music like nobody has ever done before, incited the rage of many. Rahman himself has been brutally honest about himself and his craft. It was the arrival of electronic technology and mastery over electronic synthesising media that helped Rahman rise above his competitors. He has resisted attempts to ascribe to him fake gurus like Dakshinamoorthy Swamy, a second rate musician with some elitist credentials from Kerala. Similarly, Mani Ratnam is weirdly credited for Rahman’s achievements. So the argument goes that without some form of Brahminical endorsement, world-class music, or anything creative for that matter, cannot be made from India. The stupendous streak in the career of Rahman during the 2000s are sought to be canceled, by foregrounding the early `Muqabla, Muqabla’ phase where he collaborated with Mani Ratnam.
Mani Ratnam, a director of some repute without any formal training, has been criticized for many things including his overt romanticism and lack of nuance, but never in such a way that canceled major portions of his oeuvre. Malicious allegations hound the non-elite, creative envy being the acme of that particular negative emotion. The longevity that Rahman has enjoyed and the consistency with which he delivered are deemed ephemeral flukes. Classic Rahman soundtracks such as `Dil Se’, `Taal’, `Slumdog Millionaire’, and his back-to-back Oscar nominations are categorized as flashes in the pan. For his detractors, there is something that Rahman lacks. This is the `objet a’, the precious agalma that the French theorist Lacan speaks of. It is that excess in oneself that is more than oneself. It can create a universe of difference. You either have it or don’t. It is the `je ne sais quoi’ (I don’t know what) factor that makes Tendulkar a legend despite many shortfalls. In this case, it is the specter of Brahminical endorsement. You either have it or you don’t.
The concerted attack on Rahman cannot be seen separately from the political climate in Bollywood and the infringement upon civil liberties that have constrained the creative arts within a cocoon of mediocrity. At the same time, fabulous narratives of musical finesse are being spread, like Neelam Saran Gaur’s `Requiem in Raga Janki’, which gives the wrong impression that Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, and Mozart were all but desi bards operating from the bylanes of Benares. Such new-found bravado and chutzpah combined with post-truth optimism can bulldoze really existing music.
Unlike other areas of technology, cinema was that rare field in which India did not concede an early advantage to Hollywood and European cinema. The technology arrived on our shores at the time of Lumiere Brothers themselves. But the foolhardiness of those helming Indian Cinema is destroying that early advantage. The colossal stupidity of someone like Subhash Ghai who eliminated `Jai Ho’ which went on to win two Oscars, from his soundtrack, speaks volumes about the artistic taste and notions of merit in Bollywood.
Umar Nizar is a research scholar at JNU.