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In the early 90s, it was a great high when you borrowed money to listen to any new A.R. Rahman album, before re-listening it until you knew the songs by heart. You’d wonder for a while why Remo had to be joined by a high-pitched chorus towards the end of the second stanza instead of just slipping into Humma, Humma as he’d done in the first one. A few listens later, you’d get used to it. “That was how it was meant to be.”
Those were also the days when, during the summer holidays, the HMV House in Jayanagar would be ignored, out of pity for the less-busy, Disco Track. All for a cassette of Manitha Manitha.
“What?”
“The Tamil-dubbed Gangmaster.”
“Whaaaaat?”
“The film with Nagma and a guy who wears his pants up to his stomach.”
Large question marks fly, with inner bevel and drop shadow.
“Rahman’s new one.”
“Check in HMV House.”

You still wouldn’t go to HMV House. “Let’s give business to a smaller shop.” Maybe the one in 9th block, or even the one in Wilson Garden. After buying it in one such place, you’d wonder why Manitha Manitha had all songs sung by Mano. One singer throughout a Rahman album? Unheard of. But you got used to it. You got used to it more than the cassette sellers in Bangalore who were surprised by the enormous appeal for films like Kizhakku Cheemayile, Super Police and Pudhiya Mannargal from kids who should have had better things to do. This continued for a long time, buying every cassette released with his name and photo on. Even those like Tu hi mera dil, an awful rehash of Duet, had to be bought.
He always had a thing with Mani Rathnam’s films. Roja, Bombay, Dil Se, Alaipayuthey and Kannathil Muthamittal were such good albums. But somewhere between all this he scored for Iruvar, a film which could easily remain as the peak of it’s director’s career alongside Nayagan. Most of the songs here were hardly catchy apart from the brilliant Narumugaiye. However, in the film, these very songs seemed perfect. Rahman had become a part of the machinery, only briefly, but he foreshadowed a trend he’d stick to through the new century.
This association with MR’s films was his trump-card. The first news of a trailer on Chartbusters would have you single-handedly pushing up Sony’s TRPs. This was, after all, the gold standard of Indian film music. And no, P.K. Mishra and Mehboob were too small for them now. It was Gulzar instead, using words like Satrangi and Uns. It was also around here that there were indications of a change in Rahman’s approach to film music. You could see that he worked more for the film than for the individual likability of the songs when in Saathiya, the Alaipayuthey re-make by Shaad Ali, he included an outstanding new number, Mera yaar mila de, instead of the ok-ish melancholy, Evano oruvan, in the original.
As days, months and years passed, Rahman became more industrious, almost mathematical. If there was a Kannathil Muthamittal today, you’d wait two years for a Swades. You’d expect Yuva to be a great one like all those ARR-MR combos, but it just was a formal beginning of the team music. As if Rahman had finally given into the famous tradition of music director-duos, he seemed to be working with the director, making songs for the film, thus not forcing us to buy a cassette… or a CD. They went a step further in Guru where there were Tere Bina and Ai Hairathe, for us and the rest, for the film. How disappointing was Ek lo ek muft after getting Bappi Lahiri of all people to sing it!
Finally coming to why this article got written at all, the latest in their collaboration is Raavan. There is that one token number which is for the ’90s cassette buyers, Behne de (which a friend thinks is the Shoorpanaka reference in this modern Ramayana. “Behena?”). There is Ranjha, Ranjha which will last at least till the film releases. And then there are the rest. This is no longer a trend, this is how it’s going to be played now.
Meanwhile, HMV House closed down long back. Disco Track still remains.

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