It is more than 30 years since AR Rahman arrived on the Indian film musical scene like a storm from nowhere. Roja (1992) catapulted him to national fame instantly as the strains and riffs had been unheard of before.
Though this Mani Ratnam movie, which was also dubbed in Hindi, made him a musical force all over the country, it was only Rangeela (1995), which was his first direct Bollywood movie, that well and truly made him a legend even when he was young.
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The man has not looked back since then, as he has churned out hit after hit and scooped award after award, including the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Though his strike rate has diminished a bit (or we have grown blasé to him) in the last few years, Rahman still has a lot of music left in him.
As he turned 57 last week, we have come up with The underrated AR Rahman Playlist of his Hindi songs that are not his humongous hits. The thing about Rahman’s playlist is everyone has one. And there will be misses and overlaps.
Our list, though not definitive, will make you look cool among the music cognoscenti as the songs we have cherry-picked are not run-of-the-mill. For the sake of convenience and brevity, we have limited our choices.
The underrated AR Rahman Playlist
Raat Ki Daldal Hain
Film: Earth (1999) I Singer: Sukwinder Singh
The 1999 Indo-Canadian period romance drama film Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta, is a musical gem. It had nine tracks, including two instrumental themes. The heavy-throated Sukhwinder Singh was in his element in this album as Rahman gave him songs that were in his good-length spot, as it were.
The song Ruth Aa Gayee Re was a chart-buster. In the event, Raat Ki Daldal Hain went under the radar. But make no mistake, it is a true slow-paced gem that showcases Rahman’s layering and arrangements.
Film: Thakshak (1999) I Singer: Roop Kumar Rathod
The year 1999 also had a great one from Rahman in the form of Thakshak, directed by Govind Nihalani. A top-flight director like Nihalani going for Rahman showed how much the music director had come in his career. The duo, incidentally, were to work in Drohkaal (1994), but the songs composed by Rahman apparently were lost in a computer snag.
The snappy and rhythmic Asha Bhonsle Range De, which was also featured in an American film, The Accidental Husband, was the most played song from this album. But Khamosh Raat by Roop Kumar Rathod has quite a good fan base—such an uncomplicated melody, with the music director settling for a minimalist approach.
Chhodo More Baiyyan
Film: Zubeidaa (2000) I Singer: Richa Sharma
When you hear the earthy voice of Richa Sharm as she warbles the lines of Javed Akhtar in a sombre way, you wonder why this song did not become all that popular when it was released. It shows Rahman’s understanding of Hindustani classical music.
Rahman also establishes his adroit sense of musicality with the choice of Richa Sharma for the song, while the rest of the album has the more mainstream voices of Latha Mangeshkar, Kavita Krishnamurthy and Alka Yagnik. The 8-song album is full of female voices — 6 solos and two duets.
Film: Tehzeeb (2003) I Singer: Madhushree
This was Madhushree’s (original name Sujata Bhattacharya) debut film. Rahman gave her three songs in this film, and her performance in each one of them showed why Rahman was so confident of the sweet-voiced Madhushree.
Sabaq Aisa is another typical Rahman experimentation as both the tune and the orchestration stay away from the usual cliches and keep you hooked with its surprise. The pace of the song and its quaint rhythm are quite interesting—a true treat for those who expect their music to be different.
Film: Yuvvraj (2008) I Singer: Srinivas
This Salman Khan starrer essentially rode on its music. The film’s score was performed by the Chennai String Orchestra and utilized Western classical music and retro disco music. The song Tu Meri Dost Hai was an instant hit. But many other songs from the album, which boasted nine numbers (including a remix), were crowd-pleasers.
The Zindagi song, sung with great panache by Srinivas, underscores his understanding of Hindi and its musical nuances. Again, a reflective melody. Rahman outdoes himself with his orchestration that eschews the predictable route. He keeps it unfussy and easy. Srinivas’ melody adds to the beauty.
Aaj Dil Gustakh Hai
Film: ’99 (2009) I Singer: Sukhwinder Singh and Shreya Ghosal
Blue songs were typically for a mass masala movie, and even here, Rahman experiments with funky sounds and keeps you guessing. The song Chiggy Wiggy, sung by Kylie Minogue and Sonu Nigam, was the rage then. But Aaj Dil Gustakh Hai is all about Rahman’s skill in tuning a mainstream song even while he experiments with jazzy riffs.
Sukhwinder Singh is good, but the star of the song is Shreya, who hits it out of the park with verve and style. By the way, the song had two variations in the album. Shreya is million-bucks in this song, which is not her usual genre.
Dil Gira Dafatan
Film: Delhi 6 I Singer: Ash King, Chinmayi
This was the period when Rahman could do no wrong. And Delhi 6 is among his GOAT albums, and all the songs are peaches. But Dil Gira Dafatan went unnoticed. But listen to this. The way Ash King starts in a jazzy fervour, and Chinmayi’s crooning follows suit.
This song comes as a dream in the film, and Rahman’s stunning orchestration and tune keep the dreamy feel alive all through. Brilliant, in one word. A song in service of the film without compromising on its musical core. They don’t make music like this now.
Main Vari Vari
Film: Mangal Pandey (2005) I Singer: Kavita Krishnamoorthy, Reena Bhardwaj
This Ketan Mehta-helmed film was a larger-than-life historical. It was on the life of Mangal Pandey, the Indian soldier who sparked the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which was the First War of Indian Independence. And Rahman’s score for the film matched its grandeur and setting.
Kavita Krishnamurthy owns this song with her breezy singing. Reena Bhardwaj is also in good form. A typical courtesan song gets embellished by Rahman’s penchant for novelty.
Hum Hai Iss Pal Yahaan
Film: Kisna (2005) I Singer: Udit Narayan, Madhushree
Again, it’s a period drama. And Rahman shows that he is the man for such spectacularly mounted films. His music matches the mood and method of the film. As Rahman was also maddeningly busy with his international commitments at that time, this film’s director, Subhash Ghai, also roped Ismail Darbar to do a few songs. But Hum Hai Iss Pal Yahaan has that inimitable Rahman stamp.
Udit Narayan is his usual ebullient self, while Madhushree provides the song with all of the honeyed sweetness—another of those songs that grow on you. The music is spartan, and that is its speciality.
Film: Dil Hi Dil Mein (1999) I Singer: Srinivas, Swarnalatha
The film is the dubbed version of the Tamil flick Kadhal Virus. The album is among the biggest hits of Rahman’s career down South. As the film did not do well, the songs were relatively less heard in Hindi.
In the original, this song was sung by the great SPB and the enormously talented Swarnalatha. In the dubbed version, Swarnalatha is retained while Srinivas steps in to do the male singer’s duty. A melodic song that gives the feel of a free-flowing river, full of coolth and class. You can listen to it on a loop.
Sai Shirdi Sai
Film: 99 Songs (2020) I Singer: Bela Shinder, AR Rahman
This was Rahman’s own production in every sense. He produced the film and also co-wrote the story. The film did not do well, but the 14 songs in the album are slow poison as they consume you over time.
Bela Shinde sings this devotional number with care and style. Rahman’s backing vocals add an extra layer of allure. Again, a slow-paced tune, but Rahman decks it up with his usual flair and finesse. It’s a great companion song while driving. It makes you contemplative, which is what good art is all about.
An engineer-turned-journalist, K Balakumar’s career began in print publications as a sports writer. That also opened doors for other journalistic avenues like films, music, finance, technology and politics, which nobody can escape in India. After 30 yrs in mainstream journalism, now a freelancer for various digital publications.