September 1, 1997  
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A R RehmanVANDE MATARAM
A Song For India

Two words from the past. And three men who transformed them into a magical anthem that has stirred the patriotic spirit of a cynical nation.

Sometimes a song is just a tune whose rhythm invades you, which you hum in front of a bathroom mirror that has a warranty never to break. Sometimes a song is just an intricately woven lacing of words that embraces you on a still, lonely night. Sometimes a song is just a voice whose passion makes your hair stand. When A.R. Rahman takes you on a journey -- and to hear it is to feel you have no choice but to journey with him -- through Maa Tujhe Salaam, the words Vande Mataram rising out of his soul, it seems this is it. But more than being just complete, this song that is capturing a national imagination, has that quality of impeccable timing. In any other time it would have been something just to talk about; in the 50th anniversary of Independence it has the promise to become an alternative anthem. Patriotism has been delivered.

This is not to offer proof of this phenomenon. Though Sony Music say they have sold five lakh cassettes in the first week. And Mandar Thakur of Channel V says: "We feel this is the official Independence album and it will sell well over the years." Nor is it a tale about a once-considered-Hindu chant of Vande Mataram taken by a young Muslim singer and given a more contemporary edge and a more encompassing patriotism. It is instead a story of four men, one woman, one idea and evidence that a dream can stir a nation.

To see these people at first glance is to wonder of that dream. A 33-year-old ad filmmaker, G. Bharat ("call me Bala"), with an eager face and an impressive stomach, and his spirited wife Kanika; his father V. Ganapathy, a freedom fighter; a music director A.R. Rahman who surely feels ill at the mention of the word "prodigy"; and a lyricist named Mehboob who once ran a pet shop called Fish & Bird. Who started it all? A dismayed father but of course.

"I do not like what this country has become," says V. Ganapathy, a man for whom Vande Mataram and the national flag was life. Bala must have grown up hearing these stories. Now he could do something for a nation his father fought for; this was 1996, and a challenged son responded. He would empty his bank balance, lock his office and embark on an unreal project. To make 300 one-minute films, an album, but most of all one unforgettable song. All with one intention: to unite a nation with two words. Vande Mataram.

To hear him talk, about meeting Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa, and getting them and every Indian to say Vande Mataram, was to roll your eyes, clap him on the back and say 'impossible'. Sponsors demurred too. History just sneered. To say Vande Mataram was not cool in India anymore. It was the sound of freedom maybe, but it was a sound from the past. "I needed something to bridge the gap between the freedom fighter and the young," says Bala. He needed a song. Not any song, but a song for one people that could tug familiarly at old hearts and yet beckon new ones.

A new Vande Mataram sound to catalyse an entire country: this brief in his brain, Bala went to see the only man he believed could invent it. His old school friend A.R. Rahman. Was a smiling God watching, for again the timing was uncanny. Rahman the music director, chained by film music, was seeking fresh adventure. Says he: "It's easy making a masti number but this was challenging." Rahman the singer too, once the portrait of a reluctant artiste, was ready to be seduced.

It had begun.

Now only a lyricist was left, and Rahman chose Mehboob, the once-Pet Shop Boy who had written songs for Bombay, Rangeela and Daud. The instructions were clear: no archaic verse. Don't create anything that "youngsters would respect but never sing", says Mehboob. In a studio in Chennai, in a home in Mumbai, two men worked, the same words surely hammering in their heads: patriotism, Mother India, pride. And you can see Mehboob, sitting there one day, pen in hand, paper on lap, thinking and suddenly the words arrive. "It just hit me," he says "and I wrote the phrase Maa Tujhe Salaam." And the story of a man returning to his Mother India had its beginning. Then Mehboob went to his mother, his sister and he sang it. They wept. Says his mother: "I am very proud my son has written this song."

Meanwhile, Rahman found his Indian tune. And so in late January, on the 27th day of Ramzan, an auspicious time when legend has it that angels open the gates of heaven and all prayers are answered, Rahman descended on his studio. It was 2 a.m. and his sound engineer had disappeared. "And so I called Bala and when he arrived I told him you're the sound engineer." And then he sang for the first time, a few verses for just the two of them. "It was magical," says Bala. "He laughed, then he cried," says Rahman.

Two months hence, in March 1997, amidst Sony Music executives in Mumbai came a sort of penultimate test. Shridar Subramaniam, director, marketing, tells the story best. "Everybody was really nervous. It's an exhausting song and Martin (Davis, head of Sony Music Asia) doesn't speak a word of Hindi, but in 40 seconds we knew. It was fresh, new."

It got better. In May, at a Sony conference in Manila, where the bigger the name you can drop (Michael Jackson is a start) means the more attention you get, they got 20 minutes. They played the song; pandemonium reigned. The head of Columbia records ( a Sony label) said, "It's unbelievable, I want it." The head of Epic records (another Sony label) said, "I don't care, I want it." Says Subramaniam: "It was the hit of the conference." Now as Columbia plans a 27-country release in September, Bala must be smiling. Vande Mataram is going global.

Bala in truth wasn't smiling, he was sweating. He was criss-crossing India -- from the Rann of Kutch to Kerala to Jaisalmer to Ladakh -- filming the video for Maa Tujhe Salaam. He hired Kevin van Neikerk who had filmed Phil Collins videos, and persuaded a shy Rahman to act in it -- "I was afraid I would lose my privacy," says the singer. His actors, all villagers, required no persuasion. "It was wonderful," says Bala. "Everywhere, when they saw the flag they came and stood by it." Every day he was moved.

Perhaps not every day. After having spent lakhs without much assistance, when he found a sponsor, they were deemed politically incorrect: an mnc like Colgate, said some MPs, should not be linked to Vande Mataram. So the line Colgate Keeps India Smiling was dropped but one question in all this silliness went unanswered: why had Indian companies shut the door in his face?

But in a time of hope, this was trivial. On August 12 the cassette released and sold 107 copies in an hour at Rhythm House in Mumbai. And Rahman came to Delhi and sang it on the streets to a listening nation on August 14. "They just wanted me," he says, "to play it again and again." Only then, he knew, this journey was complete.

"How," Bala has written, "will it sound if nine hundred million people had one voice and chanted one mantra?" Maybe we will never know, for reaffirmation of a national faith is still distant. But one man and his faith, a few people and their song, have moved some of the clouds that stand in front of that possibility. No wonder a proud father in Chennai, too modest to praise him publicly, finally says, "I'm inspired." Bala, he instinctively must know, is saying to him too: Appa Tujhe Salaam.

 

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