3 Bollywood Composers Tell Us How AR Rahman's Dil Se Changed Music As We Knew It

Alokananda Dasgupta, Ram Sampath & Clinton Cerejo recall memories of discovering the Dil Se album, two decades ago.

An enduring image from Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se is that of a dog-tired, shivering Amar resting his chin on Meghna’s head, as she reluctantly submits to him. She’s tried her best to steer clear of his path, but maybe it’s fate that she is confronted by her only reason to live, during her walk towards death. With blood gushing through his ear and nose, Aman has many questions for Meghna. At this exact moment, director Mani Ratnam drowns out this classic case of a lovers’ confrontation with Sukhwinder Singh’s angry vocals singing Vinmeengalai Thaandi Vaalum Kadhal.

Forming a part of the film’s background score, AR Rahman has this tendency to throw in these gems for his director (especially Mani Ratnam) like they were condiments from the local pizzeria. The song bottles up the pure, passionate rage between the two halves of this impossible love story.

As the film turns 20 today, this little song in the film’s blazing climax is only a glimpse into what the album holds for its audience. With its sheer variety and the intricate production of each of the songs, the album has not only inspired Rahman’s devotees, but also showed the way for many budding composers. Here’s how Ram Sampath (Delhi Belly, Khakee), Clinton Cerejo (Te3n) and Alokananda Dasgupta (Sacred Games, Trapped) look back at the seminal soundtrack:

Ram Sampath – Composer, Vocalist
As a budding composer in the ad world, I used to frequent a lot of the studios where Rahman was recording and mixing his songs for Dil Se. I remember hearing it for the first at a pre-release party at the Sony office, and I knew it was going to change the course of Indian film music. The album has aged well because the foundation is solid. Gulzar sahab‘s words are top-notch and the singers were all at their peak. The number of live musicians playing in the songs is grossly underestimated. The album was a delicate amalgamation of organic & electronic sounds. I think Chhaiya Chhaiya is largely responsible for kick-starting the Sufi era in Bollywood and it presented to us the powerhouse of Sukhwinder Singh.

Favourite track: The title track was my favourite for years, but now it’s Satrangi Re. This soundtrack, thanks to Gulzar sahab’s brilliance as well, is like literature. Different things reveal themselves to you at different points in your life.

Clinton Cerejo – Composer, Producer, Vocalist
I remember the first time I actually listened to all the songs in-depth, was when I was learning them for an upcoming tour with AR (Rahman). One of my most enduring memories about the album is actually Dominique (Cerejo) singing the opening portions of Chhaiya Chhaiya in a concert, that I found on YouTube the other day. You can see a younger version of both of us on stage, and this was the time when we had just about begun seeing each other at that time. We’ve been married for 17 years now, so yes sometimes you listen to the songs and reminisce. As an album, Dil Se is quite timeless. You can still listen to it today and feel overwhelmed all the same.

Favourite track: The title track. The groove and the percussive bassline on which the whole song is built. No one really thought like that in Hindi cinema at that time. At a time when songs were written based on a Sa of the harmonium, which is what even Rahman did but with a bass guitar. What a cool way to do it!

Fun fact: Guy Pratt (of Pink Floyd) collaborated with Rahman for the bassline on the title track. 

Alokananda Dasgupta – Composer
I hate to sound like a cliche, but Dil Se is such a frickin’ timeless album. Each song is tastefully sculpted from the ground up. There are times when I’m inebriated where I need a groovy bassline so I’ll listen to Chhaiya Chhaiya [hums the bass drop after Main Hawa Mein Dhundoon Uske Nishaan]. Also, Gulzar’s words like – Woh yaar hai jo khushboo ki tarah, jiski zubaan Urdu ki tarah or for that matter even Taabeez banaake pehenu usse, aayat ki tarah mil jaaye kahi. I don’t think I even understood half of the stuff I heard, but it’s plastered in my head the way Mani Ratnam shot it in a tunnel with a lantern.

I’ve been giving a lot of interviews lately about the pagan chant in the opening credits of Sacred Games, where I say it and feel very intelligent about it. But now when I think of that accordion riff at the beginning of Satrangi Re, Rahman did it two decades ago. It’s not Rajasthani, it’s not North India, it’s not *just* middle-eastern folksy stuff, it’s off the globe. That accordion groove is from the beyond.

Favourite track: I really have no words for Ae Ajnabee, I mean I could say the F-word a thousand times if that helps you document my reaction to the song. You’re in school and life is simple, and then this song comes up and introduces you to something you’ve never felt in your life before. Udit frickin’ Narayan – someone associated with simple, happy songs, and how he lands the complex melody to perfection. Who knew? Also, the way Rahman cans the structure of a Hindi film song by coming up with a different tune for each of his stanzas, whether it is [sings] Tu Toh Hai Lekin or [sings] Roz roz resham si hawaa.