AR Rahman and the Art of Focus
Image: Anup Sugunan
oon after I got out of AR Rahman’s North Mumbai home (which also doubles up as his studio), I went online. To look up ‘Munbe Vaa, ’ a song in the Tamil movie, Sillunu Oru Kaadhal, for which Rahman had composed the music.
Now, I don’t understand a word of Tamil. And I can confidently say—without fear of contradiction from my wife—that I’m rarely ‘mushy.’ But the moment the song started to play, I was lost. Lost in words I didn’t understand, and—I hate to say it—falling in love with love all over again.
We had visited Rahman with a clear brief in mind. There’s a section in ForbesLife India , ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’ where we talk to people who are perceptibly happy and ask them one central question: How do they achieve happiness? In earlier issues, as part of this series of dialogues, we’d spoken to people like the absolutely lovely Asha Bhosle, Bollywood’s original charmer Shammi Kapoor, and the redoubtable Leander Paes who’s known to play his tennis with his heart worn loud on his sleeve.
When my colleague Jarshad NK, who has known Rahman now for many years, asked him if he’d spend time with us, I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed; Rahman, to my mind, projected reticence, a deep regard for his privacy, so I’d pretty much taken it for granted he’d politely decline to let us into his head. I was wrong.
And he continued to confound my expectations. There was no name-dropping; he didn’t carry the gravitas of somebody who’s worked with some of the biggest names in the world; there wasn’t the sense of self-importance you’d expect in someone who has won practically every award in the business, including two Oscars and two Grammys.
On the contrary, he made me feel at ease—almost like I was with an old friend, with whom I could share a couple of boy jokes, laugh at a few silly unprintable things, and ponder the world and its machinations. I found myself doing fanboy stuff like telling him how crazy my dad is about his music and he smiled and asked me to thank him for listening to what he composes.
I don’t intend to delve here into our conversation on happiness—that’s covered in ForbesLife India’s Spring edition—but about something else that struck me during our chat.
“I’m never composing in the studio for too long—at best for 20 minutes, 30 on the outside. I don’t spend eight to nine hours on something. It fatigues me. It’s like beating a sick person. There’s this Big Bang moment. It either comes, or it doesn’t. It flows or it doesn’t. But when you sit and things are at ease… that’s when it happens.”
“Twenty minutes!” I spluttered. “That’s all?”
Like most people, I’ve grown up on the idea that geniuses stay up for hours on end, focussed on their goals to the exclusion of everything else. But here was this icon of brilliance telling me it wasn’t worth working for more than 20 minutes. He knows what he’s talking about. I mean, six years after Munbe Vaa first hit the charts and I heard it for the first time, I wanted to fall in love again—which is exactly what Rahman had intended (“…certain songs like ‘Munbe Vaa¸’ when I did it, I wanted it to be a cult song—a legendary piece of music…”).
As he went about articulating how he did it, my mind couldn’t help but veer around to a book that’s hit the shelves very recently, 18 Minutes, by Peter Bregman. Rahman and Bregman were talking the same language. An advisor and consultant to CEOs and leadership teams across the world, the sum and substance of Bregman’s hypothesis is this: By setting out to do what is most important in your life and creating a daily 18 minute ritual spread over an eight-hour working day, you learn to concentrate on things that really matter. I’m sure Rahman hasn’t read 18 Minutes. But his method is remarkably similar to what Bregman recommends as a way to achieve the levels of productivity that only the best in the world—at whatever discipline—manage to do. So what are those common lessons?
Lesson #1: Pause
The big lesson: The ability to pause for a few moments when everything around seems completely out of whack.
I asked him, “Don’t you get pissed off when critics pan your work or somebody you reckon doesn’t understand what you’ve done attempts to deconstruct your body of work?” His answer was prompt: “Never take a decision based on emotion. You need to look at the world in a detached way.
You can look at it either as a romantic film or a horror flick. I choose to look at it as a romantic one. When there’s a sea of negative comments, I put a filter around myself.” It’s a lesson, he said, that was reinforced when he had a chat with Sachin Tendulkar, who does much the same thing.
Image: Anup Sugunan
During the course of Bregman’s research on emotional responses, a neuroscientist at Columbia University told him that the brain has this part called the amygdala, which triggers emotional responses. When something unsettling happens, it provokes an immediate reaction. But pure, unadulterated emotions are not the source of your best decisions.
So Bregman asks, how do you get beyond the emotional to rational thought? The neuroscientist told him, if you take a breath and delay your action, you give the prefrontal cortex time to control the emotional response. And all it takes is a second or two.
And that is precisely the filter Rahman is talking of. Pause! “It requires effort.... it requires sacrifice.”
Lesson #2: Pursue your passion
Roja was Rahman’s debut film as a music director in 1992. Directed by Mani Ratnam, it catapulted Rahman to national acclaim and won him a series of awards, and a mention in Time magazine for creating one among the 10 best sound tracks of all time. Question on my mind was, how did he get there?
“I used to cycle and go all the way to Mount Road [some 10-12 km away] just to find this one British magazine called Music Makers. It was about synthesisers.” Often, after he’d cycled there, the store would say it hadn’t arrived yet. But he’d keep going there every day, “until I got my copy. And when I’d finally get it, I’d go ‘Oh my God!’”
“Then there was this time I used to go to Bangalore to another shop, where they had albums that were not there in Chennai and come back listening to them on the train. That transported me to another world. When I did my music, I wanted to transport other people as well, without compromising on tradition. I guess that’s why Roja eventually happened.”
Each year, Bregman writes, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts a survey among thousands of Americans. The purpose is to document how people spend their time every minute each day. Most people surveyed by the bureau spend the most part of their day sleeping; 8.68 hours to be precise. They watch television for 3.45 hours and work for 7.78 hours. That is, most people actually spend more time sleeping than they work, which is fine. But what makes the data compelling is people spend almost half the number of hours they work doing something as unproductive as watching television.
Now juxtapose this with what Bonnie Ware came up with in a book Bregman points to, called Top Five Regrets of the Dying. An Australian songwriter, Ware devoted a significant amount of her time to palliative care with people in the last twelve to three weeks of their lives. The themes that recurred in her conversations with dying people were:
- • I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- • I wish I didn’t work so hard.
When you see these two regrets together, Bregman says, you realise “What people really regret isn’t simply working so hard, it’s working on things that don’t matter to them. If our work feels like it matters to us, if it represents a life true to us, then we would die without the main regrets that haunt the dying. We would live more fully.” Rahman put it more philosophically. “You can’t be without passion. Passion means the possessiveness to be the best.” And where does work fit in, I asked him? “Work is like nasha (intoxication). When you’re working, you got to be really selfish and get the best out, pushing your people hard. Sometimes you rub them on the wrong side, but work is like medicine: If it is good, everything else is forgiven.”
Lesson #3: Assert your differences
Bregman talks of an interesting change he noticed, back in the ’90s, when he was consulting with American Express. Harvey Golub, CEO and chairman, used to come into work wearing suspenders. Bregman recalls that soon after Golub took over the top job at Amex, people started to wear suspenders as well. It’s an effect Bregman has seen across businesses: People try to fit in. “But fitting in has the opposite effect. It makes you dispensable. If you’re like everyone else, then how critical to the business can you be?”
Bregman points to Susan Boyle. “In a field with a tremendous number of beautiful, sexy, talented people, what are the chances that you’ll be noticed by being even more beautiful, sexy, and talented?” But Susan Boyle was different. She broke the mould. Which is why her YouTube videos received more than 100 million hits. “If she looked like every other aspiring singer, would the world have noticed?”
Image: Anup Sugunan
It’s a lesson Rahman learnt early on in life. “Problem is, people compromise. Until something is not there, people won’t know it is there. So you have to create that wanting.” But getting people to want something they don’t know about isn’t easy. It takes time and patience: “First, you cater to what people need. Once you’ve done that, you compose what you love and believe people will love as well. And you stand by it, even at the risk of being rejected.” And how do you do that? “You can only be what you are. You can only try to maximise what you are. Good-looking or bad-looking, this is my shape; it is there for people to see. There is a beautiful quote that says, ‘I can never change what or how I look. But I can change how the world looks at me.’”
“If you go to Hollywood and say, ‘I can do what John Williams does,’ they’ll say, ‘get out!’ But when I said I have Slumdog Millionaire, they embraced me. Do something on your own. Do something unique. Look at yourself from the other person’s perspective and make yourself unique.”
Lesson#4: Choose the world that supports you
The first thing that struck me about Rahman’s apartment-studio was the all-pervading sense of peace: The unmistakable smell of incense; the all-white walls and floors; thick carpets; unfailingly polite support staff. Perhaps most significant, despite the fact that his apartment was located in a film-crazy city, and even had his name on the door, nobody, not even the watchman, knew that it was the AR Rahman who lived and worked out of the place. It’s the same with his Chennai home. And, Jarshad tells us, he’s got an apartment like this in every major city he works out of, all of which are more or less replicas of each other. He hates to work out of plush hotels that would only be too happy to bend over backwards to accommodate his every whim and fancy. The only quirk, if you want to call it that, is that he likes to work in the night.
I couldn’t help but think of it as a series of rituals. On the face of it, the idea of a ritualistic life sounds terribly boring. He laughs. “I don’t drink. I don’t eat pork. I don’t womanise. I think many people think of me in the same way: He must be a boring guy.”
Bregman has a contrarian take on rituals; he calls them tricks. “We all need a trick,” he writes and cites the late Jack LaLanne, a fitness guru who had the longest running TV show—34 years! —in the US. LaLanne was the kind of man who could swim a mile or more while towing large boats filled with people… while handcuffed. That, Bregman says, wasn’t LaLanne’s ‘trick’. His tricks were in his everyday rituals. Until he died, aged 96, he spent the first two hours of his day exercising: Ninety minutes lifting weights, 30 minutes swimming or walking. He wrote his eleventh book, Live Young Forever, at age 95.
Bregman concludes that rituals are the only way you can focus on a few important things amidst the many other things asking for one’s attention.
Lesson #5: Master distraction
In business, multi-tasking is a much-touted skill. The better you are at it, conventional wisdom goes, the higher your chances of making it to the top.
But when Bregman started to research the phenomenon and the impact it had on productivity, he was stunned. People distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ. The impact is twice as much as it would be if you were smoking marijuana. Bregman figures that in reality, productivity actually drops 40 percent, because human beings aren’t built to multi-task. What we do instead, he says, is switch-task—shift rapidly from one task to another—and lose time in the process. Last year, one of Rahman’s children was seriously unwell and had to be rushed to the ICU, where she was diagnosed with a critical condition that required open heart surgery. Rahman, for whom music is nasha, gave it all up. He knew he couldn’t focus on music, not when his child was unwell, not when she needed him more than anybody else did. For an entire week he was by her side, tending to her, until she was well again and back on her feet.
AR Rahman doesn’t multi-task. When he’s focussed, it is intense, because, as he says, “It is a spiritual thing. Nothing comes without losing something. You can’t have everything.”
(Read the story on AR Rahman's Pursuit of Happiness in Forbes LifeIndia's spring edition)
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