“I was fully prepared to hear a NO” Umesh Agrawal

By Sachin Chatte

From investigative films like ‘Brokering News’ (2011) to ‘Jai Ho’ (2015) – this year’s documentary on the wildly popular musician A.R. Rahman – Umesh Agrawal has an attention-grabbing resume.

The Delhi based film-maker told ‘The Peacock’ “most of the films I’ve made spoke about some kind of flaws in the system. I did that for a decade and hence I wanted to do something that is not sad and depressing.”

Agrawal set out to make something that would be happy and positive. Although the idea was to make a film on Rahman, he wasn’t sure it was feasible. “I did a lot of research on him and realized he was just 9 when his father passed away. He couldn’t complete his education, and started earning when he was barely 12. I was fascinated by the effort the man must have put in to reach where he is now.”

The documentary traces Rahman’s journey from the point when he won an Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire (2008) via two parallel narratives: one personal, the other musical. “I wasn’t sure if music impacts his life, or is it the other way round? I decided to develop both strands of the story, and let people watching it decide for themselves.” said the director, who made the film for Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) in association with the Ministry of External Affairs.

It was not easy getting started, and it was months before the project could take off. A return call from Rahman refused to materialize. Dejected, Agrawal decided to meet the musician. “I wanted an answer. I was fully prepared to hear a ‘no’ because he had refused other filmmakers before. But to my good fortune, he said yes”

The documentary film took three years to make. Agrawal marvels that Rahman is the same person in public and in private. “He is also a very down to earth person. In Los Angeles we would start filming early in the morning from 6-10 am, since he has the habit of working all night. He would personally open the door and was ready for the shoot as committed.”

Agrawal had an unanticipated experience with ‘Jai Ho’ at the Tokyo International Film Festival earlier this year. “The auditorium was house full for all three shows, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Japanese people singing to Rahman’s tunes, including his Tamil songs.”

Although he is still basking in the glory of Jai Ho, his next project is already underway – this time trying to explore why religious places in our country are not kept clean. “We are a very spiritual country, we visit religious places seeking blessings but yet those places are never kept clean,” he said.

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