A little after T-Series dropped ‘Masakali 2.0’, the world found itself considering a new adjective to describe AR Rahman: “angry”. The Sufi saint of Indian film music took to Instagram and posted an image of a man on fire, his face turned to the heavens in a howl of agony. (It’s probably from a Hollywood movie. I can’t recall it offhand.) The caption below said: “The strongest man is he who is able to control his anger.” A simple Google search told me that this is a quote by Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of prophet Muhammad. If there’s someone who can cling on to his faith even during such a moment, it’s probably only AR Rahman.
— A.R.Rahman (@arrahman) April 8, 2020
I feel for him. I really do. I feel for all musicians whose compositions have been Tanishk Bagchi-ised, which is the music world’s equivalent of reheating leftover food and serving it with a bit of newfangled garnish. Imagine coming home from school, hungry. You want a quick bite. You ask your mother what’s for tiffin. She reheats a roti she made the previous day, smooths some peri peri sauce over it, and presents it with a flourish: Paratha 2.0. Now you know why composers get angry. They knead the dough, stand in the hot kitchen, making sure the tawa is just warm enough… And Tanishk Bagchi says, “Dude, just get a microwave!”
But something tells me Tanishk Bagchi is the future. Note the text on the official video page for ‘Masakali 2.0’: “Presenting the official music video for the song ‘Masakali 2.0’ featuring Sidharth Malhotra and Tara Sutaria. This song is sung by Tulsi Kumar & Sachet Tandon and the music is recreated by Tanishk Bagchi. The hit track Masakali from Delhi 6 was originally composed by AR Rahman, sung by Mohit Chauhan and lyrics are penned by Prasoon Joshi.” Note the word in italics [mine]. They’re not even trying to make this sound like something… fresh. They’re completely okay with saying this is Paratha 2.0.
Now, a remix itself isn’t a sin. As technology began to evolve, music producers began to “manipulate” sound, and the trend is usually traced back to the dance hall culture of Jamaica in the late 1960s. To make a long history short, this soon found its way to the US, to clubs and DJs, and… you have what’s rightfully a genre of its own. Remember the smash 80s dance hit from the Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)? In 1990, Dave Angel and Dave Dorrel produced what they called a ‘Nightmare Mix’. The original synth sounds gave way to breakbeats and a creepy string instrument, which wailed periodically like a banshee-in-training…
In an interview published on the webzine BulletMusic, Angel said, “Nobody commissioned me to do it, it was a bootleg. I didn’t have a fancy studio or anything like that, I had two turntables, two cassette decks, a toy keyboard and a record collection. That was it. I pull out ‘Sweet Dreams’, and I’m mixing it and thought, ‘Woah, this sounds good, this is wicked.’ I go down to Black Market Records, the local record store, and have the owner take a listen to it. He liked it, but I had no money in it, so I asked if I could borrow some and promised to press up 500 white labels.”
“I took them around to all of the record shops, dropped them off, and tell them I would came (sic) back next week for the money. They (the records) were just flying out, the stores kept asking for more of them! A major record label, Eurythmics, sought me out and called a meeting with me. They are singing me praises, they loved the track and wanted me to recreate it in a proper SSL studio. I said, ‘Yeah, I think I can do that.’ (laughs) That was it, I was officially a remixer and it grew from there. But that was the most important track for me, it was special.”
I looked around for something about how Annie Lennox reacted to this remix. I found this: “When the Eurythmics learnt of this, Annie Lennox wanted to prevent the sale of what was in effect the pirating of their song; however, her partner [in the band] Dave Stewart liked the mix, and persuaded her to allow Angel to go ahead.” So yes, AR Rahman isn’t the first angry composer. He won’t be the last. But again, a remix itself isn’t a sin. Some tracks — like ‘Nightmare Mix’ — are about a vision, about how you see the original song. You are stripping down the song to its basic aural or instrumental hooks (like how Madonna used the insanely catchy prelude of ABBA’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! for her Hung Up) and then doing your own thing. You’re a mad scientist in Jurassic Park. You’re taking T-Rex DNA and creating a velociraptor.
And today, there’s a very strong commercial reason, too. Had T-Series released an original composition (and not a remix), they would have had to wait for it to catch on — and who knows how long that would take in a generation that prefers takeouts and the microwave to sweating it out in the kitchen. Another thing: the built-in controversy factor around the song makes it even more of a must-hear. Just look at the numbers for AR Rahman’s 99 Songs jukebox versus ‘Masakali 2.0’: the former has some 60,000 views, the latter is now at some 14 million views. What about the original ‘Masakali’ video, uploaded by T-series? It’s got some 21.5 million views, but that’s since 2011. Any doubts that ‘2.0’ will shoot past those numbers?
I listened to the Tanishk Bagchi version. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I just found it pointless. If you are going to remix something, do a ‘Nightmare Mix’. Become a mad scientist. Impose your soul on the song’s, the original composer’s. Otherwise, you’re just cashing in. You’re just taking T-Rex DNA and creating a… T-Rex with bunny-wabbit ears and a waggier tail.
But only those who take music “seriously” are going to be caught hand-wringing about all this. I put that word in quotes because I realise it sounds a tad pompous and condescending. But the quotes are just meant to indicate that “seriously” is not the only way music is consumed. There are many, many “light” listeners — far more than “serious” listeners, I’ll wager — just looking for something they are familiar with and yet something that sounds new. For them, Paratha 2.0 — I mean, ‘Masakali 2.0’ is probably just the thing.