A.R. Rahman talks up Toronto, the musician’s life and a film that smells

Though he’s based on the other side of the world, A.R. Rahman has long enjoyed a curiously charmed relationship with Toronto.

The innovative Indian composer first travelled here in 1996 to score Deepa Mehta’s Fire, the beginning of a fruitful three-film collaboration. In 2004, the stage spectacle The Lord of the Rings — scored by Rahman — made its epic debut at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, ultimately reeling in seven Dora Awards. In 2013 he was back, perhaps most improbably, to attend the dedication of his very own avenue in Markham: Allah-Rakha Rahman Street.

Then there was 2008, when Rahman was present only in exhilarated spirit as Slumdog Millionaire, powered by the unforgettable soundtrack he produced, captured the imagination of TIFF-goers before going on to win eight Academy Awards, including two for Rahman’s music.

“My agents were calling me and saying: ‘A.R., what did you write at the end? People are dancing, and they’re stuck on that song. What song is it? We have to promote this!’ ” he recalled with a laugh recently from India. “It all kick-started in Toronto.

“There’s just something nice about Toronto.”

Well, the latest local honour dedicated to the decorated Rahman — now the owner of two Oscars, two Grammys, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe and, we presume, a load-bearing award shelf — is Ideal Dreams, a multidisciplinary tribute during which more than 100 artists will interpret the first 25 years of Rahman’s career in film with a mesmerizing musical and visual showcase Feb. 4 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

Rahman himself will be in attendance for the charity performance, one part of his partnership with the Canadian film and music distribution company Ideal Entertainment, which is also producing Rahman’s directorial debut short film Le Musk as well as 99 Songs, a feature-length romantic musical he wrote.

Somehow, the busy Rahman found time to chat about his upcoming visit.

Le Musk is not only shot in VR, but includes a scent element. I assume you weren’t inspired by (1960s cinema novelty) Smell-O-Vision, so why did you use those technologies?

When I first introduced to VR in August 2015, (I thought) “who’s going to put this thing on their head? It’s not going to work.” When I finally did, it was fascinating how it evolved into something that was unique in its immersion. Movies then felt kind of distant after engaging in VR. And my wife, she’s very much into perfumes. We talked about why not make a movie with a scent element?

Will it feel strange, at Saturday’s show, watching the first quarter-century of your career interpreted in front of you?

(Laughs) You have to deal with it. You can even go on YouTube now — if people like a song, they have 50 versions from all parts of the world. It’s fascinating to see that. They value the work and they respect it, so if they spend the time to do something, I feel good about that.

99 Songs is the first feature film you’ve ever written. Why write about music?

I run a conservatory (KM Music Conservatory) and the question I’m always asked by students is: “is music a profession that can be sustained? Do we need another profession?” I feel like my mother made the choice for me. I wanted to be an electronics engineer, and she said: “No, you should do music; it’s what your father did.”

The confidence she had is what made me make music my profession. In most movies — other than La La Land — you only see a musician becoming a drug addict or a loser. It’s always miserable endings. I thought, why not show the real world, where people have money and respect, and it can be a clean, desirable profession?

You have 13 million Twitter followers, which is more than Hillary Clinton, Kobe Bryant or Starbucks. How did you cultivate that?

It started like a joke. I used to tell my kids: don’t be on Twitter, don’t be on Facebook. Finally, when I did my tour, I was away for such a long time. I felt like I should be in touch with my people back in India. In a (typical) week, I probably have one or two tweets. I feel I have to respect people’s time and I don’t want to be given their attention. I want them to live their life, not think: “What is A.R. doing right now? What is he eating?” I have that principle. I don’t tweet (myself); I have a person who takes it and says, “OK, this is good to tweet.” I have that one little layer. It’s vetted before it goes out.

According to your very, very long IMDB page, you’ve worked on roughly 50 projects this decade already. How hectic is your schedule?

I feel very, very blessed to be in music. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s sometimes very, very stressful. We’re constantly striving to make something that is redeeming for people and when you hear the feedback — good or bad, and it’s always 50-50 — it keeps us going. There’s an energy that comes from that.

Bandleader glad to have chance to pay thanks

Ralph Francis was only a toddler when he discovered his lifelong musical muse.

The son of south Indian parents, Francis grew up in Dubai before moving at age 9 to Toronto. He began training on the piano at only three years old and even at that age, he recognized that there was something special about the music his parents would play around the house. The music was A.R. Rahman’s, and soon it would become Francis’s too.

“His songs were the first songs I started dabbling with, and ever since, I’ve been doing nothing but that,” said Francis, now 28. “Nothing’s really changed, I just have different pianos to dabble with.”

Oh, and there’s the fact that this weekend he’ll get to dabble with Rahman himself listening.

Francis is leading the Kindred Spirits Orchestra, the band playing the musical score at Ideal Dreams — conducted by Kristian Alexander — and it’s clear that Francis and company have spared no consideration in planning the show.

As Francis explains it, the show is divided into two major acts; the first is a musical medley tribute evoking the same feelings of awe, sentiment and love that Rahman’s music does, and the second act is an “opera almost” about a person who decides to follow his dreams despite overwhelming odds against him.

Francis has interacted with Rahman in person only once, when he attended a Q-and-A at the Berklee College of Music and asked the composer what made him happiest (the answer: prayer).

So, what will Francis tell his idol if he’s fortunate enough to meet him in Toronto?

“I’ll thank him,” Francis replied. “I remember my happiest moments and my saddest moments not just as the moments themselves, but also the songs that were in my head; and his music happened to be in my head at all those times.

“I’d really like to thank him for painting my life with these sounds, because I honestly don’t know any other set of colours that I’d rather use.”