AR Rahman and the Art of Focus

There, after all, could be a method to his genius. Charles Assisi finds out

Published: Mar 26, 2012
AR Rahman and the Art of Focus
Image: Anup Sugunan

Soon 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.

AR Rahman and the Art of Focus
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?”

AR Rahman and the Art of Focus
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)

(This story appears in the 30 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

Show More
Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
  • Yaja Shri

    Missed the link. wat it from 3rd minute.

    on Jul 10, 2014
  • Yaja Shri

    This video at 3rd minute from Vairamuthu will prove that he is instant composer. This is for Jayanth\'s denial. Suddenly AR seems to change tunes in an instant. Every one in the cine field knows how ARR does work.

    on Jul 10, 2014
  • Sundar

    20 minutes for \'composing\' = standard Ilaiyaraaja territory. ARR seems to be marketing himself as a spontaneous \'composer\' - anyone in the industry who\'s worked with him knows how long he takes for a song - close to a month - I have heard some directors moved away from ARR for this precise reason. I have to record this statement here for the readers - Ilaiyaraaaja composes the \'tune\' - the main melody of the song, instantly, as soon as the director tells him the song situation. and on the day of the recording, he writes the entire score for the song in 20 minutes, and gets it recorded by noon - and this will have 40 violins, guitars, various percussion instruments, chorus, male/female lead singers, shenai, veena and various other instruments. and in all of this, the melody will be almost always Raaga based, and the orchestration (score) will cover various hardcore western classical concepts like fugue, counterpoints. I like ARR\'s music, and personally don\'t care about his working style (late night voice sampling, using various computer software tools over a period of 3-4 weeks for a song) but felt obliged to correct this inaccuracy (that he \'composes\' in 20 mins)

    on Dec 21, 2013
  • Pavani

    Rahman sir has always been innovative and never fails to impress! Highly motivating n truly inspiring article. Thank you, Mr.Assisi. :)

    on Dec 20, 2013
  • Reghunath (violinist)

    Mr.Rehman is a true musician and composer...who likes to work hard ....he knows the musical instruments and how and where to use the correct one....

    on Dec 19, 2013
  • Science Of Global Peace Through Happiness

    A.R rahman is our great Indian personality he loved by all congrts

    on Nov 19, 2013
  • S.japakar

    world best music directer.

    on Sep 19, 2013
  • M.afrah

    I ensure that I read and listen to ARR\'s interviews whenever i require a touch of inspiration and refreshment to my mind. This one is high amongst the list.

    on Jul 9, 2013
  • Tushant Saini

    rahman sab aap best music directer

    on Jun 24, 2013
  • Saumil Gandhi

    One of the best articles I read on this website. It speak so much about Mr. Rahman and its very well presented by Charles. Thanks for this article.

    on Dec 27, 2012
  • Arpita Bhawal

    Absolutely fabulous story - very well written and so intuitive that now I would dare to think that I know Rahman\'s method behind the magic! Great piece - thanks!

    on Dec 14, 2012
  • Kamalneet Singh

    Any link/info about the spring edition of forbeslife?

    on May 14, 2012
    • Peter Griffin

      @ K. Singh, Hi, the spring edition should still be available at Landmark or Crossword branches. If you have difficulty getting it, you could get in touch with subscriptions team. Contact details at

      on May 14, 2012
  • Hardev

    Higher understanding can only happen with extreme concentration but only in a moment of time. All efforts of humans should be to find, how to have that concentration of heart and mind. Then 'Roja' like beautiful things will happen own its own.

    on Apr 24, 2012
  • Sanskar

    Truely, inspirational and touching.

    on Apr 8, 2012
  • Lubna

    @Charles: Awesome. You are so lucky to have met him!

    on Apr 8, 2012
  • Yogesh

    mind blowing

    on Mar 31, 2012
  • Zairudeen

    very superb and highly motivating.

    on Mar 31, 2012
  • Chandrasekhar

    Highly motivating and inspirational, Thanks for sharing

    on Mar 30, 2012
  • N Shekar

    A wonderful article - it is amazing how the author connected two extremely different concepts - one from a corporate teacher and other from an entertainment maestro.

    on Mar 30, 2012
  • Sona is highly motivating and inspirational..thank you !

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Jabeer Baig

    rehaman sab ki baat bahut allag hai maasha allah

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Raj Kumar

    Thank You Forbes India for coming up with such a great piece of motivational stuff. The interview had such a calming effect on my senses . FANTASTIC ALLY INSPIRATIONAL.

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Thiru Vasagam

    What a great role model Rahman is!!!!

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Vasuki

    Indian music and musicians has been recognized, one of the reason being ARR who has been brought it to international arena!! Well done we are all proud of you!!!

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Sravanthi

    great personality.........

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Jkm

    Very inspiring article. Well written too Charles!

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Sreejith L

    Great thoughts !!! thats why we call ARR a LEGEND

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Ajay Kumar Somani

    A correct approach to work in perfact manner

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Shidhartha Pati

    An inspiring article! Rahman has been a source of inspiration for countless Indian youth. In a country where it is a little difficult to find modern day ideals, Rahman remains someone who the youth can look up to. He puts his heart and mind into whatever he does and his work truly symbolises excellence.

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Prema

    Especially, “Assert your differences” is more inspiring.

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Kirubasankar Manoharan

    I always wonder about Great person's quirks and the philosophy they follow in their life. its very unique to everyone and moreover very simple. one thing is realised from this article or lessons learned from this, we have to literally find our own intesive interest and work on that. Rehman did that and suceed in his life. Though he struggled for many fundamental needs during his childhood days, he never compromise or sacrifice his passion. In this article There are information related to last minute wishes before dying.. Lisenting A.R.Rehman music is one thing for me before i die.

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Kotha Mahesh

    he was my god not only due to his music bt also for his way of living and his humble nature ..rehman ..we loves u a lot...

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Mohsin

    nice post .... Ppl like ARR understnad what it takes to be successfull in thier choosen field and in thier life and most importnatly they act accordingly.

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Abhishek Jain

    i didn't knew much about the music maestro sir RAHMAN,but everytime wen i listen to any of his composition..i felt the freshness,the uniqueness and music at a different but at n higher level....which takes the soul to a next world....i dnt know much abt music hav composed 8 songs...dnt know how just happened....only wish of my life ..would be a chance to get trained by the lord of music.....sir A.R.Rahman.

    on Mar 29, 2012
  • Vishnuprasad

    allah rakha rahman ur good according to me ur character means "gentle man" nthng to say

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Kalpesh

    good one..refresed the mind

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Ar Ansari

    nice article

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Samra

    So wonderful article :) He is so inspiring Artist

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Sharmilah

    Its really inspiring, ARR is the best ever musician

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Suraj Bala

    Lovely poawerful photo

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Manoj Kumar

    Very Good Article, Nice

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Priya V

    Thanks for sharing your encounter with ARR. Its very inspiring and thought-provoking. Ilaiyaraja made the Tamilians to listen to Tamil music and ARR made the world to listen to Tamil music. Great geniuses!!

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Sivaram Prasad K

    Very Good Article ... Very Inspiring !!!

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Chamindra Hettitantirige

    This is a super interview and an awesome article. Great lessons from a Superb musician and a Great human being ! Thanks a Lot for this. Cheers!!

    on Mar 28, 2012
  • Kumaran

    Good article. Very inspiring and very original. It touched my heart and mind. It is a true inspiration. Thank you very much..Cheers...

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Kumar

    Music has no language (Rahman himself had told many times). He has connected North and South India with his music, which was believed will never happen. He made South Indians to listen to Hindi music, and vice versa. Now he's making the world to listen to Indian music. Tremendous achievement, but still he remains humble. That's his greatest quality.

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Yaqoot

    This is till date the best insight anyone has ever offered into the brilliant but reticent AR Rahman. The similarity of the genius' methods offered alongside Bregman's hypotheses are also outstanding..Topclass article!

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Nitin

    It is a beautiful article becasue it expolorers the common threads between the artist and the technocrat The common quailty of every kind of genious.

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Vivek

    A really interesting article! Author blends artistic traits with management mantras with such ease. Artist is AR Rahman and Management guru is an advisor to CEOs, Peter Bregman  (author of 18 mins).  For AR Rahman fans, it's a treat. 

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Baskaran

    It was superb, One of my favourite hero. "Munbe vaa" song is an evergreen song. Thanks to the forbes, to wrote the article about our legendary...

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Janani

    Whenever I hear to a piece of news about him, my respect of him grows multi-fold than it was before reading/knowing about him. God Bless!

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Vivek

    Thanks for the bloke who wrote this article, especially for the thought to dig out and see what makes A R Rahman such a genius and a unique personality all together. I have always wondered if I could find out all those list of things you've interpreted with mozart of madras. I've always wanted to work with such a personality. I enjoyed this article thoroughly, Thank you again. And from the other comment on this page, Even I cant wait to run through 18 minutes now! :) If ever the author finds out a sudden boost in this particular book sale.. that's gonna credit you! Good job mate..

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Murali

    A very good article on A R Rahman. Truly inspirational. I like his ideology of making it work in 20 mins and you have amazingly linked that to 18 minutes book. Can't wait to read it now.

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Wilson

    Thank u for letteing us know more about him. we really get inspired reading about people like him. And as geetha said tnx for referring books like 18 minutes. good piece of work. keep doing.

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Dr Surya

    a very refreshing article, easy to read and very heart warming. i love rehman ( who doesnt? ) and apart from the attitude rehman and tendulkar resemble each other on many issues - apart from being geniuses in their chosen field. we are indeed lucky to be living at this time, we can tell our kids we have met rehman and tendulkar and how they had touched and inspired us in their own ways ;-)

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Sirish

    Thanks for the brilliant article Charles. This is one of the other reasons fans love the AR Rahman and his work. There's lot of things one can learn from Rahman's personality, his approach to life in general, discipline, humility. All of those somehow find their way into his music, along with a hint of naughtiness somewhere. Also thanks for linking this article with 18 minutes. Now I can't wait to read that book. Sounds very interesting. My fav quote from your article, which I'll take forward with me - ‘I can never change what or how I look. But I can change how the world looks at me.’

    on Mar 27, 2012
  • Mansi

    Great read...Thanks for sharing Jarshad! Cheers!

    on Mar 26, 2012
  • Geetha

    Dear Mr. Assisi, Thank you for spreading happiness by connecting the dots beautifully between the book '18 Minutes' and A R Rehman's life lessons. And am sure glad that you really liked the song 'Munbe vaa' despite not understanding a word of it! That's the power of great music for you! Like another famous song from the movie, Mozhi (language) says: as human beings we have absolutely no need for any language if only we open ourselves to the beauty in the language of nature and the heart. And to paraphrase a famous quote, the heart does understand music which reason knows nothing of. Thank you also for telling us about the book, Wilfull Blindness. I am savouring it. Regards, Geetha

    on Mar 26, 2012
    • Charles

      Thank you for your kind words Geetha :-)

      on Mar 26, 2012
Richest Man of Georgia is Worth Half His Country's GDP
What Is Pinterest?