Sruti Harihara Subramanian, director of the Amazon Prime Video series Harmony with A.R. Rahman, speaks to Latha Srinivasan about the joys and difficulties of documentary filmmaking.
Sruti Harihara Subramanian is a National Award-winning director who is now making headlines for her Amazon Prime Video series, Harmony with A.R. Rahman, hosted by Rahman himself. Previously, the Chennai-based filmmaker won great acclaim for her debut film, A Far Afternoon, a documentary on the painter Krishen Khanna which released in 2015. In this chat with Guardian 20, Subramanian talks about her filmmaking career and what it was like to collaborate with Rahman.
Q. How did the idea of doing a web series with A.R. Rahman as host come about?
A. My debut film, A Far Afternoon, had won two National Awards and had participated in various international and national film festivals. After the win, I was invited by Kavithalayaa to collaborate with them on a non-fiction concept based on rare musical traditions in India as they wanted to have a comeback by entering into the web space. I absolutely love music and the visual arts, as well as being an avid traveller. So I couldn’t refuse this offer. In addition, I was introduced on screen as an actor for the first time by the legendary director, the late K. Balachander, who had started this production house. Incidentally, this production house also introduced [A.R.] Rahman Sir in Roja.
For over six months we did extensive research and arrived at the four musicians that were eventually featured in the Harmony series. With this research, we had approached Rahman Sir because who better to talk about music than him! Having noticed the in-depth research that we had done, and this being a topic very close to his heart, he started the discussions on the execution of this project with a lot of excitement immediately.
Q. Were you nervous about working with Rahman?
A. The first meeting with him was in June 2017. I was a bundle of nerves. As a person who has been closely following his work for many years and who is a great admirer of his personality, this moment surely felt surreal. But Rahman Sir has the ability to make anyone feel extremely comfortable. He brings out a feeling that we have known each other for a while, and he also has an extremely unique sense of humour.
Q. The four indie musicians featured in Harmony are Kalamandalam Sajith Vijayan (from Thrissur, Kerala), Ustad Mohi Baha’uddin Dagar (Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra), Lourembam Bedabati (Imphal, Manipur) and Mickma Tshering Lepcha (Gangtok, Sikkim). How did you pick these four?
A. I was very keen on telling a human story than have an information-heavy documentary. Human emotion can connect with even those who are not music lovers. It has the ability to hold the audience’s attention, especially when their attention span nowadays is limited. With the research, we studied both the personal and social depth of the musicians as well as looked for diversity in the types of instruments used and the geographical locations covered. The geographical diversity highlights the unlimited beauty that our country has to offer. I was also particular that we looked into gender diversity to ensure that we included at least one woman musician. Finally, the musician’s screen presence and narration skills were also looked into.
Q. What did you learn about Rahman through the course of the shoot?
A. There is so much to learn from Rahman Sir. He definitely practices what he preaches. Whatever we have heard him speak about, his philosophy of life and spirituality—you see it in person. He never compromises on the quality of work. He is absolutely inclusive of people and their ideas and believes in artistic collaborations. He is constantly working hard and doesn’t allow his success to make him complacent. There are days when we could visibly see he hasn’t had much sleep, but he would still be all charged up at the shoot or will go back to compose after a long day’s shoot. He doesn’t do anything half-heartedly. He even trekked through tough terrain in Sikkim, even though he had hurt his knee. He doesn’t allow the ego to come in his way. There is a sense of purity in whatever he does. I can go on and on!
Q. Was it tough to shoot across the country for this series?
A. I would not like to call it tough, but let us also say it was not easy! But when we had conceived a project on this scale we were prepared for this. We knew that it was not going to be an easy task to execute given the short span of time as we had already planned on an August-15th release. Our whole team believed in this project and our focus was only on that. Whatever came in our way was forgotten and we tackled it as a team. I was extremely fortunate to have such a committed team.
Q. What next for you?
A. The last one year has been very intensive so I have taken a month’s break and I haven’t made any decisions yet. As I said some of the best things in my life have come to me and I have tried to put my best into them. I’m equally curious to know what the universe has in store for me. For any filmmaker, there is no greater joy than having our films reach out to a wide set of audience and create an impact. I also realise that my responsibility as an artiste increases with every film. If the National Award gave me a certain responsibility, the appreciation of the audience after Harmony has made me even more aware of my responsibilities as a filmmaker to create a positive impact.