If there’s one Indian in recent times whose work has seemed destined to win an Oscar, it is AR Rahman, 42, born AS Dileep Kumar and surrounded by music from the day he was born.
His father is the late R. Shekhar, a music composer for Malayalam films. In the ’70s, the family converted to Islam — and Allah Rakha Rahman was born.
Reinvention has been a key motif in Rahman’s artistry, from an Airtel tune to theatre and movies, both masala and international.
The last including, of course, Slumdog Millionaire.
Now that a Golden Globe tops a clutch of other international awards for Slumdog…, Rahman is poised just short of the big O, the world’s most recognised symbol of cinematic excellence.
On January 11 in Los Angeles, Slumdog grabbed four spots at the Golden Globe Awards — Best Film, Drama, Best Director for Danny Boyle, Best Screenplay for Simon Beaufoy and Best Original Score for Rahman, the first Indian to grab a Globe.
Rahman’s global career graph has moved inexorably towards this point — highlights being Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams (2002) in West End and The Lord of the Rings (2006); as well as film scores for the Chinese Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2003), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), and now, Slumdog Millionaire.
The Golden Globes are considered an indication of how the Oscars will go.
Slumdog… with its three Hindi tracks — Jai Ho, O Saya and Ringa Ringa — has also given Indian film music a global mainstream validity that has eluded it all these years. Though snatches of the odd Hindi track have been used in Hollywood movies (Moulin Rouge, for instance) this is the first time entire songs in Hindi have been integral to a Western film.
Rahman, with his characteristic aversion to self-praise, has credited director Danny Boyle with thrusting his music upfront: “Danny has made terrific use of my music. The way he has mixed my songs, they are full on, like in a discotheque,” he says. “Normally some directors suppress music — they want the effects to be loud and the music to be softer. Danny wanted it loud,” he elaborated to The New York Times. And the composer has hit that universal button while staying true to his roots.
How does he do it — go seamlessly from the boisterousness of a Tamil blockbuster to the classical elegance of a Jodhaa Akbar to the joyous rhythms of Jai Ho?
Film-maker Ashutosh Gowariker, for whom Rahman scored some of his most memorable music (Lagaan, Jodhaa Akbar), notes, “Rahman has such a remarkable range because he is always willing to experiment. He is constantly inventing and re-inventing. And, importantly, he is ready to adapt his music to the director’s vision.”
Director Farah Khan adds, “I’ve seen a preview of Slumdog and Rahman’s soundtrack is outstanding. His background score really lifts the movie to another level.” Khan, who has worked with Rahman on Bombay Dreams, remarks, “He’s a genius, of course, and the West knows it. They also have tremendous respect for his knowledge of music, his technique and craft, which are truly international.”
Some years ago, Rahman, who won a scholarship to London’s Trinity College of Music as a student, told this correspondent, “It takes me five days to tune out of an Indian sensibility and switch to a Western one… It’s becoming easier though. Earlier it used to take me two weeks. Hopefully I'll get it down to two days or even one day.” Perhaps that one day has come. Perhaps the day will come, too.