Wednesday, January 07, 2009

One Movie Composer Who Knows the Score

Source: Wall Street Journal

When British director Danny Boyle needed a composer to capture the frantic and violent hustle and bustle of Mumbai for his film "Slumdog Millionaire," he turned to A.R. Rahman, Bollywood's best-known composer, whose dozens of film scores span romantic symphonic themes, classical Indian music, and catchy pop confections. In India, Mr. Rahman is a megastar, having sold an estimated 100 million albums, or roughly the same number as Madonna or Billy Joel. Not only has he scored such Bollywood film classics as "Roja" and "Lagaan," but he has a growing slate of international credits, including the 2002 Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced London stage musical "Bombay Dreams" and last year's film "Elizabeth: The Golden Age."

Mr. Boyle's exuberantly paced story -- about an orphan from the Mumbai slums who gets a shot at winning a fortune on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- is a distant cry from Bollywood, where Mr. Rahman has worked for nearly two decades. "He didn't want any sentimental or sad stuff. He wanted only throbbing and edgy and pulsating sounds," Mr. Rahman said of Mr. Boyle's request to avoid emotion-tugging themes and maudlin arrangements.

[A.R. Rahman] Ken Fallin

"The music came as a kind of counterpoint actually," added the soft-spoken 42-year-old composer. "When there's something really serious happening on screen there was a fun soundtrack underneath. It would make the movie more enjoyable."

With its intoxicating Indian rhythms blended with Western hip-hop beats, the "Slumdog Millionaire" soundtrack has received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score, making Mr. Rahman the first Indian composer to receive such an honor. (Music from the film is collected on a new soundtrack release.)

Mr. Rahman said that after receiving Mr. Boyle's commission, he had just three weeks to study early DVD cuts of the film and compose the cues (the musical themes that correspond to moments in the plot). On two tracks, he quotes well-known Bollywood tunes, while in one of the film's most talked-about sequences -- the rousing chorus "Jai Ho" -- he pays homage to splashy Bollywood song-and-dance routines. Mr. Rahman also worked with M.I.A., the British-born, Sri Lankan-reared rapper to create "O . . . Saya," which is heard in a pivotal scene. "She speaks my language, but her sensibility is completely different," noted Mr. Rahman, who grew up speaking Tamil.

While a typical Bollywood music director may score up to 150 movies a year, Mr. Rahman limits his annual commissions to between five and 10 films (still a considerable number by Hollywood standards). In popular films like "Kadhalan," "Rangeela," "Dil Se," "Taal" and "Rang de Basanti," Mr. Rahman introduced styles relatively foreign to Bollywood -- including dancehall reggae, hip-hop, hard rock and Baroque counterpoint. Even so, he acknowledges that experimentation often bows to commercial pressures.

"The demand in India is to have a hit, which becomes a promotion for the movie and makes people come to the theater," Mr. Rahman said. "You have five songs and different promotions based on those. But when I do Western films, the need for originality is greater. Then I become very conscious about the writing. However, the good thing about Indian cinema is because there are so many ragas in it, you can take a raga and make it a little bit funkier and people can relate to it. Half of the stuff I get away with is like that."

Mr. Rahman identifies with the rags-to-riches tale of "Slumdog Millionaire." "A lot of people write you off when you have an idea or something good to say," he said. "This is to give hope to those kind of people. Take the right road and you will definitely be there."

Mr. Rahman was born into a middle-class Hindu family that fell on hard times after his father, the film arranger and conductor R.K. Sekhar, died when he was 9. The young Rahman, who began studying the piano at the age of 4, began helping to support his family as a keyboardist for television productions. As a teenager he performed with Indian musical luminaries like tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and violinist and singer L. Shankar. These gigs led to a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, where he earned a degree in Western classical music.

Returning to Madras (now Chennai), Mr. Rahman worked as a jingle writer for an ad agency. A turning point came in 1991, when at age 25, he was hired to write and direct music for the Mani Ratnam film "Roja." The film and soundtrack became smash hits, and Time magazine listed it as one of the top 10 movie soundtracks of all time. Today, Mr. Rahman remains based in Chennai, although he considers Mumbai his second home -- feelings that intensified after the November terrorist attacks.

"We were all affected by that," he said, noting the many press events that he's attended at the Taj Mahal hotel, the site of one of the attacks. "For me, it was a shock. I could have been there with my family. Some of my friends had a dinner reservation there. Then 10 minutes before they heard the news they stopped going. They could have been victims."

Even as the Mumbai attacks signaled growing religious and ethnic strife, Mr. Rahman, whose family converted to Islam in 1989, sees music as having the power to cut across class and religious divisions. "When I listen to Bach or Beethoven, I don't see them as Christians," he explained. "And when people listen to my music, or that of [the late Qawwali singer] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, they don't see the religious element in it; they just see the spiritual element. At this chaotic time in the world, music can play a very important role as a spiritual force."

Mr. Rahman said that despite Hollywood's allure, he has no plans to leave the Indian film industry, although he's ready to work with any director who appreciates his music. In 2002, Sony Pictures hired him to write the score for "Warriors of Heaven and Earth," a costume epic by Chinese director He Ping that included songs in Chinese, English and Hindi. Coming to movie theaters are his scores for "Paani" (Water), by "Elizabeth" director Shekhar Kapur, and "19 Steps," an English-language martial-arts film co-produced by Walt Disney and starring a Japanese actor.

"It's very difficult to get a director who understands what you're capable of," said Mr. Rahman. "Danny Boyle was definitely good luck for me. He could get what I was trying to do, and in my own little way I could get what he wanted. So if I can get another director like that I would definitely love to work in Hollywood."

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