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January 15, 2009

Top Rahman: Slumdog Millionaire Composer Scores Big

by John Oseid

What a thrill the other night to see the low-budget Slumdog Millionaire surprise the world and trash its muscular competition at the Golden Globes. But when composer A.R. Rahman picked up the Best Score award for his film sound track, it came as no shock to Bollywood aficionados. The baby-faced former jingle writer is (to borrow a Sanskrit word) a juggernaut, having scored more than 100 movies and sold more than 100 million records in his career.

Westerners may know Rahman from the Cate Blanchett film Elizabeth: The Golden Age and the London/Broadway stage hit Bombay Dreams. For the uninitiated, the Slumdog score is not just an intro to the Indian playback singer phenomenon, it's also a fun album featuring regular Rahman collaborators.

In the ultimate East-West mash-up, Slumdog throws in classical snippets, electronica, and a bit of disco. The film's fans will recognize the heart-pounding percussion in the first cut "O . . . Saya" from the movie's early chase scene that takes place in Bombay's Dharavi slum. It opens with a quick guitar lick that has a U2 feel to it, while the singular vocal stylings of British-Sri Lankan sensation M.I.A. drop in halfway through. The results are haunting.

The infectious hook from the love song "Ringa Ringa" was borrowed from the '90s Bollywood mega-hit "Choli Ke Peeche." I've loved Choli since I first heard it in a Delhi movie house years ago, and I love Ringa, too. Its singer, Alka Yagnik, also performed a wisftful song called "O Re Chhori," used in Lagaan. This sweet scene from the 2001 Oscar-nominated film shows off her amazing voice.

Donna Summer makes it into the album, sort of. The six-minute "Aaj Ki Raat" starts off sampling "I Feel Love," then breaks into a gorgeous chorus, with an electronic backbeat. The male lead is heartthrob Sonu Niigaam, with female accompaniments by Alisha Chinai and Mahalakshmi Iyer.

"Gangsta Blues" introduces us to a rapper who goes by BlaaZe, a smart career move for someone named Lakshmi Narasimha Vijaya Rajagopala Sheshadri Sharma Rajesh Raman. It's a funky, lounge-y piece.

The final cut, the victory chant "Jai Ho," is the movie's anthem. In it, Punjabi singer Sukhwinder Singh (of the Monsoon Wedding sound track) is joined by Iyer and other voices layered throughout the track. The mash-up version has a verse in Spanish, and . . . do I detect a bit of slide guitar? Early buzz has it that the train station dance number in the closing credits is the Oscar frontrunner for Best Song. If only I could vote . . .

More music:
* For his essay "Slumming It," Condé Nast Traveler Stop Press editor Kevin Doyle visited the Dharavi slum where much of Slumdog was shot.
* The two-CD set Introducing A.R. Rahman represents just a small selection of his prodigious output.
* The soft-spoken Rahman talks about Slumdog and fellow Tamil M.I.A. in a 45-minute interview on Morning Becomes Eclectic, a show on the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW.
* In late February, the Putumayo label will release an album called India, which includes a Rahman composition. It's a mellow, soulful compilation of ten songs by yet another group of top singers.
* Bombay Dub Orchestra's trippy album 3 Cities was released by Six Degrees last fall. Parts of it were recorded in Rahman's studio.
* M.I.A. turned herself into the darling of the Western hipster world with her 2005 release Arular.
* Condé Nast Traveler contributor Suketu Mehta's acclaimed book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found covers many of Slumdog's themes. 
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world.


I am a huge fan of Indian movies and of Rahman's music. I'd like to recommend several of his outstanding works over the last few years, other than those you mentioned: Guru, Rang de Basanti, Jodhaa Akbar. I now hold the fervent hope that "Jai Ho" will be nominated for the song Oscar, just so I can see Sukhwinder perform it on such a big occasion in front of an audience that doesn't know him. he's fantastic. I've seen Rahman three times--twice in Dallas and once at the Hollywood Bowl--and he puts on an amazing show. He brings a huge band/orchestra plus six to ten of the best playback singers (Sukhwinder, for one) along with him...and if that's not enough, throw in a dozen dancers for your 3+ hours of entertainment. People have NO idea what fun they are missing. I hope he has time to put together another US tour while he is the flavor of the month!

Thanks for the great tips. I can't wait to catch Rahman or any other of the stars in a live show myself. There's always someone performing somewhere in the states. The Slumdog soundtrack is going to have legs. Enjoy! John

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