A. R. Rahman’s two-fisted Oscar haul a couple of weeks ago was richly deserved. Without his soundtrack, Slumdog Millionaire would have been largely unwatchable. It was the palliative of Rahman’s score that allowed the movie’s grim images of poverty and violence to be served up as entertainment. Even more skillful and necessary was the way his music energized the film’s central conceit—Redemption by Game Show—with a kind of urgency and excitement that the narrative nonsense itself could hardly sustain.
Rahman was already a commercial phenomenon of global significance before his marketability went stratospheric thanks to Hollywood’s rituals of shameless hype. His soundtrack sales had surged past the 100 million mark only a decade after he began scoring films in Indian in the early 1990s.Brisk business on iTunes, where the soundtrack became the top-selling album in the days following its Oscar victories and high billboard rankings, are music to the ears of the Mozart of Madras. Rahman was so-dubbed by Time Magazine in one of the silliest appropriations of the diminutive Austrian’s brand power since they started wrapping those little marzipan balls covered in chocolate with his (Mozart’s, not Rahman’s) bewigged head.
To his credit Rahman, a seemingly modest and likable fellow, acknowledged the arbitrariness of industry awards, especially the infamously fickle and foolish Oscar. On his triumphant return to India last week Rahman was asked to comment on the fact that his musical guru, Ilayairaaja, has never been recognized by Hollywood’s dubious Academy. “Ilaiyaraaja sir and his music are beyond the Oscar limits. The international music community knows the supremacy of Raja sir in Indian film music. He has already proved his talents through symphony and Thiruvasagam oratorio. So there is no need to compare him with just winning some award.” Who needs the Oscar when one reigns supreme in India? Composer of a staggering 850 film scores and some 5,000 songs over a thirty year career, Illaiyaraaja has raked in many Indian film awards but never the mother lode from California’s distant shores.
Rahman’s productivity is nearly as impressive. Last year alone saw the release of seven films for which he provided the music. Slumdog Millionaire was his only English-language movie though the opening section is in Hindi. Surrounded by keyboards, Rahman often works on a half dozen soundtracks at the same time.
This year ten films are moored at his musical dock ready to take on his cargo of high-energy synthesizer sound inflected with Indian rhythms, and various Asian and world music melodic touches. The Slumdog Millionaire resonates with a facile spirituality thanks to Rahman’s abundant use of the human voice put through slick echo effects and kindred “enhancements.” Here’s betting that cinematic freighters from across the world will seen lining up in the Bay of Bengal for product from Rahman’s Chennai studios, said to be the most advanced in Asia. Rahman’s music is highly produced, highly packaged, and highly effective: his is the sound of India’s high tech transformation. One could almost imagine after seeing this film that the class and religious divisions of Indian it depicts could be dissolved by this soundtrack alone.
The fast-paced often jerky visual style of Slumdog Millionaire, self-conciously influenced by music videos, already presents events on screen as comfortingly fictional, even fantastical. The squalor of the slums is never to be confused with the real thing, even if the movie is shot on location. With its chugging drum beat, reverb-enhanced tenor incantations over a shimmering synthesizer haze wafting past like incense, the opening music imbues the proceedings with a mythic quality from the start. The soundtrack confirms that the unsteady camera is not that of the documentary-filmmaker but of the fiction-maker. Thanks to this repetitive, hypnotic music saturated in longing and possibility, we always know we are in safe hands. Our time in the slums, in the interrogation rooms, in the gangster palaces, cesspools, customer service phone centers, and Who Wants to Be A Millionairestudio will never be too unsettling. The film’s excursions into faux realism never threaten cinema verité.
Brutality in the film is always softened by music, even when that music is pumped up on adrenaline. With the rush of Hindu fanatics across the train tracks to our child protagonist’s slum in the early phase of the film we again hear the locomotive action of Rahman’s music, this time with syncopated drum beats, portentous throbbing in the middle range of the texture, and chromatic tinges from the keyboard. This music presages doom while promising to avert it. The soundtrack not only readies as for the killing of our hero Jamal’s mother but assures us that the partially slow-mo massacre about to be staged for our benefit will be pantomime, reenactment, a necessary plot point with a whiff of pathos. The soundtrack lets us know both what to expect and that it won’t be too horrible to watch. Yes, we are in for a few minor jolts, but they are about as inconvenient and unthreatening as those Jamal gets while being “tortured” by the police for allegedly cheating on the game show. In the massacre the visual style aestheticizes the violence into harmlessness. For its part the music provides the images with the aura of manageable terror even while assuring us that the force and surety of Rahman’s beat will pull us through the savagery. Let the massacre scene run in real time and without music and watch the theatre empty.
The funky track that springs Jamal and his bad brother, Salim, from the villians’ lair running a begging ring, also gives the game away. Thanks to Rahman’s mastery of the tonalities of easy excitement there’s never a doubt we are watching kids in a disco-fairy tale rather than desperate children—or even desperate characters—running for their lives. Similarly, Rahman helps convert a harrowing fall from a train, with Jamal being dangled by his brother from atop the carriage by a rope around his feet, into a swashbuckling romp rather than the deadly accident it most certainly would have been. Throughout the movie’s two hours Rahman’s music provides the aural anesthetic to the dangers implied, if never honestly confronted, by the images. The soundtrack’s numbing energy is that of a video game rather than evocative of the unpredictable and menacing obstacles that the film consistently and opportunistically evades. Even the long and devastating shots of the Mumbai slums we see when the boys return to their home city so that Jamal can find the love of his life, still in the clutches of the bad guys, are given the sonic airbrush by Rahman’s music. All is about as threatening as an issue of National Geographic.
The overlap in musical styles between the Millionaire game show theme and Rahman’s other synthesized action strains is only one of many clues that the unbridled fantasy of instant riches, paid off big time and with utter predictably at the end of the movie, is hovering over the slums from the very beginning of the movie. Though the music occasionally gestures towards the monumental, this is not an epic: the happy end is always just around the corner.
The closing Bollywood dance number staged during the credits releases the true inner urges of the film towards the escapism of musical revue. The whole film is like a jack-in-the-box: spurred on by the music, it winds itself up, but it is really no surprise when the clown finally pops out. The denouement reunites Latika and Jamal in a train station. At the head of hundreds of dancers gathered behind them on the platform they work out a simple and cheery choreography to Rahman’s song, “Jai Ho.” For this giddy masterpiece Rahman got the Oscar for best original song; both its music and lyrics are his. Not even music and lyrics great Cole Porter, four times nominated for the best original song award, could bring home that bacon.
“Jai Hoi” draws together the optimistic and comforting strains of the soundtrack as a whole into a final burst of euphoria. The lyrics are a jumble of sentimental images like “I counted the stars till my finger burned.” The music , too, is a heart-warming mix of world music flourishes, disco energy, buoyant synthesizer countermelodies, and full-throated crooning above yearning harmonic shifts. The final number is not simply a generic nod to Indian film traditions, and the fact that the filmmakers use the credits as a cover for what might superficially seem to be a sudden escape from the supposed imperatives of believability cannot disguise the truth about this movie and its music. The finale confirms what the screen has been telling our eyes and the music our ears for two hours: that even miserable poverty can be overcome by a bright lights and a techno beat and that redemption is always only one high-tech hymn away.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org