My Journey to the Heart of Rahman

After I dedicated a column to the manifold errors of the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire by Oscar laureate A. R. Rahman the emails poured in from the sub-continent.  Many admitted that they were glad to hear the Musical Patriot abuse a feel-good film about Indian poverty and denigrate its implausible music of redemption. Others thought my commentary ill-informed and cruel, and suggested that I would have rather have seen all the main characters killed off or mutilated to the tune of depressing laments.

By coincidence I took in a screening of The Battle of Algiers a few days after the column appeared back in March, and witnessed again the harrowing torture scene that begins the film and to which Slumdog’stepid interrogation opener pays unwitting homage. The original score of The Battle of Algiers is the work of the incomparable Ennio Morricone, but the director Gillo Pontecorvo involved himself directly in choosing other music to follow important themes of the conflict.  What we hear after the grim extraction of information by French interrogators from the small, aged Algerian is the opening chorus of Bach’s Matthew Passion, whose throbbing bass line and gnashing chromaticism tells us that we are in for brutal epic. It’s not just that Bach is a better composer than Rahman; few would contest that.  Rather, Pontecorvo and Morricone understood that there is nothing in such cases there is nothing more difficult than truth, a necessary precondition for reconciliation.

What I argued in my prosecutorial brief against Slumdog was that a soundtrack that avoids any real confrontation with its difficult subject matter, indeed numbs the viewer to the implications of the images on screen, and should not be trusted. The two-fisted Oscar for Rahman only confirmed my suspicions. The award is a dual barometer of manipulation and mediocrity.

Along the many good-humored, funny, and gloriously vituperative emails I received, I had the good fortune to be corrected on one matter by Nandhu Sundaram, chief copy editor of the Times of London, who informed me that “a brilliant piece of criticism on A R Rahman’s music was marred by a slight factual error.”  How gently did my correspondent point out a gaff that was hardly “slight.” Turns out, as Mr. Sundaram, and many others from India and elsewhere let me know, that Rahman did not, as I had claimed, write the music and lyrics for the closing song, “Jai Ho”—heard for the film’s concluding song sequence, the last gasp nod to Bollywood staged with the final credits. “Jai Ho” won Oscar for best song. The words were in fact written by Gulzar, who, as an email from Sajay Janardhana Kurup instructed  me, is “A Famous Indian Lyrisct who accepted a Muslim Pen name though being a Hindu.”

I stand corrected many times over!  Gulzar it is your lyrics that are crap!

Rather than continue to simmer in my scorn for Slumdog I have now embarked  on a study of Rahman’s work under the long-distance tutelage of Professor Nilanjana Bhattacharjya of Colorado College. She’s an expert on Bollywood music, and has this to say about Slumdog:

“I can’t begin to explain how tired I am of hearing about this film and what I think is some of A.R. Rahman’s weakest work, so I am grateful (schadenfroh, more accurately) to see critiques of the film that are not based in its depiction of poor people in India, and Indian people’s supposed inability to deal with seeing its dirty laundry. (It’s hard to avoid unless you’re blind, and that view overlooks a long history of extremely popular films in which significantly disadvantaged people get treated horrifically, fight against the system, and claw their way through to come out ahead despite their never being asked to be on an inane game show.”

Professor Bhattacharjya has an illuminating  article in the most recent issue of the journal Asian Music on song sequences in popular Hindi Film; though her focus in this essay is movies of the Indian diaspora, it has much to say about Western attitudes about this vast corpus. A crucial part of Asian music cultural, the song sequence (banished to the closing credits in Slumdog) often seems to those new to this cinematic experience like irrelevant intrusions into the narrative.  These long, and at their best, sumptuously choreographed and orchestrated sequences suspend the temporal progression of events, reveling instead in spectacle and sentiment. In this respect Bollywood is not unlike opera seria of the 18th-century, where the narrative flow is continually interrupted by lengthy arias that explore the emotional state of their characters rather than push the plot forward. Because these song sequences, as in the case of opera’s arias, last so long, the films, like the operas, tend themselves to be epic events: three hours and intermission is a common enough format in both genres. These attitude towards the song sequence bears some reflection.

Hollywood and its obedient consumers seem to think that car chases and the demolition of people and buildings do not constitute detours from the “story,” but in general these sequences are hardly less stagey in their the usurpation of the cinematic moment are than Indian dance numbers or European opera arias. The scream of sirens is Hollywood’s coloratura, the squeal of brakes its cadenza, the explosion its thundering timpani. Indeed, after watching enough Bollywood, one returns more reluctantly than ever to Hollywood’s formulaic action sequences and finds them surprisingly stagnant, a cultural form of entertainment far more artificial—and expensive—than the tableaux vivant of Indian film. For all its frenzy, Hollywood action usually ends up going nowhere. Bollywood can destroy things, too, but it seems to invest its creative energy most vigorously in song and dance, rather than high-speed shoot-‘em-and-blow-‘em-ups.

I’ve begun my encounter with Rahman’s massive and quickly-expanding oeuvre with his sprawling score to Lagaan, which was nominated for best foreign film by that same Academy back in 2001. The movie rather archly stages the colonial encounter with the British on a dusty improvised cricket ground in 19th-century India. On that field a rag tag group of villagers quickly learn the colonial regime’s game, even while taking time off to sing and dance, and then miraculously defeating the local regiment. The victory gains villagers a three-year reprieve from the crushing grain tax (Lagaan) imposed on them by the redcoats.

I’ll admit that deflecting the violence and repression of colonialism onto the cricket pitch seemed to me a bit like having the Sioux take on the 7th Cavalry in game of baseball to decide who gets the Black Hills. The Untouchable taken grudgingly onto the Lagaan team and who’s a preternatural spinbowler with a mean “googly” would be something like the discovery that Sitting Bull turns out to have mastered the bunt thanks to all those years counting coup,  setting the stage for the decisive suicide squeeze play that turns out to be Custer’s Little Bighorn. Anyway, I hope that the premise of Lagaan was at least partly inflected with irony, especially given the ultimate ascendance of Indian and Pakistani cricket in terms of market share and sporting talent, as Tariq Ali shows in a wonderful article on the sport in a recent issue of the London Review of Books,

Still, the parched and varied landscape of rural Indian of Lagaan, and the peasants clad in stylish and pristine homespun, provides the ideal backdrop and cast for the sweep of Rahman’s melody and his mastery for pacing musical effects over a long sequences. Slumdog showed Rahman can deftly wield his musical airbrush, but his talent demands a grand scale so his ideas can gather momentum and the sonic feast they serve up can be savored.

Next I watched Taal (1999), a film that follows an innocent mountain girl’s discovery by a slimy producer (played by Anil Kapoor, the game show host from Slumdog) and her transformation into a musical superstar.  Here again Rahman is at the top of his multi-faceted game of creating atmosphere with his intense, arching melodies and billowing harmonies and special musical effects. Aside from its colorful score and diverse song sequences that range from rural ritual to urban techno flash, the film also boasts one of the most carefully staged Coca Cola product placement contrivances in the history of world cinema. At a lavish reception, the cosmopolitan hero, more doughy than dashing, stops a drinks attendant and slakes his thirst from a Coke bottle, then sends it on to the mountain girl clumped with her sisters on the far side of the party gathering. Needless to say, she can’t help but grab the bottle from her sister, and touch her lips to the sweet glass where his had just been.

Subtly erotic flourishes of music—all shimmering bangles and echoing female vocalizations punctuated by intermittent claps and bursts of disco energy—follow the progress of the bottle from one set of lips to another.  Making big brown eyes at our hero, she doesn’t drink, but strolls out of frame, the bottle pressed to her breast. Rahman now goes for the Romantic surge, and the hero follows her as she fondles the bottle lovingly.  He waits, we wait, for the corporately sponsored kiss, but the mountain girl suddenly pours the bottle into a nearby potted geranium, as Rahman’s music wilts along with the hero’s ardor. It seems clear that Rahman’s got a sense of humor, one strangled by Slumdog’s  pawing sentimentality.

The real first kiss in Taal comes in the next scene against the backdrop of the Himalayan foothills, but we all know that sweet syrup still clings to lovers’ lips. At this consummation of a sort, Rahman deploys his global mastery of cinematic affect: his Love Story piano, Bacharach strings, and transcendental, textless chorus bed the fully-clothed couple down on the soft and verdant grass above steep bluffs. Much of Rahman’s greatness seems to lie in the fact that he, too, has no shame: even with all the studio contrivances and effects, he really knows how to let himself go.

Now queued up on my Rahman docket is Dil Se from 1998 which, Professor Bhattacharjya tells me, will deal with terrorism, ethnic conflict and other urgent issues. I can’t wait to see the dance numbers. If Rossini can do justice to the freedom fighter William Tell, I don’t doubt that the Mozart of Madras can offer untold insights into the horrors of globalization and ethnic conflict, or at least overcome the implausible with his music’s alternation of bittersweet strains and world-beating rhythmic drive.  At this rate, it will take me dozens of lifetime’s to work through Rahman’s oeuvre, and by the time I catch up he’ll have already moved on to his next film, seated in his opulent studio among his synthesizers wrapped in the swirling sonorities that have already conquered the world.

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

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at