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The Mozart of Madras: Why A.R. Rahman’s Music Took So Long to Reach the West

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If there is a single moment that can be said to have influenced nearly all of Indian film music over the last 30 years, I would wager it is the release of A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack for Roja in 1992. Unlike most other country’s music, the majority of Indian popular music is intrinsically tied to its cinema. With so much of India’s film output prominently featuring musical numbers, composers and singers are indesepensible members of the nation’s film industry. So when an Indian musician re-defines their genre and medium, they are actually redifining two mediums together. Rahman’s influence and importance has long been known to those who watch Indian films, but it took several decades for him to even be recognized in the smallest ways in the West. Even today, the imprint he has had has not been adequately measured or put into the proper perspective. The question “Who is A.R. Rahman?” is still shamefully unsurprising in the western film and music worlds.

To understand why Rahman remains obscure in the realms of Americans and Europeans, we have to understand that the film and music industries are dominated through Western-centric production, distribution and publication channels. Almost every major film and music magazine that has made declarations on the canon of either art is headquartered and published in the U.S. and/or Europe, with the exception of a few Australian publications here or there. The most prestigious film and music festivals are also in the West, curated and judged by predominantly western artists, who, by default, grew up with and lean towards western tastes. This is the reason why Rahman hardly comes up in discussions of the greatest film composers of the last 50 years despite creating what I would call a comparable repertoire to that of universally acknowledged stalwarts like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis and Ennio Morricone. 

One place where Rahman has attained an equal footing to his Western peers is the Academy Awards. The Oscars have few artistic virtues, but one of them is the blue moon occurrence of a foreign artist being part of the right film at the right time. This is what happened with Rahman’s work in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a film which was headed for the straight-to-DVD trash bin but was miraculously picked up by Fox Searchlight Pictures and ran roughshod through the Oscar campaign season straight to a 2008 Best Picture win. Rahman won two Oscars that year for his original score, including for the song “Jai Ho” which became a brief American national sensation in a similar vein to other foreign songs like “Numa Numa” or “Gangnam Style.”

For Indians who have been listening to Rahman’s work since childhood, his Oscar win inspired overwhelming joy and a long-delayed affirmation of his greatness. The fact that an Indian composer would even exist in the general American conciousness was a rarity in itself. The only other marginally known Indian musician in America was Pandit Ravi Shankar who famously collaborated with George Harrison and played at Woodstock. Rahman became an semi-established choice for Hollywood filmmakers to score their movies, going on to two more Oscar nominations for 127 Hours (2010), and composing music for Couples Retreat (2009), People Like Us (2012), Million Dollar Arm (2014) and The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014). These works, however, still pale in comparison to the masterful compositions he made in an unequivocally influential 27-year career in Indian cinema.

Rahman’s influence on Indian music is hard to put to scale in an article. It requires a book. What I can say briefly here is that his embrace of technology is what set him apart and ushered in a new movement of experimentation with sound and a fusion of genres that Indian cinema did not have earlier. Throughout the Indian film industry’s history, musical numbers have generally been a blend of traditional styles like Hindustani classical and Carnatic with some jazz and swing influence. There was a strong emphasis on melodic strings and horns. A great example of this is S.D. Burman’s composition for the song “Din Dhal Jaaye” in Guide. 

Rahman’s compositions were met with some detractors who criticized its useage of technological manipulation and an emphasis on beats and precussion over melodic strings. Rahman embraced the idea of sound engineering, enhancing his compositions through synthesizers and excessive mixing. By picking apart and piecing back together instrumental samples, he created unique compositions that bordered on experimental in the way they fused, altered and reshaped familiar sounds. In the song “Yeh Haseen Vaadiyan” from Roja, the interlude between two verses is a masterclass in composition through sound engineering utilizing recordings of the cello, the violin, the pipa, vocals and non-instrumentals like the breaking of glass and wind sounds.

In what is probably Rahman’s most famous song outside of “Jai Ho”,  the song “Chaiyaan Chaiyaan” from Dil Se.. (1998) infuses melodies from classical Indian instruments with electric guitar, hip-hop bass and samples from actual an actual steam engine. The song works so well with the visuals of Shah Rukh Khan dancing on top of a train in dense vegetation of the mountains that when it was reused by Spike Lee for the opening credits of Inside Man (2001), it feels strangely out of place. It’s one example of how Rahman, despite blending Indian traditional music heavily with western genres like hip-hop, jazz and funk, still creates a musical experience that is wholly at home within Indian cinema and tied to its fabric:

The Oscar win for “Jai Ho” affirmed that for songs from Africa, Asia and the global south, their entrance into the world zeitgeist is guarded by the recognition of European and American studios.  “Jai Ho” was originally recorded as a single for Subhash Ghai’s film Yuvraaj but was left off of the final soundtrack compilation. Boyle asked Ghai if the song could be re-mastered and used in Slumdog Millionaire, and its legacy was born. It is not a stretch at all to consider that had “Jai Ho” remained as part of Yuvraaj almost no one outside of India would have even heard it. The opportunities afforded to Rahman in America were also squarely due to his association with a film directed and produced by British filmmakers and distributed through Hollywood studio channels. Slumdog Millionaire, as many Indians would tell you, is hardly a noteable entry in Rahman’s discography outside of the fact that it is the only one which won an Academy Award. 

My personal favorite soundtracks by Rahman are Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), Dil Se.. (1998), Taal (1999), Earth (1999), Lagaan (2001) and Water (2005). His career, spanning 27 years, has made an indelible impact on Indian culture. His songs and compositions are featured in commercials, sampled in TV shows, used at sporting events and play as ringtones on people’s cellphones. There isn’t a place in India where Rahman’s music hasn’t reached. In 2005, Roja’s impact was recognized by Richard Corliss, who included it in TIME’s 10 Greatest Film Soundtracks of All Time. 

One would hope, that in time, the acknowledgement of music and cinema outside of American and European-dominated distribution models will give ways for others in to be discovered and realized of their greatness as A.R. Rahman has been. 

Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.

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