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'Slumdog' Composer Competes for Oscars

A.R. Rahman has sold 100 million albums but is little known in the States.
A.R. Rahman has sold 100 million albums but is little known in the States. (By Chris Pizzello -- Associated Press)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 2009

MUMBAI, India -- Before A.R. Rahman received three Academy Award nominations for his contributions to "Slumdog Millionaire's" Indian-infused techno soundtrack, he was known across India as "the Mozart of Madras." He's long been Bollywood's best-known composer, a household name for his love ballads, offbeat world rhythms and patriotic pop hits that have sold more than 100 million albums, making him one of the world's top-selling artists.

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Across India, many fans celebrated his nominations (one for Best Original Score and two for Best Song), and newspaper headlines chanted, "Ra. Ra. Rahman." But most fans say "Slumdog's" score was far from his best work. He's much better known for his often emotional ballads in Bollywood megahits such as "Roja" and "Lagaan," and hailed by critics for brooding songs for art house films.

But for Rahman, "Slumdog's" fluid soundtrack is the culmination of his accomplishments. Like Rahman himself, the soundtrack has a vast range: It jumps from a punk song by the Clash to a Hindi anthem to an aching sitar solo.

"The reason I love 'Slumdog' is because the music is all world cultures, all celebrating," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, which his entire extended family is visiting for Oscar night. "In India, I know people feel other film scores [of mine] are closer to their hearts. But when you are doing a film, it's very important to make the film look like one full piece of artwork. I think scoring 'Slumdog' with every kind of music possible, from Chinese to hip-hop to M.I.A. . . . was really fresh ground for me."

It was the film's British director, Danny Boyle, who picked Rahman. He asked him to capture Mumbai's frantic urban energy for his dark fairy tale of an orphan from the city's slums who goes on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The film's most popular song is "Jai Ho," a bubbly Bollywood number that ends the movie with a classic song and-dance routine. It's been played at fashion shows in Paris and has become a hit in clubs across Europe and the United States.

Since the early 1990s, Rahman has been a musical chameleon. He's been a rock star and worked as an advertising jingle writer. He's melded the words of Indian poets, Arab hip-hop, Tamil folk and Sufi mysticism. And he worked briefly as a choreographer, putting together a stage extravaganza combining a Tamil dancing troupe with an unlikely partner -- Michael Jackson -- for a series of concerts in Germany 10 years ago.

Rahman, 42, said he always knew he would make his life about music. His father, R.K. Shekhar, was a well-known film composer for Malayalam-language movies in India's southern cinema, long considered some of the most subtle and serious films on the subcontinent. Rahman began studying the piano at age 4. Though his father died when Rahman was 9, his mother pushed him to hang out with friends of his father: tabla master Zakir Hussain and violinist and singer L. Shankar. They helped him get a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, where he earned a degree in Western classical music.

Following graduation, he became a jingle writer, a popular job in a country where songs selling products often become radio hits. But in 1991, he was hired to write and direct music for "Roja." He was just 25 and called it "a real milestone for me."

Rahman has recently started to compose more international scores, including last year's film "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." He studied Chinese and Japanese music to score the Mandarin language picture "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" in 2003.

His wife, Sairaa, said: "I've always told him, a composer is someone who composes soulful music. There are some of A.R.'s songs that have made me very emotional and I have cried. It is something that he creates from within."

"The Oscar is definitely the biggest moment in my life," she said. "I know he has won so many awards. But this one is special because he is representing India."

Rahman hopes all the attention will encourage other young Indians to choose music as a future.

"We really need that space for creativity in India right now," he said. "Most of all, I just want that to be recognized."


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