Why AR Rahman deserves it for Slumdog Millionaire?

Posted by Suresh Kumar

I am really surprised by level of ignorance about movie background score as most of the media reports mentioned that A.R.Rahman won the golden globe for ‘Jai Ho’ song. The irony is that it is exactly not for what Rahman got the golden globe; in fact the song wasn’t even nominated in the best original song category (ofcourse to compensate two songs have been nominated for Oscar).

On the other side, though unanimously everyone is happy about an Indian winning a golden globe and especially Rahman winning it, most weren’t sure about whether Rahman deserves it for Slumdog Millionaire score. And I am sure they will be unsure even if he wins the Oscar. And all those who claim so, either haven’t seen the movie or have seen it on pirated DVD or internet. If you aren’t someone who is interested in the finer aspects of background score, it is hard to get its real impact while watching on such illegal means where the experience isn’t a complete one. These finer aspects of a movie like the background score can be best experienced, understood and appreciated only while watching the movie, the way it is meant to be where all your attention is just on the movie, its characters and their emotions.

As I already have mentioned, there is no bigger sin than reviewing the music on an Original Soundtrack CD before even watching the movie. The purpose of the music in that CD is not to entertain while you shit at home with an iPod on your ears but to engage, involve and suck you into its narrative when you are watching a movie. In that process, if the music finds a life of its own, it is just a bonus. This is not to mean that the Slumdog Millionaire score doesn’t work without the visuals but I try to emphasize that its emotional impact is much higher with the visuals.

And everyone easily arrive at a conclusion that as it all sounded so fresh and unique for a western crowd, it appealed to them more compared to other clich├ęd (by their standards) orchestral scores and so it won. Of course there is some truth in it, but nobody realizes that how it all would have easily gone wrong. (Satyajit Ray’s golden words come to my mind at this moment– “An easy way to ruin a perfectly good film is to apply an unsuitable music to it”). A.R.Rahman and Danny Boyle are taking a big risk by using such a loud score in a movie which is primarily made for a western audience and both would be quite aware of the fact that western crowd don’t like such loud score. But they cleverly pulled it off by filling the soundtrack not with loud orchestral outbursts (and there are quite a lot of such moments in the movie which would easily tipoff any ordinary creator to go for such a score) but with loudness of Indian classical exotica and eclectic electronica. And their big risk has paid off and how.

After watching the movie, I realized that it couldn’t get any better than what Rahman did and no one could have done it in the way Rahman has done it. Even if it was done by someone else, it would have gone as a purely functional background score which doesn’t harm the movie and which doesn’t add anything special by itself to the movie. But Rahman’s score bombards the audience with its high energy, unique sound and its symphony with the visuals is just so perfect.

This is an attempt to make people understand that we all can be proud about A.R.Rahman’s victory not just because he is an Indian, but also because his work in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is truly worthy of it.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet - spoilers ahead.

Those who complain that ‘O Saya’ was too loud for a routine chase scene, have either seen just that one scene in the trailer of the movie on the net or completely missed the real essence of the scene. The complete chase sequence between the kids and the police is an excuse to showcase the colour, energy, the spirit and the vibrancy in those narrow by lanes of slums in Bombay. In true Indian film tradition, it is a hero introduction song of the movie, and the hero here being Bombay and the music more than serves its purpose with thumping train rhythms and rocking guitars.

The ‘Riots Theme’ which we hear in the soundtrack CD doesn’t have one main layer of a tension filled oscillating melody (played on harp, harpsichord, piano or plain keyboard, I can’t say) that is used in the movie. Rahman also hits some deep piano chords in between to heighten the tension further. For almost same kind of scene, 13 years back Rahman scored similar percussive score for riots scene in Maniratnam’s Bombay but this one is edgier and suits the pace of the sequence well. It is not that Rahman just composed some piece with layers of rhythms and e-sounds and just played it on the background in the scene, if you carefully listen, as the main rhythmic layer proceeds with Jamal and Salim running around the streets, Rahman introduces one more rhythm layer and makes it louder as people running behind almost catch Salim and Jamal and as Jamal shouts ‘Baagh’. And when the whole episode cuts to the present, showing Jamal answering the question about Rama, the rhythm just plays again in the background implying that the whole riots episode was playing out in his mind as he was taking his time to answer the question.

The starting guitar bit of ‘Mausam& Escape’ appears when Jamal meets Lathika for the first time after the riots and it is the same piece which appears again when Jamal finally finds Lathika arriving at VT station. There is a pleasant aura that this piece creates which perfectly suits their warm meeting on a rainy night in the earlier scene and a sweet surprise and a dream like brief meeting that happens in the later. And that’s the Mausam part of it.

And the Escape theme is used many times in the movie as there are lots of chases and escape scenes. It appears first when Jamal, Salim and Lathika escape from Maman’s camp and is also used later in the scene when Salim chases Lathika in VT station. The piece was put to great use in the former scene because as Salim, Jamal and Lathika escape from Maman’s camp and try to get into a running train, the sitar plucking and the beats get more and more energetic as the three approach the train, and finally when we expect Lathika to get into the train, all that energy in the music suddenly stops and deeply moving vocals of Suzanne takes over singing the Lathika’s theme. With the scene set in complete darkness, it is the sudden appearance of Lathika’s theme that tells us the amount of disappointment of Lathika and Jamal than anything else in the scene. Later when Maman finds Jamal and Salim in Pila Street, as they are now trying to get Lathika out of there, the escape theme again comes in handy to establish the connection between this scene and the first great escape scene. It is used so subtly along with a sustained bass loop to underline the tension in the moment. And finally it is again used when Jamal searches for Salim K.Malik’s phone number in the call center, and ofcourse by doing so he is virtually chasing Salim to find the real whereabouts of Lathika.

Lathika’s Theme is the main theme of the movie as Lathika is the pivot around which Jamal’s life swivels. This theme has the ability to express a wide variety of emotions in the pinch of sadness that it evokes. The Lathika theme appears first when Lathika gets separated from Jamal and then it is used in its entirety when Jamal comes back to Mumbai in search of Lathika. The whole montage of Jamal searching for Lathika in the streets of Mumbai is emotionally uplifted by the theme. A very slow and mellow version of the theme with just the vocals of Suzanne fills the atmosphere as Jamal gets to meet and hug Lathika finally in Javed’s house. The theme is at its haunting best in the climax when Jamal and Lathika meet in the VT station, and it plays out as a theme for Jamal’s entire life as the scene intercuts to shots from their troublesome past.

‘Ringa Ringa’ aptly fits in when Jamal walks into the Pila Street in search of Lathika. ‘Gangsta blues’ lasts just for a few seconds when Salim goes to meet Maman’s opponent Javed in their area. It is very difficult to understand the thought process behind the track ‘Liquid Dance’ which is used for the scene in which Jamal secretly follows Salim to find where Lathika is. But surprisingly, it doesn’t sound odd or out of place with the visuals. And the techno ‘Millionaire’ theme is used in the scene where the whole India is shown to be preparing to watch Jamal face his final 20 Million rupees question in the show.

When I saw ‘Jai Ho’ for the first time, I thought it was so badly choreographed, but later I came to know that the song was composed for already shot visuals and they had used a completely different song for shooting. Though it shows quite badly, nobody seems to be caring, the thumping rhythm and energy of the song just blows you off and especially as it comes after the triumphant climax.

Finally, it is so difficult to technically analyze and objectively comes to a conclusion about which is the best background score when you have five equally deserving works in the list of nominees. For that, one has to ask other four composers to score background music for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and see if they are able to outdo A.R.Rahman. What is important is the fact that Rahman’s score fits and it fits to an extent that people tend to believe and accept that it can’t get any better.

Here is wishing Rahman to bring 2 Oscars home.