A.R. Rahman may be one of the most successful musicians in the world.
As the leading composer of India's popular Bollywood film industry, he has been featured in international projects - from
on Broadway to
Lord of the Rings
in Toronto and London, and his music has also appeared in Hollywood movies, including
Lord of War
. But until recently his name was not widely known among Americans.
That may change with British director Danny Boyle's critically acclaimed
. In a holiday season cluttered with movies,
, with its underdog theme and message of hope and redemption, is receiving awards and nominations from film critics' associations all over the world. And Rahman's exuberant score, layered with both Bollywood and Western sounds, plus a couple of numbers by the Sri Lankan hip-hop artist M.I.A., is drawing accolades and recognition, including a Golden Globe nomination.
MTV's Kurt Loder called
's music "hip-hop fusion of a very up-to-date kind."
"It's very edgy, younger; it's more today and contemporary, and it's taking a complete risk," the soft-spoken Rahman said recently from Los Angeles. About working with M.I.A., who is far better-known than he is in the West, and was Boyle's choice to be included in the soundtrack, Rahman said: "She is really an inspiring person."
Oscar buzz for
now includes the film, director Boyle, and also Rahman. "It will be nice if India wins an Oscar," Boyle recently said. "They will be so delighted in Mumbai because they really do look to American movie culture, and it would mean an awful lot to them."
India may produce more movies than any other country, but the only two Indian film workers to receive Oscars were the celebrated Bhanu Athaiya, who shared the 1982 award with England's John Mollo for costume design in Richard Attenborough's highly decorated
, and filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who received an honorary award in 1991.
"Let's hope," Rahman, 42, said. Given the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai,
is a perfect film to watch, Rahman said, calling Boyle "almost like an ambassador for India."
He's delighted that the
soundtrack might let American critics and listeners discover more of his music. "I think if they love a piece of work, then they want to follow the composer," he said. "This could be the biggest bridge, connecting them to all my work.
"In America, they typecast a musician," Rahman said. "He is a horror-music soundtrack composer, he is a good pop music or a classical music composer. But in India they expect everything from a single person. That has pushed me to do whatever my clients want. I compose music, I sing songs, I have worked on jingles. I write Indian music and Western music, and after a point of time you mature into it, sometimes falling down, and then walking properly."
Allah Rakkha Rahman was born A.S. Dileep Kumar to a Hindu family in Chennai (formerly Madras) in southern India. He learned piano at the age of 4, and after dropping out of school he joined a musical troupe as a keyboard player at age 11. Rahman does not like to talk about it, but for personal reasons he later converted to Islam.
By the mid-1980s he was composing radio and television jingles, until he was picked by Mani Ratnam, one of southern India's best known filmmakers, to compose music for
The enormous success of his early films led to offers from Bollywood - the popular Hindi language films produced in Bombay, now Mumbai. He has composed some of the best-received Indian film soundtracks, from the Oscar-nominated
(2006) to the dance-hall hit
"Chaiyya Chaiyya," featured in
and used in the opening and end credits of Spike Lee's
When Boyle sent Rahman a rough-cut DVD of
, the musician jumped at the opportunity. "I always wanted to work with a Western director who would be sympathetic toward Indian culture," he said. "It was important for me to do something that was connected to our culture and at the same time can appeal to the Western audience."
soundtrack, completed in three weeks, Boyle provided a great deal of feedback. "It's a great screenplay with so many different elements, and the music had to change," Rahman said. "You couldn't do the same thing again and again.
"I was surprised to hear the whole soundtrack in the end," Rahman added, calling it "quite different from what I have ever done."