NEW DELHI — Calling India's A.R. Rahman — who won a Golden Globe award for the score of "Slumdog Millionaire" last night — the best composer you've never heard of is beyond understatement.
Known locally as "the Mozart from Madras," Rahman has sold over 200 million albums worldwide: more than Madonna and Britney Spears combined.
But the truth of the matter is you probably can't hum one of his songs. That's about to change.
"There are a number of gifts that single [Rahman] out as special. His handling of rhythmical elements is astonishing and his solutions very South Indian," said Ken Hunt, one of the authors of the upcoming third edition of "The Rough Guide to World Music." "His melodies are catchy, clever and reveal a command of theatrical music techniques," Hunt adds. "He was pretty much ready for the big time from the get-go."
And now the big time is ready for him. With a multicultural soundtrack unlike anything he's ever done for Bollywood, the 43-year-old composer-singer-producer might be on his way to becoming America's hottest new hand on the mixing board. Indian-origin DJs in New York and London have been saying it for years, but now it just may be true. Brown is the new black.
As far as Indians are concerned, it's about time. Audiences here, where "Slumdog Millionaire" has not yet been released, have been overjoyed by the film's surprise victories at the Critics' Choice and Golden Globe awards. Here's one tribute:
Only three Indian films ever have been nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language category, "Mother India" (1957), "Salaam Bombay!" (1988) and "Lagaan" (2001). None took home the prize.
So even though "Slumdog" — written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Danny Boyle — is not technically an Indian production, or even a Bollywood-style film, the accolades for Rahman have provided some validation for the larger-than-life musicals that Indians often simply call "our films."
Rahman, who started to learn the piano at the age of 4, is something of a Slumdog Millionaire himself. After his father died, he was forced to start work as a keyboard player to support his family at just 11 years old. He later dropped out of high school to pursue his music career. About that same time, he converted from Hinduism to Islam, a brave choice in a country where Muslims often face persecution. But he says Islam "set [him] free."
From his humble beginnings, Rahman swiftly became one of Bollywood's biggest money spinners — a kind of Indian Quincy Jones — virtually owning the industry for more than a decade. His hits, like Chaiya Chaiya, Chhoti Si Asha and Thee Thee, have as much enduring appeal as any Beatles standard, and not only for Bollywood fans. "A.R. Rahman is nothing short of a melodic genius," Andrew Lloyd Webber has said. "I admire his unique sense of harmony, his staggering rhythms and his melodies that take an unexpected twist that no Western composer would dream of."
Bollywood insiders know that kind of staggering genius can make or break a film in India. "In Indian cinema, the music is such an important part of it that music can save a mediocre film," says film critic Jai Arjun Singh. "With Rahman, it happens frequently."
That's not an overstatement. Marketers use song-and-dance numbers from movies for the trailers, videos on Channel V and MTV drive repeat business, and soundtrack sales and music video rights account for a significant part of the picture's revenue.
That's why Indian producers swear by him. "He has demonstrated fusion of west and east more than most musicians over the world," said Ronnie Screwvala, chief executive of UTV Motion Pictures, one of India's most successful film production companies. "All our tent pole [productions] have always been Rahman [films]—from Swades to Rang De Basanti to Jodha Akhbar and Delhi 6."
Nevertheless, though he performed with Michael Jackson and wrote the music for Webber's Broadway musical Bombay Dreams and the stage production of the Lord of the Rings, Rahman was virtually unknown to Western fans until last night.
Now he has to be considered a frontrunner for an Oscar, and a raft of offers from record companies and producers in the U.S. music industry.
Here comes the close up.