A.R.Rahman has always been fascinated by the rhythm sound of a train and there are not many who have used it in songs as interestingly as him. The fascination was very evident in the background score of Bombay much before the ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ thunder hit the world of music. In the movie Bombay, in the scene when Manisha after hearing the news of Arvind Swamy leaving to Bombay, runs towards a train moving on a distant bridge, we don’t hear the natural train sound, instead Rahman fills the soundtrack with a thundering rhythm that imitates that of the train as if the deafening sound of the train - carrying her beloved soul away, is tearing apart the music in Manisha’s life.
And now Rahman takes one step further and creates the thunder once again with a thumping train rhythm in the opening song ‘O Saya’ of the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ soundtrack, tearing apart the barriers and making the real cross over in his own inimitable way. The song gives me the ‘Thiruda Thiruda’ days of exhilaration. It sounds as fresh as the songs of ‘Thiruda Thiruda’ sounded, when it released and from what I read and understand even people from the other part of the world feel the same about this song. The beauty of the song is not just in its rhythm, as the Rahman’s alaap is one of the catchiest hooks I have heard in recent times. While the rhythm is all Rahman sound, the vocal melody is all Rahman music and together it spins a captive aural web on the listeners. M.I.A’s vocal portions and the cute and playful kids’ choral portions are nicely sandwiched in between. Also, the music beautifully matches with the rapid cuts and energy of the visuals where kids are shown running in the narrow streets of Bombay slums.
‘Riots’ with its sustained bass implying the prevailing tension and the turbulent rhythms adding upon a disturbing aura and with a very petrifying layer of e-sounds, brings out the intended effect quite well.
‘Mausam & Escape’ is the first piece I heard with the visuals from this movie (thanks to Youtube) and the one which I instantly liked. The initial pleasant strain of guitar beautifully underscores the sweet surprise of Lathika and Jamal as they meet each other in the railway station and before they could come closer and before guitar could take a complete thematic form, it is abruptly broken by the gang abducting Lathika, as does the freaking Sita(r)ock and running violins that abruptly ends the guitar piece and aptly captures the chaos, the struggle and the high energy chase in the visuals. After reaching its maximum energy and sound with thick layers of chorus, strings and beats, it turns mellow at the end and the tempo slowly fades and sitar theme gasps and whispers like how a person running and chasing someone would stop and gasp before he stabilizes.
Rahman gives a new meaning to the term Inspiration with the track ‘Ringa Ringa’, a beautiful rework of notorious and catchy Lakshmikant-Pyarelal’s ‘Choli ke peeche’ song. The ‘Ringa Ringa’ line in such an additive phrase of melody that I kept singing it, long after listening to the song. Even cookcookcook hook gets a twist as chikchiku. Rahman thickens the rhythm section with lot more loops of beats along with conventional Dhols and Dholaks, keeps the eroticism of the original intact by making Ila Arun and Alka Yagnik to land the ending notes of each line sensuously and infact injects more feel with additional hmms, hoons and haas of Ila Arun. He also adds a lot of beautiful sub layers like occasionally joining flute pieces and expressive humming of backing female harmony.
‘Liquid Dance’ is a cocktail solution prepared with a spoon of Sriram’s alaaps in ‘Love Check’ song from Rahman’s Tamil soundtrack ‘Parthalae Paravasam’ and a spoon of string section of the ‘Spirit of Rangeela’ from Rangeela. But it indeed is a sweet cocktail that alternates between catchy Arabic strings section and classical Indian alaaps that just nicely touches and parts with each other at various moments. Madhumitha’s voice is a surprise; Rahman indeed knows when and how to use the singers. Can’t imagine what could be the situation in the movie that this piece is scored for.
While I was getting a bit worried about lack of simplicity in Rahman’s melodies off late, here comes a bonanza in the form of ‘Lathika’s Theme’ that sounds so simple and yet a beautiful, deeply moving piece of music which also gains longevity with Suzanne’s vocals. The leisurely sitar strains playing the main theme towards the end adds a serene and divine touch to this emotional romantic melody. The ‘Dreams on Fire’ is the vocal version of the Lathika’s theme exquisitely sung by Suzanne again. With a constantly running bass, guitar strains, shakers and effective yet muted beats that thud deep under, this vocal version of Lathika’s theme is such a gripping love ballad and is one of the best English songs Rahman has written so far next only to ‘The Journey Home’ from Bombay Dreams. And the ending Flute version of the main theme is absolute bliss to listen to.
It is difficult to decipher the all-techno ‘Millionaire’ track. I don’t know if it sounds like the theme of the KBC show because the piece continuously transforms into different shapes as layers pile up one over the other and main motif keeps changing. It suggest a build up and it seems to be trying to tell a story especially the distant sounding somber cry in Madhumitha’s alaap implies something dramatic. This piece is strictly a background score material which relies heavily on the visuals to gain its completeness.
The strictly hip-hop ‘Gangsta Blues’ is a slow poison in which Blaaze and Tanvi Singh has put up a neat performance with right attitude and punch. It was tedious to listen to it initially because of its monotonous beats, slow pace and not so instantly identifiable structure of the song. But there are hooks in this one too and once you figure them out, you won’t skip this track next time.
If ‘Jai Ho’ was there in one of our Hindi film soundtracks, we would have definitely and easily rejected it out as another mediocre effort of Rahman. The song isn’t great but it isn’t bad either. Rahman gets the energy and the emotions right in the song with a clever structure that doesn’t ponder too much on the weak vocal parts in middle and instead breaks into the catchy hooks and the punchy percussions every now and then. Being quite aware of the highly emotional triumph at the end of the movie, I can understand how the overall energy and the euphoric sound of the song take over the audience. It is okay if Rahman gets nominated for Oscar for this song and wins it. Though not his best, if he wins then the world will come to listen to his far better Indian classics.
M.I.A’s ‘Paper Planes’ is quite catchy and I liked the way gun shot sound is used in this track. And there is Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ which is my favorite from Don Soundtrack.
Oscars and Other debates
I would like to insist on one thing which I have been doing quite often in this site that great background score is all about apt music and it need not always be a great music in its own (an obvious example being Psycho theme). For example, Rahman’s own ‘Warriors of Heaven and Earth’ score sounded great on audio but I was totally disappointed with the way it was used in the movie. So, there is no bigger sin than reviewing a movie soundtrack without even watching the movie.
I am not saying this to understate the goodness of the soundtrack as a stand alone audio. The soundtrack is very good, and it may even sound great once we understand how well it fits in with the visuals. The film director is the one who decides how the movie should sound, the type of music to be used, and sometimes even the instruments to be used (have seen videos in which George Lucas asks John Williams to sublime the brass and horn section of the orchestra from one of the cues while recording the score for Star Wars - directors get as specific as that in their requirements). So it is absolute stupidity to comment on a composer’s choice of genre of music for particular situation in the movie. Infact, the most people’s complaint about ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is that it is in-the-face and so loud, but if those who complain have seen or read Danny Boyle’s and Rahman’s interview, it is very clear that Danny wanted the score to be loud and they deliberately mixed it in such a way that the music should hit the audience the moment they hear it with the visuals. And even I have complaints about Rahman being generic in his background scores which doesn’t capture minute shift in emotions in the visuals and it is obvious to feel so for someone to feel so who has been drenched with innumerable masterpieces of background scores by Illayaraja. But that is not what Danny wanted; he wanted each music cue to be a separate song in itself and that which captures the overall energy and the mood of the sequence. And Rahman seems to have fulfilled Danny’s requirements.
And coming to the Oscar nomination for Best Background score debate, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they nominate and if this score actually fetches an Oscar for Rahman. As I said, there are no set rules in background score, its only aim is to effectively convey the director’s vision and the emotions in the visuals and if possible elevate it at times with the music. In that sense, if what critics from all over the world said can be believed, Rahman’s score seems to have done the job to near perfection in Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, it doesn’t have a theme or thematic development or symphonic swells like most of the scores nominated in this category use to have. I am also a big fan of Thomas Newman’s score for Wall-E, and an incredibly thematic orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat for ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ seems to be another serious contender in this category.
But the eclectic sound that Rahman and Danny puts up with Slumdog Millionaire is a refreshing change for a western crowd, that breaks rules and conventions and that sets up narrative in fire with its energy. So we can’t completely ignore the chance of Rahman winning it and if he wins we have every reason to be open heartedly proud about it. Let us not ask those stupid ‘Why should we care about Oscars’ questions. Rahman has nothing to prove to India by winning an Oscar, his music has already done it enough but an Oscar in his hand will definitely help him to go to the next level in the international arena. Here’s wishing Rahman all the best and keeping the finger crossed.