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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why A.R.Rahman deserves it for SdM Score?

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.

Listening Slumdog Millionaire

On other Scores of A.R.Rahman

Jodhaa Akbar
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Scoring Moments of A.R.Rahman
Celebrating A.R.Rahman


Anonymous said...

Great write up Suresh. Bang on on the first two paras.

Regarding the differentiation between the 'Original Soundtrack' and Original Song ('Jai Ho' here), half the media got it all wrong, maybe they assumed so since that is the track that got played when each of Slumdog crew went on stage to get their Golden Globe Honours.

But yes, I spoiled the movie for myself as I haven't seen it yet :)

Arunram said...


What an analysis you have done with respect to the background score! I do not have any hesitations in accepting that I did not pay attention to whatever the minute details you mentioned.

How do you get to "notice" these things when watching a movie?

-Arunram (NITT/2004)

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Hi da Arunram,

//How do you get to "notice" these things when watching a movie?//

Palagai poyiduchu.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Muthuvel - Thanks. Yes I too think that as they played 'Jai Ho' when Rahman walked towards the stage, many might have thought so... But still....

Anonymous said...

Hi Suresh,

Great writeup. Feels happy when someone is there like me to perceive the background score. Did you notice the very mildly audible 'o saya' when Jamal looks the clue "B." on the mirror? I got goosebumps! It reminded me how Nino Rota used his score to tell us that Fredo is going to get assassinated by his brother Michael in GodFather II.

While Jamal starts searching once they reach Mumbai, Latika theme starts and I was able to hear a mild bass as a backing to suzanne's voice. Hope you too felt that. Definitely, as you said these things should only be experienced in theaters.


P.S. Suresh Kumar said...


Thanks. Yes, I did notice that distantly sounding 'O saya' in that bathroom scene... Couldn't decipher the real reason behind the usage of 'O saya' in that scene.. It was definitely surprising to hear that piece in that scene. And yes, the bass in 'Lathika's theme' is there in CD also I guess...

Vijay said...

I felt the soundtrack on the CD is much richer than what has been used in the movie and would have suited the background score more. The movie version works anyway. Superb.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Vijay - Yes, the CD has complete version of all the songs and themes which aren't used in entirety but just in parts which is just adequate for the movie...

bArt said...

Thank you very much for opening my ears to what my eyes may or may not have seen.

I saw SDM only last Sunday. I bought the CD today.

Given half the opportunity to watch the movie a second time, I'll definitely take it. If not, I'll just have to wait for the DVD.

Anyhow, your review will certainly deepen my appreciation for the combination movie - background score.

So thank you again,


P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Bart - I am glad to have opened your ears to background score of SdM. That was exactly the intention of this piece.

hitherto said...

i dont think he deserves golden globe or oscar...even rahman knows this...there is no chance to score in that movie..its just like an album..if u want to know what a score does to a film hear..schindlers list..very recent listen to naan kadavul.dont u think raaja deserves any international award.just because he is an indian,we cant just support him.im not into this patriotic business..rahman is a corporate child.he is a brand.thats all i can say.anybody can write anything and anybody can support it by honey toned words.all he can give is a racy soundtrack..tell me one backgound score that was very emotional.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Hitherto - One cannot put the background score of a Schindler's list or Naan Kadavul to a movie like 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Rahman gave the music that is right for the movie and that is all great background scoring is about. It is not whether Rahman deserves an Oscar or not, but it is about whether he deserves it for Slumdog Millionaire and to me he deserves it. And I don't know why there is a cry about Raaja whenever there is a praise for Rahman? I didn't say Raaja doesn't deserve any of these international awards. Raaja chose not to go for it, for him whatever he does and gets in Tamilnadu is enough but that doesn't mean that every other composer should be like him.

Fan said...

"tell me one backgound score that was very emotional."

Bombay? Kannathil Muthamittal? Quite a few of his hindi movies. Check out Suresh's compilations of his favourite Rahman scores. You would understand that Rahman is not bad at all at composing bgm that is apt for the movie as is portrayed by a section of the fans out there. If you are unbiased, that is.

Fan said...

As always, excellent writeup Suresh. I haven't watched the movie in theater yet. After reading your writeup, I feel I should watch it soon.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Fan - Do watch it and you will realize the impact of the score.

flashMyPassion said...

It's evident that you are an AR Rahman fan !! ;)

Unknown said...

Your review was kind of okay, but did you not realise that some of the tunes have been re-used from his old films like Azhagiya tamil magan and Swades. The 'Liquid Dance' music is nothing but the villain Vijay theme music of Azhagiya Tamil Magan.

Compare yourselves and see:



Also I remember hearing some more of his old tunes. Also Rahman uses beat sound too often to my liking. Whenever he wants to compose a energetic tune, he goes for beats like Kadhal Desam students fights scene, Bombay film Riots scene, Indian film BGMs, SDM many of the songs especially 'O Saya'. There are obviously so many ways bringing energetic music even by using flute or string instruments.

Also Ring Ringa is nothing but Choli ke piche kya hai part 2. There was not much innovative that he tried as much as you have exagerrated. It was certainly not one of his best.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Re-using his own tune is not a sin, anything is fine when it sounds right with the visuals in the movie. As I said, it fits and it fits so well that you don't think all these non-musical aspects of the score.

Flute or String instruments in Sdm for energy, no way. It also depends on the flow, the cuts and shifts in the visuals, I guess with the way scenes are cut in SdM, the beats are just right.