The box office-busting, Academy Award-winning success of “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009 surprised a lot of people — the producers, the director, the cast and virtually all of Hollywood.
And especially Alla Rakah “A.R.” Rahman.
Already a respected composer within India’s burgeoning film community, “Slumdog Millionaire” and its end-title hit, “Jai Ho,” made Rahman an international superstar and opened Western ears to his music. The soundtrack topped Billboard’s Top Electronic Albums Chart in January 2009 and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. It won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, two Oscars — Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song for “Jai Ho” — and a pair of Grammy Awards.
Rahman — who’s actually sold more than 350 million copies of his soundtrack albums worldwide — also was saluted as the “Mozart of Madras” on Time magazine’s 2009 list of the World’s Most Influential People and was tapped by Hollywood to score the romantic comedy, “Couples Retreat.” And the new notoriety has allowed him to bring “The A.R. Rahman Jai Ho Concert: The Journey Home World Tour” to North America — and to the Pontiac Silverdome this weekend.
“It’s been like a roller coaster ride,” Rahman, 44, says with gleeful laugh. “It’s stuff you’d never imagine — two Grammys, two Oscars, a Golden Globe — things you never thought were achievable, being from India.
“I was surprised, yeah, of course. With (‘Slumdog’) I just wanted to do something different from what I normally do in Indian. I never knew it would be such a success.”
“Slumdog” was indeed a fresh approach to film music for the father of three. At the behest of director Danny Boyle, it used “very limited music,” Rahman notes. “An Indian film has almost two hours of music, constant scoring underneath,” he explains. “So I felt like I was underworked on the movie, but the impact of where the music came was huge.”
And “Jai Ho” — which became a hit single via a remix that added the Pussycat Dolls — was “like an afterthought. Danny had picturized (the end sequence) to some other songs, and I saw the choreography and said, ‘Why don’t we do a song to this beat and add the word ‘Jai Ho,’ because in the movie the person (Jamal Malik, played by Dev Patel) goes through so much turmoil, and when he comes out it’s like a victory, and I wanted to enhance that.
“So it was like a last-minute addition, but it was perfect.”
Movie scoring was not Rahman’s first career choice — although music was. Born A.S. Dileep Kumar in the city of Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Rahman was introduced to music by his father, R.K. Shekhar, a composer and conductor who also did film music. Rahman was young when his father passed away, and he became more interested in playing keyboards for bands such as Roots and Nemesis Avenue while also studying Western classical music at Trinity College of Music in London.
Rahman opened his own recording studio in 1992 and began writing ad jingles, but was then approached by film director Mani Ratnam to score his film “Roja,” which earned Rahman the first of four Best Music Director honors at India’s National Film Awards and, he explains, “opened me to films in a very different way, which I’d never imagined before.”
“I got hooked on it,” says Rahman, who also performed with Michael Jackson in Munich during 2002, collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the play “Bombay Dreams” in England and composed music for the short-lived stage version of “The Lord of the Rings.”
“Film music ... is like a blank canvas and you can paint anything on it and add that to the film. Some directors force you to do a certain kind of music, others allow you the freedom to do anything, but the idea is to create an excitement for people to come to the theaters and at the same time retain musical integrity and artistic quality.”
With “The Journey Home World Tour,” meanwhile, Rahman is hoping to not only build greater understanding of and appreciation for film music but also achieve a cross-cultural exchange. Working with creative director Amy Tinkham, who’s worked on shows for Madonna, Mariah Carey, Paul McCartney and Britney Spears, Rahman has fashioned a two-and-a-half hour night of music that features a cast of musicians, dancers and acrobats, plus changing stage sets and an extensive video production.
“We’re looking at a universal appeal to this,” explains Rahman, who will play keyboards, sing and explain songs to the audience during the show. “There’s some songs in English, of course, but even for those that aren’t, you can still come and enjoy the musicality and the whole culture and colorfulness and the vibrancy of Indian stuff. That’s all going to be there.
“Normally what happens is we go and sing and there’s some dancers and some kind of visual effects. But this one is so integrated, and every (musical) bar and every second is integrated with technology and stuff, which moves around and it’s done with so much passion.”
The tour has been his focus, but Rahman also is working on new music. He’s just finishing up his 10th soundtrack with Ratnam, and Rahman says he’s been approached about collaborations by “most” of the artists he joined for the “We Are the World: 25 for Haiti” single earlier this year. But, he adds, “I’m taking it easy. I want to finish my album first.”
That project is a nonfilm album of original songs that will target the North American markets he conquered with “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“It’s a work in progress,” Rahman reports. “I’ve had three or four sessions already. The music is probably an extension of what ‘Jai Ho’ did but going more friendly in terms of English audiences. It’s retaining the same kind of magic, hopefully.”
“The A.R. Rahman Jai Ho Concert: The Journey Home World Tour” plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 19, at the Pontiac Silverdome. Tickets are $67, $87 and $107. Call 248-338-7000 or visit www.silverdomeevents.com.
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