A.R. Rahman

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Slumdog Millionaire

Revered Bollywood film composer A.R. Rahman exchanges ideas and anecdotes with Jason Bentley as they review the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire on Morning Becomes Eclectic at 11:15am.


Excerpts from A.R. Rahman on Morning Becomes Eclectic.

Jason Bentley: Next up on Morning Becomes Eclectic we welcome the great Indian composer A.R. Rahman. He has scored over 130 films and sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Welcome to KCRW.

A.R. Rahman: How are you?

JB: I'm good, how are you doing?

ARR: I'm good.

JB: Now, Slumdog Millionaire is your latest film in theatres here, although you're so prolific you probably have three, four films out since then. But it's the latest one that's available here in theatres. How did director Danny Boyle first approach you for this project? Did he send you a script?

ARR: Yeah, he sent a script and I was doing another movie at the time, so I was waiting for that to get over. By then he had cut the film already. He sent me a DVD of that; I watched it and I was very impressed. I called him and said, 'when do we start?

So I asked him 'why do you want me and what do you like in my music?' to analyze what to give him because I've been doing different sorts of things. I wanted to be very clear about what I should do in this movie, so he said 'I like this, I like that.' Then I started sending him ideas and he would respond to it, and then, once we had enough ideas to match the film, and all the cues I started developing it even more.

JB: This film's about sort of a young man's quest for love against all odds in his life. There are also a number of themes in the film: the extreme poverty that we see, the extreme population in Mumbai - and, just to give people some perspective, Mumbai is a city of 13 million people -

ARR: -and contradictions.

JB: -and contradictions.

ARR: You're the world's richest person there and the world's poorest people.

JB: So, a great disparity of wealth. Just by comparison, Los Angeles - a city of 4 million people compared to Mumbai of 13 million. Also, we see religious violence, very modern India colliding with the old world and the tradition, and these are all themes in the film. When you think of a movie that - in this case is made by Westerners - did you feel that it was authentic?

ARR: I think Danny [Boyle, director] started loving the place, and it's not in a very condescending way that he has portrayed it. He has probably portrayed it probably true to what it is - which it was 'cause it's a past thing, and now things have changed drastically. There is so much development, there's so much change in Mumbai. So in that way it was right, and what I liked was he captured the spirit of Mumbai, which is undying. It was great.

JB: "…which is undying." Explain that.

ARR: You know, like when you go to New York, you feel that people are motivated and they are just charged and anything that happens, the next day they are back on to work, they don't care about it. They want the life. Bombay is such a place - a lot of things which happen, people keep going, and nobody gets dropped.

JB: It was all very surreal for me as I saw the film, and then the very next morning I awoke to see the headlines of the violence in Mumbai. Where were you when this happened?

ARR: I was recording, and I had a couple of my friends from Mumbai, directors whose songs I was recording, and it was very disturbing. We didn't have time to brood about it, we kept going and finishing the song. And then the next couple of days it striked how big it was. It's created an impact, which is going to change a lot of things…in a good way, though I hate to admit such a bad thing happened, but the results are going to be good. The people are together, and we are not seeing any adversity. They are together and saying that 'we will make a change.'

JB: What is the psyche of the city at this time now - your observation, the spirit that you mentioned? Have people…are they healing or recovered or still in shock?

ARR: For me, after that shock there was another shock. On a personal level, I lost my sound engineer, who was very close to me for 20 years. I tried to finish a project in three days, and I just - I want to get out of this place. And I came to LA, and things are better now and my mind has changed.

In fact, the music head of Fox was saying that they - 'somebody sent me a cue of yours to the Mumbai Theme, and I love the strings on it.' And I said 'the guy who did the strings is no more.' It's irony. Anyway.

JB: I'd like to play that Mumbai theme. This is the first piece that I heard of your work years ago. I think I came across it on a compilation from Talvin Singh, it was on that compilation - but this is associated with the film Bombay from 1995. Can you mention, talk about this piece of music before we go into it?

ARR: Yeah, this piece of music, again there was a big thing which happened in Bombay - the demolition of the masjid and the riots after that and the bombings after that. I think it moved me so greatly that the movie was about two couples from different religions marrying and going to Bombay. I'm still going to call it Bombay. And so when he asked for a tune for a song, this thing came to me. It's not a tune for a song, but it's a tune for a theme, and I recorded the strings without his knowledge and then I sent it to him. And that's how it came about.

JB: Well, it's a beautiful piece of music, and this is what you opened with at the Hollywood Bowl a couple of years back…

ARR: Yeah.

JB: …but just a stunning piece of music. So let's play The Mumbai Theme. It's music by A.R. Rahman - he's my guest on Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW.

Music Break: Mumbai Theme & Divinity Theme

JB: That was the Mumbai Theme, followed by the Divinity Them from “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which was a collaboration with Scottish composer Craig Armstrong. How did that collaboration come about and are you looking for other opportunities to work on Western films?

ARR: Yeah. The collaboration with Craig Armstrong came … wanted me to do a score combined with a Western composer, and for me it was a great experience. All of us had these questions about how they work in the West. I've done a film called Worries of Heaven - a Chinese film - that was completely different, so this a proper Hollywood way of working in “The Golden Age.” And Craig is such a nice gentleman and was kind enough to give me a space in Glasgow, and it was fun and a nice experience.

JB: What are the differences that you've noticed between the Hollywood style of film composing - and film making - and the studio system in India?

ARR: India is not one system, there are multi-systems. One is the pressure of delivering, which is there everywhere. Things have changed, actually. I started, probably - I'm 42 now - yeah, I was in the industry, I was playing for people at the age of 12, so I've crossed three generations, so I can't remember how the lines crossed.

JB: Was it a shock in any way working in the Western system or did you just find it as comfortable as you were used to?

ARR: I think the first breaking of the ice came when Andrew Lloyd Weber wanted me to do this Bombay Dreams thing, so that's when I discovered a lot of things: to work with a Western orchestra in preparation and all that stuff. There it's like a family, you know, 'oh I need strings this afternoon' and they'll come. And some days they just dictate on the fly the notes. [Sings an example] So it's a different way of working for certain things. Certain things we have a score. So here the preparation is a great deal. I mean orchestration: preparation and marking the time.

JB: It's more of a technical process?

ARR: Absolutely, it's a great deal. So, I think I have a great orchestrator and once I finish my score I give it to him and he does it.

JB: MIA had a breakout hit this past summer in America with "Paper Planes," which is featured on the soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire. We also heard your collaboration with MIA called "O Saya" to open this segment. How was it working with MIA?

ARR: Well, I listened to her stuff two years back and I was really impressed and she had of course followed my music because she speaks Tamil and I met her when she wanted to do some …in my studios last year. But we spent more time because Danny wanted me to collaborate with her and even I wanted to collaborate with her. She is like a tank of ideas. So it was great, collaborating with her.

JB: You seem like a collaborator by nature. I notice on every track on Slumdog Millionaire there are featured artists. Do you love to work with creative people?

ARR: Yeah, of course.

JB: Well the next couple tracks I'd like to play "Ringa Ringa" and "Liquid Dance." Can you tell me about these songs?

APR: The first one was "Ringa Ringa." "Ringa Ringa" is actually.. in the ‘90s there was a huge hit film…. and Danny had used that as a temp so I didn’t want to use that in the film, so what I did was I took the tempo number and I recreated the same genre of the song so that's how this hook was created.

JB: And "Liquid Dance?"

ARR: "Liquid Dance" is… I've done something on a basic level and I didn't want to repeat that so we recorded it, chopped it all up and added some strings to it to give it a flavor and finally made the sound good, I guess.

JB: It does indeed. Let's take a listen. Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. AR Raman is my guest on Morning Becomes Eclectic.

Music Break: “Ringa Ringa and “Liquid Dance”

JB: It's Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW. My guest this hour AR Rahman, Indian composer. He’s just spending a little time in Los Angeles and promoting the new Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire. When I first heard that name I thought it was a rapper, you know Little Wayne and Slumdog Millionaire. But it's a new film and it's in theaters now. Composer AR Raman is with me. I understand you've started a music school, a conservatory, in India. Tell us more about that and your goals with that.

ARR: The more I went into orchestra and music for films, I found less players in India and no motivation to learn acoustic instruments. They all wanted to be DJ's and composers with sequences which is great, so nobody…the government was more interested in Indian classical, a little bit, not that much also. So there was a rumor saying that one of the corporates was going to do a school and I was waiting for like almost eight years. So I just said forget it. Let's do it. And just six days before my birthday I said let's announce it on my birthday, so it will get noticed. I announced it and in three months a lot of things happened by itself. A lot of people started emailing me and saying "I would be interested in teaching." Then I had empty land near my studio and I said 'let's build a building for the school.' So it all came up in six months and I had a good collaboratorwho said I'll take care of it don't worry. And, yeah we have faculty from the US, and Holland and the UK all teaching classical, harpsichord, harp, piano, violin, voice and stuff.

JB: That’s amazing, amazing.

ARR: And we have around 110 students.

JB: Wow, and will you instruct on modern techniques as well, using software programs or is it mainly traditional?

ARR: No, it’s basically I have the responsibility of these people paying the fees-- I am supporting it almost 3/4s money goes from me, then 1/4 goes from the students -- I want them to have a good career after that, when they come out. I don’t want them to be a violinist sitting at home without any work. So having this knowledge and the art of playing, and present day knowledge of computers, editing and recording so they will be able to find good careers in their life. So that is the idea. And I need people too, I need players, composers, and conductors. So it will be a factory of creative people coming out.

JB: Well, with the number of films that you do work on it seems that you need a factory around you. How many films on the average do you compose for?

ARR: I would like to do six films, but…

JB: Each year?

ARR: Yeah, sometimes what happens certain films get delayed and goes to the next year.

JB: That’s amazing. Will you be planning any live shows or returns to the Hollywood Bowl or do shows around the world?

ARR: There is an offer, but I don’t want to do the same thing. I just want to make my whole performance different this time, so I will be working on it.

JB: I just wanted to ask you about your creative process with directors. Do you typically work very closely on a film or is it … as we know in the States a composer will typically come on in the final six weeks of a film and they are the last element to come in.

ARR: No, no that is very bad. That will create so much confusion. They will put on the temp music and then they will like the temp music and then they would like the composer to better the temp music and it becomes a real disaster.

What I would like to do, in India what we do is that I get signed before and I do the songs, the songs get shot and the themes are derived from the songs. Here, also like in the olden days I would love to, if I work in any Western movie, I would love to see the script and give the themes before the director goes for shooting and that way it will be much more integrated you know.

JB: A great score has two components, it supports, accentuates, helps define scenes in the film and it is great music in and of itself. When you listen to the soundtrack without seeing the movie the music stands on its own. How do you approach the problem of making your scores both perfect for the film and wonderful simply as a listening experience as music?

ARR: This is a recent problem that just happened. When I worked on Golden Age too this happened. When you have a melody you suddenly say ‘oh, the melody is disturbing my theme.’ I thought that is a better way to do it because it adds another element to the film. Because in India they love theme music and they love when the hero and heroine fall in love they love to hear the love themes and all this stuff. But most of my scores I love to have a melody and in a sublime way coming in, but I am waiting for more challenges. In Slumdog, what we did was sudden cues which had only rhythm and stuff, for the CD we add a little more so it would become more listenable and that took extra couple of weeks for me to do that.

JB: So you would do unique versions for the soundtrack recording?

ARR: Yeah.

JB: Would you say that music plays a stronger role in Indian cinema?

ARR: Yeah.

JB: Definitely, huh?

ARR: Yeah, it brings more audience into the theatre. Because when the song releases earlier it gets promoted in all the channels and people come to watch the song first and if they like the movie it is a bonus.

JB: I'd like to close with the song, Jai Ho. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s a dance number and in some ways more of a traditional scene, what we might expect from a Bollywood film, in Slumdog Millionaire. Can you tell us anything about this, a little bit more about this song?

ARR: The film actually had another track that charted to another temp track because at that time I was not in as a composer and when I saw that, I felt that it could be a better song and more appropriate to the situation and I had this chant, "J Ho" which means victory celebration and so I tried… Danny could never believe that it could be another song because when you shoot, it did not have lip sync so I did this and chopped it and put it and showed it to him and he shot it twice and said "its working!" So it was great fun doing that.

JB: It is a great scene in the film. It’s a wonderful film it is called Slumdog Millionaire it is in theatres now. A.R. Rahman has been my guest on Morning Becomes Eclectic we'll go out with J Ho from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. Mr. Rahman thank you for your time today.

ARR: Thank you.





Ariana Morgenstern