When he visits Australia this month, Indian film music’s biggest superstar A.R. Rahman will walk the streets relatively unnoticed, but the composer/musician/producer – dubbed “the Mozart of Madras” – doesn’t enjoy this luxury in India.
“Yeah, I can’t walk down the streets,” Rahman says, chuckling. “That’s the reason why I live in a place like Chennai [formerly Madras]. I live a normal life. I go to movies, the music shop, I go to the restaurant and people leave me alone. There is some space they give you, there isn’t paparazzi all over the place and I don’t really get photographed.”
He may not worry about these intrusions in Australia, but Rahman is still expected to draw 10,000 film music fans and fanatical ex-pat Indians to Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl when he performs with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
For 25 years, A.R. Rahman (real name Allah-Rakah Rahman), 51, has been Indian film’s most prolific and successful composer/scorer. His soundtracks number more than 150 and include Indian smashes such as Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), Bombay (1995) and Dil Se…, Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela (1995), Subhash Ghai’s Taal (1999) and Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2011).
Add to that his British and Hollywood film soundtracks including Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), Pele: Birth of a Legend (2016) and various stage productions of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Bombay Dreams (2002-06).
Rahman has also collaborated with Michael Jackson, will.i.am, David Byrne, MIA and Vanessa Mae, and in 2011 he was part of rock-royalty supergroup Superheavy, alongside Mick Jagger, Eurythmic Dave Stewart, Joss Stone and Damian Marley. Based in his AM Studios in Chennai, Rahman works across India’s various regional film industries. His scores fuse eastern classicism, traditional instruments, electronic motifs, world music and orchestral arrangements, as well as disparate forays into jazz, reggae and rock.
In the tradition of legendary Indian film composers such as R.D. Burman and Satyajit Ray, Rahman has carried the Indian film soundtrack torch forward. However, with his successful transition into western cinema, it can even be argued he has now surpassed them. It’s tempting to place his breakthrough at Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won two Grammy Awards, two Academy Awards, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, but he was already a huge star in India.
“I think there were many stages in my life,” he says thoughtfully. “My first movie [soundtrack] (Roja) won a National Film Award. Then I did Vande Mataram, an album that became very famous in India and sold a lot of copies worldwide. Then in 2002, we had Andrew Lloyd-Webber interested in us in the musical world for Bombay Dreams. But Slumdog Millionaire was a huge turning point, in getting Oscars and all the awards.”
His Melbourne show will follow a similar format to previous collaborations with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Scottish Orchestra and German Film Orchestra Babelsberg. Led by long-term collaborator, British Conductor Matt Dunkley, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will perform arrangements of his classic film scores, with vocal soloists from Opera Australia, a choir, Indian instrumentalists and Rahman himself in a guest capacity.
“The orchestra’s great, and I think that’s one of the main reasons for doing this in Melbourne,” Rahman explains. “Even though I’ve performed music a long time, when you perform this music and you hear the nuances with the spirit of an orchestra, it moves you.”
Article originally written and published by Andre Drever for publication The Age.