Allah Rakha Rahman has composed music for a London West End musical, scored a Chinese film, conducted the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and created tunes for more than 100 Indian films. But composing music for British director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire was a new challenge.
Boyle simply wanted a score with energy and an edge for his film about the travails of an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win a staggering Rs.20 million on India's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? game show.
But there was a twist. The perfectionist Rahman was given just three weeks to plan and execute the score. "We had met and talked about it for about two months. But I had to finish it quickly as Boyle wanted to start mixing the film by August," Rahman told IANS in a telephonic interview from New York.
"It's probably one-fifth of the time I normally take. For one thing, a normal film has about 150 cues. But in this one there were only 17-18 cues for me. Boyle uses music very less but very efficiently."
Rahman's task was made easier by the easygoing nature of the director.
"I have worked with different people. Most Westerners are generally reserved. But Boyle was different - like a friend, very helpful. It was like working for Mani Ratnam, Rakeysh (Omprakash Mehra). He was very excited about India. He loved India. He loved Mumbai. He loved everything," says the maestro.
The time at hand may have been much less than the Chennai-based composer is used to, but that fact appears to have had no effect on the final score. Slumdog Millionaire music is already attracting Oscar buzz.
To start the season on an auspicious note, it has just picked up an award - Best Score of the Year from the L.A. Film Critics Association. Rahman also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score and two Critics Choice nominations - Best Score and Best Song for Jai Ho.
The score was lent extra momentum by the presence of Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam, better known as 31-year-old dance music phenomenon M.I.A. Though she herself was born in London, M.I.A.'s parents are Sri Lankan Tamilians, a connection that informed and enhanced the film's score.
Rahman says: "...It (the South Asian connection) did have an impact. She is very young. Very futurist. Knew how to take the film forward. I knew her work. She knew my work and that helped."
"She asked me, 'Why don't you stop doing sentimental stuff?' That's how the music acquired that edgy feeling, that you wanted to fly away from it. She was definitely an inspiration."
Though Indian audiences will have to wait till January to see the film, the awards have already started pouring in. The US' National Board of Review has named Slumdog Millionaire the best film of 2008, while the film bagged the 'Best British Independent Film' prize at the British Independent Film Awards.
With honours coming in thick and fast, Rahman has a relatively sedate reaction to the prospect of an Indian composer achieving a first - an Academy Award (or even nomination) for music.
"I don't know whether it excites me personally. But a small-budget film getting the kind of recognition it is getting certainly makes you feel good."
AR Rahman is already well known in the West, but the accolades the film and his score are gathering should lead to greater prominence for this softspoken genius from Chennai.
"In a way it would help me to build a bridge with my Western listeners. It would lend to a better appreciation of my music in the West."
6 months ago