AR Rahman: From the Oscar in 2009, to musical innovations
In 2009, AR Rahman won two Oscars—for Original Score and Original Song—for his work in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire
Image: Jeff Kravitz/Filmmagic

On February 22, 2009, at the 81st Academy Awards, when AR Rahman won his first two Oscars—for Original Score and Original Song—for his work in the Danny Boyle-directed Slumdog Millionaire, quite a few were left scratching their heads back home in India. Even for the most die-hard Rahman fan (or perhaps especially for them), ‘Jai Ho’ was hardly the music composer’s best. Despite winning eight Oscars, the film itself had been received with muted enthusiasm in India, with the Indian Express calling it “Salaam Bombay on speed”, referring to Mira Nair’s 1988 classic, while others were revolted by what has come to be called “poverty porn”.

These wins were accompanied and followed by a plethora of other international award nominations and wins, including two Grammys, for the same tracks. Although Rahman had worked on international films earlier as well—He Ping’s Chinese film Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2003) and Shekhar Kapur’s English film Elizabeth (2007)—it was Slumdog Millionaire that firmly imprinted Rahman on Hollywood’s consciousness.

So much so, that last August, in an interview to Forbes, he said: “As an Indian composer, winning an Oscar and all that stuff, there is a pigeonhole you are put into. ‘Oh Indian stuff, let’s go to AR!’ Even though I have done 127 Hours, Pele and other stuff, but still the urge… there’s nothing bad with that. I am doing a lot of Indian movies. I love doing Indian movies. I am proud. But I also love to do something that is completely unrelated to India, as a creative expression. To get those is very difficult in Hollywood, all the places are already taken.”

AR Rahman: From the Oscar in 2009, to musical innovationsIn the years following his Oscar wins, Rahman has worked in several international films, including Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010), Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us (2012), Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s Pele (2016), and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) and Blinded by the Light (2018). In 2011, he released a single, ‘Miracle Worker’, along with Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones, as part of the latter’s project called SuperHeavy. In 2019, Marvel Studios roped in Rahman to compose the ‘Marvel Anthem’ in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu in its attempt to widen its India fanbase.

Also read: A R Rahman: A sound in the making

When Rahman composed music for his first film, Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), apart from unfavourable comparisons with Ilaiyaraaja—Roja was the first of Ratnam’s 11 films without Ilaiyaraaja’s music—there was criticism of his dependence on technology. There was even some degree of apprehension that if Rahman could make computers produce the sounds of musical instruments, then what would happen to musicians. While that debate has long been laid to rest, what has remained unabated is Rahman’s love of technology.

Moving beyond music alone, and harnessing his global status, in 2022 Rahman released Le Musk, a virtual reality (VR) thriller film that he wrote, directed and co-produced. The 36-minute film premiered as part of the Cannes XR programme at the 75th Cannes Film Festival where the cinematic experience was accentuated by smell, motion and music. For this, Rahman worked with Positron, a Los Angeles-based VR technology and entertainment company, which provided the motion chairs and headsets for viewing the film.

AR Rahman: From the Oscar in 2009, to musical innovationsAR Rahman (extreme right) with the cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire as it wins the Best Picture award at the 81st Annual Academy Awards on February 22, 2009, in Los Angeles, California
Image: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Continuing his trysts 1with technology, in August 2023, Rahman announced the launch of a metaverse music platform called Katraar’, where up-and-coming musicians and artistes can upload their work and earn from it. Katraar will be deployed on the Hedera Network of HBAR Foundation, with which Rahman is also planning to work on NFTs in the realms of music, art and storytelling.

In 2024, Rahman’s most recent works have been in Tamil films Ayalaan and Lal Salaam, Malayalam film Aadujeevitham, and Hindi films Maidaan and Amar Singh Chamkila. He has also teamed up with actor-director Prabhu Deva after 25 years for a film slated to release next year; their work in Gentleman (1993), Kadhalan (1994), and Mr Romeo (1996) were runaway successes of the times.

And 15 years after Rahman won the Oscars, ‘Jai Ho’ has coincidently resurfaced in media reports recently, with filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma claiming the song was, in fact, composed by Sukhwinder Singh, one of its vocalists. Singh has, however, refuted the claim.

(This story appears in the 31 May, 2024 issue
of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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