Danny Boyle, in an interview to the Mint, responding to a question about which part of Slumdog Millionaire he liked the most:
“The music. The composer A.R. Rahman is a superstar. He did the music, and he is phenomenal. You tend to get very bored with a film when you see so much of it, so the music keeps it going...”
Like almost everything AR Rahman has done in his career, the music of Slumdog Millionaire is brilliant, and like almost everything he has done post-Saathiya, it is uneven. The first disappointment if you are buying the T-series version of the soundtrack available in India, is the absence of Sri Lankan-born rapper M.I.A’s fantastic ‘Paper Planes’. What we are left with then is a mixed bag - two sure-fire winners, a varied bunch of instrumental pieces, some hip-hop, some throwback, one dud.
The sequencing leaves a lot to be desired. The opener, ‘Ringa Ringa’, is not a strong track – for some inexplicable reason, Rahman recasts ‘Choli ke peeche’ with the same vocal combination of Alka Yagnik and a strangely deflated Ila Arun. But he follows this up with a beauty. ‘Jai ho’ is quintessential Rahman – a throbbing, surging piece of music, overflowing with percussion and guitars and soaring vocals. Its a mad mix - Rahman obviously has flamenco on his mind, but he also wants to slip in a little Kishore Kumar ‘70s style progression. But what about those pounding drums? And orchestration? And chanting in Spanish? In the end, he does what he’s been doing since he the start of his career - he leaves it all in, and caps the whole thing with an ending so serene, you can picture the sunset.
‘O...Saya’, Rahman's collaboration with M.I.A, sounds distinctly different than ‘Jai Ho’, but are both uptempo and throbbing, and deserve to have been separated in the track listing. This track takes you on a what sounds like a very dangerous ride, immediately distinct from the joyous release and make-believe of ‘Jai ho’. If the earlier track sounded like Bollywood, this one just sounds like Mumbai. Anyone who has sat in the city’s local trains will recognise the chugging rhythm that picks up and drives the pace. Rahman sing the haunting refrain again and again, and M.I.A checks in with a rap in which she describes a city going from ‘pretty to gritty’.
The next five tracks are the ‘score’ section of the soundtrack, something which Rahman enjoys and approaches from his own distinct perspective. ‘Riots’ is ominous, though nowhere near ‘Raat ki dalal’ from Deepa Mehta’s Earth, the single scariest sound I have heard on screen. ‘Mausam and escape’ is intriguing – built around acoustic guitars and a sitar, it goes half techno, half orchestral mid-way, and finally resolves itself on a moody, unsettling note. ‘Liquid dance’ will fascinate those who are not familiar with Rahman’s ouvre; the rest will recognise the scatting and Rangeela-era synth as familiar. ‘Latika’s theme’ is hummed, simple but moving, ‘Millionaire’ has a strong ‘70s Bollywood influence, something one seldom hears in Rahman’s music. Anyone else doing the song and it would be called contrived, but Rahman is so far ahead of the rest that one assumes he sees it as just another element to throw into the mix rather than a crutch to fall back on.
The album ends weakly. ‘Gangsta Blues’ could have been an interesting experiment in jazzy hip-hop, but it never gets past lukewarm and is much too laid-back to leave any lasting impression. And ‘Dreams on fire’ is a misfire; the music is gauzy American Idol fodder and the gauche English lyrics end up mired in cliché. But the memories of ‘Jai Ho’ and ‘O...Saya’ are strong (strong enough to have earned Rahman not one, but two Oscar nominations for Best Song, in addition to another for Best Score). That it is Rahman who finally gets a chance to go there and perform (and hopefully win) is wonderfully just. Though he is hardly a typical Bollywood composer, he has come to be represent its finest musical flights and its highest aspirations. He has also come to symbolise, more than anyone else in our post-independence history, the sound that is India. The sound of temple bells and muezzin calls and church hymns and kirtans. The sound of a billion feet shuffling. The sound of sitars and tablas and mridangams, electric guitars and synthesizers. Sixteen years after Roja, the high points of this soundtrack shows us how clearly AR Rahman still hears and is able to transmit to tape, the sound of a nation on the move.