hide captionA. R. Rahman got his start in the Indian film industry in 1991, composing for the film Roja.
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
If you were to name a few musicians who've sold more than 100 million albums, Elvis Presley and The Beatles would surely top your list. Here's another one to add: A.R. Rahman. Rahman has composed the music for more than 130 films in India — and he has indeed sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Here in America, however, many are hearing his music for the first time in the Academy Award-nominated film Slumdog Millionaire.
Rahman has already picked up a Golden Globe for his work, an honor he says truly surprised him.
"I never thought about awards when doing this movie," he says. "I just wanted to have fun."
The music from Slumdog Millionaire is infectious, filled with exciting hooks that make it impossible to sit still. One such hit, "Jai Ho," closes the film in classic Bollywood style: a colorful, elaborate dance routine featuring the entire cast.
"I was very clear that nobody would understand most of the lyrics in Hindi," he says. "So I needed to have certain syllables that will attract any audience and they could sing. 'Jai ho' means 'be victorious.' It's like a blessing, and it also can be pronounced very easily."
For the Slumdog Millionaire score, Rahman blended classic Indian styles and instruments with reggae, Brazilian drumming and Western electronica in an eclectic melting pot. In "Mausam and Escape," a dynamic sitar is layered over a driving pulse — a dramatic difference from the more somber, traditional sitar sound that Indian music usually employs. Rahman says it's one of his favorite songs from the soundtrack.
Next month, Rahman is up for three Academy Awards, and will perform at the ceremony. His usual shows include up to 80 people on stage: a string section, 20 dancers, many kinds of ethnic instruments and India's superstar singers. He says he's not sure what this performance will entail, but it's likely to be electrifying.