The film Slumdog Millionaire is a frenetic portrait of Mumbai, a gritty fairytale of beating the odds and standing firm in the face of adversity, and propelling it forward is the pulsating score by A.R. Rahman. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Mumbai, the film -- and its soundtrack -- becomes even more visceral than the ebullient depiction of the Indian city.
To be honest, I had just started to write something about the soundtrack last week when the news of the terrorist attack came, and I couldn't help wondering if this tragedy would now be linked to the film, for good and for bad. Hearing M.I.A. singing, "Some some some I some I murder, some I some I let go" in the song "Paper Airplanes" while watching the news unfold can steer one's thoughts in the oddest of directions. That song of course has made her a star, and one of the drawbacks of her higher profile is that it has also made her a target. This summer M.I.A. had to release a statement disclaiming accusations that she supports terrorism, a rumored link she's repeatedly had to dispel thanks to both her estranged father's participation in the Sri Lankan terrorist outfit LTTE and her arguable glamorization of their cause. Of course, M.I.A. is no terrorist, she just has a natural fascination with the cause, having grown up with it. (Critic Robert Christgau wrote a great piece on this struggle nearly four years ago, and it holds up especially well.)
"Paper Airplanes," of course, got its second life this past summer thanks to being featured in the trailer for Pineapple Express, but it should be pointed out that Slumdog had it first, and that once you see the song used in the film, it will cease to be "that song from that stoner comedy trailer." Director Danny Boyle always had that song in mind for the film, but for the score, he had his sights set on White Stripes' Jack Black. Thankfully, the prospect of Black taking a year off to write music in India was a bit of a pipe dream, and Boyle settled on the "Mozart of Madras," Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman.
For those not familiar with Bollywood, A.R. Rahman is like Michael Jackson and John Williams all rolled into one -- king of both pop and score. At only 42, Rahman is the 8th best-selling music artist of all-time, and with a long career still ahead of him he will undoubtably work his way further up the list. Boyle let Rahman loose, asking that he create something with a pulsating rhythm and that he resist sentiment. As Boyle has been retelling it at post-screening Q&A's across the country, "I told him, 'Never put a cello in my film!'" implying his need to keep the film clear of too much melodrama. (This, along with a sort of nostalgic look at growing up in a shantytown, is what makes the film a bit more like its Brazilian doppelgänger, City of God.)
The result is an intoxicating mix of old and new India, juxtaposing classic Indian instrumentation with big beats and hip-hop synth sounds (hear "Mausam & Escape"). Early in the film, it's his collaboration with M.I.A., "O Saya," that truly sucks you in, sweeping you into the gritty shantytowns of Mumbai. Rahman also mixes in some popular Bollywood cues, giving the fans of the genre some of extra thrills. The song "Ringa Ringa" that plays as Latika dances is actually a reworking of the popular Bollywood song "Choli ke peeche" from the film Khalnayak (1993). Rahman even utilized the same voice talent, Alka Yagnik and Ila Arun, who sang the original chart-topping version. Meanwhile, for a gangster-related scene Rahman borrows the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy song "Aaj Ki Raat" from the recent Bollywood gangster film Don: The Chase Begins Again (see video of original use).
The final song in the film (and on the soundtrack) is "Jai Ho," which, along with the cast's dancing, has the distinction of keeping the audience in their seats through the credits. It's an explosion of joy that the film and audience feel like they've earned, witnessing all that Jamal has triumphed over. Whether or not the film is married to tragedy remains to be seen (it's still playing on less than 50 screens), but the ending goes a long way towards distancing itself in spirit from the evil the city just endured.