Sometimes called the John Williams of Indian film, A R Rahman is an astonishingly prolific and successful composer of film scores, songs, and other music. He is perhaps best known in the West for his 2002 musical Bombay Dreams – which played in London’s West End, then on Broadway – and for the music in the smash-hit movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008), for which he won a Critics’ Choice Award, the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music, and two Academy Awards® for Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song.
Born in 1966 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, Allah Rakha Rahman came from a musical background. His father, a composer who worked in the film industry, died when Rahman was nine. The boy performed in various bands, playing keyboards and guitar and developing a particular interest in the synthesizer. Eventually he joined the orchestra of M. S. Viswanathan and Ramesh Naidu and earned a scholarship to Trinity College of Music in London, where he studied Western classical music.
A turning point came in 1992, when Rahman established a small recording studio of his own, Panchathan Record Inn, in which he composed jingles and began writing music for films. In that year he wrote the music for Mani Ratnam’s film Roja (1992), in which two lovers are sucked into the harsh world of terrorism. The movie earned many awards, and Rahman’s first major film score won accolades; in 2005, Richard Corliss listed it in Time magazine as one of the best soundtracks of all time.
Rahman has since composed music for over one hundred films, many of whose scores have received honors, including several Filmfare and National Film awards (both given in India).
Along with his work in film, Rahman has taken part in live stage productions, including a 1999 Michael Jackson concert in Munich, Germany. In 2002 he wrote the score for his first musical, Bombay Dreams. The show, about the slums of Bombay (the official name was switching over to Mumbai) and a young man’s aspirations to be a big film star, was produced by musical-theater legend Andrew Lloyd Webber and played first in London’s West End, later on Broadway. Among its many songs is “Shakalaka Baby,” which became a hit single; the original London cast recording has been issued by Sony.
Rahman’s next venture into musical theater was a maximalist musical adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a three-and-a-half hour extravaganza that opened in Toronto with a cast of sixty-five stage actors. Rahman collaborated with the Finnish band Värttinä to create the music, and the first production opened in Toronto in 2006, followed by a shorter version in London (2007), where the show was nominated for five Olivier Awards in 2008.
Also in 2008 came Slumdog Millionaire (an adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A), for which Rahman wrote the soundtrack. The main character, as in Bombay Dreams, comes from the slums of Mumbai; he achieves sudden fame by appearing on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and answers all the questions correctly by drawing on his own painful memories. The movie won eight Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, and was a huge critical and box-office hit.
Incredibly prolific, Rahman has already worked on music for ten more films.