That Old Feeling: Isn't It Rahmantic?

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My job description — critic — suggests that I'm here to criticize, point out mistakes in movies and shows, pull the wings off works of art to keep them from flying. But there's a missionary impulse in those of us who write about entertainment. We're the Murine of journalism: we want to open your eyes to see what you might have missed in familiar pop culture. We also want you to see estimable works that don't get the publicity or endorsements that might persuade you to seek them out.

Every 20 years or so, I get missionary about a Broadway show — to be exact, about the music I love in a certain Broadway show. In the 80s the show was Chess, with book and lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, late of the Swedish pop group ABBA. For me, Chess was by far the finest score of the decade, rich and varied and powerful, and thrillingly melodic. It put tunes in my head that still sit up and sing there. In TIME, I wrote about Chess when it was still an album, a year before it was staged in London and three years before a revised version limped onto Broadway. Limped off, too, a couple of months later. The show closed, and Chess resumed its ideal form: an album full of great songs and stinging or surging passions.

In 2002, enlightenment struck again. I saw — heard, rather — the West End show Bombay Dreams. Like Chess, it had music by a composer who had written (and sometimes performed) dozens of pop hits. Indeed, A.R. Rahman is not just India's most prominent movie songwriter — in a land of a billion people where movie music truly is popular music — but, by some computations, the best-selling recording artist in history. His scores have sold more albums than Elvis or the Beatles or all the Jacksons: perhaps 150 million, maybe more.

As Rahman explained it to TIME's Lina Lofaro for a story we did last April when Bombay Dreams opened on Broadway, "If you have one big hit in India, it will sell more than 5 or 6 million. I've done over 70 movies in which more than 20, 25 were really big hits. And the rest of them are musical hits. The soundtracks sell very well. It's a calculation of all that stuff. Each film I do is in three different languages. Tamil soundtracks sell probably half a million, Telegu sells probably 1 million, Hindi is like more than 6 or 7 million." He added: "In India, we don't get royalties. Otherwise I'd be a very rich man. I wouldn't have to come to America!

But come to America Rahman did, knowing that the country was unfamiliar not only with his name and achievements but with South Asian musical vocabulary. That didn't faze him; he'd united disparate cultures before. "When I started in '92," he told Lina, "Indian film music was very segmented. This made me take a film song and produce it in such a way that it would go beyond language or culture. That worked because, basically, I'm from South India [the Tamil capital of Madras]. It worked across North India [Bombay, Calcutta, New Delhi, etc.], which is a completely different culture. And the same formula worked with the London audience" for Bombay Dreams.


Again I wrote about the music that has captured and transported me; I said that "anyone with half an ear will hear the most vibrant, varied new score in ages. Audiences will walk out of Bombay Dreams humming Rahman's songs and singing his praises. If music is the crucial part of a musical, then Rahman's genius will ensure that Bollywood conquers Broadway." Again I hoped that a show might be successful, and its songs click with listeners, broaden our currently cramped musical lexicon.

Rahman himself expressed optimism that people in the U.S. would open their ears to his beautiful music and, by extension, India's. "I think it's the right time," he said. "It's a great opportunity for American audiences to know another culture, musically and spiritually."

Well, no. The show, budgeted at an outsize $14 million, received weak reviews ("A monochromatic musical in the key of beige." —Ben Brantley, New York Times). Rahman didn't get a Tony award, or even a nomination, for his music — the finest, broadest score in ages wasn't deemed one of the best four on Broadway last season! (Out of a total of about seven.) The Indo-American audience wasn't large enough to keep it afloat, and it didn't attract the idle non-Desi curious. Inserting American Idol notoriety Tamyra Gray did little to pump up the gross. Bombay Dreams ran only eight months and closes today, Jan. 1.

As I've written often in this space, it's been ages since the mass of Americans took interest in music (or literature or movies) beyond our borders. It's not that we're xenophobic; in our cultural complacence we're myopic. We make the biggest hits and have the biggest stars. Who cares what goes on in Europe or Asia or Latin America? So again, with Bombay Dreams, I failed; the music didn't take hold. Not Mission Accomplished but Mission Impossible.


Fans of Indian movies need no introduction to Rahman. Like Gershwin, Puccini or Lennon-McCartney, the name stands for melody, quality, energy, instant hummability — a sound both personal and universal, devouring older forms and transforming them into something gorgeously new.

His biography is dramatic enough for a Bollywood epic: poor boy loses dad, hits the road, studies at Oxford, becomes star! He was born in Madras, on January 6, 1966, with a Bollywood star's soundalike name, A.S. Dileep Kumar. His musician father died when the boy was nine, and to support his family this precocious child left home to become a touring tyro musician with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

In 1988, according to the website Chalo Cinema, "one of his sisters fell seriously ill and numerous attempts to cure her failed. Her condition progressively worsened. The family had given up all hope when they came in contact with a Muslim Pir — Sheik Abdul Qadir Jeelani or Pir Qadri as he was popularly known. With his prayers and blessings, Dileep's sister made a miraculous recovery. Rattled by the bad experience and influenced by the teachings of the Pir, the entire family converted to Islam. Thus A.S.Dileep Kumar became Allah Rakha Rahman."

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