A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire Maestro

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Composer A.R. Rahman.

He's been a Bollywood icon for years, this man behind some of the most stunning movie soundtracks ever composed (chief among them the innovative score to Roja). But it's his music for this year's Oscar darling, Slumdog Millionaire that has made A.R. Rahman an instant hit with western audiences. Not only are sales of the soundtrack soaring as the film opens wide in Britain and the United States, but Rahman has been nominated for three Oscars — for best original score, as well as for the songs "O ... Saya" and "Jai Ho." (Read the behind-the-scenes story of Slumdog Millionaire's unlikely ascension to Oscar favorite).

You've worked on so many Bollywood epics, but Slumdog Millionaire was a film made by a team of Brits who set up camp in India. Was it a different experience, working on this film?
Definitely. The way that [Director] Danny [Boyle] uses music in his films is completely different from even other directors in the West. He uses songs as scores, and uses each moment of music as a highlight, which is very exciting. So I knew he was going to mix the music very high, which normally is not the case in most films, where the music is mixed underneath the action and gets drowned out.

What was the process between you and Danny?
I knew he had a very good ear for music, and I trusted the way he selected cues. I gave him four or five choices for each cue and then he would pick the one he liked and he would spend weeks trying to insert them. Any good idea I had, I'd send him a scratch of it via e-mail, and then he'd respond to two or three of those. It was a totally different way of working. [It meant that] there were a lot of ideas that didn't get used but it worked out all right.

You spoke directly to the people of India the night you won your Golden Globe...
Well, I initially kept [my involvement] a secret. I thought that maybe if Danny didn't like my stuff, it would only be between him and me. I did no publicity until I knew everything was working. India is a big fan of Hollywood, but we also love our regional stuff, and it's a great moment for the country when one of their own gets recognized. When I won, I felt from my heart I should say, "This is for you guys, you've been wanting it."

What was the reaction when you got back home?
There were drums and dancers, it was just like in the movies. At the airport, there was a lot of goodwill, and I think you're able to see it on YouTube. [See clip below]. It's all so good, though, because India has been through this huge thing with the Bombay [bombings], and the floods and so many other things. I'm glad there's something to cheer about, and I hope the controversies don't bring that celebration down.

Well, talk a bit about the film's controversial reception in India?
I feel that the intention of the movie was right, but people were a bit touchy about the dog thing. It's kind of an insult if you have the word "dog" in the title. That's what they are objecting to, but I don't think it was intentional from the creators. What I like is that here are probably the richest people in the world, living in Bombay, and the poorest of the slums, all coexisting. This movie kind of shows both.

What was it like working with M.I.A.?
I listened to her three or four years back — one of my friends played it for me and I was stunned by her whole vision. It was completely new and bold, and normally when a person comes from India you expect a differentness, but she was bold, very sweet but in your face. I met her when she came to my studio to work on some stuff for another album and I said, "Let's do something together." Danny later suggested her name and I immediately said "That's a great idea." On 'O ... Saya,' I did the chant lyrics and she did the chasing [lyrics]. I would work on some of the track and send it to her through the e-mail and she would do the vocals in New York and then sent them back.

Listening to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, every track sounds so different.
I took a cue from how Danny did his other soundtracks. There wasn't one composer [on his previous films,] but rather so many people were involved. I asked him, "Can I do the whole score," and he said, "Definitely, if you have the time, I would love you to." But I wanted to innovate and to do justice to the film, so I tried to approach it as if each cue was from a different composer, with a different exoticness. So there's a very vintage '90s Bollywood cue, and then a more edgy, hip-hop sound and then a world music kind of thing. It was great fun.

Read TIME's report of Slumdog Millionaire's unlikely Oscar campaign
Read Richard Corliss's Slumdog review