From ‘Jai Ho’ to uh-oh: Bollywood star woos the world

[28 June 2010]

By Chris Lee

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Nobody expected the bottom to drop out on A.R. Rahman’s world tour.

A Bollywood megastar and prolific film composer estimated to have sold more than 350 million albums worldwide, he’s revered as a musical demigod across the Indian Diaspora. In the U.S., of course, Rahman is best known as the guy behind the “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack who nabbed two Oscars, a Golden Globe and two Grammys for his propulsive scoring contributions to the hit 2008 indie romance.

So, earlier this month, as he embarked on his “A.R. Rahman Jai Ho Concert: The Journey Home World Tour,” Rahman’s plan was twofold: to connect with his adoring Desi — South Asian — fans while also tapping into his newfound popularity among non-Desis, packing sports arenas across North America and Europe along the way.

Steeped in spectacle and exerting a high-tech razzle-dazzle more in step with, say, Lady Gaga than a composer dubbed “the Mozart of Madras,” the tour went off without a hitch in New York, New Jersey and Chicago. But disaster struck when Rahman hit Detroit on June 19.

According to artistic director Amy Tinkham, the infrastructure at Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome was not strong enough to support a lighting rig and buckled beneath its weight. The apparatus came crashing down, destroying part of the stage. Worse still, equipment and sets specially designed for the tour were rendered unusable.

“It’s a miracle my team escaped with minor injuries,” Rahman said via Twitter last Monday.

After initially postponing dates in Detroit and Toronto, Rahman made the agonizing decision Tuesday evening to postpone his remaining North American tour stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Canada and Houston while sets are rebuilt and producers scramble to ascertain which elements of the current show can be salvaged. A spokeswoman for Rahman said there is no plan to cancel the tour’s European dates; North American “Jai Ho Concert” dates will most likely be rescheduled for September.

The predicament represents a significant setback for Rahman in his quest to connect with Western audiences like no South Asian pop star before him, while still relatively hot off his “Slumdog” success. He was named to Time magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people last year.

Combining Bollywood, Broadway and a rock ‘n’ roll circus, “Jai Ho” was intended as a gateway to the American mainstream. His plan to cross over with non-Indian audiences also includes continuing soundtrack work in Hollywood (Rahman scored the 2009 romantic comedy “Couples Retreat”) and a potentially lucrative deal with Interscope Records.

Two years have passed since “Slumdog” became a cultural touchstone and Rahman’s triumphant closing anthem “Jai Ho” became a smash hit (an alternate version recorded with the Pussycat Dolls hit No. 1 in four countries). He spent much of 2009 collecting awards and basking in the glow. Still, reached by phone in Chicago earlier this month, before his Detroit set disaster, the soft-spoken composer, 44, acknowledged that he might have been slow off the mark to capitalize on that momentum with a world tour. “In practice, it should have been last year,” Rahman said. “But creatively, we needed time to put this together.”

Rahman’s manager Amos Newman said before the Pontiac Silverdome mishap that the tour was to be a sort of introduction to American audiences. “His shows in the past were very much geared for Indian audiences. This show was designed for everybody. We’ve done extensive marketing and PR outside the ethnic market. We intentionally designed the show to appeal even to someone unaware of who A.R. Rahman is.”

The tour incorporates elements of Sufi mysticism, traditional folk, reggae, jazz and rock grafted to a distinctly Indian musical mainframe. And despite its culture-crossing intent, each song is sung in its original Tamil, Hindi or Tegulu. But unlike his earlier performance programming — and in implicit acknowledgement of the difficulties Bollywood has had trying to break through in America — Rahman and his career overseers upped the ante by incorporating new technology and Western-style performance flourishes.

They hired Tinkham, who has directed and choreographed tours for Madonna and Paul McCartney, plus the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to help provide, in Newman’s terms, “a fan experience commensurate with any other experience at a major rock show or pop concert.”

“The concept of the show was a visual experience that takes you through ancient and modern India and held the spirit of Indian culture in every way,” Tinkham said.

The team whittled Rahman’s set list down to 35 songs, subdividing them into distinct chapters that focus, variously, on India’s religious life, rural culture, festivals and political conflicts.

As well, no expense was spared on cutting-edge technology. The tour employs a three-dimensional mapping projector (capable of virtually transforming stationary objects into, say, waterfalls or climbing vines) and a light-emitting diode display screen — both of which might or might not have been damaged at the Pontiac Silverdome.

“We’re trying to mix three different things: a Broadway show, a rock show and a circus,” said Rahman. “My music with moments of spirituality, festivity, celebration and love. To celebrate India.”

Regardless of the tour’s postponement, Rahman has already begun carving a presence for himself outside the subcontinent by collaborating with such pop luminaries as Sri Lankan alt-hip-hop superstar M.I.A. and Aussie pop diva Kylie Minogue as well as lending his vocals to the star-studded charity single “We Are the World 25 for Haiti.”

The performer’s manager and Interscope Records head honcho Jimmy Iovine both envision a career trajectory for the composer partially modeled on that of Timbaland. The American hip-hop producer-songwriter (born Timothy Mosley) parlayed his status as a multiplatinum-selling hit maker for the likes of Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado into a self-sustaining career as an artist by showcasing his collaborations with other performers on such hit albums as “Timbaland Presents Shock Value” volumes 1 and 2.

“Indians in the U.S. have taken a big step forward in the past decade in entertainment, corporate America and politics,” said Gitesh Pandya, head of the South Asian media consulting firm, via e-mail. “There is still so much more to achieve, but our place in this country is a bit more prominent now and our musicians and actors still face the challenge of being accepted as just artists, and not brown artists.”

To that end, Interscope is enlisting some help in building that bridge. “Jimmy Iovine’s idea from the get-go was for A.R. to make a record in collaboration with well-known Western artists,” Newman said. “He’s writing now, collaborating with a couple of people, multiplatinum artists. But at its core, it needs to be an A.R. Rahman record. It’s important we don’t lose his essence.”

But in the short run, Rahman and tour producers have their hands full trying to pick up the broken pieces for the remaining European dates. “All the artists, singers, musicians, dancers, technicians (myself included) have been almost given a second life,” Rahman said in a statement released Wednesday, “...maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, as we will have the opportunity to perform for you with even more energy and perfection.”

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