The Indian film industry likes to keep its musicians busy and its music popular, and one of its current bright composer-stars, probably the brightest, is Allah Rakha Rahman. Rahman is a Tamil keyboard player and classical music student who moved from TV music to cinema scores in 1992, promptly won an award for his first film, and went on rising from there until, today, having won two Oscars earlier this year for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, he is the only living Indian film composer that people in the English-speaking world are likely to recognise. Prior to Slumdog Millionaire, he provided music for Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a Bollywood-themed Andrew Lloyd Webber stage show, and a theatrical musical version of Lord of the Rings that trembled at the box office and faces a vaguely-defined and possibly aborted future. For Lord of the Rings he collaborated with the Finnish women of Värttinä, and I’d be willing to sit through all three hours of it just out of pure surprise that someone thought to pair those people together.
The songs on The Best of A.R. Rahman have been chosen to do two things. One: they want you to like them. They want you to be swept up in the musical love, charmed by the sound of pretty voices coaxing, crooning, trilling, and smiling. Two: they want to show off Rahman’s magpie range, his ability to pick out bits of different cultures and blend them into something new and appealing. He is an expert at this. The influences flit past: bhangra for “Rang de Basanti”, western orchestral violins in a number of areas, a suggestion of Irish folk-pipes and Enya. Different pieces of India find their places, too: the south here, the Muslims there, a sitar, a slam of the dhol breaking up a stretch of sly soprano singing.
This melanging habit reaches a culmination of weirdness in “Gurus of Peace”, which features a) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, b) a set of highland bagpipes, and c) a chorus of children urging the listener to “join our sunshine” in silvery accents. “Some day we have to find a new way to pe-eace”, chant the children. This Indian “We Are the World” begs to be made fun of, but Rahman does not make fun. It is not something he does. His ability to grab quotations from unexpected places gives him plenty of chances to throw in a musical joke if he wanted to, but it doesn’t seem to be in his temperament. The thought of tripping the audience on its own expectations, making it laugh — this does not appeal to him. The Rahman hero sighs after his heroine without a flicker of irony or doubt. No wonder he handles pop songs so well. It never occurs to him to mock them.
This has its up side, as it leaves the listener free to drench themselves unashamedly in musical cream, but it has a down side too, and the nadir of that downside on this album is “Shakalaka Baby”, a song from that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. This is the only track on the album sung entirely in English, aside from one word, ‘shakalaka,’ which seems to mean ‘fuck.’
Shakalaka baby, shakalaka baby, come and shakalaka with me.
Shakalaka baby, shakalaka baby, I just wanna love you every day
Shakalaka baby, shakalaka baby, promise me you’ll never go away.
The music is grabby, but in a bumping, brash way, and every note leaves a dull smudge of glitter behind it. The Best of A.R. Rahman is not an album for anyone who dislikes contemporary mainstream pop music, but if you’re looking for a glimpse into recent filmi, or a quick introduction to Rahman’s work, and you’re not bothered by chintz, then this is a nice enough place to start.