[Note: This review discusses only the tracks composed by A.R. Rahman; the album additionally features two songs by Diplo, as well as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s Aaj ki Raat (Don; 2006). My understanding is that the Rahman pieces were the only ones specifically composed for Slumdog Millionaire.]
O...Saya's combination of heavy percussion, foreboding electronica, and sombre crooning by A.R. Rahman, all add up to an apocalyptic effect. Or it should, but never really sounds like anything quite so grim, and it might be more accurate to say that while this track's intensity is almost unbearable, it pulsates with a defiant humanity, even if one scrambling to establish itself in a jungle. That impression of defiance is confirmed once M.I.A.'s vocals erupt, completely different from what has preceded it but yet unsurprising: you just knew the intensity of the first minute or two of Rahman's composition could not be sustained, that it would give way before the end -- and it does, but the effect isn't so much dissipated as distilled into M.I.A.'s voice. "One day I wanna be a star", she says, fittingly: the city of Mumbai hasn't broken her, it has made her who she is, while continuing to provide the horizon she strives toward.
A word about Rahman's vocals here: his crooning is sensational, and is perhaps best understood as a counterpoint to the vocal effect he creates in Sandai Kozhi Kozhi/Kabhi Neem Neem from Aayitha Ezhuthu/Yuva. In that song, Rahman's sublime crooning was smoother, more melodious, perhaps in keeping with the domesticity director Mani Rathnam was celebrating; here, by contrast, Rahman's soaring voice is jerkier, less comfortable, insistent and unforgettable. All of which simply adds to the impression, on repeat listenings, that this heightened, attitude-laden track, sometimes with joints showing (the children's voices counting numbers, and even a phone-like ringing at one point), isn't so much a song as an anthem for Mumbai. And a fitting one it is too: devoid of cheap paeans to the spirit of Mumbai, it engages with the city's vitality, driving home the point that Mumbai's pulsating life is not just heady but toxic. The only thing it isn't is still.
It is perhaps fitting that O...Saya segués into a piece called Riots, an eerie bit of electronica that appears to mimic the movement of a riot: the track is punctuated by an almost animalistic grunting sound, and given the piece’s title one conjures up images of a blind mob, yet one that is far from aimless. This beast devours the city’s young. Most disturbing is the fact that this track is far from grim, and is indeed almost buoyant. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me: the mob evidently likes bloody work.
I would have found it hard to “take” Riots were it not sandwiched between O...Saya and Mausam and Escape, one of the most enchanting Rahman creations in a while. If Riots is the soundtrack to Mumbai’s nightmare, then Mausam and Escape is the theme to the city’s days. The composition begins in ethereally light mode, and around the 45-second mark kicks into a magically intricate gear, with speedy movements and a heavily orchestral backdrop that infuses a sense of drama (no lazy morning, this): through it all one can occasionally make out the motifs of the initial portion of the track, until the symphonic build-up takes over, heightening the intensity until, about 70 seconds before track’s end, it expires -- only for the cycle to begin again, albeit in a much more subdued vein for the remainder of the piece. Has the escape promised in the title been achieved, or has it failed? Do the closing portions of the piece testify to the indestructibility of that promise? The track by itself cannot settle the issue, but I suspect that it strikes more resonances, and is open to more listener musings, than the film could do justice to.
Nothing that has gone before in this album prepares the listener for the incongruity of Ringa Ringa. Rahman has referred to this as his tribute to Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s Choli ke Peeche Kya Hai (Khalnayak), and it most obviously is (and not just because of the ribald lyrics, which hearken to the pahelis traditionally attributed to Amir Khusrau as well as to Anand Bakshi’s, and indeed to a whole tradition of songs about the sexual initiation of a girl (such as Anjaam’s Chane ke Kheth Mein)): Rahman telegraphs his intentions by “casting” Alka Yagnik and Ila Arun yet again as the voices of the ingenue and her more experienced interlocutor. In all such songs, of course, the conceit works only if one sees through it: the mock innocence of the two women merely highlights the lewdness of the enterprise. But Rahman hasn’t left anything to chance here: Alka Yagnik’s voice is by now patently womanly, but retains enough of its youthful sweetness, without displaying the sort of range or nuance that was a hallmark of the legendary Mangeshkar sisters, that the overall effect borders on the cloying. And makes the artifice explicit: these women are play-acting, but the role is a stale one, and cannot be taken seriously. Rahman, it seems, won’t just let us listen to this song without problematizing the whole enterprise (to a lesser extent Kavita Krishnamurthy’s uneven voice served the same purpose in Mangal Pandey’s Tumhaari Adaaon Pe Mein Vaari Vaari, not coincidentally sung by a courtesan in the film). All in all I find the song interesting as a theoretical exercise, but it is too much of a rude interruption in the sequence of the rest of Rahman’s pieces here for me to not skip it all too often.
There is no prospect of anyone skipping Liquid Dance, a little gem that, not for the first time in Rahman’s career, seeks to marry classical Indian modes with more contemporary ones. But if the title track of Alai Payuthey did so in a soothing way, as if to lull the listener into believing that Venkatasubbaiar’s gorgeous lyrics were being treated in a perfectly traditional manner, Liquid Dance dispenses with such niceties. The result is akin to Bharatnatyam on speed, Palakkad Sriram’s staccato vocals ultimately overlaid with the sort of music that wouldn’t have been out of place in Dol Dol (Aayitha Ezhuthu/Yuva). Madhumitha’s vocals introduce another, perhaps gentler, dimension, one that confirms the composition’s nod to its Indic roots (by enabling the listener to evoke a musical guru/disciple motif), but also intrigues us. But if there is a backstory here, I’ll need to watch the film for it: the piece is abruptly terminated by the sort of sound those of us who remember audio-cassettes and the tendency of cassette players to mangle their reels know only too well. The track’s title is another mystery: unquestionably compelling though this composition is, its texture is anything but “liquid,” and this listener at least is reminded more of of pellets than fluids where this track is concerned -- Rahman's answer to grape-shot.
Latika’s Theme begins like a distant cousin to Jaage Hain Der Tak (Guru), but as a night-time lori-like instrumental it is far more comforting, less wistful, than that predecessor. It isn’t a major piece, but it is an emotionally satisfying one. Its central motif also forms the core of the song Dreams on Fire later on in the album, perhaps the only English-language song Rahman has gotten right. The latter is a relatively conventional love song for the most part, and although Suzanne’s voice is stirring, I find myself missing the wordless suggestiveness of Latika’s Theme. While it is true that the song covers more ground than the instrumental, and is certainly easy on the ears, it is also a bit generic, perhaps mirroring (what I understand is) the more hopeful turn the film takes towards the end.
If O...Saya is Mumbai’s anthem, then Millionaire is commentary on our contemporary age of glitzy TV-shows and soundbytes. The piece mimics the kitschy nature of TV-show theme music, before lapsing into a repetitive loop that one can only imagine playing while a game-show contestant is mulling over the answer. This is parody, as evidenced by the background vocals, which seem to testify to a different narrative than the seamless one the TV channels present; and also by the absence of the dramatic here, where one might have expected it (and which one finds elsewhere in this album in abundance). But simultaneously it is also to be taken seriously, as the advertising man in Rahman demonstrates how compelling TV-show music might yet be; the reality of the game show is not Reality, Rahman seems to be saying, its drama not the revelation of a truth but a mere stimulus.
Blaaze is less irritating in Gangsta Blues than he typically is, perhaps because his wannabe hip-hop ishtyle works well in the context of a song that appears to be about a wannabe gangsta. On a first listen I was determined not to like this rather underdone song, but over time its unpretentious silliness and laid back instrumentation is beginning to wear away my armor, almost as if the piece is mocking me for initially taking it so seriously -- this is after all a song where “All you say ae ae ae / All you say o o o” is a refrain.
The album’s final track opens with strains unmistakably reminiscent of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (itself re-worked into the Talat Mehmood/Lata Mangeshkar Bollywood classic Itna Na Mujh Se Tu Pyar Badhaa) (Chaaya), but Rahman takes these hallowed strains to some place crazily addictive, replete with heavy percussion, the odd Spanish lyric, and Sukhwinder doing what he does best. Singh also had the beautiful (if tantalizingly brief) Wedding Qawwali to close out another of Rahman's "international" projects -- Andrew lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams -- but the celebratory Jai Ho is a far more accomplished work. Although the lyrics and vocals initially suggested a conventional Bollywood song, on repeat listening the unusual structure comes into clearer focus, juxtaposing as it does a chorus, and oddly enough an initial stanza, of unstoppable velocity; more conventional stanzas later on; and a rousing “Jai Ho” refrain throughout. The result is a rich feast of a song, overwrought and overdone like the best Bollywood films. My only cavil is that towards the end, the song abruptly lapses into a more reflective instrumental that doesn’t seem like it belongs here. I found myself wishing those last 40 or so seconds constituted their own track -- but perhaps that is Rahman’s reminder that happy endings don’t come unalloyed, no matter how seductive Bollyfans like yours truly might find them.