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Image: A.R. Rahman
Joel Ryan  /  AP
Indian actor Irrfan Khan, left, Indian composer A. R. Rahman and British director Danny Boyle arrive at the British Academy Film Awards 2009 at The Royal Opera House in London, England. Rahman is nominated for two Oscars.
updated 2/17/2009 8:19:00 PM ET 2009-02-18T01:19:00

Should A.R. Rahman win an Oscar or two on Sunday, the Indian film composer has written just the right tune for the occasion: “Jai Ho,” the celebratory ode sung during the Bollywood-style, song-and-dance finale of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The film’s rags-to-riches plot might seem improbable, but Rahman’s own unlikely life story enables him to identify with the film’s hero — a resourceful orphan from Mumbai’s slums who becomes a celebrity when he gets a shot at winning a fortune on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

“I can relate to the film because I take life positively and feel that even after great depression, something good will come out,” the 43-year-old composer said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “Almost everything is finished for this guy but there is still hope and then he ... succeeds in the end.”

When Rahman performs his two Oscar-nominated songs, “O ... Saya” and “Jai Ho,” at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony he will be realizing his own dream. A deeply spiritual man, Rahman believes that music and film have the power to bring people together across boundaries of caste, religion, nationality and race.

Rahman, who has already won a Golden Globe and British BAFTA award for his “Slumdog” score, says he would like to share the Oscar prize with his many fans in India and elsewhere. They have made him one of the world’s best-selling recording artists, globally on a par with Madonna and the Rolling Stones.

With Oscar nominations for best song and original score, Rahman could wind up getting in one night as many golden statuettes as Indians have won in the Oscars’ 80-year-history. Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya won for “Gandhi” in 1982, and arthouse director Satyajit Ray received a lifetime achievement award in 1992.

Rahman hopes an Oscar win will make Western audiences more aware of contemporary Indian film music, much as the Beatles raised the profile of Indian classical musicians like Ravi Shankar.

“We have a different philosophy of approaching film music and I would say there’s lots to give which I always wanted to happen,” said Rahman.

Tough early days
The composer overcame many hurdles in going from his native Chennai (formerly Madras) in south India, where he began studying piano at age 4, to the Kodak Theater for Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Rahman was 9 when his film composer father died, and he began to support his family at 11 as a keyboard player in an ensemble led by the prominent south Indian film composer Ilaiyaraaja.

As a teenager, he formed a rock band and also toured with such prominent Indian musicians as tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and violinist L. Shankar. Even though he left school early, his talent won him a scholarship to London’s Trinity College of Music, where he received a degree in Western classical music.

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Back in India, he was writing advertising jingles when film director Mani Ratnam asked him to compose the score for the 1992 film “Roja.” Rahman realized that young people like himself were bored with traditional film music and decided to experiment by introducing Western styles like reggae rarely heard on Indian soundtracks.

“I think my philosophy of life is music is universal ... so I’m never closed to things,” said Rahman. “Like some people say, ‘Oh, I hate heavy metal,’ or “I hate jazz.’ Why do you need to hate it? Why don’t you appreciate it in a certain context.”

Rahman thought of “Roja” as a one-shot project, but it ended up changing Indian film music. He became the first debuting film composer to win a National Film Award, India’s equivalent of the Oscar, for best music director. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss rated the “Roja” score among the all-time best movie soundtracks.

“I kept hearing his music and really liking it ... there was a fresh sound and a fresh approach ... and a completely different way of looking at film music,” said Rahman’s friend, the German-born film composer Hans Zimmer. “Like any good artist, A.R. is not a traditionalist, he’s a revolutionary. He uses all the revolutionary things that come from all over the world in his stuff ... hip-hop beats, electronics .... and there’s an incredible inquisitiveness and playfulness in his music ... .

“Plus he writes a bloody good tune,” said Zimmer, an Oscar-winner for his score to “The Lion King.” “He’s got the most perfect love theme (“Latika’s Theme”) in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ which I am incredibly envious of in a loving way.”

Rahman has composed music for more than 130 Indian films and gained recognition in the West when he wrote the score for the 2002 musical “Bombay Dreams.” He also wrote music for the stage adaptation of “Lord of the Rings” and the film “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.”

Happy to have an international audience
But he remained relatively unknown in the United States until the unexpected success of “Slumdog.” Rahman said he accepted British director Danny Boyle’s offer to write the score for the low-budget, independent film because he needed a break from Indian movies.

“This was a perfect opportunity to work with a British director with a different vision of things. He wasn’t catering to Indians but to an international audience,” said Rahman.

With the film covering a 15-year time span, Rahman composed a varied score to reflect “past India, present Indian and future India” ranging from the seductive Bollywood-style “Ringa Ringa” to the futuristic “Mausam & Escape” with its guitar-sitar blend and crashing tabla drums and synthesizers.

Boyle, who used rapper M.I.A.’s Grammy-nominated hit “Paper Planes” for one scene in the film, suggested that Rahman collaborate with the British-Sri Lankan hip-hop artist on “O ... Saya.” The high-energy tune, mixing Rahman’s chanting and M.I.A.’s rapping, sets the tone for the scenes of children fleeing from police through Mumbai’s alleys.

Rahman says the closing “Jai Ho,” or “Victory to You,” was meant to create “a vision of the whole world celebrating this victory” by mixing Hindi lyrics and Indian pop melodies with influences from Arabic, Japanese and Spanish music.

Even before the “Slumdog” score started getting awards, M.I.A. — like Rahman an ethnic Tamil — made it the first release on her Interscope imprint N.E.E.T., and the CD reached the top 20 on Billboard’s album chart.

“I kind of did it because I thought it would be good for A.R. Rahman and people in India and the Tamil people to be like, ‘oh, she’s doing something for us,’” M.I.A. said in an Associated Press Television interview.

Rahman has been working on scores for Indian films again, and while “Slumdog” has led to offers from U.S. producers, Rahman says he won’t succumb to the lure of Hollywood and abandon Bollywood.

“I can’t suddenly dump them.” said Rahman. “India is going through this huge change in the whole vision of film-making and I want to be a part of that change.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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