The Music of Slum Dog Millionaire

Terence Blanchard is an internationally renowned Black American Jazz trumpeter, composer, arranger and a three time Grammy award winning musician. He composed musical scores of International hits like Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, Inside Man etc. But more than anything, in his biography he is credited as one of the ‘Golden Globe nominated’ film score composers. This should tell all of us as to how much important is The Golden Globe Awards in the world scenario.

In fact Terence Blanchard used A R Rahman’s song Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se as it is for the opening and ending of the film Inside Man. Directed by star director Spike Lee this was a world wide super hit Hollywood film of 2006.

The first film music star from India to attract a huge world wide attention is A R Rahman. He got his first international acclaim when he composed for Bombay Dreams. He also composed the music for The Lord of the Rings theatre production. He has composed the track ‘Raga's Dance’ for the internationally famous Asian singer Vanessa Mae's album. Rahman also composed the score for the Chinese film Warriors of Heaven and Earth. He composed the music of Sekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

When A R Rahman proudly received that trophy of one of the most respected international awards in the field of films, it was a great moment for the Indian music which got its due for the first time in the international platform. And now Golden Globe has become the story of yesterday as Rahman being nominated for Oscars in 3 categories of music. Other than being nominated for the best original score, two of his songs in the film O Saya and Jai Ho will be competing each other for the Oscar in the category of best song. This is the greatest height any Indian ever achieved. When asked is the celebration is already on he replied as he has lot of commitments to finish and he is neck deep in work.

Rahman is doing films and albums like never before now and I would say he is at the top of his creativity currently. For example the Pallavi of the song ‘Zindagi Zindagi, Kya Kami Reh Gayi’ from his recent Hindi film Yuvraaj is the most enchanting piece of Indian music I have heard in recent times. Soulfully sung by Srinivas, this is a Ghazal like melody that reminds you of the pains, which you have always tried to forget. A Pallavi which is on par with the finest creations of Great Indian composers likes of Salil Chowdhury and Madan Mohan. The magic of A R Rahman is glowing in this song.

Soft romantic melodies, songs based on Indian classical and ghazals, modern techno dance songs to the current trend Hip-Hop, he did it all in the Indian film music. Rahman was always in the mode of innovation with various instruments, sounds and voices to create some of the most popular songs of Indian film music during the last 18 years.

Now, how great is the music of Slum Dog Millionaire? First and foremost one could never do justice by reviewing the background music score of a film like reviewing a music album. Many music tracks in the film may be used to support a scene or achieve an emotional effect. Films use music scores in bits and pieces in the background and these music tracks generally will not make a very good stand alone listening as an audio album. The only way to evaluate the effect of such music is watching the film repeatedly.

Though produced and directed by non Indians, Slum Dog Millionaire is a film featuring life in the slums of Bombay city. Its shows the life of a man from late eighties in the dirty Bombay Slums and traveling through Delhi, Agra and back to the underworld connected rich men’s life in today’s Mumbai. So the music has to be Indian in nature but with an international appeal. And that is what Rahman precisely has done. Let us go through track by track of the album and try to figure out what is the Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated music is like.

O Saya

This Oscar nominated song starts with a very disturbing percussive synthesizer sound incessantly panning left to right and with a distorted pads backing. A R Rahman’s voice breaking in like an African tribal chanting. Unexpectedly the group percussions open up like an electric train slowly starting and quickly gaining momentum. This becomes the rhythm of the song. Rahman’s vocals moving back and forth from African to Arabic folk styles. We hear screams of children somewhere. We also hear some child voices registering a Carnatic style Jathi.

Then starts a lengthy rap portion by the originally Srilankan Tamilian but British citizen female singer MIA (Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam). I remember some time ago writer Theodore Bhaskaran forwarding me the video of one her Tamil rap songs and asking me to check it out. O Saya song is very effectively used in the film as the background music to the introduction of the slum life of Bombay. The leading child characters running to escape from the policemen who trying to chase them for playing in an air strip. A great blend of totally different styles of world music.


Fully instrumental, heavy with drums and percussions. The thumping and clunking rhythm patterns of this track suggest a city in deep agony. The track lets you know that something very bad is going to occur. One moment you feel that its all over but breaking that heavy silence another disturbing session of beats erupts like the ongoing riots and violence in the crowded metro city.

Mausam and Escape

Starts with a soothing acoustic guitar strumming, this track is a masterful blend of Indian classical elements on guitars, sitar and sarod with a steady Indian percussion. As sarod is repeatedly playing a very complex bit, the track suddenly breaks into an affirmative western violin group and then you hear a distant cry of female group vocals. Rahman masterfully builds on layer over layers as the track rises to an overwhelming crescendo. The mood of the music shifts right in the middle from soothing to disturbing. The sarod is still insisting on the same bit. In the end all the sounds fades out beautifully into silence. A must listen track.

Paper Planes

Got two versions in the album. A reggae based song in which we can find traces of Rhaman’s Chinna Chinna Aasai through the rhythm pattern and the beautiful bell sounds. Rahman tried making the rapper girl M.I.A to sing a melody here. She sounds like a nursery kid with off key and off rhythm in many places. ‘I fly like paper, get high like planes; If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name’ are some of the funny lines but the song is not all that funny when it shudders the listener with the constant sounds of gun fire. In the remix version of Paper Planes we here contemporary American style of guitar arrangements and rock and techno sounds. But all these are not really blending with the main melody and the hurried and bad sounding vocals.

Ringa Ringa

Lyrics written by my friend Raqueeb Aalam, this is a brilliant take on the Choli Ke Peechhe Kya Hai song of Laxmikant-Pyarelal from early 90s. Ila Arun and Alka Yagnik are the singers. The song created to bring in the feel of the red streets Bombay from early 90s and gelled so well with the scene in the film. More than a merely sexy song it becomes a reflection of betrayal and helplessness in the film to great effect.

Liquid Dance

This song is a great mix of a hyperactive Carnatic Jathi in male voice, male vocal shouts and an Arabic main melody with synthesizer backing. This track also got some Bharatanatyam Jathis in female voice but that portion is not included in the film. The voices saying the Jathis are Palakkad Sriram and Madhumitha. The frantically cross fading sounds in several contrasting layers is a great example of exceptional sound design which is unique to Rahman.

Lathika’s Theme

This is according to me the most beautiful piece of music in the film. The singer named Suzanne D’Mello beautifully and melancholically hums this all mmmmmmm…song. A very simple and cute composition. Somewhere in the middle it becomes a totally poignant melancholy. The main love theme music bit of the film which ends with a haunting Tanpura strain. A must listen again.

Aaj Ki Raat

Originally composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s for the film Don, this song used as the background bit of an item dance kind of sequence in the film. With some re-mastering the song used as it is, more or less.


A total techno instrumental bit shows of a hurry and emergency mood. A totally in synch music track which tries to be racing ahead of itself. Accompanied for some chase visuals and montages in the film it compliments the scene perfectly.

Gangsta Blues

Rambling whispers, moanings and vocal sound effects are the mainstay of this very Rahmanic Hip-Hop track. A regular in Rahaman camp, Blaaze sounded good to me for the first time in this track with a different voice modulation and the creative sound processing by Rahman. Tanvi Shah providing some erotic sound effects and whispers for the track. Blending very well with the film.

Dreams on Fire

The only completely vocal oriented song in the film, this is a nice and simple western melody based on the other song in the film named Lathika’s theme. Soulfully sung by Suzanne D’Mello, this is an appeasing song with nice harmonies. With great mastery Rahman Indianised this song with traces of Sarod in between and a lengthy portion of Indian styled flute and strains Tanpura in the end. You can keep on listening to this song. Lovely music but not featured in the film!

Jai Ho

The most populist track of the film. Its Oscar nomination is a bit of surprise as it is totally in Hindi. This song is very Indian filmy at heart but got various elements of world music including hip hop in it. An out and out Sukhwinder Singh song, Tanvi Shah’s and Mahalakshmi Iyer’s voices used only for effects. The lyrics are very dreamy and very Bollywood type. This song is not really inside the film but used in the backdrop of the end titles as a group dance song with hundreds of dancers. As a commercial song it is fun listening to it.

I will say Slum Dog Millionaire is not definitely the very best musical score of Rahman till date. As for us Indians, we have already listened to some of the finest music composed by Rahman like Roja, Rangeela, Bombay, Dil Se, Taal, Kandukonden Kandukonden, Zubeidaa, Lagaan, Rang De Basanti, Guru etc. But for international film music listeners and critics who are getting exposed to A R Rahman for the first time, it is a great film score which blends so well with the narrative of the film.

Last week in The Hindu I could see a full page interview of Tanvi Shah who sang one tiny line in one of the songs and given some vocal sound effects in another. She proclaimed that she sang 2 songs in the film! The young girl went on proclaiming that the Golden Globe won by Rahman is for a team work rather than an individual’s work!

When people who are even distantly associated with Slum Dog Millionaire is on self promoting sprees like this, the man who’s path breaking global music which has won India all its first big international music recognitions is as humble and unassuming as ever.

He says an Oscar award can’t wipe away poverty from this land and as long as there are people struggling for one time’s meal all these awards are not very significant. But still we congratulate you for the Golden Globe and for the Oscar nominations and wishing you all the very best for winning more than one Oscar Rahman. You make the Slum Dogs and poor people of this poverty stricken country feel very proud.