Between Reviews: The Little Gold (Rah)Man?

Posted on December 20, 2008


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DEC 21, 2008 – A FEW WEEKS AGO, A LOCAL RADIO STATION wanted to know what I felt about the Oscars, and whether such awards meant anything to our film industry in the grand scheme of things. This was a live telecast, early in the morning, and there’s only so much considered thought one can channel into a back-and-forth over the phone when the coffee has barely begun to kick in – so I put on my lofty hat and denied that the Academy Awards were important. I said they’d be a nice-to-have, certainly, but when asked if they meant anything, I had to say no. Because all awards are picked by juries, and all juries consist of human beings, and all human beings are subjective, what does an award really mean?

And if you factor in the culture question, do we actually expect a North American jury to fully comprehend the ethos of something made over here, for us, and also fully comprehend the ethos of something made over in Czechoslovakia or China, and be in a position to single out the best? A great deal of ink was devoted to analysing why Lagaan lost out to No Man’s Land, but why even bother? The two are related only so far as they are shaped out of celluloid – otherwise, one is an apple to the other’s rambutan. For that matter, if Lagaan had competed against Shwaas, it still wouldn’t have mattered whether it won or lost. Apart from the undeniable thrill of a valuable (and very visible) pat on the back, an Oscar signifies nothing.

Can I tell you what a hypocrite I feel now about that interview – “now” being after the announcement that AR Rahman has been honoured for Best Musical Score (for Slumdog Millionaire) by the Los Angeles Critics Association, and has subsequently been nominated for a Golden Globe? (Going by the avalanche of awards-season love being lavished on Slumdog Millionaire, it’s quickly shaping out to be this year’s little-snowball-that-could, which translates into a very possible Oscar nomination for Rahman.) My feelings about awards haven’t changed – well, not exactly – but I realise now that I’d forgotten about a very important aspect about the Oscars or the Golden Globes or pretty much every major award. (In other words, we’re ignoring the kind of ceremonies that hand out, in all seriousness, the Kesar Chyavanprash Award for Best Male Comedian on Stilts.)

What I’d omitted to mention was the knuckle-clenching thrill of rooting for someone from your home team. Sure, AR Rahman’s nomination doesn’t really mean a thing in comparative terms – in the sense that one jury’s cloud is inevitably another’s silver lining; that pesky subjectivity thing again – but dammit if I’m not going to be up on my feet, sobbing and cheering hoarse if he does end up winning (please, please, please, oh Flying Spaghetti Monster). And this, despite the fact that I’ve had extremely mixed reactions to Rahman’s work this year. (Had I been his schoolteacher, evaluating his efforts on Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and Yuvvraaj, I’d have been conflicted between awarding him a gold star and ordering him to stand up on the bench.)

But even when Rahman’s music isn’t what you expect, even when it doesn’t find its way to that sweet spot, you almost always catch a whiff of the creative restlessness that characterises his compositions, that refusal to settle for easy reconfigurations of past hits when that could be all that the marketplace demands. In his desire to push himself and his music, he may succeed or he may fail, but the indefatigability of that effort is what I’ll be cheering for. If only for redefining the sound of our film music, Rahman certainly deserves to be recognised on a celebrated global platform – and regardless of your opinion of his work on Slumdog Millionaire, if this is the film that gets him these sought-after recognitions, then so be it.

And yet, at some level, it appears that Rahman doesn’t really need a Golden Globe or an Oscar. He is already among the most fêted artists of our time (if not the most fêted artist), and though these statuettes will undoubtedly add lustre to his already groaning mantelpiece – not to mention his moniker (imagine the mouthwatering opportunities presented by the prefix “Oscar-winning”) – Rahman doesn’t need these recognitions to become more visible. Thanks to the shrinking world and thanks to our films (mainly from Bollywood) expanding their reach, Rahman has already waved his baton on the London stage (Bombay Dreams) and in Hollywood (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) – even without the crutch of an Oscar or a Golden Globe.

It may be useful, therefore, to consider Rahman’s nomination – and hopeful win – as something more than just the individual triumph that it undoubtedly is. We may not make the best movies in our country, but perhaps due to our longstanding traditions of music, we’ve had a staggeringly illustrious line of composers, in which Rahman is simply the latest. His predecessors never had the enviable privilege that is his today, of creating music in an era when the global is local and the local is instantly global. And it would be fitting to recognise that his victory will – in a sense – also be theirs, for it will also be a victory for the great tradition of Indian film music, of which Rahman is now the global face.

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