Bollywood composer seeks global pop stardom

By May 28, 2010 No Comments

BURBANK, Calif. — With scores of dancers moving in unison atop trains, singing amid ancient ruins and running across cricket fields, the average Bollywood production is a grand spectacle.

Taking such a show on the road would seem to require significant downsizing. Not for A.R. Rahman, who garnered worldwide exposure with his Academy Award-winning score to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The Indian film composer is trying to orchestrate his own rise to international stardom by making his production even bigger to dazzle audiences in massive concert venues across the Western Hemisphere with elaborate stage shows teeming with dancers, acrobats and high-tech lighting.

The tour begins June 11 at New York’s Nassau Coliseum and wends through North America and Europe before ending at London’s Wembley Stadium in late July, with ticket prices for the roughly three-hour-long shows ranging from $45 to $1,000.

Through the concerts, Rahman is attempting something many performers from outside the English-speaking world have tried and failed to do: transcend a regional, ethnic niche and become an international mainstream superstar.

“My core audiences are from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East and all those people, so after ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ we wanted audiences from the U.S. and Europe,” Rahman said, seated in a vast rehearsal hall in an industrial part of the San Fernando Valley.

In a music scene dominated by lithe 20-something songstresses and frenetic hip-hop collectives, the soft-spoken 44-year-old, with his squat, sparkplug-shaped physique and shaggy, brushed-back black coiffure, might seem an unlikely candidate for sustained Western pop stardom.

During an interview in a room dominated by a towering drum kit, Rahman cast longing glances at the piano beside him, looking like he’d rather be alone with the keyboard than at the center of this frantic pre-tour bustle.

“I’m an introvert, actually,” he said, then corrected himself, “I was an introvert, rather.”

He’s also rowing against a tide that has capsized other non-Western stars who attempted to find a place in a global pop pantheon dominated by European and American performers.

The Japanese singing duo Puffy had big plans when they played their first U.S. concerts at the beginning of the decade, but they got little for their troubles beyond a cease and desist letter from lawyers for Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy.

And does anyone remember Rain, the Korean pop idol who planned to take on America with a U.S. tour and a supporting role in the 2008 action film “Speed Racer”? (Does anyone even remember “Speed Racer”?)

But Rahman is off to a hopeful start.

His music is ubiquitous in his native India, where he is acclaimed for crafting moving movie music with global influences that appeal to contemporary Indian listeners for more than 100 films.

“He has supplied the soundtrack for a whole generation,” TV chef Padma Lakshi wrote in an appreciation for Time magazine, which named Rahman one of the 100 most influential people of 2009.

India’s Congress party even adopted the song “Jai Ho,” from the “Slumdog” soundtrack, as the anthem for its 2009 campaign, from which it emerged as the election’s top vote getter.

Outside India, Rahman has played sold-out shows in ethnic Indian enclaves, while his percussion-driven score of plaintive crescendo-climbing wails and sultry warbles lured some 150,000 North American viewers to the 2001 film “Lagaan,” a nearly four-hour-long epic about cricket.

The success of the “Slumdog” soundtrack, which earned Rahman two Academy Awards and two Grammys and sold nearly 400,000 copies in the United States, has given him a platform to continue building his mainstream appeal.

“People from all over the world really respond and resonate to his music,” said John Beasley, the concert tour’s music director.

Beasley oversees the tour’s 20-person coterie of flutists, cellists, tambura-strummers, singers and other music-makers, some of whom have played with Lionel Richie, Fleetwood Mac, Alanis Morissette and other Western pop stars. Beasley himself is a veteran of Miles Davis’ musical entourage.

The musicians are elements of a stage show that also includes four troupes of dancers, each of which will strut the stage deploying an entirely different style of choreography.

All the while, a high-tech projection rig that’s only been used before in standalone light shows will throw three-dimensional renderings of the Himalayas, the Ganges River and the slums of Mumbai onto the stage.

The shows will also feature Cirque du Soleil acrobats, including a Mongolian contortionist who has reworked her act into a display of extreme Indian yoga.

“It’s a merging of cultures,” said the show’s artistic director Amy Tinkham, who has presided over tours for Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and other high-caliber acts. “It’s very East-meets-West in a very spectacular way.”

Ananda Mitra, a Wake Forest University communications professor and author of the book “India through the Western Lens,” said that East-meets-West sensibility has always been a key to Rahman’s success.

“He’s able to create a sound which is appealing not only to those whose ears are attuned to traditional Indian film music, but also to ears that are attuned to Western pop,” Mitra said.

Rahman’s art grew in the petri dish of an increasingly internationally minded India, which began its rapid globalization during a series of economic reforms that began in the late 1980s, Mitra said.

Indians suddenly found it just as easy to buy ABBA or Bee Gees cassettes as it was to get sitar-driven Hindi classical music or folk-inflected film scores.

Mitra said Rahman has been particularly adept at fusing the two musical cultures, which puts him in good stead to be an international star.

“What Rahman is doing is saying, ‘We don’t have to think just about the Indians. There is an opportunity to globalize this music,'” Mitra said.