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The Mozart of Madras: Composer A. R. Rahman

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  • Composer A. R. Rahman has sold over 200 million albums worldwide
  • The 'Mozart of Madras' works in both the Indian film industry and Hollywood
  • Rahman's work includes the music for 'The Lord of the Rings' stage production
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The Screening Room went to the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in the heart of London's West End, where a spectacular musical version of "The Lord of The Rings" is enjoying a successful run, to meet Indian composer A. R. Rahman, whose blend of Asian culture with rock and Western classical styles has revolutionized the Indian film industry. And now Rahman is about to make his mark in Hollywood.


A. R. Rahman, interviewed by CNN's Screening Room

Virtually unknown in Europe and the U.S., Rahman has sold 200 million albums worldwide -- more than the Beatles -- and is worshipped throughout much of Asia, where he's known as the Mozart of Madras.

Now he has added a Hollywood film score to his vast repertoire of movie music.

Rahman explained to CNN what he thinks makes great movie music. "A great soundtrack is like 'Laura"s theme', the 'Love Story' theme, 'Chariots of Fire' and all those sorts of things, where it stood by itself," he said. But recently, he's noticed a changing mood. "Now it is becoming too abstract and more ambient and more... I don't know, soundscape-ish, more than melody. People are afraid of melody: 'Oh, that melody is distracting my scene,' it is becoming like that."

And that brings fresh challenges for the makers of film music. "Now the challenges of the composer are much more," he told CNN. "One needs to know of recording, production, it is not enough to compose a great theme and [know] how it can intertwine with the movie. And with Indian film it is an even greater challenge, because we need to be like Michael Jackson, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and an Indian folk composer all put together. So they expect finesse and they expect versatility."

Rahman's compositions are versatile enough to be used by both Bollywood and Hollywood, a case in point being his music for the Hindi film "Dil Se," which was used almost a decade later by Spike Lee for "Inside Man."

But for Rahman, the process to create film music is being challenged by increasingly crammed movie schedules. "There used to be a time where the director and the composer would work together," he explained. "They would develop themes and the director would shoot a scene, but now the world's so fast that people are finishing the movie even before going to a composer."

As well as writing songs and scores, Rahman has featured in many Bollywood films singing the songs which are mimed by the acting superstars. He recently completed a sell-out tour of the U.S. performing highlights from his songbook to devoted fans.

He explained to CNN how playback singing is a normal part of Indian film music. "Well, until I worked in 'Bombay Dreams' six or seven years back, I never realized that it is not cool to have playback singing. Until then, it was the story of Indian films where somebody else lip synchs and somebody else sings." And Rahman has been converted to the Western model, where those singing on-screen usually provide the vocals themselves. "In my future projects I would rather have a star who sings," he said.

Director Shekhar Kapur recruited Rahman and fellow composer Craig Armstrong to provide the score for Cate Blanchett's sequel to "Elizabeth," "The Golden Age," which premieres at Toronto Film Festival in September this year.

Kapur described the thrill of working with two such different -- and complementary -- composers. He told CNN, "Here are two totally different cultures. Craig Armstrong is strings and heart, the skies, choir, angels and devils, and A. r. is modern, restless music."


"Just to get them together was very interesting for me. To sit there and see both of them jamming together, that was fascinating. They wouldn't talk, they would jam, and out of the jamming came the music. It was great."

Rahman is still getting used to his new-found status as darling of both East and West -- and it leads to a somewhat chaotic lifestyle, as he explained. "It is terrifying sometimes. I suddenly wake up in Scotland doing music for 'Golden Age,' and suddenly wake up doing an Indian superstar film, but I think after all these years I am probably getting a balance." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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