Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bollywood Conquers Hollywood, and More

Watching the 81st Annual Academy Awards, I had the surreal feeling that I was actually watching a Bollywood production. Forty-three-year old Musical prodigy and composer Alla Rakha (A. R.) Rahman took two Oscars for best original score and best original song - Jai Ho - in Slumdog Millionaire. When the Kodak Theater resonated to Rahman’s song and the fluid movement of Indian dancers, you knew that Bollywood had taken Hollywood by storm. Yes, yes, I know that the director and producer of Slumdog are Englishmen, but it’s a quintessential Indian tale of hope and love and redemption, and it is Rahman’s score and song that propels the story.

This modest man of enormous talent also stole the show when he said in his acceptance speech: "All my life I've had a choice of hate and love. I chose love and I'm here. God bless." What a stirring message to a troubled world!

Rahman was born in 1966 to a Hindu family but at the age of 21 converted to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. He described his conversion as "a long process. I was really intrigued by the Sufi thing and had gone very deeply into it, putting aside three hours every day to learn Arabic. I was drawn to Sufism because they have no regulation, no rules, no distinction between Hindu and Muslim."

Before Rahman, only two other Indians had won Oscars: costume designer Bhanu Athaiya for Gandhi in 1982 and master filmmaker Satyajit Ray for lifetime achievement in 1992.

I saw Slumdog when it opened in theatres in San Jose, California, on November 26 last year. On that very day, Mumbai was attacked by Muslim terrorists and the bustling metropolis was gripped by fear and despair. But as the dust settled, the city reasserted itself with quiet resolve and dignity. Most heart-warming was the response by the Muslims of Mumbai. Thousands of them - men, women and children – took to the streets to denounce the terrorists. "We disown and denounce all those who kill in the name of jihad. Terrorists are fascists and enemies of Muslims as Islam doesn't preach killing of innocents," said poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar.

As of today, bodies of nine Pakistani Muslim terrorists lie in a Mumbai hospital morgue because the Indian Muslim community has refused to bury them in its cemetery.

I welcomed Slumdog’s eight Oscars with gratitude to its creators. That its Muslim music director won two Oscars signified for me, in some undefinable way, the victory of moderates over extremists, of sanity over insanity.

Tonight, when parties are being held all over Oscar’s host city, the city being toasted around the world for its moxie is not Los Angeles but Mumbai.

P.S. A day after A.R. Rahman won Oscars for his song and score, Interscope's A&M Records released a pop version of his winning song "Jai Ho (You Are My Destiny)" in English, sung by Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls. It was produced by Ron Fair, chairman of Interscope's Records division. Fair will fly to Chennai (Rahman's hometown) this summer to collaborate with the composer. "He is one of the world's great living composers in any medium," said Fair. "If I could have a little bit of time with A.R. Rahman, it would be like a master class."

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