AR Rahman’s genius at composing film songs across languages has been well documented. But his skill at creating equally memorable and befitting background scores alongside soundtracks is less widely documented. There are numerous fan tributes to Rahman’s background music for his films, and it is a pity that there is no official compilation of instrumental and choral scores by the composer, who turns 50 on January 6.
One of Rahman’s most widely recognised background pieces doubles up as the movie’s theme music. The soul-stirring The Bombay Theme from Bombay (1995) has reappeared in Fire (1996), whose songs were also composed by Rahman, as well as Divine Intervention (2002), Lord of War (2005) and Miral (2010).
Based on raag jaijaiwanti, The Bombay Theme is an amalgamation of Indian classical and Western styles. The fusion of Indian flutes and Western string instruments creates an orchestral sound. The music is so deeply entrenched in the narrative that it becomes inextricable from the film, which explores the inter-faith marriage between Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) and Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) and their test of fire during the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai.
The inclusion of the instrumental tune on the soundtrack was unusual. While the hit songs Humma Humma and Kehna Hai Kya (Kannalane in the original) were enough to promote the film, the addition of The Bombay Theme on the CD reminded listeners that they needed to pay attention to a non-vocal track.
Rahman is one of the few composers to pay as much attention to the background score as he does to songs right from his first release, Roja (1992), to his score in Mohenjo Daro (2016).
In his conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir in the book AR Rahman The Spirit of Music, Rahman says, “If you match an orchestral piece by the extraordinary Bach or Beethoven against a deserving scene, it raises the bar of the cinematic experience, even though their music was obviously not conceived for a film.”
Roja, the only Indian movie in Time magazine’s 10 Best Soundtracks of all-time list, uses different pieces of music for different sections. A keyboard-based composition marks the titular character’s early scenes with her newly married husband, Rishi (Arvind Swamy) and an alaap features prominently in scenes in which the two are separated. The background music is equally memorable. This scene in which Rishi tries to douse the flames of a burning Indian flag by throwing his stocky self over it is designed to swell the chests of patriotic viewers with pride.
Rangeela (1995) was Rahman’s first Hindi film score. It had an instrumental theme tune, The Spirit of Rangeela, which was filmed on Mili (Urmila Matondkar) dancing on the beach. It became a popular number, fitting in with other blockbuster tunes such as Tanha Tanha, Rangeela Re and Hai Rama.
In the climax scene, Mili narrates her litany of complaints about Munna (Aamir Khan), whom she loves, to Raj Kamal (Jackie Shroff), who is secretly in love with her. Rahman interjects her monologue with a flute and drum sample originally from Raj Kamal’s scorching fantasy song with her, Hai Rama.
The flute underscores Raj Kamal’s emotions, followed by an alaap and a relentless drumbeat. Instead of channelling Mili’s feelings, the background music sides with the silent lover. It leads to a joyous climax in which Mili and Munna are united, but it also leaves the audience a little wistful for Raj Kamal.
Among Rahman’s most brilliant background scores is the eerie and haunting aria heard throughout Dil Se (1998). The variations of the tune work as a warning about the doomed romance between Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) and Meghna (Manisha Koirala) at the heart of the story.
Dil Se features some spectacular music pieces in the opening and closing sequences, delineating through the title and end credits the developing nature of the romance, from its pixie charm in the beginning to its morbid end.
In Swades (2004), a little boy sells water in earthen cups for 25 paisa apiece at a railway platform. Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan) decides to buy a cup of water. The background music begins to soar with sweeping violins, but rather than opt for an emotional punch, Rahman punctuates the soaring strings and pipe instruments with a low beat on a drum, as if to mark every passing second that is weighing on the heavy-hearted character. The musical piece enhances and elevates the powerful sequence.
The climax of Guru (2007) features a courtroom sequence in which titular character Gurukant Desai (Abhishek Bachchan) delivers a long monologue. Guru is shown as an old man, recuperating from a stroke. His gruff and failing voice is undercut by a Sanskrit chant, revitalising him to emerge victorious from his trial.
The background scores of Kadhalan (1994), Iruvar (1997), Alaipayuthey (2000) , Lagaan (2001), Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) Rang De Basanti (2006), Raavanan (2010), Rockstar (2011) are also Rahman’s finest works.
For his work in Kannathil Muthamittal, Rahman received his fourth National Film Award for best music direction. The story of adopted girl Amudha (PS Keerthana) in search of her biological mother Shyama (Nandita Das) is set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. The music is skillfully integrated in several non-verbal scenes to express the unspoken emotions of the girl, her mother and the family that has adopted her.
A lesser-known score is for the low-budget Anthimanthaarai (1996), which disappeared from cinemas soon after its release. Rahman’s use of a Carnatic song written in Sanskrit and instrumental themes evoking the film’s period setting were early indicators of his craft.