Culture: The Mozart of Madras

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The billboard outside the Broadway Theatre reads, A R RAHMAN’S BOMBAY DREAMS. That name may mean little to musical-theater devotees, but in the rest of the world it’s golden. Like Gershwin or Lennon-McCartney, the name stands for melody, quality, energy, instant hummability–a sound both personal and universal, devouring many older forms and transforming them into something gorgeously new.

At 38, Rahman is nothing new to fans of Indian films. They know by heart his scores and songs for some 70 movies. And they buy his CDs–do they ever! By some counts, 150 million albums of Rahman music have been sold, which could make him the top-selling artist in recording history.

“It’s an approximate count,” says Rahman, in a phone chat from London. “If you have a hit film, you’ll sell 5 million or 6 million CDs. Of my movies, at least 20 or 25 were really big hits.” Mind you, he adds, “in India, we don’t get royalties. Otherwise I’d be a very rich man. I wouldn’t have to come to America!”

Rahman, who has been jetting from his home and studio in Madras to New York City (for Bombay Dreams) and London (where he is preparing his West End musical of The Lord of the Rings), is a world traveler from way back. Born A.S. Dileep Kumar, he began playing piano at 4, and when his father died five years later, the precocious child hit the road, touring the world with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. The family converted to Sufi Islam, and Dileep took the name Allah Rakha Rahman.

He studied music at Oxford and returned to Madras to write jingles for an ad agency. In 1992 Tamil director Mani Ratnam chose Rahman, then 26, to be musical director of the movie Roja. Scoring an Indian film means writing the songs (with a lyricist) as well as composing and conducting the background music. Rahman proved a master of it all. His songs were recognizably Indian but paraded a world of musical influences, from raga to reggae, from Broadway to Ennio Morricone, with each tune heightening the film’s drama.

Soon Rahman added commissions for Hindi (Bollywood) films to his workload. In songs for Ratnam’s Bombay and Dil Se, and for the Hindi films Vishwavidhaata, Taal and Lagaan, he created a body of work unparalleled, at least in the ’90s, for ravishing melodic ingenuity. “I wanted to produce film songs,” he says, “that go beyond language or culture.” They went beyond India too. As Western film cultists discovered India’s pop cinema, they realized that along with the ferocious emoting and delirious dances, there was a master composer–the man Indians call the Mozart of Madras.

One of Rahman’s fans was Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had caught Dil Se on TV and was entranced by Chaiyya Chaiyya, an all-time irresistible bhangra sung on the roof of a speeding train. Lloyd Webber had found not just an inventive composer but also the solution to a vexing problem. “Musical theater had become very predictable,” Rahman says. “I think Andrew felt that Bollywood musicals could be a new treat for the Western audience.” Bombay Dreams (about half new Rahman songs, half greatest hits from his movies) has run for nearly two years in the West End. This week a new version opens on Broadway.

Rahmaniacs will regret the jettisoning of half a dozen solid tunes from the original. (Three songs have been added.) Hardened Broadway regulars may find the show splashy but naive. Still, anyone with half an ear will hear the most vibrant, varied new score in ages. They will leave Bombay Dreams humming Rahman’s songs and singing his praises. Broadway, meet Bollywood.

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