For all the standing-O uplift and train-surfing grandeur, for all the outhouse plunges and final-reel swoon, the movie Slumdog Millionaire doesn't reach its real emotional apex until the end credits. If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about — and you're no doubt grinning, too. Danny Boyle's Dickensian flick about a savvy Mumbai street urchin is capped with a fantastical dance number on a train platform, all set to a boogieable Bollywood groove from composer A. R. Rahman.
YouTube now has vids of babies and girlfriends doing this Jai Ho dance. There are remixes and tributes, too. Heck, even the Pussycat Dolls are working on a cover. No matter that Jai Ho's lyrics are in Hindi. The song and its choreography are brilliant, two lovers consummating their long, winding courtship not with sex but a hand-waving, side-stepping, totally cathartic shimmy.
It makes no sense — and all the sense in the world.
The 41-year-old Rahman has already won a Golden Globe for Slumdog's score, and he's the favorite tonight at the 81st annual Academy Awards. Besides the score, two of his cuts from the soundtrack are up for best original song. Nicknamed the "Indian Timbaland" and the seller of more than 100 million albums worldwide, Rahman's music is sort of like Nine Inch Nails in a good mood, using sitars instead of guitars, tabla drums to drive the heavy groove. It's gritty and real, but it could also light the heck out of a rave.
The film itself is the favorite to win best picture, and it's fair to say that without Rahman, it wouldn't be in this prime position. Yes, the music is that good, that integral, that beautifully in concert with the images on the screen. But Rahman's score and the movie's charm also benefit from the surge of Indian influences in pop culture. We like Slumdog because it's foreign — but not too foreign.
India was everywhere last year. Coldplay's new album, the multiplatinum and Grammy gobbling Viva la Vida, opens with a world-music instrumental laced with ornate South Asian strains. Mike Myers' execrable The Love Guru spoofed the success of the New Delhi-born Deepak Chopra. Disney Channel's Cheetah Girls franchise scored big with One World, filmed in Mumbai and Udaipur; the cable movie, and bestselling soundtrack, featured gaudy homages to Bollywood, the famed Hindi arm of the Indian movie biz. Bollywood flicks, punctuated by wild colors and extensive dance numbers, are larger, louder than life, dealing with both the realities and surrealities of life — escapist fare for escapist times.
The biggest South Asian influence of '08, however, also happens to be a big part of Slumdog's score: Sri Lankan hip-hop griot M.I.A. Born Maya Arulpragasam, the colorful 31-year-old makes political music you can dance to. Long before Slumdog, her Clash-sampling song Paper Planes was an iTunes monster, one of the most downloaded singles of the year — gunshots and all. Despite being nine months pregnant, M.I.A. just thrilled on the Grammys, holding her own in a boys-club number with Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and T.I.
In Slumdog, Boyle uses Paper Planes to highlight the poignant scene of two boys fleeing a gruesome situation on top of a chugging locomotive. Never mind that we've already heard Paper Planes 200 times; the scene gives those bang! bang! bang!s fresh pop. The director later uses a remix of M.I.A.'s big hit (think Paper Planes if it were born in a blaxploitation movie) for a flashier, slicker scene.
But even better than those two tracks is O . . . Saya, which is nominated for best original song. The opening track on the Slumdog soundtrack, O . . . Saya pairs Rahman and M.I.A. together, his beats, her flow, each one pushing the other, driving the go-go-go momentum. It's the perfect backdrop for the movie's frenetic opening: scrappy rapscallions ditching the cops in the alleys of their trash-strewn ghetto.
Rahman calls on other talented friends, as well. Alka Yagnik isn't well-known in the United States, but in India, she's Madonna in a sari. Here Yagnik adds frisky undulation to Ringa Ringa. And lest you think Rahman is all rave, no romance, Latika's Theme, featuring soprano vocalist Suzanne, is spare, heartbreaking, a summation of female lead Freida Pinto's big brown eyes.
It all leads up to Jai Ho, which is also up for best original song. Co-written by and featuring Tanvi Shah, a popular Bollywood "playback" singer (actors lip-synch the "playback" of her voice), the closing cut thrives on sing-along rhythmic chants. Even if you don't know Hindi, you sing along anyway: "Aaja aaja jind shamiyane ke tale / Aaja jariwale nile aasman ke tale."
Here's hoping the Academy Awards re-create that life-affirming train-station spectacle. After all, Boyle and Rahman have given us not just the movie of the year — a very hard year, no less — but the soundtrack and the song as well. Jai Ho!
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.