A.R. Rahman Goes Broadway

During the group screening of Lagaan, there was a moment when the entire room let loose with uncontrollable laughter. True to “masala” style, this film had many comic moments, but the laughter that spread throughout ACE 217 was due to a scene that was not intended to be funny.

When Elizabeth enters with her solitary confession of (unrequited) love for Bhuvan, the music shifts from Bollywood fusion to something more appropriate for Western Europe, and dare I say it, the Broadway stage. Gone are the lilting syncopated rhythms and fretless bass that is so crucial to the sonic palette of most of the film’s songs. Instead, Rahman introduces a harp followed by straight rhythms performed by operatic altos, violins and even a flute. Their melody consists of a rather simplistic contour in something of a caricature of Western European art music: upward moving arpeggios followed by a rounded descent, the second time with more ornamentation. To visually complement this, Elizabeth dances around her room, lays in her bed, and releases a white dove. As she sings, her rhythms are even and easy and the orchestra is replaced by warm synth patches with an occasional viola line. This is the vocal approach that audiences of musicals in New York City and London are accustomed to hearing. All it lacks is some of the richness of, say, Sarah Brightman, and it could easily be mistaken for any number of composers whose music gestures to opera (I’m looking at you, Andrew Lloyd Weber). Given that A. R. Rahman would be involved in a stage musical, Bombay Dreams, within a year of Lagaan‘s release indicates that Broadway’s approach to dramatic climaxes in songs was not too far from his thoughts.

The entry of Broadway in the middle of a “masala” bollywood film shocked just about everyone. I giggled and it spread like wildfire. It is a jarring moment that is meant to musically demonstrate some of the fundamental differences between Bhuvan and Elizabeth just at the moment when he is declaring his love for Gauri. By mixing these two approaches, Rahman exaggerates the musical differences between England and India. However, it’s also jarring to hear singing in English (and the faux Western European Art Music) when the only lyrics the audience has heard thus far are sung in a dialect of Hindi. As the two styles and languages become more mixed and layered towards the end (“O rey chhori” / “Oh I’m in love”), the sequence utilizes a common technique to musicals: the layering of two seemingly disparate songs for dramatic effect known as a “combination song.” The technique will not work if the dramatic function of one of those layers is called into question, as was the case with Elizabeth’s music at the class screening; the camp overtook the seriousness with which the music and direction treated the love triangle.

If comments on youtube are any indication, some audiences find this song to be an emotional climax for the love portion of the story. Many Bollywood films relish the heightened emotional expression of song, even if it veers towards the ridiculous. (Students from Music and the Global Metropolis got to see another example of this.) I can’t speak for the rest of the group that attended the screening, but when I laugh, I do so with an appreciation for why someone else might see it with all seriousness. And underneath the smile, I wish I could let go and get caught up in Elizabeth’s ecstatic declaration of unrequited love. That’s powerful stuff.

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