The capital of Carnatic music seems to have made an impression on Hollywood.
Chennai’s longstanding tryst with music and the arts is well-known, and its Music Season attracts aficionados from the world over. But of late, the capital of Carnatic music seems to have made an impression on Hollywood as well. When Danny Boyle was looking for a music director for his Mumbai-based Slumdog Millionaire, his eyes fell on A.R. Rahman, the ‘Mozart of Madras,’ who eventually picked up Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score. Now, the Carnatic musician Bombay Jayashri has been nominated for Best Original Song (Music by Mychael Danna; Lyric by Bombay Jayashri) — for ‘Pi’s Lullaby’, in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. The song faces tough competition in the form of ‘Suddenly’, from the hit musical Les Misérables, and, especially, the blockbuster title track from Skyfall, which came right in time for James Bond’s golden anniversary on screen, something the Academy’s voting members will certainly have in mind given the film’s lack of nominations in the major categories. Then again, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was denied Best Picture in a widely criticised 2005 decision (Paul Haggis’s Crash won that year), and the Academy, still red in the face, may be looking to make amends. Sometimes, as was the case with Slumdog Millionaire, a film can end up showered with Oscar love, sweeping everything in sight. Ang Lee will certainly be hoping that’s the case.
Oscar politicking apart, the nomination of ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ raises an intriguing question: does popular music from India travel better around the world than its popular movies? ‘Jai Ho’, after all, is very much in the beat-heavy Bollywood mould, and ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ is only the latest version of a long line of bedtime songs Indian screen mothers have sung for their screen children. Meanwhile, Barfi!, a big hit in the country and India’s (highly questionable) official nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, did not even make it to the shortlist. But it’s not that simple. ‘Jai Ho’ and ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ found recognition because they happened to be part of movies that were embraced by a worldwide audience. The soul may have been Indian, but the packaging was still international. One may wonder, then, why the songs of, say, Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice failed to find any takers. After all, Chadha is a well-known name, and her film was based on the work of someone even more well-known: Jane Austen. The film even starred a Miss World. Yet, the score made not a ripple, a fate that was shared by the song ‘Gori Re’, in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vanity Fair. Both these films got little critical recognition, and did not play very well to audiences either. It may bode well for ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ that critics and audiences around the world have loved Life of Pi.