In 1993, when the Indian director Mani Ratnam recruited the then-27-year-old composer A. R. Rahman to make the music for his film Bombay, he said it would be one of the rare Bollywood films to tell a story about a Hindu-Muslim romance, a union that was, and often still is, widely considered taboo. Nearly 50 years earlier, the South Asian subcontinent achieved independence from British rule and underwent a traumatic process of Partition, dividing into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Though their ideologies were born before Partition, the Hindu elite in India formed a new national identity based in Hindu supremacy in the decades that followed. It was within this context that Ratnam, a Hindu filmmaker, decided to make a film that suggested love could triumph over all.
At the time, Hindu-Muslim tensions in India were escalating higher still when gruesome riots in Mumbai left over 1,100 people dead, the majority of them Muslim. The riots started in December 1992 after Hindu fundamentalists burned down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and were further spurred by leaders of the Hindu supremacist Shiv Sena party in Mumbai. It was widely considered one of the worst instances of religiously motivated violence in Mumbai in the last 50 years.
Into this world, Bombay brought the story of a Hindu man, Shekar, who falls in love with a Muslim woman, Shaila Banu. They move to Mumbai, where they raise twins and enjoy a blissful life together until riots wreak havoc on the city and separate their family. The film ends with a cry for peace from Shekar, a reunion of the couple and their children, and the formation of a “human chain” of Hindus and Muslims who dramatically throw down their weapons, clasp hands, and choose to live in harmony.
Ratnam gave Rahman a two-week deadline to make all the music for the complicated film. As the deadline passed, Rahman didn’t have a single song ready. Instead, he surprised Ratnam with an instrumental piece he called “Bombay Theme.” In A. R. Rahman: The Spirit of Music, he told interviewer Nasreen Munni Kabir that the song, which opens with a sinuous bamboo flute singing out over a churning underbelly of synths and strings, “made a musical statement about non-violence…`and encouraged us to see the inner self rather than the outer.” When Ratnam first heard the song, he was silent for a few minutes and then jokingly asked, “Where are the tunes?”
The tunes would come eventually, including a bombastic synth-pop number, a lovesick ballad, and a winding qawwali-inspired song. The scope of the album solidified Rahman as the preeminent South Asian film composer for the next two decades, and arguably the one with the biggest influence on Western music. It would also become the best-selling soundtrack in Indian film history.
“Bombay Theme” in particular has had a surprisingly successful trajectory for an instrumental piece. It has been used in four other international films and added to countless “world music” soundtracks. In his essay “Violence, Reconciliation, and Memory: A.R. Rahman’s ‘Bombay Theme’,” Jayson Beaster-Jones writes that the song’s inclusion in the soundtrack was unusual, and perhaps a way for Rahman to flex the range of his skill. At the time, background instrumental pieces, known as film music in Indian cinema, were mostly outsourced by musical directors, but even early in his career, Rahman was creating both high-intensity pop songs and their sophisticated instrumental counterparts with ease. The inclusion of the instrumental piece in the soundtrack also signaled the importance Rahman placed on using themes and repurposing snippets of songs throughout a film to gesture at the emotional states of the characters. As Beaster-Jones points out, there are at least 50 instances of re-emerging leitmotifs in Bombay that further convey the cycle of violence and reconciliation central to its plot.
A. R. Rahman was born Dileep Kumar in Chennai,…
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