As a new talent search kicks off in India, AR Rahman – the award-winning composer for films such as Slumdog Millionaire and Elizabeth: The Golden Age – believes “we are in for some surprises”.
“There is a lot of amazing hidden talent out there,” the prolific musician, whose success straddles Bollywood, Hollywood and the West End, tells BBC News, from his home in Chennai.
“People are super excited,” he says, as applications for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) initiative open in India.
It is the first time the Bafta Breakthrough programme, which has been running in the UK since 2013, has embraced India’s thriving, but often disparate, arts industry – a melting pot of language, culture and faiths.
“The Western world only ever sees one industry in India, the Hindi industry – Bollywood – which I don’t really like as a word,” says Rahman, who has scored countless Indian films and has more than 650 tracks to his name.
“But there are many other amazing directors, all over India. Each state has its own film industry. And there are some really interesting cultural things that can be learned from those movies.”
This latest talent search is not limited to film-making as it offers a leg up to artists working both on-screen and behind the scenes in all areas of the film, television and games industries “so it’s wide open,” adds Rahman.
The composer, whose own breakthrough came with the 1992 Tamil film Roja nearly 30 years ago, applauds how there is no longer a stranglehold on finding fame.
Thanks to public exposure on social media, “now everybody owns it,” says Rahman.
“I’ve discovered amazing talent on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook – all that stuff. We have found this whole new generation popping up. It’s great.
“But going to the next level – to the pro level – always requires some nurturing and guidance from experienced people, or from the system.”
Bafta’s year-long support programme offers the chance to work with and learn from some of the biggest names in the industry. Former mentors on the Breakthrough Brits programme have included such luminaries as Harry Potter producer David Heyman and actress Tilda Swinton.
Rahman describes his own mentor, Roja director Mani Ratnam, as “the Spielberg of India”: “Working with someone so huge for my first movie was a huge responsibility – and it gave me a lot of energy and courage,” he recalls.
His score for Roja defied all expectations, and marked the first time a newcomer had won India’s coveted Silver Lotus award. And from then on, the only way was up.
“I kept learning and learning and learning – and I got paid for it!” he jokes.
Within a decade of his debut, Rahman was being approached to write music for London’s West End by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and to score a musical adaptation of classic fantasy The Lord of the Rings.
His crowning triumph, on the international stage, came in 2009, with his score for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, winning Rahman a slew of awards including a Bafta, a Golden Globe and two Oscars.
“It was my intention that my music should transcend the boundaries and the limitations of film music,” says the 56-year-old musician, who today is one of the biggest-selling recording artists in the world.
“It’s so important, when the world is so divisive, that we represent our culture in the right way; that film-makers tell the right stories – stories that can build bridges.”
Rahman, whose nickname is the Mozart of Madras, “embodies the sort of person whom hopefully the Breakthroughs can become,” says Tim Hunter, Bafta’s director of learning and new talent.
“Bafta has a long history of spotting talent and supporting them,” he tells the BBC. “Judi Dench won her first Bafta as a rising star – long before Breakthrough existed.”
Spider-Man star Tom Holland, Black Panther’s Letitia Wright and Josh O’Connor – better known as Prince Charles in The Crown – have all benefitted from Bafta’s annual pick of emerging artists, with year-long access to master classes, networking forums, Bafta membership and, of course, a major boost to their profile.
Last year, the Breakthrough programme extended its search overseas to China and, subsequently, to the US and India.
“We wanted to expand Breakthrough into a global initiative, so that people who are still in the early stages of their career start to create a global outlook and global habits,” says Hunter.
“Creativity comes from people connecting, from bouncing ideas off each other – from understanding how casting works in China or how location works in India, for example.”
But it’s not just about famous faces – this year’s British cohort includes a costume designer, a games producer and, for the first time, a multi-camera director.
“We’re not comparing – because it would be impossible to compare an actor to a screenwriter or a games producer,” he explains, adding that what the jurors who select the final participants are looking for are artists with clear potential who might benefit from “a nudge”.
“It’s often people who work in teams that struggle to put themselves forward,” says Hunter. “So we rely on industry recommendations to get that breadth and diversity [of roles].
“People can have a breakthrough at any time in their career. The whole point [of this scheme] is to make sure people can parlay that into a successful career and it’s not just a flash in the pan.”
Five successful Indian applicants will make it on to the Bafta programme, and the mentoring experience promises to have long repercussions on their future career.
“Knowledge doesn’t come in a day – it’s acquired,” says Rahman. “You start appreciating beautiful things, then you pick and choose your likes – and that becomes your sound, or your movie, or your philosophy.
“The choices we make create the character in our work.”
Applications for the Bafta Breakthrough in India close on 25 January 2021. Full details can be found on the Bafta website.