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Om, Oscar, Om: Slumdog Millionaire's Sound Sages

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With all the issues whirling about in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar sweep, a two-letter word from the acceptance speech of the winner of an award in a technical category may seem far too obscure to blog about. But the word was "Om," and the category was sound.

The connection was plain and simple, and yet so stunningly profound. No wonder Resul Pookutty says his speech is getting more attention than his Oscar; as we might say in India, he just delivered the King of all "fundas"!

Here are those words:

I come from a country and a civilization that (has) given the universal word. That word is preceded by silence, followed by more silence. That word is "Om."

(You can watch it here on YouTube)

The word "Om" is of course not entirely unknown to the world of Western pop culture. John Lennon invoked it with lofty conviction in "Across the Universe." The Moody Blues leaned towards serious earnestness, noting that naming the "chord" is important to some, and they called it "Aum." ELP punned awfully about it in "Hallowed be thy name." In India too, "Om" has appeared in the context of pop culture frequently. Bollywood has used it in songs and movie titles over the years, such as the recent spectacle Om Shanti Om. But what "Om" signified in that speech on Oscar night was something much deeper than its use in any entertainment context in the past, at least on two counts.

The first was that on a night which seemed like the beginning of a brave new future for world cinema (close on the heels of our celebration of the beginning of a brave new future for the world too) we were reminded of the past, not merely in a cultural or civilizational sense, but really in a mind-blowing cosmological sense. We may or may not necessarily believe that "Om" literally was the sound of the Universe being born, but we can agree perhaps that what it refers to is indeed important, sacred even. Making the connection instantly between something like the Big Bang and the moment at hand, of course, was simply brilliant. It made a dazzling connection between the mundane and the cosmic.

The second was what it meant to India. As he spoke those words, I felt as if it was India itself that was speaking through him. In invoking a sacred word that Hindus use in worship and many others revere, I think that he also expressed lucidly for a global audience the subtle everyday universalism which pervades how Indians live and think. Notwithstanding the desperate and often despicable demands of identity-political claims on matters of religion in the real world, the truth is that in Indian cinema, and in the hearts of India in which it abides, India's religious universalism has always been in full strength. If there is one ideal that our movies have believed in, I think it is that "God" is always more important than "religion." It is our devotion, and its implications for our conduct as human beings, which matter. Our names and labels are less important.

We don't often give it enough credit for this, but I think the Indian film industry has a rather liberal approach to religion, from the diversity of its own stars and technicians to the sincere and respectful way in which singers and musicians and dancers on film-based TV contests often invoke "Saraswathi-Ma" (the Goddess of Learning). In a way, Mr. Pookutty represented that commendable quality of his industry too at the Oscars. After all, dozens of winners have "thanked God" at the Oscar podium over the decades. Mr. Pookutty simply showed us how someone from the world of Indian cinema does it. It is done with humility, but it resonates so deeply with a human yearning for the sacred that it just blows the roof off.

Speaking of humility that speaks to human yearnings for the sacred and blows the roof off and turns our faces heavenward in wonder, A.R. Rahman's speech at the Oscars has resonated equally well in the hearts and minds of Indian audiences. As the title of this article in The Telegraph says, it was the night of "Om" and "Ma." When Rahman said "mere pas maa hai," ("I have mother on my side"), he was not merely making a textual reference to one of Indian cinema's most well-worn themes. He was paying an homage to a sentiment that Indian cinema and its audiences have felt for decades. The reverence for mothers in our movies once again speaks to a universalism that extends beyond any one religious community or tradition. It is a recognition of one important fact that is true for every single person in the world; we wouldn't be here without our mothers! Movies like Amar Akbar Anthony have played on this theme, sometimes conflating the ideal of the mother and the motherland (and mother earth too), calling on everyone to feel a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, united perhaps under the sheltering love of our mothers. Even movies about serious topics like terrorism have come back to this theme, calling on their heroes to not just "save the world" like in Hollywood but to really "save the world for mom" (see my essay on this written soon after 9/11here).

Rahman and Pookutty's brief but heartfelt speeches will surely become part of the Slumdog mythology (as for Slumdog critiques, I have some, but this can't be the place for it) because they represented a lot more than one could have imagined. I cannot remember any Oscar ceremony where I found myself cheering for its spiritual showmanship. Having written about religion and media, I have renewed faith now in the promise of both thanks to our two sound sages. I have to speculate about what a wonderful world it would be when we turn for our spiritual nurture not to the literalists and fundamentalists, but to the artists of our world. Rahman's spiritual sensibility, if we may call it that, was there on the stage for us: it was simply about choosing love over hate. To him, it may come in the form of Islam. To others, it may come in other forms. But to everyone, there is one form in which that kind of a spirit is felt deeply: his music.

It is perhaps not surprising then that the Times of India's "Sacred Space" column, which lists spiritual and inspirational sayings everyday, has featured a collection of A.R. Rahman's quotes. We have two new sages it appears, rising through the medium of global pop culture, riding the wings of Oscar and the spirit of the Obama era. I think that they deserve special credit not only for their great accomplishment at the Oscars, but also for the fine sensibilities they brought to their speeches. We have one man who the world listens to, and another who it seems is listening to the whole universe! As Pookutty later explained:

..in our tradition we believe that Om is a word that encompasses the whole experience of the universe... Indians can just listen ... to the pains of living just by the sound of Om.