I saw Slumdog Millionaire in a small, poorly-heated indie theater at the edge of town. This was back in the fall, before the hoopla, before the sweep at the Golden Globes, before all the Oscar buzz; early on, when the film had only recently been saved from the death-clutch of the straight-to-DVD gods.
Financial backers Warner Independent shut their doors in May, victims of a failing economy. For a while, it looked like Slumdog wouldn’t be getting a U.S. release at all. And until Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice stepped in to save it, the film seemed destined for a sad life at the bottom of the clearance video bin.
Slumdog was very much an underdog until fate intervened.
The movie, I liked. The soundtrack, I loved. And both, I appreciated more after hearing how it almost never was—a film that, much like its pauper-to-prince plotline, beat the odds, emerging a winner.
But Boyle’s “loveletter to Mumbai” (his words, not mine), hasn’t been the only movie this Oscar season whose success has come as a surprise. There’s also The Wrestler, the Darren Aronofsky flick that pulled Mickey Rourke out of obscurity, rebooting his long-stalled career.
Accepting his Golden Globe for Best Actor last month, Rourke talked about his absence from the public eye. He thanked his pet dogs—and Axl Rose and Bruce Springsteen for contributing to the soundtrack.
Except they didn’t actually contribute to the soundtrack.
Legal issues delayed release of the album, and when it finally hit stores, it was without tracks from either artist. But watch the film and you’ll hear both G ‘N R’s “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “The Wrestler,” the title number Bruce Springsteen wrote for the movie, but kept for himself. It’s out now, part of his latest album Working on a Dream.
Pay attention to the second strip-club scene in the film and in the background, you’ll also notice a song from desi Canadian R & B artist Deesha Sarai. It’s called “Just Let Your Freak Out” and is off her album, Life Less Ordinary; a debut that earned her a 2007 nomination from the Junos (Canada’s version of the Grammys).
The Junos are a big deal.
But, perhaps surprisingly, the recognition hasn’t done much for Sarai’s career. Neither has inclusion in a film that will likely win at least one Oscar. She still hasn’t signed a record deal. She still has to fight to have her songs played on the radio. She tells me she wasn’t expecting things to change. In this industry, she says, it’s a case of the rich getting richer. Indie artists are forever sidelined. And that’s just the way it is.
There might be nothing wrong with that. You could even say it’s creatively liberating—allowing for the production of music that hasn’t been tainted, been touched by a corporate record company. But it’s unfortunate too, for obvious reasons. Deesha and other unsigned-artists like her, are struggling to crack a market that seems to only have space for watered-down, safe, synthesized sounds. It’s a market with little room for an unknown Punjabi girl who writes her own lyrics. Her chances for success are very slim—and she knows it.
Today Deesha lives in Toronto, Canada, where she was raised—the daughter of Sikh immigrants; factory workers who never quite understood her interest in music. She moved out of her parents’ home over a decade ago, at age 17, and financed her own college education. She’s held down various jobs to help pay the bills, often just barely squeaking by. The album she pieced together on her own too—working an evening here, a weekend there. A labor of love that, when released, didn’t bring the big break she hoped it might.
She tells me she’s fine with how things turned out. Undeterred. She’s hard at work on a follow-up album, this one, she says, “will have a more South Asian feel to it.” If it doesn’t get picked up? “It won’t matter,” she shrugs. And yet it should matter; it does. It matters that while we’re celebrating films about the little guy getting a shot, the work of indie recording artists like Deesha continues to remain on the cutting-room floor.
Visit Deesha.Com to hear and purchase the album Life Less Ordinary.