Class of ’92 | In the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, a Mumbai teen from the slums finds himself cast into the national spotlight as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? For Amrita Sen W’92, the movie’s inspiring storyline suddenly hit close to home at the 2009 Academy Awards. On that night, surrounded by backup dancers in hot pink dresses, she made an equally unexpected national debut, performing Slumdog’s hit song “Jai Ho” with Indian music legend A.R. Rahman. The number won “Best Song” later in the evening.
“It’s like my own little Slumdog story,” Sen says. “That performance was exactly what I needed.”
It was also several decades in the making. Growing up in New Jersey, Sen frequently traveled to Calcutta to study music with a variety of teachers, including her aunt, Geetika Sen—a professional and highly accomplished Indian classical music singer.
“I come from a family of singers, so I always had opportunities to learn from them,” says Sen. She began performing further back than she can remember, mostly Bollywood tunes at festivals, conferences, and other events. Singing was in her DNA, and she couldn’t shake the urge to perform: Even while studying business at Wharton, she sang with the a cappella group Quaker Notes.
In 1999, with degrees from Wharton and Harvard Business School in hand, Sen moved to Los Angeles. Since then, she’s made a different name for herself in the music business, as branding agent to a slew of star performers, including rappers 50 Cent and L.L. Cool J. While the job helped her forge valuable connections in the industry, she found she had less time for her own music. And when her performance on a movie soundtrack recording was wiped from the final product, she reluctantly pushed her former passion still further away.
“I got very discouraged and decided to just focus on my business career,” she says. “I figured singing was something I should just do in the shower.”
Then last fall, compelled by some elusive force, she began rehearsing two hours a day. A few months later, Rahman’s manager called. His client’s Slumdog soundtrack was up for Best Original Score, and two tunes from it—“Jai Ho” and “O Saya”—had received Best Song nominations. Rahman, one of Sen’s branding clients, would be performing both songs on Oscar night, and needed a woman from the L.A. area to sing with him. She had one week to prepare.
On the night of the awards, with 36 million viewers tuned in and hundreds of big-name stars in the audience, the pressure was on. Yet somehow Sen found herself without jitters, and even chatted backstage with fellow performer John Legend C’99.
“All I was thinking about was that I had a job to do and I had to do the best job I could,” she says. “You can’t be nervous. In a way, you have to treat it like any other job and just give it the most you can.”
That she performed “Jai Ho” that night seems especially appropriate. The title translates to “victory is ours,” Sen notes, and “it’s very consistent with the Slumdog idea that you can rise from nowhere and have success.”
And rise she has. Her performance with Rahman led to encores on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (“a great experience”) and The Oprah Winfrey Show. After that performance, Sen says, Oprah “came up to me on a stage full of people and gave me a huge hug.”
A slew of recording and performance opportunities also came her way.
“After I was on the Oscars, I got a lot of calls asking, ‘Will you sing at my wedding?’” Sen says. “But I got a lot of legitimate calls too.” One of the latter variety came from Diane Warren, the country songwriter who penned Reba McEntyre’s 1997 hit “What If.” Two weeks after the Oscars, Warren asked Sen and her brother Ananda C’98 to re-record the song in half-Hindi, half-English. “We’re shopping it around now,” Sen says.
She’s also been laying tracks with prominent sitar player Nishat Khan.
“We were introduced by a friend, but [Khan] was already aware of my Oscar performance,” explains Sen. “He said that it gave me a lot of credibility with what I wanted to do.”
Khan and Sen are co-writing an album of songs in half-English, half-Hindi. It will be produced by Ananda, who also works in the music industry.
Between these recordings and two upcoming performances—a solo tribute to A.R. Rahman at the Hollywood Bowl in September and a set at the Vijay Amritraj Foundation’s fundraiser in December—Sen has once again made singing a priority.
“It’s like exercise,” she says. “You have to practice. It’s especially important with Indian music, because you really have to have a strong sense of pitch, since the notes tend to go all over the place. My kids [ages two and six] see that I practice relentlessly. No matter how tired I am or how much I have going on with my work, they see Mommy practicing—sometimes the same line over and over, 30, 40, or 50 times.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06