How many of us have marvelled at the effective use of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burrana in the advertisement for a popular after shave? Neither can we think of one of India’s most iconic watch brands without referencing the music of Mozart’s Symphony No 25. Or a brand of popular suiting and shirting without Schumann’s immortal Traumerei from Kinderszenen. Classical music placed in popular media and culture has the great advantage of reaching a lot of listeners. And perhaps converting them, when used tastefully.

Having looked at racism and fanaticism in the previous weeks, I return to the simple joys of listening to Carnatic classical music in some rather unusual settings. The placement of Carnatic classical music as background scores in certain film settings serves two purposes. For zealots like me, it is like encountering a surprise gift in an unexpected place. For most other people, it is a lovely introduction to the music, layered with contextual meaning and richness, served up in a way that invites you into the music in style.

In this week’s dose, I discuss five such powerful examples from film. The ragas and compositions employed in each of these examples merit essays of their own, but the few minutes during which the music enchants on screen is enough to evoke the depth and emotive idea of the situation portrayed, and powerfully so.

The first of these is the usage of the moving Sahana Raga in a scene from an iconic Tamil film, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (You Can Do It, Brother, 1988). It is significant that this is a film directed by the late K Balachandar, a man known for his love for classical Carnatic music. The protagonist, played by the supremely talented Kamal Haasan, walks out on his musician father owing to a difference in principles. At the moment he exits the house, his brother, who is mute, picks up the nadaswaram and renders an alaapana in this Raga. It is highly interesting that music director Ilayaraja employs a Rakthi Raga (Ragas that are emotive and connotative of subtler and softer hues of the human condition), and that too one that is traditionally considered to be both sweet and tugging at the heartstrings. The effect is used in a scene so pregnant with anger, frustration and bitterness. The score works in counterpoint and gives us a cinematic slice that is memorable.

Unnal mudiyum thambi

The same master composer uses the Raga again in a freestyle mode in another K Balachandar classic Sindhubhairavi (eponymous with the Raga of the same name, 1985) in subtle undertones on a solo violin, when the protagonist’s wife (played by actor Sulakshana) finally confronts her fears and shows up at the doorstep of her musician husband’s muse and lover, played by the national award-winning Suhasini Maniratnam. The director and music composer work in tandem to create a battle of wits, spiced with irony. And all the while the cloyingly sweet Sahana plays on, wistfully. Here is another clip from the movie with the same idea.

Sindhu Bhairavi

There have been multiple films with musicians and composers as the subject of the plot. However, there are still some unexpected gems in these offerings. In Sargam (Malayalam and Telugu as Sarigamalu), the prodigal student returns to the deathbed of his “guru ma”, and sings the devastatingly beautiful Tyagaraja composition Ragasudha Rasa in Raga Andholika. This is a Raga that is relatively less popular on the concert circuit, and even rarer in a cinematic context. Again it is a “rakthiRaga, derivative of the Raga Karaharapriya. And yet, the playback voice of KJ Yesudas notwithstanding, minimal expressions and even more minimalist settings contribute to an experience of listening to the music in a highly poignant manner. The Raga keeps playing throughout the preceding and following scenes to tremendous effect.

Raaga Sudha Rasa

It amused me to note that the same composition was used to establish the quirky and highly sophisticated identity of the female lead in Missyamma, a comedy drama starring the immortal Savithri Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan.

Raaga Sudhaa Rasa

In the delectable coming together of mother and daughter on screen, two supremely artistic ladies create a painting in celluloid that perhaps symbolises the magical South and everything it stands for. The complexity of the relationship is somehow contained within the structure of the music, exactly like a single continuous line of rice flour neatly patterns an abstract set of dots in the South Indian “kolam” (designs outside the home). Vasundhara Devi and Vyjayantimala in Irumbu Thirai (Iron Curtain, 1960) epitomise classicism in the composition Enna Seithalum Enthan (Whatever I do, You are My Support) penned by the classical composer Papanasam Sivan.

Enna seithaalum endhan

Obviously, there are better minds than I who will point to thousands of compositions that offer the listener an introduction to the wondrous world of Carnatic music. However, in this essay, I have examined the effect the Raga has had on setting the mood and context of the background score, as watching these scenes will reflect. The examples of these too are endless.

The number of classical musicians who lent their support to the making of this music have played an important role in the preservation of musical memory. It is high time we took the baton they’ve passed and find new ways of applying them in popular culture.

Anil Srinivasan is a well-known classical pianist based in Chennai. He is also a music educator, having founded the popular Rhapsody initiative that now reaches thousands of children in Tamil Nadu.