Several film directors in Tamil and Malayalam cinema in the 1980s possessed a unique quality: a keen sense of tone. There was Balu Mahendra, who ensured that the poetry of his breathtaking visuals was combined with equally stunning background music. The elements blended seamlessly in such movies as Moondram Pirai and Veedu, elevating human emotions to a transcendental level.
Mani Ratnam falls in the category of filmmakers who use good music to lift the cinematic experience. Some of Ratnam’s films, including Dil Se, Raavanan and Kadal, may have tanked at the box office, but they are still remembered for their soul-stirring soundtracks. Ratnam has an eagerness to embrace the modern. His penchant for innovation gives music composers the freedom to let go. In the process, every album becomes a classic.
And nobody innovated as much as music composer Ilaiyaraaja in the ’80s.
Ratnam’s career has two distinct two phases: the pre-1992 portion, when he was exclusively associated with Ilaiyaraaja, and the subsequent years, when he picked AR Rahman as the composer of his film soundtracks. The high point of Ratnam’s association with Ilaiyaraaja was the back-to-back hits Nayakan (1987) and Agni Natchathiram (1988). In Nayakan, Ilaiyaraaja stuck to his time-tested technique of fusing Carnatic, folk and heavy Western orchestration. Agni Natchathriam turned out to be a trendsetter for initiating Tamil music listener into the sounds of electronic funk and synthetic pop.
The script lent itself to such music. Agni Natchathiram is the story of two young angry men – brothers born to the same father and different mothers. Prabhu is the disciplined Balaram to Karthik’s mischievous Krishna. One is a status quoist, the other an anarchist. Despite their differences, they represent the adventurism of the new generation.
Agni Natchathiram’s songs captured the story’s essence. In Raja Rajadhi Rajan Indha Raja, Ilaiyaraaja brings an American electro sting to the beats, reminiscent of bands such as Newcleus that were storming the charts in the ’80s. An almost school-boyish Prabhu Deva is seen dancing in the group behind Karthik in the song.
Ilaiyaraaja was also a master of the scat singing technique. In Raja Rajadhi, the jazz innovation finds place in the second interlude with the chorus using wordless vocables in a fluctuating melody. The transition from shades of electro funk to jazz is a scintillating lesson in fusion. Ilaiyaraaja’s voice adds an unconventional twist to the number.
Ilaiyaraaja’s songs are known for their Carnatic base. In fact, the credit of taking Carnatic music to the masses should entirely go to this music composer. When he started off with Annakili in 1976, Ilaiyaraaja combined Tamil folk sounds with traditional Carnatic notes. But as he evolved as a composer, he took to fusing Carnatic with modern western genres.
There is no dearth of Carnatic elements in Agni Natchathiram. Any student of this classical form would know the importance of varnams, which trains the musician in the intricacies of a raag and prepares the learner to handle complex krithis at a later point. Ilaiyaraaja chose perhaps the most popular of the varnams, the Ninnukori set in Mohana (Bhoop in Hindustani) as the foundation for this song.
In the movie, the track introduces the character of Anjali. Played by Amala, Anjali is an independent soul who falls in love with the uptight police officer played by Prabhu.
In Ninnukori Varanam, Ilaiyaraaja essays a splendid Mohana raag with a synthesiser. The first interlude is ultra-modern by 1988 standards, but retains its Carnatic core. The tune is lifted by Chitra’s flawless, high-pitch singing.
At a later point in the plot, after Prabhu and Amala have expressed their love for each other, Ilaiyaraaja uses the raag Amritha Varshini with its sensual notes to produce Thoongatha Vizhigal Rendu, a composition carried by the mesmerising voice of KJ Yesudas.
The song is an expression of longing. It depicts the yearning of a couple who spend sleepless nights thinking of each other. Lyricist Vaali had the skill of making his words complementary to the notes of the raag. Nothing exemplifies this more than the landing note of the starting phrase –Vizhigal Rendu.
In the second stanza, Vaali innovates on Kalidasa’s famous metaphor of the lotus and dew, used many times in classics such as Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava to describe sensuality.
“Mamara Ilai Mela
Margazhi Pani Pole
Poomagal Madi Meethu
(Should I lie on the lap of the damsel like the Margazhi dew on a mango leaf?)
The tiny aalap accompanying first phrase Maamara Ilai Mela in the second stanza is as authentic as Amritha Varshini could get. Add to this the innovative lighting in PC Sreeram’s cinematography and the song remains all-round delight.
The Mani Ratnam-Ilaiyaraaja combination, which produced such timeless classics like Mouna Ragam and Thalapathy, was cut short at its peak due to differences between the composer and the producers of Roja (1992). By the time Ratnam and Ilaiyaraaja had split, they had sealed their legacy. The works they produced remain the yardstick for Tamil film music.