Tamil film music can be divided into three significant eras defined by the music directors who dominated them. Starting in the late 1950s, MS Viswanathan and TK Ramamurthy held sway, monopolising the industry through their heart-rending melodies and numbers that complimented the emerging Dravidian movement. In 1976, Ilaiyaraaja burst on to the scene in Annakili, forever changing the musical landscape through compositions decorated by grand orchestrations and a defining rural flavour.

In 1992, AR Rahman, with his debut in Roja, brought the Ilaiyaraaja era to a close, with innovation and technology introducing the Tamil music fan to unheard sounds.

In the mid-1980s, when Ilaiyaraaja was at his peak, Viswanathan was facing financial difficulties as very few directors were willing to engage him. Even the great K Balachander, who did more than 30 films with Viswanathan, moved on to VS Narasimhan first and eventually to Ilaiyaraaja. In 1986, the owners of AVM Productions, one of Tamil cinema’s oldest production houses, came to know of Viswanathan’s situation and decided to make a film to rescue the legendary composer from penury.

The movie was Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu. Directed by R Sundarajan and starring Mohan, Radha and Amala, the smash hit will forever be etched in the memory of Tamil film audiences for the coming together of Viswanathan and Ilaiyaraaja. Rahman played a minor part by handling the keyboards.

Thedum Kann Paarvai, Mella Thiranthathu Kadhavu (1986).

Ilaiyaraaja never held back from praising Viswanathan as his biggest inspiration. In the ’60s, Ilaiyaraaja and his brothers ran the popular music troupe Pavalar Brothers. The brothers would often visit Santhome High Road in Chennai, where Viswanathan lived, just to catch a glimpse of the music composer. A few years ago, during a felicitation event for Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja emotionally proclaimed that Viswanathan’s music filled his veins like blood and would circulate all through his body till his last breath.

Two years before Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu, Viswanathan and Ilaiyaraaja ran into each other at the Prasad Studios in Chennai, where they were composing in different recording halls. Since there was a power failure, the recordings had to be stopped for about an hour, which gave the two great composers time to discuss music.

During the conversation, Ilaiyaraaja listed a few of his all-time favourite tunes and mentioned the song Vaan Meethile Inba Then Maari Peiyuthe from the 1954 Tamil movie Chandirani, starring NT Rama Rao and P Bhanumathi. Ilaiyaraaja had assumed that the song was composed by CR Subburaman. Viswanathan promptly pointed out that it was his tune.

Later, when they got together to score the music for Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu, Ilaiyaraaja wanted Viswanathan to compose a tune based on the Chandirani song. The arrangement was that Viswanathan would compose the tunes and Ilaiyaraaja would handle the orchestration. The request led to the most popular song from the movie, Vaa Vennila.

Vaa Vennila, Mella Thiranthathu Kadhavu (1986).

The stamp of Vaan Meethile is obvious, but Viswanathan’s genius lay in the subtle re-arrangement of the notes with a smattering of Kalyani raga, which gave the tune a fresh flavour. Viswanathan reportedly took under 20 minutes to compose the new tune. Ilaiyaraaja, known for the fast pace at which he wrote the notations for his orchestrations, finished the whole recording in less than half a day.

By the time of Mella Thiranthathu Kathavus release, lead actor Mohan had earned a curious reputation. Fans felt that Ilaiyaraaja saved the best tunes for the actor, though this perception had more to do with the quick succession of hit albums in Mohan’s movies between 1984 and 1988 than anything else. In terms of musical depth, the songs that Ilaiyaraaja composed for Kamal Haasan stand out.

In the movie, Tulasi (Radha) falls in love with her relative Subramani (Mohan), who is visiting her village to study folk songs for an upcoming thesis. Subramani’s heart lies with Noorjahan (Amala), who has died in an accident.

Radha decides to tease Mohan by singing in the woods. The composers place Kuzhaluthum Kannanukku in this sequence, a song in which the hero’s flute competes with the woman’s voice.

No one has brought together rural and western sounds better than Ilaiyaraaja. But in this song, more than the instruments used, the rural aroma makes its presence through Chitra’s singing, which has a heavy Tamil folk diction. The orchestration is dominated by western arrangements, with the flute, as demanded by the script, dominating the interludes.

The song also marks the coming of age of Chitra, whose influence on female playback singing is second only to S Janaki and P Suseela in South India. Listen to and savour the mellifluous second interlude, a rare gem and a lesson on how the flute could be put to use effectively.

Kuzhaluthum Kannanukku, Mella Thiranthathu Kadhavu (1986).

Viswanathan’s compositions were difficult for the complexity of their structure. He usually composed a tune and then sat with individual instrumentalists to arrange the music brick by brick. This took time. Songs like Nenjam Marapathillai from the movie with the same name took six months to complete.

But the result was glorious. Playback singers have often said that Viswanathan’s songs were more demanding as they were more classical in form than those by most other composers. Ilaiyaraaja, on the other hand, was a perfectionist and had very little tolerance for mediocrity.

The combination was in a nightmare for singers, who were expected to ensure flawless rendition for the imposing personalities. In a recent television show, SP Balasubrahmanyam, one of Vishanathan’s favourites, said Thedum Kann Paarvai was one of the toughest he had sung, in which the linkages between the charanam and the pallavi took several attempts to fall in place. The butter-smooth oscillations in SPB’s voice make the song a delight.

In Ooru Sanam, there is a role reversal from Thedum Kann Parvai, in the sense that the yearning for love and the company of the beloved is expressed in the heroine’s voice. This song was one of Janaki’s all-time classics. The dynamics of Janaki’s voice, with its perfect pitching and emphasis on subtlety, brings out the innocence of the character and her love in all its colours. Carefully listen to the second stanza, where Janaki takes Gangai Amaran’s emotive lyrics in rich rural Tamil to a completely new high.

Maaman Udhadu Pattu
Natham Tharum Kuzhalu
Naana Maara Koodatha? 
Naalum Thavam Irunthu 
Naanum Keta Varam
Koodum Kaalam Vaaratha?

(Can I not become the flute whose music comes from the touch of his lips? Will not the time come when the wish I seek through my penance comes true?)

Ooru Sanam, Mella Thiranthathu Kadhavu (1986).