The title of the ongoing television series Oru Kadhai Paadattuma Sir (Shall I Sing a Story Sir) emanates from its theme. Each episode of the Colours Tamil show features a 20-minute narrative narrated through songs.

Music composer Madhan Karky, who is one of the brains behind the show, described its objective ahead in April: “To show that an entire story can be told using songs as a device”. The show is a throwback to old Tamil films that were led by music, said Anup Chandrashekhar, the business head of the channel. He remembered one film in particular: the 1980 musical Oru Thalai Ragam.

Indeed it is worth recalling EM Ibrahim’s musical for the unique manner in which it used its soundtrack. The title, which implies one-sided love, explores the unrequited love of college student Raja Shankar) for his classmate Subhadra (Roopa).

Raja falls in love with Subhadra the minute he sees her. Clad in a saree whose pallu is worn like a tight shawl, Subhadra returns his smile as well as his stare in that instant. However, Raja isn’t entirely sure if that means she likes him too.

Things get more complicated as time passes. Subhadra’s hot-cold attitude leaves Raja confused. Her eyes always manage to seek out Raja, be it in college corridors or the train that they both take to college, but when Raja approaches her, Subhadra runs in the opposite direction.

Ibrahim’s film, in fact, is famous for featuring a lead pair that barely utters a word to each other throughout the 121 minutes. How does the couple communicate with each other? Through the seven songs in the film.

It isn’t easy being a female college student in the 1980s in Tamil Nadu, the film tells us. Male classmates hang around like predators at the college campuses, and women are pursued and harassed until they are driven back into their homes. Subhadra, especially, does not have it easy. After news of her father abandoning the family and her mother’s old college love affair spreads in the village, Subhadra’s mother becomes the subject of gossip. The name-calling makes Subhadra extra-cautious and wary of any interaction with a male.

Subhadra knows that Raja isn’t like the rest, but she does not want to risk her already threatened reputation. Ibrahim, therefore, uses the soundtrack, composed and written by T Rajendar, to help the silent, suffering couple speak to each other.

The track that introduces Raja’s musical talent is Ada Manmadhan Rachikanum, whose lyrics are made up of the names of nearly all his female classmates. Not exactly a wise choice for Raja if he is looking to impress Subhadra.

In the next song, Koodaiyilae Karuvaadu, he attempts to draw Subhadra out of her shell, but she seems content with admiring him from a distance. T Rajendar’s lyrics put it succinctly: Paakuradhu paavamillae, pudippadhu sulabamillae (Seeing is no sin, what’s difficult is getting a hold of the beloved).

Raja’s efforts gradually inch towards success and the couple finally share a moment together in silence at a temple. Subhadra reveals her feelings by sprinkling holy ash near the idol for Raja to apply on his forehead. He responds by lighting the lamp.

Subhadra’s worst fears come true on the way back from the temple. Raja is beaten up by goons hired by their classmates who disapprove of their love story. Subhadra’s reputation is likened to her “loose” mother. She withdraws into a cocoon.

Ahead of an event in college, Raja attempts to draw out Subhadra again into conversation by referring to the jasmine flowers in her hair. Subhadra unpins the flowers and chucks them on the floor. Raja gets on stage and begins Vaasamilla Malar Idhu Vasanthathai Thedhuthu (This is a flower with no fragrance, it is searching for spring). Sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, the song is Raja’s attempt to hold on to hope despite being repeatedly turned down by Subhadra. The song is laden with figurative expressions (there are 12 months in a year, why are you trying to add one more to it). Using sarcasm, wit and poetic metaphors, Raja tells Subhadra that he is hopelessly in love with her.

When she realises the meaning of the song, Subhadra walks out of the auditorium, but she cannot get herself to go home either. She is drawn to Raja’s song, despite herself.

The track is filled with anticipation, a will-she-won’t-she mood, that sums up the film. Standing alone, away from the crowd, Subhadra is unable to control the smile that seems to be spreading across her face. Her foot begins to keep the beat of Raja’s song.

Oru Thalai Ragam (1980).