In the early 1990s in Chennai, Friday evenings were reserved for the film music show Oliyum Oliyum (Lights and Sound) at 7.30pm. The show was so popular that if you walked by any house on any street in the city, all you could hear was Tamil movie songs playing on the television sets.
I remember watching Thiruda Thiruda (1993) on a Dyanora black-and-white television set, which had an antennae on the terrace that had to be frequently adjusted to get proper signals. AR Rahman’s music brought to this relic of a device a music that was so modern that it mesmerised a generation. Many fans are still tuning in all these years later.
Thiruda Thiruda was Rahman’s second movie with director Mani Ratnam after his debut Roja (1992). Expectations were high from the Ratnam-Rahman collaboration as well as from the movie. Thiruda Thiruda, a caper with shades of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, didn’t quite work at the box office, partly because of its poorly cast leads (Prashanth, Anand, Heera Rajagopal) and a plot that was unconvincing even by genre standards. But there was no debate about the variety of music that Rahman produced in a single album.
The most popular song is undoubtedly Konjum Nilavu. The plot revolves around a pair of small-time hustlers who get involved with a gang that has stolen Rs 1,000 crores in currency from the Reserve Bank of India. Among the gang members is the dancer Chandralekha, played by Mumbai model and actress Anu Aggarwal. Chandralekha has the access card that will open the locker containing the money, but when chief investigator Laxminarayan (SP Balasubrahmanyam) first meets her, she is writhing on a stage with back-up dancers.
Konjum Nilavu is a masterclass in rhythm, a pot in which different beats were stirred, holding the listener in a trance. Listen carefully to the anupallavi just before the charanam begins. Behind the thumping electro beats, what sounds like a deep tone of a folk urumi drum leaves its unforgettable mark.
The song is also lifted by the attitude in the voice of Annupama Krishnaswamy, which has a husky ring to it and wonderful control over the higher pitches. But the song is not all beats. There is warmth and melody in the charanam, leaving listeners wondering if it was built on a template for a full-fledged melody.
One drawback of the song, however, is that the lyrics are submerged in too much music. The listener has to strain to catch the words, though there is hardly any poetic value to the song written by Vairamuthu.
If Konjum Nilavu is the most famous song of the album, Veerapandi Kottayile is the grandest. Rahman seems to have a preference for a staccato effect in singing – Oruvan Oruvan Muthalali from Muthu (1995) is just one example. This aspect is evident in Veerapandi Kottayile too. It is hard to miss the Ilaiyaraaja-like orchestration in the interludes that are heavily influenced by Western symphonies. This music is ably matched by the grandeur of Thota Tharani’s sets and Raju Sundaram’s vibrant choreography.
Heavy punctuation marks Mano’s singing in the pallavi. Rahman has used Mano in numerous fast-paced numbers. The singer was dismissed as an SP Balasubhramanyam impostor during the start of his career in the 1980s, and he manipulated his original voice and adopted a deeper tone. Mano evolved a new voice, almost, evident in Mukkala from Kadhalan (1994).
While the listener is overwhelmed by the complex beats of Konjum Nilavu and the frequent burst of violins in Veerapandi Kottayile, Rasathi has the opposite effect. Both the heroes fall for Heera Rajagopal’s Rasathi in the film, and the song named after her captures the yearning for love.
There is hardly any instrumentation in Rasathi, with the tune baring its Tamil folk flavour in abundance. Apart from experimenting with urban, western sounds, Rahman in his later years also sampled folk traditions. He did full-fledged rural films such as Kizhakku Cheemayile and Karuthamma with Bharathiraja to settle the debate over whether his music could be rooted in the Tamil music landscape if the script demanded it.
In Rasathi, there are moments when the background goes almost silent, leaving only the voice to carry the song through. The haunting notes in Shahul Hameed’s voice and the mournful chorus give us what in western terms is called a cappella choral.
A song like Rasathi provides a magnificent canvas for a lyricist to paint his magic. With no instrumentation, the focus is on the voice and the lyrics. And this is where Vairamuthu shines in the album.
The three main leads play rural characters in Thiruda Thiruda. Vairamuthu adopts the rural southern Tamil Nadu dialect. The song situation suggests imminent separation, and Vairamuthu captures the heartbreak through words that create a piercing native imagery, even though the sentiment unfortunately follows the usual “blame the woman” trajectory.
Kaarai veettu thinnaiyile karikku manjal araikkayile
Manjala araikkum munne manasa arachchavale
Karisakaattu odaiyile kandangi thovakkaiyile
Thuniya nanaiya vittu manasa pizhunjavale
Nalla kalatthumettil enna ezhuthu mudinjikittu poravale
Sitting on the porch of a cemented house
You ground my heart before grinding the turmeric for the meat
When you washed the kandangi saree by the stream on the black soil field
You let the saree go wet and wrung me out
You are tugging my heart away through the threshing field with your saree frills
The other song that captures our attention for its musical value is Thee Thee, composed with bits of the six-note Bahudhari, a somewhat rare raaga in film songs. Rahman has used a combination of jathis (rhythmic syllables) and swaras in the interlude to provide a lusty intensity to the song. The swaras, in fact, are incorporated in the background guitar as well, seamlessly blending with the overall arrangement. Here too, Rahman moves effortlessly into a realm of music that Ilaiyaraaja owned for decades: Carnatic fusion.