Composer Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack for Vetrimaaran’s upcoming Dhanush-starrer Vada Chennai is steeped in the gaana tradition, the urban Tamil folk music genre that is an integral part of North Chennai culture. Understandably so: Vada Chennai means north Chennai.
Tamil gaana or Madras Gaana, with its energetic percussion and quick-witted lyrics, was originally performed at funerals. Over the years, practitioners of gaana have transformed the genre to include politically charged and socially relevant songs that are voiced in the local, colloquial dialect of north Chennai Tamil.
Narayanan has always been fascinated by the genre and its artists, and has included at least one gaana song in many of his albums as composer, including Aadi Pona Aavani in Attakathi (2012), Kaasu Panam Duddu in Soodhu Kavvum (2013), Kaakidha Kappal in Madras (2014). In the October 17 release, Narayanan seems to have been given a free rein. The 10-track soundtrack has six gaana songs, with each track describing a momentous occasion in the life of the film’s protagonist Anbu (Dhanush), a national-level carrom player who gets embroiled in a turf war in North Chennai.
Two of the tunes are dedicated to the love story of Anbu and Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh). There’s one celebratory track and two marana gaana songs (funeral songs). The most poignant and political use of gaana is in Mathiya Seraiyila, which is sung from a prisoner’s point of view. Narayanan gives opportunities to a variety of gaana artistes: Ka Ka Balachander, Sindhai Rev Ravi, Arivu and Dholak Jegan apart from lyricists such as Rokesh, Sindhai Nathan and Shenoy Nagar Shanmugham.
Out of the six gaana songs, the ones that vie for the top spot are the love songs Goindhammavaala and Maadila Nikkira Maankutty.
Lyricist Rokesh makes good use of the popular Madras coinage “goindha” in Goindhammavaala. Dhanush sings the song about being struck by love and suffering as a result, with all the right expressions. He cruises through some of the higher notes with remarkable ease. The slow tempo of the song kept up by an exceptional vocal orchestra, heightens the colloquial nature of the song and keeps the mood playful.
But this doesn’t eclipse the track’s troubling references to gender. All the love songs in the album are sung from the point of view of a man. In the eyes of this male lover, the ideal woman is one who would not say no to his advances and one would offer support to him when necessary but silently: “Vaadi yamma vellaattaa, velagadhaa unna naan thottaa; saanja nillu support-ah, konjundu, konja silent-ah” (Come here, don’t move away if I touch you, if I lean on you, support me a little, silently).
Anbu’s advances, however, find success, which is evident from Maadila Nikkura Maankutty, the other contender for the best song in the album. It is the only track to feature a female voice. Sung by Gaana Bala, who has also written the lyrics, and Dhee, the song is euphoric and delightfully witty. In a video preview ahead of the release of the soundtrack, Narayanan explained that this track is sung in the context of a proposal that is accepted. There was another track in another Vetrimaaran film Aadukalam (2011) – Oththa Sollala – which similarly celebrates the same situation.
Narayanan uses the flugelhorn to open the song, followed by percussion, which works well for a track that intends to broadcast a lover’s success to other men. But after a rapid opening, the song settles into a medium-tempo that is again in tune with the despair of the lover who longs to be with his beloved but has to slow down since the entire city seems to be watching them. The first line, which Narayanan punctuates with the right suggestive pauses, hooks the listener: “Maadila nikkura maankutty, melava kaaturen, (pause), oora sutthi” (O deer cub standing upstairs, come higher (pause), I’ll show you around the city).
In typical gaana style, Bala’s lyrics creates metaphors of love out of the popular items of the area – naattar kada thenga badha, saadha dosa enna, thiruppi pottu jora varthuputta, goli soda enna, odachu oothi, gaali pannuputta.
Dhee’s vocals come in right at the end but are powerful enough to leave an impression.
The simple design of Mathiya Seraiyilla, both in terms of its percussion as well as its tune, barely prepares the listener for the stinging weight of Arivu’s lyrics (he has also sung the song): vambuthumbu pannuravanlaam kedakkuran ozhunga, ippa nenju kozhuppu eduthavandaan thudikkiran erumbaa (The ones instigating trouble are roaming about freely, the one who tried to stand up for himself is suffering behind bars).
Together, the six gaana songs seem to complete the soundtrack on their own. But Narayanan adds four more tracks to the mix, which is where the 40-minute album begins to meander unnecessarily.
There are two theme tracks – Vada Chennai Theme and The King of The Sea – and two love songs are aligned compositionally to the electronic genre, Kaarkuzhal Kadavaiye and Ennadi Maayavi Nee. While one could make a case for the theme songs, the additional love songs barely gel with the rest of the album.
Narayanan uses trumpets and trombones well in both the theme tracks to give them gravity and significance. There’s a winner among these two, and that is the Vada Chennai Theme. The track, opening with trumpets and Ananthu’s menacing rendition, brilliantly straddles a sinister, alarming mood as well as a tragic and sombre one.
Sriram Parthasarathy’s Kaarkuzhal Kadavaiye scores more points both in terms of its vocals as well as the arrangement over Sid Sriram’s Ennadi Maayavi Nee. What adds to the magic of Kaarkuzhal Kadavaiye is Vishnu Vijay’s brilliant flute portions. Narayanan breaks the electronic rhythm from time to time and the bits with Pradeep Kumar’s acoustic guitars stand out. The tabla too comes in to add a new twist. Again, this track works well as a single. As a part of the album? Not so much.