AR Rahman has had lengthier collaborations with Mani Ratnam and Shankar than with Rajiv Menon – but that doesn’t mean that Rahman’s soundtrack for Menon’s second film, Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), is inferior in anyway than the soundtracks of Kadhalan (1994) or Bombay (1995).

Quite the contrary: Kandukondain Kandukondain ranks as one of Rahman’s best soundtracks, its beauty undiminished by the passage of time.

Rahman composed the music for Menon’s directorial debut Minsara Kanavu (1997) as well as the upcoming December 28 release Sarvam Thaala Mayam. Variety and a fair share of eccentricity characterise Minsara Kanavu – remember Strawberry Kannae? Kandukondain Kandukondain appears conservative, but it is complete in its elegance and idealism – just like the main characters in Menon’s romantic drama.

Starring a dream cast of Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Ajith, Abbas and Mammootty, Kandukondain Kandukondain is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility. Menon draws parallels between the English upper-crust morality in Austen’s novel and Brahmin anxieties in Tamil Nadu to narrate a tale of love and marriage set in the context of a loss of inheritance.

The focus is on the two older daughters of Padma (Srividya), the widowed daughter of a Brahmin aristocrat. The well-educated Sowmya (Tabu) is marked as unlucky for marriage by her horoscope. Meenakshi (Rai) is a hopeless dreamer who lacks moderation. As the two women navigate love, Padma learns that her father has willed his property to her brother and his wife, leaving her with nothing.

The first song appears much before all the heartbreak and crises, and is suitable dreamy. Konjam Mainakkale, which is also Meenakshi’s anthem, introduces us to Meenakshi’s world, which sighs with fantasies and charming impracticalities. “Tomorrow is only a distant dream, the rose I plant today must bloom today itself,” go Vairamuthu’s skillful lyrics.

The sweetness of Sadhana Sargam’s voice (despite her dodgy Tamil pronunciation) ensures that Meenakshi comes across as only a wee bit entitled. Rahman keeps the orchestration minimal and gives the song a soaring tune, but also halts its climb in time to give Meenakshi’s grand demands from the universe a sense of modesty.

Konjam Mainakkale.

Tabu’s Sowmya, by contrast, is restrained and practical. The only person who manages to rattle her sense of balance is Manohar (Ajith), an aspiring filmmaker. Sowmya mistakes Manohar to be her prospective groom when he visits her home to ask for permission for a shoot. A love story begins amidst embarrassment and awkwardness, and Rahman cleverly captures the moment in Kannamoochi Yenada.

Since Sowmya is not outspoken, it is Meenakshi who voices her sister’s desires to Manohar in KS Chitra’s velvety voice. Since the song is performed during a religious function, Rahman composes the song in the Carnatic Natakurinji and Sahana ragas. Vairamuthu’s lyrics barely hold back in terms of the ideas they voice: “Let our lips come close, close my eyes with your eyelids.” Since it is rendered like a Carnatic song, Kannamoochi Yenada successfully keeps the message between the lovers as their shared secret.

Kannamoochi Yenada.

Manohar finally declares his love for Sowmya and asks her if she feels the same way. No, mumbles a reluctant Sowmya, which prompts Manohar to break into the compelling Yenna Solla Pogirai . “To say no, you only need a second, but for me to accept that answer, I’ll need a whole life,” he argues.

Rahman gives the track the support of Shankar Mahadevan’s booming voice and expertly cranks up the drama. He initially sets the song to a finger-snapping, menacing beat. Then, soaring violins are followed by an incredibly sombre and fantastic flute interlude.

Misra-Kirvani, the raga in which the song is set, is a variation of Kirvani, which has served as the base of similarly charged film songs such as Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi from Chori Chori (1956) and Yeh Raatein Yeh Mausam from Dilli Ka Thug (1958).

Menon dials up the drama a few more notches by setting the song against the pyramids of Giza, dressing Sowmya and Manohar in Rajasthani costumes and making them estranged lovers fighting to be together.

Meenakshi finally finds The One in Abbas’s Srikanth, who is also a fellow connoisseur of Tamil literature, especially Subramania Bharati’s poems. Rahman and Menon choose the Bharathiyar song Suttum Vizhi Chudardaan Kannamma as the tune that introduces Srikanth to Meenakshi. Rahman sets the song to sounds of rain, thunder and gushing water as Hariharan’s voice informs Meenakshi that she has finally met her dream man. The short song, full of encomium-laden words, captures the sweeping and short-lived nature of Meenakshi and Srikanth’s romance.

The women are not the only ones who dream big in Kandukondain Kandukondain. Menon gives Manohar the space to escape his world too in the song Smayiyai, sung by Devan Ekambaram, Clinton Cerejo and Dominique Cerejo. The song appears as a track within the film Manohar is directing. While choreographing the song set atop a ship full of well-trained background dancers, Manohar imagines that he is dancing with Sowmya.

Right from its English-laced lyrics – “she has stolen my heart through her magnetic vision” – to its composition, Smayiyai is completely different from the rest of the tracks. Rahman gives the song an a capella flavour and breaks free from the propriety of Carnatic music that marks most of the other tunes. He even introduces the sound of the chugging of a train (Manohar’s Speed-inspired film is about a speeding train with a bomb on it). The song represents a moment of departure for Manohar, who has, up until then, been too strung up about his ideals.

Tabu and Ajith in Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000). Courtesy V Creations.

What is left is the impending moment of reckoning for Meenakshi, whose dreams come crashing down when she learns of Srikanth’s wedding to another woman. Rahman marks the moment with the sombre Yenge Yenathu Kavithai, which marks a full circle for a soundtrack that began with emphatic declarations and dreams.

KS Chitra returns to voice Meenakshi’s agony. Rahman keeps the composition simple and traditional, structuring it like a chant. Chitra is supported by Srinivas and a chorus. The chorus works well as a device to amplify the torment in Meenakshi’s heart. Rahman adds a nagaswaram wedding tune in the middle and alters the pace to change the mood from jubilant to sad in a moment. Towards the end, the song slowly descends into silence dramatically, with the voices fading first and then the instruments bringing one of AR Rahman’s classiest soundtracks to a close.

Kandukondain Kandukondain title track.