Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtracks for the recently released Tamil films Karnan and Jagame Thandhiram could not be more different from one another. Yet, each album testifies to the composer’s signature style.

While Karnan’s soundscape is sombre and angst-bitten, the Jagame Thandhiram album is all funk and fun. Groovy basslines, unexpected chord progressions and genre mash-ups are held together by minimalist production in both projects.

Mari Selvaraj (Karnan) and Karthik Subbaraj (Jagame Thandhiram) have been Narayanan’s collaborators for years. Along with Pa Ranjith and Nalan Kumarasamy, they are part of a group that has strongly influenced Narayanan. They encouraged Narayanan, originally an electronic musician, to experiment with Tamil folk music, he told

Uttradheenga Yeppov, Karnan (2021).

Narayanan’s first film Attakathi (2012), directed by Ranjith, featured a number of hit songs in the urban folk tradition gaana. Narayanan has prominently featured gaana songs in his films ever since, placing gaana singers such as Gana Bala and folk Anthony Dasan in the mainstream.

“I had little knowledge of the various communities and folk forms of the country in my early days,” Narayanan said. “These directors taught me a lot about political philosophy and ideology and pushed me to research more about indigenous music. Before Attakathi, I had no idea about how to do acoustic music, and these films helped me discover myself as an artist.”

Aadi Pona, Attakathi (2012).

To this effect, Narayanan used gaana vocals over an electro beat in Kasu Panam from Nalan Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavuum, or got Gaana Bala to sing a jazz song in Subbaraj’s debut Pizza.

Kasu Panam, Soodhu Kavuum (2013).

Attakathi, Pizza and Soodhu Kavuum, released in 2012 and 2013, were landmark low-budget hits in new-gen Tamil Cinema. Among the stars these films produced was actor Vijay Sethupathi.

Narayanan’s unconventional music has carried over to big-ticket releases starring Rajinikanth, Vijay, and Dhanush. Narayanan is currently working on his first Vikram-starrer, to be directed by Subbaraj.

The 38-year-old composer has been uncompromising in his musical choices. He avoids big-name singers partly because “I am very reserved and scared while approaching them”. Besides Gaana Bala and Anthony Dasan, other frequent collaborators include Pradeep Kumar and Arunraja Kamaraj.

Initially a lyricist, Kamaraj, whom Narayanan described as a “great mimic”, made his singing debut with Ding Dong in Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda. Over “beats as gangsta as possible”, Narayanan got him to ape the voice of Tamil actor Vinu Chakravarthy for the villain’s theme.

Ding Dong, Jigarthanda (2014).

The heavy-voiced Kamaraj’s singing career peaked with Neruppu Da, the title song for Ranjith’s Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali (2016). An electro-rock song punctuated with a blaring siren, spaghetti Western whistles and snatches of Rajinikanth’s dialogue, it was a radical hero song for the superstar.

The experiments went further. Neither of Narayanan’s albums for Ranjith’s Kabali or Kaala, also starring Rajinikanth, featured SP Balasubrahmanyam, considered to be the actor’s playback voice. Nearly two-thirds of the Kaala album was hip-hop.

Narayanan explained, “Rajini sir encouraged me a lot to do my own sound and not think of the regular sound he is associated with so that made me hellbent on doing the album the way I wanted.”

Neruppu Da, Kabali (2016).

The composer has since developed a team to scout for unorthodox singing voices. “I like singers who are natural and without boundaries, who can be uncanny and quirky,” he said. “Like, I am on the lookout for a good female singer who can sing in the lower register as Bombay Jayashree did with Vaseegara from Minnale.”

Among the rising talents currently mentored by Narayanan is rapper Arivu, part of The Casteless Collective, a musical group comprising rappers, gaana singers, and musicians put together by Ranjith.

Arivu and Narayanan’s daughter Dhee recently sang his composition Enjoy Enjaami, the first single from AR Rahman’s Maajja, a platform to promote South Asian music talent. The song became a monster hit.

Enjoy Enjaami (2021).

Narayanan’s association with Rahman goes back to his beginnings as a recording engineer and programmer for Chennai musicians such as Pravin Mani, who frequently mixes and arranges Rahman’s songs. Narayanan was also a DJ for the folk-fusion band La Pongal, whose members Pradeep Kumar, Sean Roldan and Darbuka Siva have since become sought-after composers in Tamil films.

Since Ranjith pushed Narayanan towards gaana, he said he has tried to research the form going back to “its roots, a hundred years ago.” While composer Deva “made gaana popular in Tamil films blending it with popular music and paving the way for me,” Narayanan wants to “keep folk music as raw and authentic as possible”.

In these songs, Narayanan frequently uses folk percussion such as parai, urumi, and pambai with the intention to “glorify them”. He added that he consults gaana legends such as Sindhai Rev Ravi to learn more. He is currently researching on how “ghazals and Middle-Eastern music reached Chennai”. Rev Ravi recently sang for Narayanan in Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai (2018).

These relationships have “moulded me as a better gaana musician”, he said. “After 10-12 years, I am really proud of the work I have done in this space.”

Santhosh Narayanan with folk musicians.

Narayanan’s aim to keep film gaana as stripped down as possible fits with his larger minimalist production style.

“If you can get rid of a track from a song’s production, and it makes no difference to you, it’s better to lose it,” Narayanan said. “It’s tempting to stack a song with multiple tracks as it looks good on the mixing board, but it doesn’t make sense to overproduce.”

A key example is Ei Suzhali from Dhanush-starrer Kodi (2016). The romantic hit, comprising just keys and folk percussion, has “no more than four to five tracks in it”, Narayanan said.

Ei Suzhali, Kodi (2016).

The search for what Narayanan calls “rawness” in his musicality has often led him to lock the first version of his compositions despite creating up to 18 iterations, as happened with Neruppu Da.

In Selvaraj’s directorial debut Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Narayanan’s guttural wails in Karuppi were meant as a reference for the intended playback singer. At Selvaraj’s suggestion, Narayanan’s version was retained for the film.

“So many of my songs are accidents like these,” Narayanan observed. “I believe it’s best to always stay original and not overdo or tone down something fearing how people will react.” However, he isn’t averse to creating “full-sounding” songs such as the pensive Poo Avizhum Pozhudhil from Ennakul Oruvan (2014).

Poo Avizhum Pozhudhil, Ennakul Oruvan (2014).

Typically for a minimalist, Narayanan’s favourite instrument is the bass guitar. “But unfortunately most audio-listening devices can’t capture it well,” he said.

He attributes his preference for bass to his love for funk artists and bands like Jamiroquai, bassist Marcus Miller, and singer Stevie Wonder. “I always like to have such crazy [bass] lines going,” he said. Rakita Rakita from Jagame Thandhiram is only the latest example.

Rakita Rakita, Jagame Thandhiram (2021).

From mixing up gaana with electronic music and jazz to punching blues with folk percussion as he did with Vaa Machaney (Irudhi Sutrru, 2016), his genre cocktails are his attempts to be “as cheeky as I can get,” Narayanan said.

These ideas are triggered by instinct, he added, citing the example of the title track of Madras (2014), for which he felt he “could sync the tempo of dubstep with Chennai’s street gaana beats.”

Madras (2014) title track.

The rise of the La Pongal alumni as top Tamil film composers parallels the ascent of hit machine Anirudh Ravichander, whose music Narayanan described as “entertaining, something I can never do”.

They share a warm relationship. Narayanan commended Ravichander’s generosity in singing for nearly every composer. Ravichander roped in Narayanan for Polakuttam Para Para from Master, and sang for Narayanan’s Bujji in Jagame Thandhiram.

Polakuttam Para Para, Master (2021), composed by Anirudh Ravichander.

What’s next for Narayanan? A Vikram-starrer aside, he is making his debut in two Malayalam productions, featuring Tovino Thomas and Dulquer Salmaan. He is also composing for the Tamil remake of the Hindi caper Andhadhun, which featured a hit soundtrack by Amit Trivedi.

His plans include exploring jazz as “authentically” as possible in Tamil films. Madras Velvet, anyone?

Also read:

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How Tamil composer Deva rolled out the hits: ‘A film song should immediately register with people’