Dear blog reader: No, that was not a typo in the header! As fans of Ilayaraja celebrate his National Award, what sprang to mind was a press meet with Director Mahendran (of classics such as "Mullum Malarum" and "Udhiri PookaL"). In the interview, he said, "Ilayaraja, with his background score, is the 'dialogue writer' for my movies." At first, it might sound like empty flattery. But dig deeper, you'll understand Mahendran's comment better. Mahendran was among the path breakers in thamizh cinema in the late 70s that understood that truly good cinema had to be an audio-visual experience and not just a collection of scenes involving non-stop dialogue. He was part of a wave of filmmakers like Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra to whom music - both songs and background score- was a significant trope used to underline signature moments and emotions. And, in Ilayaraja, they had someone who understood exactly how music had to contribute to this audio-visual experience.
In this post, I have compiled 10 sequences (in no particular order) with Ilayaraja's background score that should give you a sense for what he added to a scene. I have focused more on having a variety of moods that he enhanced with his background score. I hope that with your comments, you can add more scenes that may be your personal favorites.
Before I get started with my list, a huge thanks to all those people that had uploaded these videos to youtube.
1 of 10 - Bharathi:
There's a beautiful scene in "Bharathi" where the poet visits the house of a Christian (played by "NizhalgaL" Ravi) for a meal. His orthodox Brahmin wife Chellama (a superb Devyani) goes along but is extremely uncomfortable to eat in the house of someone who is not a brahmin. Raja's score does two things at the same time - the slow but strong beats emphasize Bharathi's strictness and simmering anger at his wife's refusal to eat while the softer veenai subtly underscores Chellama's discomfort.
Start watching at the 9-min point:
2 of 10 - AaN Paavam:
Raja's bgm is the reason why the engagement scene works so beautifully. The shyness, the hesitation and the subsequent joy that both parties (Pandiyan and Seetha) experience is brought out in true Raja-esque fashion.
3 of 10 - Johnny:
It's hard to find a love story in thamizh cinema as delicate as the one involving Rajni and Sridevi in "Johnny." And, Raja's use of violins to showcase a gamut of emotions from ecstasy to sadness and the piano, used nicely to emphasize Sridevi's childlike nature, are reasons why this track tugged at your heartstrings. Oh, by the way, this was directed by Mahendran. Now you know why he referred to Raja as his 'dialogue writer.' (As an aside, Mahendran's actual dialogues in this scene are exquisite too.)
Start watching at the 3:20 point: (If you have time, watch the whole video. It's worth it!)
4 of 10 - Chathriyan:
This proves that Raja can do 'mass' as well as he can do 'class.' The background score for the training portions are sheer adrenaline overdose.
Adrenaline rush starts at 4:55:
5 of 10 - Sethu:
It is a testament to the power of Raja's music that I didn't want to go anywhere near the climactic portions of "Sethu" when I was revisiting some of his scores. I was just scared that I would feel a sense of heaviness that would take hours to overcome! So, I stuck to this scene where Vikram bullies Abitha. Notice the lively score when he's ragging her. But notice the equally lovely score at the 2:26 min point that essentially says, 'En manasula pattampoochi parakudhu' without a single word uttered.
6 of 10 - Chinna Counder:
One of Raja's skills that is rarely mentioned is his ability to add value to comic scenes. In this scene where Vijaykanth carries the bag of a city-bred guy, Raja's music is perfectly in sync with the visuals, esp. the moment where the villagers pass the matchbox to him.
The fun begins at the 10:10 min point:
7 of 10 - Guna:
Noted film critic Baradwaj Rangan was the person that truly made me appreciate the value of Raja's bgm. The following is an excerpt from a comment from Rangan on the score of "Guna." I don't think I can express it better. Rangan wrote, "Now, however good Kamal is, he can only summon up the “awestruck” part of what he’s feeling. How do we, the audience, know about the “divinity” aspect? Through the score — which “tells” us WHAT about this woman is making this man awestruck."
The 'divinity' - of the moment, the acting and the music - begins right at the start of the video:
8 of 10 - Mouna Raagam:
Raja's title scores invariably do a fantastic job of drawing the viewer right into the mood and tone of the movie. And, what better example than "Mouna Raagam." The music showcases the perky nature of Revathy, the tragedy of the Karthik episode as well as the delicate nature of the Mohan-Revathy relationship.
9 of 10 - Hey! Ram:
A fellow commenter in an online forum recently asked me for a good example of "internalization" by an actor. I immediately thought of Kamal in "Hey! Ram." This is the story of a man who is besieged by guilt. Guilt at not only the loss of his near and dear (like his wife and friend) but also his own reactions to their loss and his unfair assessment of Gandhi being the cause of his wife's death. A key moment in his transformation occurs when Gandhi says the same thing that his dying friend had told him. ("I am willing to take all this communal hatred in the form of a bullet if with that bullet, I am promised that people will bury this hatred.") Not only does Raja's title score (first video below) set the stage for the drama to unfold. But he also brings back this theme music in the scene where Kamal looks at himself in the mirror of a bathroom (which is the start of the second video below). This is where Kamal, the consummate actor that he is, internalizes his repentance and his yearning for redemption and lets Raja's score do the rest.
10 of 10 - Muthal Mariyadhai:
One of Bharathiraja's greatest accomplishments in "Muthal Mariyadhai" was to portray the depth of love that a man experiences in a relationship outside of his (failed) marriage without suggesting anything physical. (The word "nesam" used in the "Vettiveru Vaasam" song is just perfect.) The scene where Sivaji and Radha attempt to catch fish is a case in point. Their joy in catching the fish after attributing the catch to their joint "raasi" was brought out by the king in brilliant fashion.
Watch from 1:45 to 3:20:
As mentioned earlier, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. But hopefully this would have given a sense for how Raja helped script the success of a variety of films by writing 'dialogues' in a language that's his and entirely his. For that, the recent national award for the best background score is merely a small, delayed token of appreciation of his genius. But, as they say, it is better late than never.