In an interview with Bosskey, legendary director Mahendran made an interesting observation. He mentioned his ambivalence towards songs in the movies. While, as a music lover, he could rarely resist the temptation of including Ilayaraja’s scintillating songs in his movies, the thought of picturizing them made him extremely uncomfortable. As a filmmaker who firmly believed in realism – quite often, the stark, brutal side of realism – songs were anathema to him because their inclusion in his movies meant that he was going against the grain of what he tried to achieve with his style of storytelling. But as he started out as a director with Mullum Malarum (1978), he arrived at a compromise that was remarkable for how stunningly different it was from the status quo of the songs of that era. And, that was the idea of the montage sequence for songs, sans formal dance choreography. Of course, there is a lot of visceral thrill in witnessing an intricately choreographed dance sequence. But for the purposes of this post, I have compiled 10 of my favorite montage sequences in thamizh cinema. (These are just listed in chronological order.) These are just some brilliant numbers; that is a given. Instead, I’d like to focus a little more on the actual picturization.*
“Senorita” from Johnny (1980; Director: Mahendran) - One of the most joyous sequences committed to film, every element of this song is perfectly coordinated. The music that syncs with the clicking of the scissors (Rajnikanth plays a barber), SPB’s irresistibly enthusiastic rendition of the line, “Poomethai poduginra vaasa pushpangaL”, Rajni’s antics at the 1:58 min point, are just some of the things that make this song a delectable concoction.
“Anthi mazhai” from Raja Paarvai (1981; Director: Singeetham Srinivasa Rao) – This was probably the song that made people christen Kamal Haasan, kadhal mannan! This song sequence is perfectly symptomatic of what a sweet, aesthetically shot romance Raja Paarvai is. The part from 2:55 – 3:10 is astounding, given the limited resources that must have been available back in 1981! And, Kamal and Madhavi holding that transparent umbrella together– who came up with that idea? So beautiful, so tasteful that the rain gods would have felt the need to work extra hours just for that device to be opened for this couple! Barun Mukherjee’s cinematography (especially from 1:17-1:30) is as extraordinary as Ilayaraja’s tune is mesmerizing.
“Poongatru” from Moondram Pirai (1982; Director: Balu Mahendra) – The apotheosis of Balu Mahendra’s illustrious career as a cinematographer and director, Moondram Pirai is a fine example of what results when the actors, director and the music director are all simpatico. The way the sequences are filmed and edited almost give the feeling that the director and the music director conceived this audio visual treat in one session, with one providing the music and the other coming up with the corresponding visuals! The way the train track segment (starting at the 2:29 min point) is shot is a case in point.
“Sangeetha swarangaL” from Azhagan (1991; Director: K Balachander) – Director K Balachander was a master at coming up with novel situations for the songs in his movies. This song does a marvelous job of capturing the closeness and the sensuality of a couple that is falling in love. Though the whole sequence just involves the two of them on the phone, the way this song is shot is exquisite. Mammooty and Banupriya are charming in an effortless manner. And, I loved the way the song ends with the Doordarshan news tune! Sometimes reality shakes people up from a dream in the most mundane manner possible!
“Nivetha” from Nee Paathi Naan Pathi (1991; Director: Vasanth) – A song with no lyrics, “Nivetha” more than amply compensated for the lack of words with pictures that spoke a thousand of them in every frame. The visuals are pleasing and the editing, seamless, and result in an experience that is sheer poetry in motion.
“Vetri Nichayam” from Annamalai (1992; Director: Suresh Krissna) – Rags-to-riches-in-one-song is an oft-used, sometimes abused, trope in the world of masala movies. But “Vetri Nichayam,” owing to the fact that it was one of the first of its kind, packs quite a punch. Through a series of crisp vignettes, the song makes a powerful impact, carrying forward the momentum from some of the dramatic sequences prior. And, a suave, casually understated Rajni doesn’t hurt either!
“Mettu Podu” from Duet (1994; Director: K Balachander) – Another one from the rich collection of KB’s songs, “Mettu Podu” is sheer sensory magic. My favorite part of the song is when Prabhu and his family gather in their living room to watch their own song on TV (starting at the 4:26 min point below). Just the way the family members' reactions are showcased, goes to show that with some thoughtfulness, it is possible to paint an evocative sketch that complements the audio portions of a song.
“Pachai kiLigaL” from Indian (1996; Director: Shankar) – A director that’s known to stretch the limits of grandeur (though not always in an aesthetic manner, in my opinion), Shankar created a tremendous impact in the flashback sequence in Indian by just sticking to good storytelling. “Pachai kiLigaL” is a fabulously shot song on a small family that live in the idyll of a village and enjoy simple pleasures. Kasthuri is especially moving in the engagement scene (starting at the 3:32 min point). As an aside, I just wish that Shankar had reined his urges to indulge in unnecessary graphics - the ‘flying’ pen is an example of the more is less in Shankar’s cinema! The actors were doing just fine in this song until Shankar’s graphics department took over! Nevertheless, the song is indeed special in a whole host of other ways.
“ILangaathu veesuthey...” from Pithamagan (2003; Director: Bala) – The king of gore, violence and tragedy, director Bala, has the knack of surprising his audiences with sprinkles of sweetness, warmth and gentle humor. He extends it to song sequences like “Maalai En Vethanai” (Sethu), “Munpaniya” (Nanda) and this one, from Pithamagan. The impact of Ilayaraja’s glorious composition is enhanced by the visuals of Bala and his cinematographer, Balasubramaniem.
“KangaL irandaal” from Subramaniapuram (2008; Director: M. Sasikumar) – James Vasanthan shot to fame with his mellifluous number, only to flatter to deceive, with none of his subsequent works (barring maybe the “Oru Vetkam” song from Pasanga) even in the ballpark of this stunning creation. We get some lovely visuals that fit the tune like a glove, especially the portion where Samudrakani approaches Jai and Swathi during their surreptitious meeting at the temple (starting at 3:29 below). The first time I watched this, my heart was in my mouth. Kudos to Sasikumar for injecting a bit of suspense into a melody, of all things! And, that head bob of Jai’s – please don’t start wondering how that became so popular. It just was popular, that’s it!
* PS: Since it is impossible for me to figure out the relative contributions of the director and the choreographer, I have given credit for the picturizations to the director with the belief that it is, after all, their vision that is being brought to life by the crew.