Thursday, August 14, 2014

Inspirations (15 of 25) - Music Maestro Ilayaraja

He is a master in a language in which I don’t know even the basic semantics.  His exquisite expressions in the language swayed an entire generation, from the uneducated to the erudite.  Well, can one read a book without understanding the language in which the author wrote it, yet feel exalted, mesmerized or moved?  Probably not.  But when the “book” is a movie score, the “language” music and the “author” Ilayaraja, most definitely, yes!

Before I proceed any further, it makes sense to hear this sample.  This piece is titled “Do Anything” from his album, “How to name it.”  The titles of the track and the album are as arbitrary as they can be.  You and I don’t know the “situation” (in Tamil movie parlance) for which it was composed.  There is no context or content to lead us into this.  But just listen to the piece in its entirety first.

There is something that this piece – which I feel is so symptomatic of Ilayaraja’s music – always does to me.  Whatever mood I am in when I listen to it, it yanks me out of my world for at least a few minutes beyond the duration of the piece and calms me down.  Having practiced yoga for the past seven years, I am reasonably aware of my breathing patterns and my centeredness (or the lack thereof, at times!) and it is absolutely no overstatement to say that this piece has a meditative effect on me.  The piece starts out with the gentle melody of the flute and from the time the group of violins play right up to the crescendo reached by the rustic part of this piece, there are so many emotional notes that the piece hits that different pieces touch me the most depending on my mindset at the time of listening. 
In one of the best books on filmmaking, “Conversations with Mani Ratnam,” Ratnam makes a wonderful point on how well-placed songs in a movie heighten the mood or the emotion that the filmmaker is striving for and essentially provide the audience with an abstract, stylized way of experiencing that high.  He makes this point when explaining why he didn’t place a song in the Karthik flashback in “Mouna Raagam” and how that high was attained by the scenes themselves, hence rendering a song redundant.   But take the same movie and two splendid, elevating songs tuned by Ilayaraja.  The first one is “Nilave Vaa” which starts right after the wife demands a divorce from the husband in the first week of marriage.  Aided by the Late Vaali’s marvelous lyrics (“Ammadiyo Neethaan Innum Siru Pillai…Thaangathamma Nenjam Neeyum Sonna Sollai”), Ilayaraja’s tune and SPB’s singing all combine to give the perfect end to that sequence.  Ditto for the “Chinna Chinna Vannakuyil” which represents an even more interesting situation.  The wife that had once described her husband’s touch as “kumblipoochi oorra maadhiri irukku,” has now fallen in love with him and makes eye contact for a fleeting moment after she bumps into the husband.  Without a song, it is hard to imagine how the filmmaker could have meaningfully ended this sequence.  Instead, starting with S. Janaki’s “la la la…” the music joyfully and tastefully conveys the ecstasy felt by the wife.  A combination of the lilting tune, Janaki’s lovely rendition, Revathy’s graceful emoting and some beautiful lines (“Puriyaadha Aanandham Pudhidhaaga Aarambam”) form the most eloquent explanation of the wife’s silence.  What better way for a “Mounam” to pave the way for a “Raagam?”  Moviemaking is an audio-visual medium and this kind of perfect harmony of audio and visuals has truly enhanced how I have felt during and after a movie.

Of course, to just describe Ilayaraja’s penchant for melody is hardly doing justice to the astonishing variety of his oeuvre.  In the late 70s and 80s, at his peak, he was equally at ease helping us experience the poetry of Bharathiraja’s creations, enjoy the mindless guilty pleasure of SP Muthuraman’s masala films and relish the complex musical subjects of Balachander.  Ever since the grand arrival of AR Rehman, his outputs have been limited and even quite underwhelming in terms of quality.  But Ilayaraja’s background scores for movies continue to be a treasure.  The music in this sequence (watch from the 18:38 min point) from “Sethu” is enough proof of how his music can elevate a sequence.  Director Balki, at an audio release function, played a sequence from “Paa,” first without music and then with Ilayaraja’s background score.  Try doing the same for this sequence and you will know how Director Bala was able to make us understand Vikram’s feelings for Abitha without a single line of dialogue. 

Cinema and music are both escapist mediums.  But the escape from reality doesn’t have to always be condemned or even looked down upon.  Especially if in the way creators such as Ilayaraja express themselves help us experience our own emotions in a heightened, wondrous manner, the escape journey is well worth the time we invest in it.  After all, the ways in which art can uplift us are sometimes as ineffable as the language in which the artists do so.