‘Here lies one who sought to rescue Tamil cinema song from the clutches of cliché by embracing lyricism’ might as well be the epitaph to Na.Muthukumar. There was something in the song and personality of this utterly unpretentious song writer that seemed to bring a redemptive touch to film songs. Whether it was a father’s ecstatic outburst (‘Ananda Yaazhai Meettugiraay’) for his young daughter in Ram’s Thanga Meengal (2013), or a young girl’s dainty ode to beauty (‘Azhage Azhage Ellaam Azhage’) in A.L. Vijay’s Saivam (2014), Muthukumar’s sensitive lines seemed to be the silver lining to the ominous clouds of the Kolaveri season! Both ‘Ananda Yaazhai’ and ‘Azhage Azhage’ had fetched national awards for the poet, but his shockingly premature passing at the height of his creativity seems to have set the clock back decisively.
There was little of the grasping cinema upstart or social climber in Muthukumar’s rise. Despite initial heartaches, his soaring career in the film world was informed by camaraderie. He had celebrated the warmth of family and friends in a series of articles titled ‘Anilaadum Munril’ (Squirrels in the Courtyard) in a popular weekly. He hailed from a village near Kancheepuram and had fond memories of the bonds and affections of rural life and joint families despite having lost his mother as an infant.
Glued to books from childhood by the influence of his teacher father, Muthukumar completed his post graduation in Tamil in Chennai and even took up doctoral research into Tamil film songs. He later joined Balu Mahendra as assistant director. As the Tamil tradition of keeping every occasion with song was ingrained in him, Muthukumar soon found his poesy getting the better of his love of film technique! He thought of himself as a sensitive poet who must keep the flag of creativity flying despite commercial cinema’s weakness for kitsch.
Not that Muthukumar didn’t have his moments of superficiality. He could sometimes lapse into juvenile joustings as in ‘Mutham Kodutha Maayakkaari, Un Lippu Enakku Paani Puri’ (Adhik Ravichandran’s Trisha Illainna Nayanthara), but could add fizz to a catchy bar song like ‘Vaada Va Machi’ (DeMonte Colony for composer Keba Jeremiah) with Omar Khayyam-like intimations of the desi variety. ‘As life is like a match stick that doesn’t gets lit when wet, make the most of every moment!’
In his first song for Yuvan Shanker Raja with whom he struck his most significant and prolific partnership, Muthukumar would plumb his knowledge of Tamil literary genres in ‘Oar Aayiram Yaanai Kondraal Parani’ (Nandha 2001), referring to the criterion of a king having to kill a thousand elephants in war for a war panegyric (‘Parani’) to be written about him. Bala’s Nandha was a trenchantly tragic tale of crime and punishment, and one wonders how much of Muthukumar’s lines and their musical and vocal mounting measure up to it, but the lyricist’s distinctive approach is discernable. A decade later, Bala had Muthukumar write all the songs for his quirky comedy, ‘Avan Ivan’.
In Selvaraghavan’s ‘Kaadhal Konden’ (2003), a love story teetering on the psychopathic, Muthukumar’s ‘Devadhaiyai Kanden’, again for Yuvan, imaginatively fleshed out the romantic fixation growing in the mind of a challenged introvert. In the same director’s 7G Rainbow Colony (2004), the visual of the tragic hero being a marginalised and devastated entity in his dead sweetheart’s funeral is matched by Muthukumar’s oxymoron ‘Nerungi Vilagi’ (close but apart) in ‘Ninaithu Ninaithu Paarthaen, Nerungi Vilagi Nadanthaen’. It is this uncanny ability to sum up life’s bitter ironies in simple day-to-day words that made Muthukumar a director’s song writer. In his 16 year career of a reckoned 1500 songs, he found friends who would give him the opportunity to write freely. His ability to parse the ubiquitous and almost hackneyed used of romance in Tamil films with interesting colours and shades was one of the reasons for his success.
In ‘Papanasam’ (2015), Ghibran’s bouncy western projection notwithstanding, Muthukumar’s ‘Yeya En Kottikaara’, recalls Kannadasan’s hit, ‘Muthukulikka Vaariala’, if only in the use of regional dialect. In Kaakaa Muttai (2015), in ‘Po Po Vaazhve Kaakka Muttaithaan’, Muthukumar’s lines for G. V. Prakash’s chirpy number paint the triumph of the human spirit in the squalor of a Chennai slum. His nostalgic celebration of a rustic childhood spent playing in the sun, in Vasanthabalan’s Veyil, ( ‘Veyilodu Vilaiyaadi’, 2006) is a marvellous montage brilliantly marshalled. This is a facet that we see in his collections of poetry too.
Muthukumar would categorise songs and poetry as either emotional or intellectual saying that he always aimed at the former. And in keeping with the art of his role model Kannadasan, Muthukumar sought to express himself vulnerably in the most childlike words he could dredge into his consciousness. How Muthukumar longed to spread his lyrical wings like Kannadasan, whose ‘Ninaikkadherindha Maname’ and ‘Kanne Kalaimane’ brought warm tears of joy in his crystalline moments of inebriation! But though as a lyric writer Muthukumar had the sensitivity both to ideas and music to write memorably, he was functioning at a time when the lyric was only one more element in the musical ensemble, not the queen as in earlier musical dispensations. But despite that, Muthukumar managed to leave his individual stamp.
Muthukumar, who had the uncanny ability of dipping his poetic brush in the palette of life’s living moments, wrote in ‘Azhage Azhage’, that not only a blossoming flower but also a falling leaf has beauty. Leaves can fall in autumn, but why would life’s blossoming flower wither in springtime, and that at 41?
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)