Vamanan

Like the ascending and descending notes of ragas and scales Ilaiyaraja uses to compose his tunes, his relationship with his song tracks has seen many ups and downs through the decades. The maestro known for moving fans with his music has been forced in recent times to move courts to protect his copyright.

For a few years after making a redoubtable debut with Annakili (1976), when Ilaiyaraja was just another composer, albeit brilliant and promising, he made no claim of ownership on his tracks and music labels like Inreco and HMV purchased the audio rights from the producers.

This is why the tracks of such all-time classics like the Rajinikanth-Shobha starrer, Mullum Malarum,  the blockbuster Kalyanaraman featuring Kamalhasan in two roles, the musically vibrant Rosappu Ravikkaikaari and Annakili are with HMV. And Inreco has the tracks of the nationally awarded Nenjathai Killaadhe featuring some truly memorable hits, Sigappu Rojakkal in which Kamalahasan played a psychopathic killer and Priya, the first Tamil film with stereophonic recording.

Such films signalled a bright new cinema of fresh faces, talented directors and a newer approach to cinema. Ilaiyaraja’s scintillating music proved to be the anthem of this breed of films. By the early eighties, Ilaiyaraja was on the way to achieving a status that no music composer had attained in Tamil cinema, the name above the title.

The start of the eighties saw a greater democratization of film music through the proliferation of cassettes. Film production too peaked from around 60 in the mid seventies to well above a hundred. Ilaiyaraja had about forty films a year – a huge vindication for a composer who had been challenged in the field about his capacity to arrange music!

It was then that Ilaiyaraja took charge of his audio tracks, propping up the Echo label through his Pannaippuram boyhood friend Subramaniam. It was a business that could not go wrong. Ilaiyaraja got his audio rights as part of his payment for composing music for films and there was a huge demand for his songs.

Yet, the enterprise did not do very well as it could not meet the huge demand, and pirates made a killing. Echo was then made over in 1988 to ‘New York’ Parthasarathi, an erstwhile music director who had moved over to the US and made a mark with his music company there.  Parthasarathi and Ilaiyaraja released the latter’s first compact disc of hits in Singapore but the celebration lasted for a few years only till the producer of the mega pic Thalapathy (1991) sold the audio rights to a another label (Lahiri) at a huge price. This opened Ilaiyaraja’s eyes to the commercial potential of his work yet again and he stopped giving films to Echo. He started his own company, ‘Raja Cassettes’, but as Ilaiyaraja’s elder brother R. D. Bhaskar put it then, ‘We should not have entered a business we had no idea about’!

By this time there was a halo round Ilayaraja, and he was being hailed as Ragadevan, a musical god. Eknath, a prominent video library owner was drawn into the circle of devotees and given the audio rights for a price. He gave up after a score of films saying the money he paid for the tracks could not be recouped from cassette sales. AVM came in on the 61st year of its audio business but let go after a crop of releases as the humungous hype was not converting into profits. These tracks, which had been given for five years were then transferred to Pyramid Audio which has about 150 Ilaiyaraja films now.

In the new millennium, when audio rights include a spectrum of digital rights like downloads through mobile networks, rings tones, caller tunes, internet streaming and the like, Ilaiyaraja had sounded the warning bugle against piracy and named some companies as copyright holders. Now, he has restrained a few of them from infringing his copyright. The problem in this muddle is that even law-abiding retailers have no foolproof means of ascertaining a legal Ilaiyaraja track! A high end retailer in Chennai, who was chagrined at being raided for selling illegal Ilaiyaraja CDs wanted to know of some foolproof method of doing just that!

But despite all the discordant notes that have attended its sales, Ilaiyaraja’s music is still a sought after product by his fans. The sad note is that rather than scoring music, a  composer has to spend his time scoring out those selling his music without his permission.

The latest in the series of issues over use of Ilaiyaraja’s film songs is old friend and colleaugue SPB, who himself sang scores and scores of the maestro’s songs being served a lawyer’s notice for performing Ilaiyaraja’s songs without his permission.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music with many acclaimed works to his credit)

(Most part of this article was originally published in the Times of India, Chennai)

muhammad-bin-thuglak-thiraippada-kaatchiVamanan

When the legendary thespian ‘Avvai’ T. K. Shanmugham came to preside over one of Cho Ramaswamy’s early plays in the fifties, he advised the amateur playwright and actor not to give English titles to his Tamil plays. Cho, who had till then come up with ‘Why not?’,  ‘Wait and see’ and ‘What for?’, soon responded with ‘Quo Vadis’ which is Latin for ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘Sambhavaami Yuge Yuge’ which is, of course, a Sanskrit phrase from the Bhagavad Gita!

Irrepressible, unpredictable and with a mind all his own, Cho would in later life narrate with glee that K. Balachander threw up his hands in despair at having to direct him on stage! It was not given even to the most reputed stage director of his time to be able to tame Cho, the enfant terrible of the amateur Tamil stage. Cho would later go on not only to portray the controversial and enigmatic Muhammad Bin Thuglak on stage and cinema, but also make the ‘Pagla Sultan’ his mascot and the name of his influential magazine on political affairs! While taking a decisive stand on many issues based on threadbare argument and logical acumen he would also ensure that he caught the eye mainly because of his devil-take-the-hindmost Thuglakian style.

There was something of this quixotic gambit in the way he forced himself on dramatist Koothabiran as an aspiring actor threatening to walk into every scene of the latter’s ‘Thaenmozhiyaal’ if a meaningful role was not written for him. Koothabiran decided discretion was the better of valour, but did not know how to name the character, an interloper into his script! Cho was generously willing to share his own name, with the result being that he was rather well noticed by audiences! While he could be self-deprecatory and dismissive of many of his achievements — the title card of Muhammad bin Thuglak, his first bid at direction says ‘Trying to learn direction:Cho’ — he was never the one to shrink from the limelight.

Viveka Fine Arts, the amateur drama group whose most famous writer and actor Cho became, was actually formed by his brother Krishnaswami aka Ambi and three of his friends. The thrill of performing on stage as well as the joy of meeting friends was what brought together the gang. Cho was not only the prolific playwright of the group but its stormy petrel who would fearlessly cock a snook at the powers that be.  One of Cho’s lifelong regrets in this regard would be his petulant public reaction to Kamaraj’s impatience at his derisive attacks on the Congress government of the time. While he began to adore Kamaraj in the seventies as an incorruptible leader dedicated to the welfare of the people, he could not bear to think how flippant he had been at the start of his dramatic career in responding to the great leader. As for any fireworks against his plays by the Kazhagam malcontents, or any move for a ban, Cho welcomed them as more publicity! Chief Minister Karunanidhi even tried writing a rebuttal play but soon gave up that line of attack. In the event, Cho would become MGR’s favourite comedian, and act in Karunanidhi’s home production, Engal Thangam, pulling off a marvellous performance as an avid MGR fan! But later on, reviews of MGR films in Thuglak would jeopardize Cho’s role as a comic sidekick of MGR!

But after the success of Thuglak on stage and screen, and the launch of Thuglak as a fortnightly early in 1970, Cho’s dialogues in every film began to centre on politics. There were a few films here and there that made it seem that Cho would take portrayal of characters seriously, but he was more into playing himself again and again as a cynical critic of the political system. No role would be complete without a reference to his role as a commentator on political events. In ‘Aarilirundhu Arupadhu Varai’, while playing Rajinikanth’s understanding friend quite well, he quips as an aside, ‘What do we have to do with politics?’ Rajini responds with, ‘Look who is saying this…’ and Cho blushingly agrees that sometimes he says such misleading stuff!He would lament that he had written only four or five political plays but they overshadowed his other plays. His ‘Saathiram Sonnadhillai’ dealt with caste prejudice trenchantly.  ‘Is God Dead’ focussed on the dearth of values and ethics in various segments of society. ‘Yaarukkum Vetkamillai’ exposed the hypocrisy of society on prostitution. Cho directed his plays like ‘Unmaiye Un Vilai Yenna’ and ‘Yaarukkum Vetkamillai’ on celluloid but was not happy with the result. He would make no bones in confessing that he had not been able to make the transition from stage to cinema smoothly. He envied K.Balachander on that score but made no effort at averting staginess on screen.

Cho took himself seriously, at least in the later part of his life, as an interpreter of Hinduism both through the printed word and television serials. He even questioned the demonization of Brahmins by the Dravidian ideologues. He could take very conservative viewpoints on the epics and puranas but he himself was disruptive in his individualistic plays. In his scripts, more often than not, Hindu gods lose out in the face of contemporary society’s crassness and corruption. While even god’s avatars cannot rid us of corruption, the heavens turn topsy turvy on the introduction of our ‘democratic’ practices and even Saraswathi, the goddess of learning is confounded by the values of our writers!

(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and an author of many works on the subject)

spb-at-recordingVamanan

For a singer who was stopped at the entrance of the film studio when he alighted from the carrier of a friend’s bicycle for his first recording, S.P.Balasubramanyam has gone more than the proverbial long way. He has become the most prolific playback singer in the history of Indian cinema, a statistic buttressed by his incomparable record, particularly in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada cinema. Celebrating fifty years of his singing from the date of that December 15, 1966 debut, SPB, or Balu to friends, completed a whirlwind world tour of live music shows to mark the event, capping it with a reverential and emotional paada puja to K.J.Yesudas, a senior contemporary who is just about six or seven years his elder.  An unexpected musical inflection not unlike ones that SPB sometimes produced in his renderings!

SPB’s hectic career encompassing scores and scores of soaring hits may seem to be a heady merry-go-round of melodies invoking a phantasmagoria of starry images to the music struck fan, but somebody had presaged it all, if only in microscopic form. This man was S.P.Kodandapani, a failed singer who was struggling to find opportunities as a music composer. Hearing the young SPB sing in a music competition, Kodandapani not only predicted straightaway that he would have a smooth sailing for at least forty years as a singer but also went on to give him his first break in the Telugu film, Sri Sri Sri Maryadha Ramanna. Kodandapani subsequently showed his mettle as a music composer but didn’t live to see his protégé going great guns. On his part, SPB remembered to commemorate the man who prophesied his marathon musical run by naming his recording studio after him. Unfortunately, he had to sell it off later in the wake of home productions that bombed.

Soon after SPB’s initial breakthrough, the star music directors of the day, M.S.Viswanathan and K.V.Mahadevan were seeking out the mellifluously free-flowing, youthful and individualistic voice of the twenty something. MSV debuted SPB in Tamil in ‘Iyarkaiyennum Ilayakanni’, a daintily-voiced duet in Santhi Nilayam, a nativised version of Sound of Music. MGR, temporarily miffed with his most popular musical voice TMS, chose SPB to sing with P.Sushila in his ambitious Adimai Penn (1969). The lavishly mounted ‘Aayiram Nilave Vaa’, picturised on MGR and Jayalalitha became a hit and continues to enthrall listeners to this day.

Both MSV and KVM had hit the height of the heady efflorescence of their creativity in the early sixties, but the emergence of fresh voices like that of SPB helped them give a new impetus to their music. MSV’s uplifting romantic song for Sivaji and Jayalalitha in Sumathi En Sundari, ‘Pottu Vaitha Mugamo’ , entranced SPB himself so much that he made a beeline to the radio station to hand over a copy for broadcast! SPB numbers composed by MSV for the young Kamalahasan in K.Balachander films gave a new verve to film song with hits like ‘Kadavul Amaithuvaitha Medai’, ‘Junior Junior’, ‘Kamban yemaandhaan’ and ‘Engeyum Eeppodhum Sangeetham’. In Sankarabharanam, KVM dared to make SPB sing in the Carnatic idiom that he was not trained in, but the film burst on the national consciousness as a re-assertion of the richness of Indian’s great musical heritage.

Another pinnacle of the SPB’s career was his singing with Lata (Ek Duje ke liye). After spilling hot coffee on Lataji’s spotlessly white sari during the recording, he had thought that his career in Hindi films was finished! But Lata went on to sing umpteen songs with SPB, and wowed live audiences around the world with him.

The emergence of Ilaiyaraja in the late seventies and eighties as the reigning composer in the South, put SPB right on top of the world. Apart from being the most popular and effervescent voice of the time, he was after all a long-time chum who had said cheers with Ilaiyaraja during the latter’s years of struggle! The Rajinikanth, Kamalahasan era of Tamil cinema is studded with SPB gems honed by Ilaiyaraja to showcase the former’s versatile singing which spans the spectrum from the jazzy and comic to the lingeringly romantic. Many a musical featuring actor Mohan clearly rode on the magic of SPB’s art (Who can forget ‘Nilaave Vaa’ in Maniratnam’s Mouna Ragam!). In the A.R.Rahman era too, SPB figured prominently for some time (winning a national award for ‘Thanga Thaamarai’ in Minsara Kanavu to boot), but the new trends in film song tired the old romantic.

A born mimic, SPB has acted (Keladi Kanmani featured him in the lead), dubbed (for Kamalahasan, for instance), composed music (Mayuri, Sigaram, Unnai Sharan Adainthen), and produced films (Shubha Sankalpam, Tenali etc). He is hosting a Telugu TV reality show titled ‘Paadutha Theeyagaa’, which has been having an incredible run for 20 years introducing a host of talented singers. As a singer who has emerged as a musical phenomenon, SPB’s career has crossed a golden barrier, and he himself is 70, but his voice still sounds ageless!

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music)

(This article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)

Vamanan

When a measure like demonetization that affects all people comes into play, you can be sure it will be factored into films in a variety of ways in the times to come. Film is a mass medium and a mass happening is certain to find echoes in it. In fact, the very first demonetization in India that took place in 1946 figures brilliantly in a little known film of the period. The film, ‘Vijayalakshmi’, flopped when it was released, but ironically it is perhaps the only film of 1946 to have survVijayalakshmi.jpgived seventy turbulent years since it saw the light of day! 

Though named eponymously after its female protagonist, the film is dominated by the avaricious father-in-law Ganapathi Iyer, who finds his Nemesis in the demonetization of thousand rupee notes. In a superbly crafted climax that is based on superimpositions, unconventional camera angles and evocative music, the character that marries the religiosity of the priestly class with the greed of the loan shark finds superb evocation.

Based on a Marathi stage play, Bandaachi Soon, written by playwright Sri Ganesh Krishna Shastri Pathak,  Vijayalakshmi was directed by the veteran filmmaker P. Pulliah, most famous for directing N.T.Rama Rao in the iconic mythological Sri Venkateswara Mahatyam (1960). Ironically, Vijayalakshmi is on the other end of the spectrum, being for most part a delightful vehicle of cinematic realism that presents credible characters and situations.  

B.R. Panthulu, known more as producer director of seminal films like Veerapandiya Kattabommon, Kappalottiya Thamizhan, Karnan and Aayirathil Oruvan, if not for his essay of the role of ‘School Master’, excels himself in a riveting portrayal of greed. With the varied palette of a practised actor, he brings facial expressions, as well as mannerisms of speech and gait to make the character of the miserly Ganapathi  come alive.

After his religiously conducted Lakshmi Puja, which is more a gloating over accumulated riches in his iron safe than any devotion to the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Ganapati Iyer receives a letter from his son Ramu. He begins to utter mournful cries learning that Ramu has resigned his job.  Questioned by his anxious wife, he says, ‘Praanan Poana Enna, Panam Poana Enna, Rendum Onnu thaanedi’ (Losing money is akin to losing one’s life), underlining his philosophy of life with the skewed equation that wealth equals  life !

This immediately leads to exploitation and ill-treatment of women, of course with the complicity of other women, as is to be expected in a patriarchal society with scant respect for the rights or feelings of women.  Prodded by his wife, Ganapati Iyer sends his daughter-in-law packing to her father’s place so that he can make more money getting his son married a second time. ‘’A two-stringed gold necklace, all the silver ware, and 10,000 as dowry for the second marriage. I can put away another 15,000 rupees in my safe,’’ he chuckles happily, gloating over future acquisitions! Note hungry Ganapati is of the kind that invites the woes of demonetization!

Even at the outset, the film juxtaposes Ganapati Iyer’s worship of material wealth (Lakshmi in a sense) with the joy and gaiety of heroine Vijayalakshmi (M.V.Rajamma, the super mother of later years), suggesting that a worthy woman is truly more valuable than material things a man may possess. That this constitutes the denouement of the film, speaks of the thoughtful way the film has been structured all through. Did not Pudovkin lay down that editing is the foundation of film technique! 

The year 1946 was a challenging one for the film industry with famine conditions prevailing in certain parts of the then Madras Presidency and the introduction of 12 ounce ration of rice. The demonetisation of 500, 1000 and 10,000 notes also hit the money bags financing the film industry as it did the stars who received part of the payment in black. Though the introduction of prohibition in 8 districts of the Presidency made it seem that favourable conditions had been created for the film trade, there was actually little enthusiasm at the box office.

It was under such dismal conditions that a band of filmmakers like Pullaiah (director), B.R.Panthulu (lead actor), A.T.Krishnaswami (dialogue writer and director), G.Govindarajulu Naidu (music director), among others, got together to make a distinctive film like ‘Vijayalakshmi’. It turned out to be an excellent film, but bombed at the box office. It has also escaped the notice of the chroniclers of Tamil cinema till now, but still lives to tell a tale!

 

(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and author of several books on the subject)

(A version of this article appeared in the columns of Times of India)

 

Vamanan

 

In the context of the literature Noble to Bob Dylan for the lyrical content of his songs, it is pertinent to ask whether Tamil film songs have any literary value. But there is an obvious difference between Dylan’s oeuvre and Tamil film song in general. Bob Dylan was a counter-culture icon, who apart from being his own song writer, music composer and performer had great freedom to be individually expressive. The film lyricist, on the other hand, works to a commission….he is writing for a situation which for most part is pedestrian and clichéd. He is hemmed down by tunes to which he has to write to. No wonder train-loads of Tamil film songs are not worth the paper of which they are written though they too in some mindless way reflect the preoccupation of their times!

Tamil cinema has for long been influenced by the traditions of the professional Tamil stage. Sankaradas Swamigal was a doyen of the Tamil stage in its golden period. His song-filled scripts proved to be the template for numerous drama troupes and schooled actors in the cadences of Tamil diction, in epic mythology and the expression of dramatic situation and feeling through song.

 Actors like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan grew up in such a tradition, and though they learnt realistic acting styles while enacting novels of the day, they were alive to the indigenous song-filled tradition. This explains why Sankaradas’s ‘Kaayaadha Kaanagathe’, sung by Muruga when he appears before the tribal belle Valli as a hunter in search of a deer, was delivered by a cavalcade of actors on stage, and also reprised on screen by T.R.Mahalingam, Sivaji Ganesan and  Vijayakanth. Does this persistence across film eras make ‘Kaayadha Kaanagathe’ literature?

Papanasam Sivan, pre-eminent composer-lyricist of the opening decades of Tamil cinema, honed some of the evergreen songs of the thirties and forties. His ‘Radhe Unakku Kobam Aaagadhadi’ was Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s first hit, it launched T..M.Sounderarajan’s singing career in the late forties and later had Sivaji miming to it in Kulamagal Raadhai (1963).  Sivan’s ‘Manmadha Leelaiyai Vendraarundo’ has gone on to become a proverbial saying. Not literature?

With Tamil Nadu’s heady mix of cinema and politics and Tamil cinema’s penchant for mass heroes as well as melodramatic and escapist fare, intellectuals are entitled to turn up their noses regarding any claims of creativity in general and of literary worth in Tamil film song in particular. Modern poet Gnanakoothan didn’t hide his disdain for film songs and flayed them for crudity and butchery of lyrics at the altar of music. Acclaimed novelist Vannanilavan finds only a line or two of literary value even in the best of songs of Kannadasan.  Bharatidasan, the poet of the self-respect movement, wrote the songs for some films initially, but considered it infra dig. Poet Abdul Rahman famously put down film lyricists with the jibe, ‘Ammi Kutha Sirpi Yedharkku’ (No need for a sculptor to roughen the surface of a grinding stone). He later changed his opinion and affirmed that film lyrics also are a kind of poetry.

There is also the fact that a reputed writer like Jayakanthan wrote film songs. His ‘Thennan Keetru Oonjalile’ , sung by PBS and S. Janaki under the baton of M.B.Srinivasan is one of the greatest melodies of Tamil cinema. His ‘Kandadhai Sollugiraen’ (anthem of a modern writer who bears witness to his times) and ‘Veru Idam Thedippovaalo’ (angst-filled cry of a rape survivor) for the celluloid version of his own novel, ‘Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal’. are very meaningful songs. Do they qualify as literature? Famed novelist Kalki Krishnamurthy came up with ‘Kaatrinile Varum Geetham’ for M.S.Subbulakshmi’s Meera, and it turned out to be not only her best but also one of the most entrancing songs of all time!

Most common folk who affirm Tamil film song’s literary worth mostly give one name, Kannadasan! Whether it’s a love song (Naan Pesa Ninaippadhellaam), inspiring anthem (Adho Andha Paravaippola) or patriotic song (‘Naadu Adhai Naadu’, ‘Pani padarndha Malaiyin mele’) and songs reflecting a variety of human predicaments from birth to death, Kannadasan set the bench mark for excellence. Vali came a second but was oftentimes chagrined to be mistaken for the former!

Vairamuthu, fresh from his popularity as a ‘new poetry’ performer in Kavi Arangams, debuted with a bang with ‘Oru Pon Maalai Pozhudhu’. He holds the record of winning the National Film Award for Best Lyric six times. Lyrical excellence?

In times of ‘Kolaiveri’ lambasted by judges, social activists and lay people for breeding misogyny and violence in the youth , the late and lamented Na. Muthukumar kept the flag of poetic creativity flying. But did he have the musical support that somebody like Kannadasan could boast of?

Kannadasan lived in times when there were music composers like MSV and K.V.Mahadevan who were supremely alive to the nuances and rhythms of the lyric. While MSV claimed that the words themselves yielded the tune, KVM insisted that lyric came first every time. Also, most male artistes of Kannadasan’s time came from the stage and were grounded in music even if they did not sing, while female artistes were either dancers or reasonably acquainted with dance. On the other hand, many intellectuals and writers who flay film lyrics don’t understand that the film lyric cannot  be prised out of its musical and cinematic setting.

The question of the literary worth of film songs is a contentious one, but it is also a fact that texts accepted as literature have been beautifully presented in Tamil cinema. Bharati’s ‘Chinnanchiru Kiliye Kannamma’, tuned by the genius C.R.Subburaman for ‘Manamagal’, has gone on to become a famous Carnatic song. Bharati’s songs have been used many times from 1935 to this day. From snatches of Silappadhikaram to verses of the Divya Prabandham and Thevaram and songs of Tiruppugazh, many a literary piece has been meaningfully popularized in films. Who can forget T.M.Soundararajan’s flawless rendering of Arunagirinathar’s ‘Muthai Tharu Paththi’ with all its percussive flight and intricate interweaving of words. While occasionally film song does indeed boast of some literary merit, or at least a touch of it, now and then what is accepted as literature also becomes a winning film song!

 

(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and a lyricist himself).

(This article was published in the Chennai edition of Times of India)


Na. Muthukumar 1Vamanan

‘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)

Vamanan

There are two things that the film world banks upon : luck, without which nothing succeeds, and talent, without which not a frame moves forward meaningfully. Panchanathan Arunachalam, popularly known as Panchu Arunachalam, had cartloads of luck for a great length of his career as a lyricist. which started in the early sixties, and as a script writer,  which kicked off in the early seventies.

panju arunachalam

Panchu – photo by Vamanan

For one, it was given only to him to open the doors through Annakili (1976) to the maestro of a thousand films and also benefit from the connection!  Again, it was given only to a very few like Panchu to make meaningful story-based films with Rajinikanth like Aarilirundhu Arupadhuvarai (1979) and Engeyo Ketta Kural (1982), as they were early birds in the latter’s skyrocketing career as a super star!

As for talent, Panchu had the ability to write successful screenplays for films covering a gamut of genres from comedy (Kalyanaraman 1979) to action (Murattu Kaalai 1980),  melodrama (Bhuvana Oru Kelvi kuri 1977) and crime thriller (Gayathri 1977). Novels, rarely known to translate into successful films in Tamil cinema, became money spinners when Panchu wrote the screenplay : Sujatha’s Priya (1978) is an example.  Incidentally, it was with Panju’s songs for Priya that Tamil cinema turned to stereophonic  sound.

Luck in fact, had ironically played truant in Panchu’s younger days. Panju’s father Kannappan, like the latter’s younger brothers film producer A.L.Srinivasan and Kannadasan, had been adopted by rich parents. But as destiny would have it, Kannappan’s foster parents died prematurely and he was deprived of his due by their scheming relatives.  Young and sensitive Panchu detested being treated as a poor cousin in the well-to-do Nagarathar community and was determined to succeed in life. His coming to Chennai to work in uncle Kannadasan’s publication,  ‘Thendral’ was the first step in that direction.

Playing amanuensis to Kannadasan as he fitfully did the rounds of film companies weaving masterful  lyrics even for pedestrian films, Panju imbibed the art of lyric writing. Panchu had some magical songs of his own like Manamagale Marumagale Vaa Vaa, which is sung in light music programmes in marriages to this day, as well as Ponnezhil Poothadhu and Pooppola Pooppola Pirakkum.  But Panchu’s native intelligence made him realize that with a colossus like Kannadasan around and Vali coming a close second, he would not go places as a lyric writer.

It was then that Panchu decided to market himself as a script writer banking  on his voracious reading of fiction and ability to spin believable stories.  A series of small budget films, either breezy comedies (Ungal Viruppam, 1974) or cautionary melodramas (Mayangugiraal Oru Maadhu) with catchy songs (Vijay Bhaskar) and likeminded technicians came as a whiff of fresh air in a scene dominated by Sivaji and MGR. Annakili was a dark horse that went on to hit the jackpot with the utterly uplifting musical magic of Ilayaraja. Panchu’s gambit of giving Ilaiyaraja his debut film had paid off!

Ilaiyaraja’s rise, which synchronized with a tidal change in Tamil cinema, meant that the Panchu brand was acquiring more shine. His songs were now ruling the waves (Kaatrinile Varum Geetham and Paruvame Pudhiya Paadal Paadu) and his screenplays were being lapped up. The prolific director S.P.Muthuraman swore by Panchu. With the AVM brothers raring to go after the pause created by the passing of Studio Patriarch A.V. Meiyyappan, Panchu (dialogues and screenplay) along with S.P.Muthuraman (direction) was in the cockpit to direct the course of the Studio’s films.

Panchu and Muthuraman, along with the AVM brothers would also play a crucial role in the marketing of  Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan as mass heroes in massive hits like Murattu Kaalai, Sakalakalavallan (1982) and Paayum Puli (1983). This period, which saw Panchu working for many Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan films,  also signalled his rise  as a successful producer with films like Thambikku Endha Ooru (1984) and Guru Sishyan (1988).

In 1987, Panchu sort of declared war on directors whom he charged with wasting time and resources without proper planning. He became his own director and wielded the baton for four films, of which  ‘Pudhuppaattu’ (1990) was under the Ilayaraja Creations banner. Panchu’s iconic P.A.Art Productions  shone again with his script for Rajinikanth’s ‘Veera’ in 1994. But as the years went by, the failures that came home to roost constricted his resources as well as his living style.

 

(The author is a Tamil film music historian and author of many books on Tamil cinema)

(A version of this article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)