Music that takes you far, far away from Tamil cinema

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Chennai:  A little after 12 p.m., last Saturday, I stepped into a recording studio in R.A. Puram.

The television set in the reception area said UAE were 36/3 in their World Cup match against India. There were a couple of couches there, a few people propped on them.

They didn’t seem particularly invested in the outcome of the match. India would win. It was just a matter of time. Still, it was there, like the two-year-old issues of TIME magazine you find at your local general physician’s office.

I hung around a bit. At 41/4, I was led into a room with a Mac, and P. Ragavendran — film composer Ghibran’s music producer and manager, who also handles the public relations; it was on his invitation I was there — began to play a song from the new Kamal Haasan-starrer Uttama Villain.

Kaadhalaam kadavul mun , it went. It’s sung by Padmalatha, and it’s what the industry calls a ‘melody song’, a strange term, considering that all songs traverse some kind of melodic arc. But what they mean is that it isn’t, say, a kuthu number.

This isn’t the kind of song you’d immediately hand over to the choreographer. It’s the kind of song you’d try to fill on screen with a Balu Mahendra-style montage of mood shots.

All pop music — and film songs are our pop music — has an element of repetition. The songs open with the pallavi (our version of the Western pop song’s chorus) and keep returning to it. And pairs of lines in the charanam (verse) are often set to the same tune.

Ghibran has an interesting way of adhering to this structure, yet breaking away from it. There’s always a tweak the second time the melodic line is repeated. Sometimes, the closing stretch grazes a lower note. Or only the first line of the chorus is sung in a lower octave.

You know that thing where you hear a song and a phrase suddenly yanks you out of the present and deposits you in front of a radio set, circa 1980? That happened to me.

Suddenly, I was thinking about the Gangai Amaran song, Nyaabagam illaiyo kanne . Maybe it’s the raga . Ghibran, who joined us later, told me he’d tuned this song in Maru Bihag .

Next, Iraniyan naadagam . The lines, written by Kamal (who voices Hiranyakashipu), are blazingly theatrical: en udhirathin vidhai/en uyir udhirtha sadhai .

There’s great variety in the percussion, not just in the different instruments used but also in the rhythm patterns. Sometimes, the drums just come to a halt. The base is the traditional koothu , so all lines are sung — and given the Western-classical wrapping, the lines also sound like the recitative of a Broadway musical. The number keeps soaring and climaxes in anthemic swells.

After this, Love-aa love-aa was almost an anti-climax. It’s the most mainstream thing I’d heard that far — an insanely catchy tune, with hard-driving beats that sound as if they’re ripping the song to shreds, and a vast dynamic range, comprising the audio equivalent of the close-up as well as the wide shot.

Kamal hasn’t sounded this young and peppy in a while, and his borderline-falsetto here is effectively contrasted with a female voice that sounds like Usha Uthup trapped inside a boom box. It’s the kind of song that’s an instant hit. This film probably needs this song.

A youngish chap popped in, dressed casually in a T-shirt and cut-offs, and it took me a minute to realise this was Ghibran. He was taking a break from the recording session in another room.

We spoke about the modernised koothu in Iraniyan naadagam . He said it didn’t start from a musical point of view, the way a composer thinks of this raga or that scale when a song situation or a scene is narrated to him.

It began, instead, from the point of view of the scene. Imagine that Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada are having a fight. Imagine the raised voices, the back-and-forth exchanges.

When Ghibran studied music at the Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, he was exposed to Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music and Sprechstimme (recitation that’s declaimed melodramatically, hovering between the spoken and the sung). He realised that Sprechstimme was just like our koothu . Only, the latter did not have that kind of orchestral accompaniment.

So koothu , with a dash of atonality, became the base for Iraniyan naadagam . Kamal had the whole narrative ready. He and Ghibran talked and rehearsed and decided how much time each exchange would take. And then the Western classical elements came in.

Ghibran said it was challenging because some parts had already been shot with actors speaking the lines and then Kamal felt it would be better if they sang those same lines. Ghibran worked for a year-and-a-half on the score.

When he left, we turned to the other songs. Uttaman arimugam is what you’d call a rocking villupaattu . The baton-passing between Kamal, villupaattu exponent Subbu Arumugam and the all-male chorus is terrific. Next, the soulful Saagaavaram (I wonder if that word was used anywhere before Kamal used it in Virumaandi ’s Onna vida ).

Peel back the orchestration, and the song sounds like one of those philosophical numbers M.S. Viswanathan used to sing in 1970s’ films — say, Kandathai sollugiren . I’m not talking about the tune. I’m talking about the feel.

There’s another story in Mutharasan kadhai , all eight minutes and 13 seconds of it. Then, Uttaman kadhai . I kept thinking about how the album was filled with words and names that point towards immortality — saagaavaram , mrityunjay , and even Iraniyan , who sought everlasting life. Maybe that is the film’s theme.

The instrumental pieces really made the album for me. The theme music opens with sounds that seem to be erupting from the bowels of the earth, and then the title is repeated in an ominous monotone, as if by the members of the cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — the song then becomes more modern.

Guru and sishya is more romantic — rather, Romantic. It takes you back to Debussy, Chopin. More instrumentals — Uttaman and Karpagavalli , Father and son , Letter from and to Yamini , Dr. Aparna , and possibly my favourite after two listens, the exquisite Father and daughter .

This is probably the ‘analog’ part of the score. The sound is softer and the music sweeps you to a place far, far away from Tamil cinema. Throughout the album, the strings work is wonderful, and the violins sound so soft in the instrumental pieces that you may be reminded of John Barry’s score for Out of Africa . Again, I’m not talking about the tune. I’m talking about the feel.

The team that won the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing this year (for Whiplash ) has worked on this album. Maybe the softness is their doing.

Ghibran said they decided to do away with all instruments traditionally used in period films — tabla, ghatam, dholak.

Uttaman’s story unfolds in a fantasy land, so there’s an element of fantasy in the sound too. There’s a lot of music in the movie, but only 67 minutes of it made it to the album. I don’t remember how much time I spent inside the studio, but when I left, M.S. Dhoni was smiling into a mike. India had won.

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