“With the Grand Music of Maestro Ilaiyaraaja” - the first title card to appear in the opening credits of all Bala’s films with Ilaiyaraaja’s music. With a visual language as that of Bala’s and its high dependency on music, what Bala means as the music of Maestro Ilaiyaraaja in the title card is not what we obviously think – the songs composed by Ilaiyaraaja. It is the background score. Bala is proudly announcing his gratitude to Ilaiyaraaja for what Ilaiyaraaja does to his films with his background score. Ilaiyaraaja’s score has always been unabashedly dramatic and yet adequately sensitive to the moods, shades and emotions of the characters in a typical Bala film. Those who complain about the pitch of emotions in Bala’s films will have complaints about the pitch of Ilaiyaraaja’s score too. For those who do not, Ilaiyaraaja’s score is pitch-perfect in Bala’s films.The above article is now a chapter in the book "Moods of Ilaiyaraaja".
Pithamagan opens with the shot of a pregnant lady walking down the street. A flute sympathetically plays a melody that sounds like a sad lullaby a mother-to-be sings for her unborn baby. The black and white visuals showing us a woman on the verge of delivering a baby, helplessly wandering on the streets instantly reminds us the opening episode of Maniratnam’s Thalapathi. Chinna Thaayaval became Surya’s (Rajini) theme, who has been longing all his life to meet his Mother. The sad lullaby on flute to Sithan (Vikram) is what Chinna Thaayaval song is to Surya in Thalapathi. Chinna Thaayaval travels with Surya all his life and peep its neck out of silence, whenever Surya expresses his pain and the desire to meet his Mother. Whereas, in Pithamagan, the flute theme follows Sithan and is heard whenever Sithan finds a new mother in other principal characters of the film, whom despite knowing who Sithan is, show pity, love and care for him. Though there is a musical theme for Sithan, it is not heard whenever the focus is on Sithan. Ilaiyaraaja does not do that.
When Sithan is out on the streets of the village in search of food, Gomathi (Sangeetha) offers Sithan her food. Gomathi leaves soon after. Sithan follows Gomathi like a dog that follows its feeder. She is the only one, in whose eyes Sithan saw pity and kindness for him ever since he quit his home - the graveyard. Gomathi stops walking, turns to Sithan and with furrowed eye brows looks at him as if looking at a disgusting, filthy scum, and tells him to leave. The facial expression and the body language of Sithan partly implies what goes through Sithan’s mind at this moment, but it is Ilaiyaraaja’s music, the main flute theme that he plays in the background completes the communication. He is following her because she is someone who could be his perennial feeder, a caretaker of this undertaker, a Mother.
Sithan meets Sakthi (Surya) in prison. They are put into the same cell. Sithan is being brutally beaten up by the police men in the Jail. Sakthi, while sitting in the cell could hear Sithan’s roaring out of Pain. The scene inter-cuts between shots of policemen beating Sithan and the shots of Sakthi looking worried for Sithan. When the policemen bring the unconscious Sithan back to the Cell, the Sithan theme plays on flute again, this time it is not only to make the audience sympathize with Sithan but also to make us aware us that Sakthi too is sympathetic of Sithan. When Sakthi asks Sithan to rest and be at peace, Ilaiyaraaja puts the Sithan theme to rest on a soft bed of strings.
Sakthi tries to save Sithan from getting assaulted by the policemen again, but at the end, Sakthi gets severely beaten up by the policemen for trying to protect Sithan. We do not know yet if Sithan understands that Sakthi has helped him and got himself into trouble in doing so. When Sakthi returns to the cell with bloody scars and limped legs, Ilaiyaraaja plays Sithan’s theme on flute. On first viewing, it seems that Ilaiyaraaja is using Sithan’s theme for Sakthi, just as a sympathetic piece to Sakthi’s physical pain, but it is not for that. Sakthi becomes the saviour of Sithan and takes the whips that were supposed to fall on Sithan onto himself, and thereby becomes the next principal character that cared for Sithan. Thus, the use of Sithan theme for Sakthi is fully justified. All of these subtleties go down the drain soon, when Ilaiyaraaja vocally spells it out in the song Yaaradhu Yaaradhu Manasa Therandhadhu. The song is heard when Sithan walks up to Sakthi and stares at him for a while. Sithan is finally opening his heart out and displaying some emotion to someone.
There is something unique in Ilaiyaraaja’s voice, and Ilaiyaraaja is extremely aware of it. Ilaiyaraaja uses it economically and effectively in the background score only at the most appropriate moment in the film. The mere sound of Ilaiyaraaja’s voice must convince us of the significance of the emotions of the characters or the mood or the situation for which he uses his voice in the film. What Sithan feels for Sakthi, and why he feels so are extremely crucial for the whole rest of the film to work. Bala leaves it to the audience to understand the immensity of the friendship between Sithan and Sakthi, which grew in just one incident. However, Ilaiyaraaja lends a helping hand to Bala, with a new song in the background score that adds words and notes to Sithan’s emotions and convincingly registers the core idea on which the whole film is mounted.
Ilaiyaraaja does not use Sithan’s theme in a scene, in which Sithan feeds food to the drunken Sakthi. That is when for the first time in his life, Sithan becomes a Mother himself. This is such a strongly revealing moment in the film. When in the beginning of the scene, Ilaiyaraaja introduces mild guitar strains, it does not convey much about what is the intention of having this scene. When Gomathi wakes up from the bed and sees what we saw, a solo violin plays a soul stirring melody. We already knew what Sithan and Sakthi means to each other, but Ilaiyaraaja’s music that precisely begins when Gomathi turns, is to inform us that it is only now even Gomathi understands the relationship between Sithan and Sakthi.
Background scoring is also about the stretches of silence that a composer deliberately writes into a piece. In Pithamagan, the impact of the silence can be best experienced in the scene in which Sithan enters a hotel in the village, beats everyone who stops him from having his food and casually eats the food. Background music is heard only when Sithan, showing no fear or emotion, picks and eats every food item in the hotel. There is no music when Sithan beats someone who stops him from having the food. There is no music when Sithan shoves a worker in the hotel onto a container made of glass; the glass shelf breaks and inside the shelf Sithan finds some eatables. The music begins when he picks a food item and eats it. This alternation between music and no music enhances the impact of Sithan’s punch and the innate humour in the way he eats his food casually after punching.
When Sithan is dragged on the street by the hotel workers for a full on combat, Ilaiyaraaja totally switches to no music mode. The fight is shot like a normal street fight and not a full blown action sequence like it is usually in typical Tamil films. We, the audience are like one of those who are passing by that street and watching the action. Even those who are in the fight do not have anything personal against each other and hence there are no emotional strings attached to it. Music of any kind, by its nature, will carry with it a mood or an emotion. The focus here is the rawness of the action and nothingness of emotion, and this combination can be achieved only by the music of silence. Meanwhile, it is vital to note how Ilaiyaraaja uses grand orchestral score for the dramatic action sequence towards the end of the film, when Sithan’s outrage turns him into an animal.
Sithan’s character goes through a transformation as the film progresses, and it gets due musical nod from Ilaiyaraaja. Sakthi and Gomathi remain the same throughout the film. Is that why there is no Sakthi or Gomathi theme? However, Manju (Laila), the only character in the film that is from social strata that is totally different from that of the other main characters in the film, gets a funky theme for her overt exuberance.
The other principal character of the film is Mahadevan whose actions are going to rewrite the destinies of all the other characters in the film. Mahadevan’s theme is a simple two-note motif, which has the eerie sound of a saw cutting through a rough surface in two strokes. Mahadevan is indeed the rough saw that comes between Surya and Sakthi. Mahadevan’s theme is not heard throughout the first act of the film though he appears and interacts with many of the other principal characters. The theme is first heard when Sakthi demands and Gomathi pleads Mahadevan to bail out Sithan. A seed of thought about Sakthi has begun to root in Mahadevan’s mind, and that is going to cost lives in the future. Mahadevan turns a villain. In an Ilaiyaraaja score, a character gets a theme only when it begins to have a purpose in the story. From the moment, when Sakthi meets Mahadevan demanding him to make arrangements for Sithan’s bail, Mahadevan’s theme music plays in the background in almost every single scene in which the spotlight is on Mahadevan’s villainy.
Bala’s films are not just about gloom and doom. The merrier moments in Bala’s films are equally intense. When we say merrier moments, it is not those that are intended to make us laugh like the ones involving Sakthi in the first act of the film. Ilaiyaraaja uses no music in all those comical reels of Sakthi. However, for those slice-of-life moments in which the characters in the film are happy and peaceful, Ilaiyaraaja plays loud - loud enough to make us as light, happy and emotionally fulfilled as the characters in the film are.
Soft strings play soothing melodic phrases to emphasize Sithan’s relief from hunger, when he eats the food offered by Gomathi. Sithan is busy eating food, and we do not get to see any expressions on his face. Sithan is stoic as ever and Ilaiyaraaja’s music expresses what Sithan could not.
Sithan is getting bailed out. When Sithan steps out of the court, an ecstatic Sakthi lifts him. For this joyful moment, Ilaiyaraaja plays an exhilarating orchestral piece together, in which sitar and flute flourish, strings soar in liberation and the rhythms dance in excitement. The same piece, but with dominance of a serene solo flute, is again heard, when Sakthi makes Sithan laugh for the first time. The exuberant piece makes a brilliant transition to Mahadevan’s two-note theme, when the scene cuts to show Mahadevan, who is standing in contemplation outside the court. With this transition of mood in the music, Ilaiyaraaja cleverly hints at the role of villainy that Mahadevan is going to play in Sithan and Sakthi’s life. The mastery of Ilaiyaraaja lies in the way he links all these breaks, shifts and pauses in shots of the scenes in the film with a coherent piece of music. The music never cuts abruptly from one emotion to the other.
For a while, Bala steps away from the characters of the film and captures the place and the atmosphere in which some of the crucial moments that take the film’s narrative forward will happen. Bala takes us on a guided tour into the deep forest, to the place where the drug baron Mahadevan is executing his business. Accordingly, Ilaiyaraaja creates ambient music cues for the montage that traces Mahadevan’s journey into the deep forest. Though there is a heavy dosage of Synth in this cue, the feel perfectly sounds the mystery that lies deep in the forest, to where Mahadevan is taking us along.
When Sithan and his colleagues transport the drug to another place through a secret route in the deep forest, the music that Ilaiyaraaja plays is why Bala puts ‘With the grand music of Maestro Ilaiyaraaja’ in title credits. There is no one in India now, who can put a piece together like this, in which Ilaiyaraaja captures the vastness of the forest landscape, grandeur of the production (hundreds of men and horses walking down the river stream amidst the dense forest), serenity of nature and the danger that awaits the drug peddlers.
The sequences of physical combat between characters in Pithamagan are not larger than life Dishoom-Dishoom stunts. They are as real as it can get in a Tamil film. The motives of the character involved in combat are strong so much so that, while watching the film we do not even think for a second whether such a combat can happen in real life. Accordingly, Ilaiyaraaja’s score never resorts to the cliched brass bangs or percussion rolls, in the combat scenes, in Pithamagan. Ilaiyaraaja’s score underlines the emotional graph of the characters rather than the physical aspects of the combat. Ilaiyaraaja hugely employs strings in combat scenes and plays melodies that trace the emotions the characters in combat go through while in action.
The first aggressive combat between the characters in the film happens when the Jail warden drags Sithan into a fight. There is no score for the fight initially. Ilaiyaraaja begins music, when after realizing the monstrosity of Sithan, the Jail warden begins to run. The music slowly picks up pace, grows intensely, and suddenly when that magical moment arrives, we realize why Ilaiyaraaja maintained silence throughout. Sithan punches the Jail warden. Jail warden falls and rolls on the ground, and before he could get up and run further, Sithan flies in the air and sits on the broken wall like an eagle. The camera captures his posture from the Jail warden’s eye view. Sithan’s eagle act turned out to be a visually exhilarating moment and received applause in the cinema halls all over. While there could be many reasons attributed for the intensity of the impact it has on the audience, it would be a sin not to include Ilaiyaraaja’s score as one of the reasons. When Sithan begins to jump and fly to the wall, the whole orchestra gathers momentum, and precisely when Sithan sits on the wall, everything crumbles down to breath taking silence. It is a classic example of how background music is not what it is without the craters of silences that it deliberates to dig within. And no one knows how to use it better than Ilaiyaraaja. The impact of Sithan’s eagle act would not be as effective, without Ilaiyaraaja’s music and the perfectly timed silence.
Sakthi and Manju are happily singing a folk song from the film they just watched, and they are on their way back home. A group of unknown guys comes in their way. They start to beat Sakthi. Sakthi does not know who they are and does not understand why they are attacking him. There is no background score. In the flash of thunder and lightning, Sakthi sees Mahadevan sitting in the jeep at a distance. Sakthi understands the seriousness of the situation and asks Manju to run. The stroke of Ilaiyaraaja that bangs hard like a thunder in synch with the flash of lightning implies the intensity of danger.
A swelling orchestral piece accompanies Manju, who is running away from the place of action and reaching for help. Manju reaches Gomathi’s house. She could not speak. She stammers. She is in a sense of shock. When Gomathi and others question Manju about Sakthi, Ilaiyaraaja plays spine chilling stream of notes on multiple layers of flutes, each layer intensifying the gloomy mood of the situation further.
Sakthi is dead.
The string section stirs up an eerie whirl in the aura, when Sithan opens the sack and reveals the face of the dead body inside. Sakthi is dead. Gomathi, Manju and Sithan’s friends are shocked. The subsequent eruption of volcano of emotions is accompanied by an equally loud background score. A score of this immensity would sound crass and loud, if the loudness of emotions in the film were not convincing enough. Ilaiyaraaja precisely gauges the pitch of the emotions in the film, and accordingly chooses a pitch for his score. It works. Bala cleverly cuts off all the ambient sounds and allows Ilaiyaraaja’s loud percussion bangs to sound the shock, when Gomathi and the audience get to see Sithan’s passive reaction to Sakthi’s death.
Sithan has not reacted to Sakthi’s death yet. His eyes have not shed a tear yet. Hence, no music yet in the background score, after those percussive bangs of shock. The first piece of music that emerges is a sombre solo violin piece that pierces viewers' soul, when Sithan is suddenly shaken up by the undertaker’s final call for friends and relatives of Sakthi to see Sakthi’s face for one last time. Sithan runs towards Sakthi’s burning corpse. Sithan speaks or rather recites verses about his emotions to Sakthi. There is absolute silence in the background score. Ilaiyaraaja leaves it to Sithan’s voice to evoke a lump in viewers’ throat. The layers of strings slowly cascade one over the other playing dark, melodic phrases to create turbulence as immense as that of the fire that is blazing fiercely in front of Sithan. They gradually build up to a crescendo, like how Sithan slowly gathers his emotions from inside and finally pours it out as tears in his eyes. At the peak, Ilaiyaraaja breaks out with a string section playing the theme he introduced on a solo violin just a while ago. When the shot slowly fades out to a blank screen, the strings too submerge in silence.
Sithan is outraged by Sakthi’s death. He fiercely flies to have his revenge on Mahadevan. Mahadevan finds that Sithan is hiding in his house. When the camera slowly moves up just like how Mahadevan’s eyes move up to witness Sithan sitting behind the refrigerator, Ilaiyaraaja plays an orchestral piece to imply the sense of fear that the presence of Sithan inflicts in Mahadevan. This is the moment that marks the beginning of the final act of the film, where Ilaiyaraaja’s music and Bala’s kinetic images go hand in hand to create a riveting drama on celluloid. The everlasting impact of the emotions of the characters in the final act of this film is unthinkable without Ilaiyaraaja’s omnipresent background score. Ilaiyaraaja uses Urumi Melam to utmost effect in this final act of the film. The fieriest punches, hits and kicks of Sithan, which instantly kill the opponents, are accompanied by hard-banging Urumi Melam. When Sithan drags Mahadevan towards Manju and begins to cry loudly, Ilaiyaraaja stops all the loud orchestral music. Ilaiyaraaja plays just a solo flute piece for this moment that would melt even the hardest of the hearts, and turns it into the most poignant of all in the film. Ilaiyaraaja cleverly brings down the score to a chocking silence, when Sithan continues to assault Mahadevan, who is already half dead. The choice of silence works to brilliant effect when Sithan turns totally into an animal to bite the life out of Mahadevan’s throat. When Sithan leaves, Ilaiyaraaja reprises Sithan’s theme and ends the film on the same note he started the film.