1976. When the opening titles of “Annakkili” scrolls down to the card “Music – Ilaiyaraaja (Introducing)”, all the fierce folk drums, blowing Nadhaswaram and the rushing strings that have been blasting the soundtrack for a while, come to a pause. The ensemble takes a deep breath for a fraction of a second and bounces back with much more rigour to play the catchiest phrases of the catchiest song of the film’s soundtrack – Machchaana Paatheengala. The precision in the shift to the melody of the song in the title music is to make the audience notice the name of this debutante music composer. Ilaiyaraaja’s music not just drew the audience’s attention to his name but also to the art of background score in films. If not for Ilaiyaraaja, we would not be discussing background scores as much as we do now.
Ilaiyaraaja is the one who brought the thematic background music scoring to Tamil films. By creating distinct motifs and leitmotifs, Ilaiyaraaja created a unique identity to each of the films he scored music for. The experience of watching Naayagan wouldn’t be the same without the omnipresent flute that plays the melody of the song Thenpaandi Chemmayilae in the score, or Guna without those layers of cascading strings that bow heavenly strands of musical phrases for the shot of Moon on the full-moon day in the climax, or Chinna Veedu without that jaunty Nadhirdhaana dhiranana na theme, and, more recently, Paa without that flamboyant Celtic violin piece.
Ilaiyaraaja would play these motifs and leitmotifs repeatedly throughout the film. They get registered firmly in viewers' mind even though the viewers may not consciously have paid any attention to the music playing behind the scenes in the film. These melodies though repeated many times throughout the film, never sound monotonous. Ilaiyaraaja would orchestrate the same melody in different ways and give it a musical shape, tone and aura that is appropriate to the given mood or the situation in which it has to play in the film. Just like any notable film score composer in the world, most of these scores have something for the inclined to take home to hum for a day or two after watching the film. These themes could be the melody derived from one of the songs of the film, which were already composed for the moods and emotions of the scenes in the film. Ilaiyaraaja would orchestrate the melodies of the songs differently to suit the cuts, length of the shot and emotional sync points in the visuals.
In Maniratnam’s Thalapathi, there arises a situation in which Subbulakshmi (Shobana) has to sacrifice her love - Surya (Rajini) and get married to someone else - Arjun (Arvind Swamy). Subbulakshmi comes to meet Surya to explain her situation and defend her decision. The heartbroken Surya shouts at her and asks her to leave the place. When the dejected Subbulakshmi leaves, Surya turns and looks sympathetically at helpless Subbulakshmi, and that shot lingers for a while. Ilaiyaraaja lifts the baton and instructs the string section of his orchestra to go Naan Unai Neenga Maataen, Neenginaal Thoonga Maattaen, Saernthathae Nam Jeevanae, Sundari and a pause. Read that pause as a lump in the throat of anyone who has ever experienced this film. A flute then takes over to sing 'Kannaal Oru Sethi'. Did Maniratnam deliberately allow that shot to linger to create space for Ilaiyaraaja's music? It is totally unthinkable for the emotions in this scene being effectively conveyed by anything else but Ilaiyaraaja's music. There is, of course, that mild shake we hear in Surya's voice, when he says the final 'Po' (Go) to Subbulakshmi. However, it is Ilaiyaraaja's music, which transfers that mild shake into an earth shattering emotional quake.
The most fascinating aspect of Ilaiyaraaja’s background score is precision. The precisely timed, seamless transitions from one emotion to the other in background music, without ever compromising on the natural flow and the musicality of the piece is the single most prominent quality that puts Ilaiyaraaja on par with or sometimes, even above any film music composer in the world. The aspect of precision could be best illustrated through a scene and its score, from the film Thalapathi. It is the scene in which Surya comes to Arjun’s house and asks him to leave the city. A heroic trumpet piece, which could be labelled “Clash theme”, plays in all the scenes of confrontation between Arjun’s group and Devarajan’s (Mamooty) group. When Arjun comes to talk to Surya, the clash theme proudly pronounces Arjun’s perception of this meeting – yet another verbal clash. When Arjun says “Bhayamuruthiriyaa” (Are you threatening me?), Surya replies “Illai, Kenji Kaetkuraen” (No, I am Pleading), and in between Ilaiyaraaja brings down the clash theme from a high-headed trumpet to a subdued Oboe. The real masterstroke is when in parallel strings play Chinna Thaayaval song’s melody. While Oboe version of clash theme is to sound how Arjun perceives this conversation, the Chinna Thaayaval melody is to sound Surya’s emotions. The ironic emotions at play in the visuals are underlined by a piece that plays two different themes that represent the two different emotions as a counterpoint to one another.
Ilaiyaraaja understands the film much better than the director of the film, which is why irrespective of the quality of the visual telling of the story, Ilaiyaraaja’s score always stays in viewers' mind. The background score of the film Ninaivellam Nithya and particularly the love theme of the film is one classic example of Ilaiyaraaja trying everything to prevent a film that is suffering from a poor script, screenplay, direction and the stony expressions of the lead pair. There is no romance in anything in this film except Ilaiyaraaja’s music.
The initial flute bit that plays when the lead pair meets for the first time is a lovely warm up melody for the flute that is so eagerly waiting to play the gorgeous love theme. Ilaiyaraaja firmly registers the place of action with a classic guitar accompaniment playing a rhythmic riff. Ilaiyaraaja amazingly plays with the rhythm of the theme for different moods on various situations - sometimes as chords on piano, sometimes as staccato on strings, and sometimes on rustic tribal percussions to differentiate the subtlety of the emotions in different situations. Initially, we hear an understated bass line running parallel to the main love theme, and it perfectly works for the lighter moments of romance. But, once relationship turns stronger, and when one becomes an emotional burden on the other, the bass line gets heavier. The heavy bass line beautifully works for the heaviness of the situation in which the guy slaps the girl he loves the most in this world. Musically too, the bass line is a brilliant counter melody to the main theme. Ilaiyaraaja rightfully brings in multiple layers of western choirs in latter portions for the love that suffers more opposition and reaches a musically epic end. To make the theme sound more sympathetic, Ilaiyaraaja adds another layer of Oboe to the version of the main theme that plays in all sombre moments.
Ilaiyaraaja, who broke all conventions and grammars in song music, did similar experiments in background scores too. Ilaiyaraaja never bowed down to these restrictions imposed by the time and place. To Ilaiyaraaja, what matters the most is the emotion. It is a fair argument to say that an Indian film score should sound Indian, but when dealing with a universal emotion, there is no harm in the music sounding slightly alien, if the composer knows how to use the liberty without compromising the essence of the native emotions. Only an Ilaiyaraaja can get away with using Ennio Morricone style Spanish Guitars and trumpets in a film, which looks and feels as earthy as Bharathi Raaja’s Mudhal Mariyaathai. The piece works so effectively for the zeal of Sivaji Ganesan, who plays the role of middle-aged Man in the film, in lifting the giant rock to prove that he is young enough to marry Raadhaa. No one care about the alien sound of the guitars and trumpets in the scene, because the mood it creates for the moment in the film could not get any better.
It is necessary for a score composer to keep all of these musical manipulations just in the background. One would not have heard or paid attention to these buried beauties while they were watching the film for the first time, but surely they would have carried home the intended emotions. It is only when one begins to contemplate about those that remain in the background and re-views the film to dig it deeper the genius emerges to the fore. Ilaiyaraaja brings his music into the scene and feeds the feel of the scene into the audience's mind without their knowledge. We often think that all the emotions that we go through while watching the film are because of the actors and the story but, so subtly in the background, Ilaiyaraaja’s music stands tall than anything else in the film as the vital aspect that keeps us emotionally engaged with the film.
A rough estimate says that Ilaiyaraaja has composed background score for at the least 900 Indian films. The talkie portions in Indian films are usually 120 minutes long. Let us assume that on an average 60 minutes of a film has background music. Ilaiyaraaja has composed at least 5400 minutes of background music for films so far. Ilaiyaraaja is still actively making music for films. There is enough music material in Ilaiyaraaja’s repertoire for the listeners to listen to, study and dig deep into for at least another century. However, let us kick start the discussion with the cues Ilaiyaraaja wrote for opening title sequence in films.
Just like how ‘Background Score’ or ‘Re-Recording’ (that is how it is widely called by the industry insiders) was something that Tamil film composers or the film makers did not invest much time into before Ilaiyaraaja stormed into Tamil Film Music scene, the music for the opening credits of the film were also mostly stock, or instrumental versions of the popular songs from the film. Ilaiyaraaja too has used and still uses instrumental versions of the songs from the film for the opening credits of the film, but he has done and still continues to do a lot more than just that.
The music in the opening credits of Annakkili was just a beginning to the countless wonders that Ilaiyaraaja was going to do with this idea of having music in the opening credits, in hundreds of films, for decades to come. When I decided to go on this journey through music in opening credits of hundreds of his films, I recognized various patterns in the way Ilaiyaraaja writes these opening credits music pieces. However, all the patterns and the theories written about Ilaiyaraaja’s music mostly are just an interpretation. The idea behind making the music the way it is could be something totally different. The intent of this analysis is not to find the exact thought process that went behind creating opening credits music in each of these films, for it cannot be known until Ilaiyaraaja himself decides to speak about them.
Typically, the opening credits sequence of the film is the last reel for which the composer writes the score. By the time the opening credits reel is taken up for scoring, Ilaiyaraaja would have already created varied motifs and completed the entire score for the film. The music for the opening credits is created as a suite of various principal motifs of the film. The best example of the opening credits music made in this way is that of Mouna Raagam.
In Mouna Raagam titles, Ilaiyaraaja strings all the main motifs from the film - except for Chandrakumar (Mohan) theme – into one single musical piece for the title sequence that zooms into the pictures of Divya (Revathi) in various stages of her life. All the themes selected are from the life of Divya so far - the main Piano theme, the funnier version of the same theme, mischief theme (that is used when Divya and her sister pour a tank full of water from the terrace on her brother). Ilaiyaraaja does not introduce the Chandrakumar theme, which is used as a recurring motif in the film number of times more than even the most popular Manohar (Karthik) Piano theme. Ilaiyaraaja, in the opening credits music, wants to give us a musical brief of what Divya has gone through so far in life and not what she is going to go through in the future.
Opening credits of Tamil films are at least two minutes long. Now, here is a situation. Ilaiyaraaja is not interested in playing instrumental version of a song from the film as the opening credits music. Moreover, the main musical motif of the film is too short. Mostly Ilaiyaraaja tends to keep the melodic phrases in the main motifs of a film’s background score short, simple, sweet and extremely malleable, so that he could twist, turn, and stretch and orchestrate it in any which way he wants throughout the film. Ilaiyaraaja does all of that with the main love theme of the film Idhayam in the opening credits of the film.
Ilaiyaraaja does not allow us to listen to the complete love theme instantly in the opening credits. Before establishing the main theme in its entirety, in its original form, he teases us with a scrambled version of the theme. He makes a fresh orchestral piece, by patiently building each and every phrase of the melody on various instruments of the orchestra, adding counter melodies and sub-themes around. All of these layers play in various permutations and combinations, and only towards the end of the piece Ilaiyaraaja allows the main theme to attain its most mature form, and the form that we would listen to throughout the film. Idhayam opening credits music is done in this way and is a sheer delight to listen to, and it is necessary to note that this version of the love theme is not used anywhere else in the film.
When the main Anjali theme plays in its entirety on bells, guitar, Harpsichord and piano, it is not so difficult for someone to imagine that the film is about children. The simplicity, innocence and melancholy in the theme epitomize every emotion that the film wants to capture in its child protagonist.
The exquisite flute sonata piece - in which a free flowing flute melody is countered by an equally intriguing melody looping on Guitar - plays out in the title of ‘Vanna Vanna Pookal’ and it is indeed the main motif of the film. The theme has a romantic tenderness and the aura of wild life in which the romance is set, and there could not be a more appropriate piece to play in the opening credits through which the audience is primed to moods and tones of the narrative. The main theme is followed by another theme from the film, which is heard in the film, when Prasanth rides his cycle enthusiastically to the forest every day to visit his lady love.
The opening credits of Nooravadhu Naal has got every single sound and background score piece used in the film except for the piece heard in the most pivotal scene, when Nalini is finally in the scene of crime and sees the bald headed Satyaraj. That is the moment when she witnesses her nightmare unfolding right in front of her, in reality. The trumpet theme used for this crucial moment is one of the scariest background music piece heard in Tamil films. Ilaiyaraaja plays a teaser of this trumpet theme in the opening credits. There is a rhythm produced by hitting a Tabla with a small hammer in quick succession, and this I would say is the signature sound of the film and Ilaiyaraaja rightfully introduces the same in the very beginning of the opening credits of the film.
The opening credits music discussed thus far are some of the themes that recur throughout the respective films. In some films, Ilaiyaraaja chooses to use for opening credits, the cue he scored for one of the high points of the film. Like in Virumandi, the opening credits music is a full-length version of an aching violin solo that is heard when Virumandi begins to narrate his version of the past and talks about Annalakshmi. In Heyram, though it aptly begins with the Kamal’s exquisitely operatic chant of Raghupathi Raaghava Raajaram, the music shifts to symphonic piece that is used in the scene in which Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated.
In Mahanadhi, the sombre theme, which is going to be heard in every tragic incident, in the life of Krishna, plays in the opening credits of the film. The opening credits music is a pleasant flute fiesta. It sounds the life of Krishna, which has been as peaceful, serene and undisturbed like a river stream, so far. The flow of the flute piece suddenly comes to an end when the bells begin to play the main tragedy theme with heavy chords and bass lines. The spine-chilling Veena piece that spreads a sense of danger throughout the later part of the film does not feature in the opening credits. While the title cards are on, the visuals show us the interiors of a Jail. The visuals in the background demand a raw and harsh sound and that cannot be anything but the real ambient sound and that is why Ilaiyaraaja goes silent. If the film had opening credits shown with a blank screen in the background, Ilaiyaraaja would have seamlessly woven even the Kamal-Suganya love motif into the opening credits music.
The opening credits need not necessarily scroll over a blank screen always. Sometimes the film straight away jumps into the main story and the related visuals, with the credits simultaneously laid over these visuals. In such opening credits, Ilaiyaraaja scores music just the way he scored any other scene in the film. He does not mind the scrolling credits; his music follows the action in the visuals behind the scrolling credits.
The opening credits music in Aditya 369 is an apt example for credits scrolling over a visual montage. When the title of the film appears, Ilaiyaraaja begins with a bang by introducing the main motif of the film. The opening credits are laid over the montage that captures the actions of Tinu Anand. He is working hard in his lab to invent a Time Machine. The opening credits music is laid over this montage. The music begins with some strange sounds tentatively popping up here and there and the track proceeds without any identifiable rhythm or meter. When Tinu Anand makes progress, an Oboe subtly hints the main theme of the film. When we see that Tinu Anand is marching in the right direction, a solo violin plays the main theme of the film in its entirety and is accompanied by dissonant counter violin layers. The theme moves further and expands on an orchestra when Tinu Anand becomes even more confident of his experiment. Once the success of the experiment is confirmed Ilaiyaraaja drifts away from the main theme, and the orchestra slowly builds up to a crescendo at the peak of which the whole orchestra bangs the main theme to bring the piece to a contextual closure. The Time Machine is ready.
There are films in which Ilaiyaraaja uses neither the main motif of the film nor the instrumental version of a popular song from the film. Ilaiyaraaja composes a new piece of music for opening credits, and he does not use them anywhere else in the film. This happens mostly in films, where the opening credits are laid over a visual montage that sets the stage and ambience for the film’s main narrative to take off.
Vetri Vizha opens with the visuals that celebrate the scenic beauty of the vast shores and Tall coconut trees of Goa. Ilaiyaraaja supports the visuals with a music piece that is soothing and calming like the shot of the sun that rises over the shore. Ilaiyaraaja adds a Goan folk touch by using his own rustic vocals in conversation with the flute. However, as the film drifts far apart and away from the scenic beauty of Goa, Ilaiyaraaja finds no place anywhere else in the film to use this piece again.
The music that plays in the opening credits of Singara Velan is totally out of sync with the overall tone and mood of the film. If one were to decide the genre of the film, just by listening to the opening credits music of the film, one would easily assume it as a Bharathiraaja film. However, the music in the opening credits is apt for what is being shown. The village, the farm fields, the cattle, greeneries and overall pleasing ambience are gently echoed by an intoxicating flute piece and Ilaiyaraaja’s signature strings accompanied by Tabla rhythms.
In opening credits of Vishwa Thulasi, B.Kannan’s camera aesthetically captures the mirror-like clean and still water bodies that mix the pure vanilla white of the sky above with the dark green of the dense bushes around. Not so surprisingly Ilaiyaraaja resorts to mesmerising flutes and strings again and plays a melody that is not the main love theme of the film, but one that fits and flows in sync with the slide show of exquisite images, and the mood that it evokes.
Who can forget the western violin theme of Netrikkan? Despite having such an infectious theme, Ilaiyaraaja is in no hurry to play it in the opening credits of the film. Ilaiyaraaja plays only what is necessary for the visuals in opening credits sequence of the film. He alternates between western trumpets, guitars and violins for Father Rajini, who is a womanizer and flute and Veena for ‘Obedient’ son Rajini to sound the contrast between the characters as they and their daily routines are introduced to us in the visuals. The feel of the western melody played on Violin used in the opening credits is same as that of the main theme with a dominant violin solo, and it plays out like one long prelude to the main theme. It even sounds as if the main theme may break out from it anytime.
In the opening credits of Brahmma, the focus is on an artist (Satyaraj) who is making a portrait of a face. Sometimes films begin with a prologue to the main story and not the credits as it does in Brahmma. The intriguing score creates just enough curiosity about the face that the artist is painting. Idhayathai Thirudathey opens with the mournful flutes, oboes, and bass cellos reflecting the brooding territory that the film will end up being in the latter half.
Ilaiyaraaja, in some films, joins a melody of one of the popular songs of the film with one of the main motifs from the background score of the film as one single piece for the opening credits. The full throttled orchestral action cue that is used in all action sequences is played in the opening credits of Captain Prabhakaran, and suddenly out of nowhere a flute version of Aatama Therottama song pops up in between. Even in the opening credits of Netrikkan, the piece shifts to the melody of Raamanin Mohanam song when the spotlight is on the character of the Son-Rajini. The most beautiful and the seamless fusion of background score theme and the melody of a song happens in the opening credits of Gopuar Vaasalilae. The main flute theme seamlessly fuses with the melody of Devathai poloru song in between.
Ilaiyaraaja mixes the melodies of the songs of the film and background score themes of the film. He compiles and sequences them in such a way that the piece as a whole musically narrates the central theme or plot of the film. In the opening credits of Veera, music begins with the seriousness of brassy orchestral swells and bangs. A classical alaap follows. A western classical waltz on strings takes over, and it plays as a prelude to flute version of Konji Konji Alaigal Oda song. It comes to an end with Ilaiyaraaja hitting the notes of Malaikovil Vaasalil on temple bells and is accompanied by the addictive rhythm from the original song. The line-up of themes and songs and the sudden jumps from one piece to the other may make it sound as a piece put hastily together with random music bits. But, there is the reason behind the choice of every single section of music and the order in which it plays out in the opening credits music. The music concentrates only on the Rajini-Meena Love story which obviously is the emotional crux of the film. The classical alaap is chosen because it is through classical music Rajini gets to interact with Meena. Konji Konji is the song Meena teaches Rajini for the music competition. Malaikovil Vaasalil is the song that finally brings Rajini and Meena together in the back story, and so the title score ends exactly from where the story takes off in the beginning of the film.
A native folk rhythm for the village backdrop, a temple bell for Hindu boy, a church bell, a western classical waltz and flute sonata pieces for the British girl, an Indian flute playing an earthy melody for the gypsy girl, play one after the other in the opening credits of the film Nadodi Thendral which is about the love triangle between a gypsy girl, a British lady and a Tamil Brahmin man set in a south Indian village, in the pre-independence era.
In the opening credits of Alaigal Oivathillai, a rolling rhythm on Mirudangam is for the significance of the part Carnatic classical music plays in the love story. A rustic voice sings a folk melody for the village backdrop. Church bell gongs for the girl, who is a Christian. Sanskrit slogans and temple bell are for the boy, who is a Hindu. The western classical section of strings and choir is for the romance between the Hindu boy and Christian girl. A female chorus sings a Carnatic crescendo with Swaram and all of it ends with the energetic folk melody and rhythm, reminding the place in which the story is set.
In Arangettra Velai, the whole film hangs onto a singular incident that happens because of a wrong phone call. For the opening credits of this film, Ilaiyaraaja samples the telephone ringing sound and uses this sample like an instrument with which he plays a melody. Could music in the opening credits of a film become any better contextual than this?
Ilaiyaraaja uses just melody of one song from the film and re-orchestrates it to play in the opening credits of the film. The best example of this type of scoring opening credits is that of Azhaghi. In the visuals, a camera is tracking the footstep marks on the sands of the seashore. A man in love is searching for his lost soul. To elevate this emotion Ilaiyaraaja picks the melody of the song Oliyilae and orchestrates it heavily with strings. He adds more depth and emotion to the melody with counter melodies that play on cascading layers of violins in the string section.
Sometimes, he would retain the complete backing orchestration of the song as it is in the film and would replace just the lead melody with a solo instrument or a chorus. In Madhu, the melody of best song of the film Kaetkavillaya is played on a solo violin while the orchestral backing remains the same as that of the original song.
The animation film Inimey Naangathaan opens with the sight of a beautiful dawn of the day and Ilaiyaraaja beautifies the moment further with a scintillating orchestral piece. When the camera begins to track the journey of a leaf that just fell on a river stream, Ilaiyaraaja plays the melody of the theme song of the film Unnai kael on strings. The music beautifully goes with the colourful visuals. In the opening credits, of Payanangal Mudivathillai a wholly new orchestral version of the best song of the film Ilaiya Nila plays. The orchestration of this version of the song is a stuff that only an Ilaiyaraaja can pull off.
Ilaiyaraaja sometimes goes for a totally strange approach. For the opening credits, he writes music that has nothing to do with the any of the principal characters or overall theme or mood of the film. The classic example is Moondram Pirai. There are quite a lot of themes in the film that he could have played in the opening credits – the melancholic strings that is heard when Seenu searches for Viji or the music used in the dream sequence in which Seenu imagines Viji coming out of the room as a mature woman. Ilaiyaraaja strangely chooses Silk Smitha’s theme and uses it is in the opening credits. It is the music heard when she makes love with her rich, old aged husband.
Similarly in Rettai Vaal Kuruvi, Ilaiyaraaja does not use the emotionally moving theme that is used throughout the film whenever Mohan’s love for children is on spotlight. There is also the hilarious trumpet theme that plays when Mohan is caught between two wives in the hospital. Raaja uses none of these and composes an entirely new theme to play in the opening credits of the film, and it is not used anywhere else in the film.
In the opening credits of Aarilirunthu Arubadhu Varai, Ilaiyaraaja plays a differently orchestrated version of the interludes of the song Kanmaniyae Kaadhal Yenbadhu. For a film, that has far and few happy moments, the ecstatic title music misleads. For the opening credits, of a crime thriller and a court room drama like Mounam Sammatham, Ilaiyaraaja uses the melody of a song from the film and that song is not the popular Kalyana Thennila but it is Amala’s introduction song.
Ilaiyaraaja is also the one who introduced the trend of using a whole song, with lyrics and vocals in the opening credits of the film. At the peak of his career, it was even believed that if Ilaiyaraaja sung the song composed for the opening credits of the film, the film would become a massive hit. There are hundreds of films in which Ilaiyaraaja has used songs. One can go on and on like this, discussing just about the title music of hundreds of other Ilaiyaraaja films. This is just a small beginning and a droplet of a drop of the ocean.
The full article can be read in the book "Moods of Ilaiyaraaja".
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