When a helpless young Mother cries after failing to catch the steam locomotive, in which she just left her new-born baby, we hear, once, only once, the sound of the steam trumpet in the ambient soundtrack of the film. We never hear that original sound of the locomotive whistle again in the film. Ilaiyaraaja turns that sound of the machine into the music of a man’s emotion. The two-note melody that is tuned to sound like the train whistle becomes the main theme of the film. It is heard whenever Mother (Kalyani) or Son (Surya) listen to the whistle of a distantly approaching train and reminisce their past. They both mourn for what happened in the past and yearn for the future. Even when there is no approaching train and its whistle, Ilaiyaraaja plays the two-note whistle theme, whenever someone asks Surya (Rajini) about his mother and makes him reminisce his past. And, the melody of Chinna Thaayaval is omnipresent in various forms throughout the film, making this mother-son quest for each other the emotional pivot of the film.
Using varied instruments, Ilaiyaraaja maps a unique sound to each of the narrative layers of Thalapathi. While it is train whistle for Surya and Kalyani, flute is for the wide-eyed Subbulakshmi (Shobana) and Trumpet is for the battle between the gangs and groups.
The refreshing usage of the sound of the bass registers of xylophone (or is it Marimba) as the lead instrument, for all the Surya’s action sequences, is something that Ilaiyaraaja never did before or after. It is heard for the first time, when Surya chases a police man and amputates his hand in a public place and broad day light. It recurs in all other action sequences in which Devarajan’s gang attack their opponents. This, along with the contemplative hammer strokes have always been the signature sounds of Thalapathi for me. Action sequences typically have madly chaotic symphony of strings, drums and trumpets, a technique which Ilaiyaraaja diligently uses in the same film, when Rajini is introduced.
When Devarajan (Mamooty) meets Surya for the first time, both do not know enough about each other. They are not friends yet. When Devarajan walks to Surya alone and warns Surya of the consequences he may have to face for his actions, the banging drums and accompanying trumpets underlines who Devarajan is and how powerful he is. There is a sense of danger in the Trumpets of Devarajan, but one cannot spot a pinch of evil in its sound. But, for Kaliyavardhan (Amrish Puri), who was once powerful and is struggling to regain the power or rather just avenge those who snatched the power from him, Ilaiyaraaja adds a trumpet just as an afterthought. What dominates Kaliyavardhan’s theme is an underplayed melody that unpredictably twists, turns, pauses and resumes on its way, before reaching the point where trumpet takes over to blow a signalling siren for potential harm that Kaliyavardhan’s serpentine schemes could cause to Devarajan or Surya.
The most prominent theme of power (which I would like to call “Clash” theme) in the film is that of Arjun (Arvind Swamy). The third act of the film is all about the war between two parties – Arjun’s and Devarajan’s. They are now in Arjun’s office for a peaceful conversation to arrive at a mutual agreement upon something. The power theme is heard in this iconic scene, when “Achchamillai” Arjun shows Devarajan and Surya what he is made of. From thereon, every action of Arjun for bringing Devarajan & Co to book, and the reaction of Surya are accompanied by the clash theme.
The clash theme plays in all the scenes of confrontation between the two groups. When Surya, after knowing who real mother is, talks to Arjun and asks him to leave, the clash theme loudly pronounces Arjun’s perception of this meeting. It is yet another verbal clash for Arjun. 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 on 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. By doing so, Ilaiyaraaja is just extending the idea he executed much before the film was made, in one of the songs - the hymn of Thiruppaavai running in parallel to the finger-snapping rhythm and S.P.B’s cheerful call to Rakkamma, to the background score.
A precisely timed and measured pause in music is something Ilaiyaraaja uses effectively throughout the film. Subbulakshmi is getting married to someone else. Subbulakshmi meets 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 Subbulakshmi, and that shot of Subbulakshmi walking away 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 moment. 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.
When Devarajan introduces Surya as his friend and his Thalapathi, the main Thalapathi theme plays for few seconds. But, even before we could catch and comprehend the regal theme, Ilaiyaraaja takes a pause. In the following scene, when Subbulakshmi asks Surya his name, and when Surya proudly says “Thalapathi”, the theme makes a grand re-entry and plays in its entirety for the first time, engulfing the entire montage that quickly captures the rise of Surya’s power in Devarajan’s dynasty. Ilaiyaraaja had to stop because, in the subsequent scene, Subbulakshmi is sincerely attempting to attach a definite pattern to the rhythm of the flowing river stream. But, that pause, before the plunge, adds punch to the attitude with which Surya says and accepts the title that he has just been conferred.
Kalyani now knows who and where her Son - the one she abandoned minutes after the birth, is. She comes to Surya’s house. The Sun is rising and is slowly stretching its rays to reach the doorsteps of Surya’s house. Sun lights up Surya’s place in a mystic golden shade. An angelic choir yearns in two notes repeatedly (that goes with the two-note whistle theme) and soon a layer of strings join in to further spread the wave of sympathy. Standing in the midst of this dream-like ambience, along with divine Temple bells of Ilaiyaraaja, is Kalyani. She is now looking like a goddess from heavens that just descended down to earth via the rays of the rising Sun. Meanwhile, a gentle breeze enters Surya’s house to do its job. It blows just gently enough to push the yellow shawl that is hanging by side and brings it in focus. A pause in the soundtrack! From the absolute silence, emerges a single Sitar stroke. The angelic choir join in again. The strings warm up and stir up to well up everyone’s eyes with tears. A solo violin takes the lead playing a haunting melody that is borrowed from the interlude of the second version of “Chinna Thaayaval” song, to burst the tears out of the eyes of everyone who is in the mood at the moment.
P.S - A write-up on Thalapathi’s background score, that I have been procrastinating for years, is finally here. I like Thalapathi to the extent of getting frequent dreams of me being within the film and standing next to Devarajan (Mamooty) and Surya (Rajini). Whenever I sit to watch Thalapathi, with the thought of digging the score deeper for a possible write-up, for the first few minutes of the film, I would carefully listen to the background score, but gradually the film would draw me into its universe. The deliberate lines I try to draw between the score and visuals in my mind, only to get an idea of how it works in unison, would slowly begin to blur. I would forget my intent, which is to listen consciously to the details in the score. But, I have been posting stuffs now and then, in bits and pieces about the cues that I accidentally discover in each viewing of the film.
Few months ago, I found and bought an Audio CD (Lahari Label) of Thalapathi in Landmark that has three additional tracks – 30 minutes of background score from the film compiled and arranged chronologically and split into three tracks. This OST CD rekindled my interest in writing about the score. I decided to write one, even if it is not going to be as comprehensive as I would want it to be (That almost always is the case with any writing on any Ilaiyaraaja’s work). While listening to only the score of a film, your senses are not slave to the overpowering visuals; instead, you allow the music to recreate the images, characters and evoke the emotions in your mind. And that immensely helps to realize all that you always knew about what Ilaiyaraaja’s score does to the film and to you.