Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A.R.Rahman Nominated for Oscars


A.R.Rahman nominated for Academy Awards in 'Original Score' and 'Original Song' categories for his score and the song 'If I Rise' in 127 Hours.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Aadukalam Background Score


The more I think about Aadukalam the more I like it. Vetri Maaran, Velraj and Danush – Take a Bow.

When the end credits begin to scroll up, Vetri Maaran lists the films that inspired him to make ‘Aadukalam’

Cache - Michael Haneke
Babel - Alejandro Gonzales Innarittu
Amores Perros - Alejandro Gonzales Innarittu
Thevar Magan – Bharathan
Virumandi - Kamal Haasan
Paruthi Veeran – Ameer

I wish Vetri Maaran had shown these films to G.V.Prakash as well, to study and understand how the composers of the respective films have handled the background score.

For a film, that is set in the hinterland of Madurai and that deals with rooster fights, the heroic trumpets (The title credits music, also later used in an action sequence) and Spanish Guitars - that reminds us Ennio Morricone’s scores for American westerns - sound totally out of place.

Yogi B’s Tamil rap, though an alien sound to the film’s universe, is marginally better in synch with the mood of the moments where it is heard in the film.

Ideally, the second half of the film should have no background score. In the second half, the performances, the visuals and writing are brilliant enough to grip the audience. G.V.Prakash’s score gets overtly manipulative and melodramatic. These instrumental background score cues would work well as stand-alone music pieces, but in the film, they are used when not necessary.

G.V.Prakash’s score is not detrimental to the extent of being annoying or distracting. However, with a film like ‘Aadukalam’, the composer should also dare to go a step forward to be more sensible, economical and subtle while writing the score.

I wouldn’t blame G.V.Prakash completely, because, at the end, it is the film maker who approves such a score. I have heard Vetri Maaran’s sky high praise for G.V.Prakash’s background score in ‘Polladhavan’, which I think is another highly overrated score.

What baffles me most is that none of these misfires in the background score dilutes or disturbs the impact of the film. This film and its score made me think about the basic necessity of background score in films. Even with a less than appropriate score, a film manages to be what it intends to be.

If this has happened with a B-grade film made by just another film maker, with music by a lesser composer, I wouldn’t even bother to listen to the score. G.V.Prakash and Vetri Maaran would have sat and discussed for at least an hour about the sound of the score, the instruments to be used and thematic ideas. So much thought has gone into creating something totally inappropriate for the film. And that is the concern. Atleast, the audience, should do their job right. Don't tell G.V.Prakash that his score in the film is as terrific as the film and that it has elevated the film. It isn’t, and it hasn’t.

There is just only one episode, where I felt the score lived up to the film. The background score for the long rooster fight sequence is brilliant. There is just right amount of music at the right moments amidst ample stretches of silence and subtle music throughout this episode.


The first comment on this post had a link to a Video with a BGM that G.V.Prakash has ripped off for rooster fight scene in Aadukalam

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In Conversation with (Vishal) Shekhar



Maharaja Hotel, Bangalore. I was dipping a piece of Veg Hara Kebab in a cup of Mint Chatni. My phone rang. The voice at the other end asked if I could interview the composer duo Vishal-Shekhar the next day. I didn’t know what to say immediately, but finally said ‘NO’. The “No” was not because I didn’t want to talk to them. I love their music. But, I have read or seen every interview of theirs. I was just wondering if there is anything left for me to ask. I was given 90 minutes to decide. I called the editor of the music magazine and said “I will do it”. If not for anything, I wanted to know what madness drove them to create the music of “Tashan” – the most definitive Vishal-Shekhar soundtrack, in my opinion. However, the voice at the other end told me to talk primarily about the music of “Anjaana Anjaani”. So be it.

Vishal Shekhar

I never understood how two composers could compose one piece of music. Vishal-Shekhar or Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy - how do they manage to work together and compose music without any ego? Who does what in a song? When composers form such duos and trios, it is always formed with musicians who have musical influences and sensibilities that are vastly different from that of one another. Maybe, it is this contrast in what each member brings to a song is making these composer groups sustain for long. For instance, I doubt if Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan (let us call them Shankar-Hari) can ever make a sustainable and successful composer pair, like say, a Vishal-Shekhar.

“Though I am trained in Indian classical music and Western classical music, I listen to a lot of pop music. Though Vishal is into Rock, he also has grown up with Hindi film music. When two different musical influences come together, something new happens”, says Shekhar. “Something new” - that is what they want in film music now. Vishal and Shekhar are not completely Anjaanas to the form of music that they are not trained in. They are the most open minded people in the business. In Indian film music scene, where a composer is required to be both Mahler and Michael Jackson at the same time, it is a win-win situation.

Anjaana Anjaani

“Siddarth Anand is a very close friend of us. This is our fourth film with him. We did Salaam Namaste, Ta Ra Rum Pum, Bachna Ae Haseeno and now Anjaana Anjaani. This time, Siddarth wanted a very different soundtrack from us. He wanted us to make songs that we would like to make.” Composers rarely get such freedom. The film director or the film producer decides everything from the colour of the hook in the heroines blouse to the hook of a song.

The Hook

In contemporary Hindi film music, almost every song is written with a hook line, which gets repeated throughout the song. Even in the soundtrack CD’s back cover, the songs are titled, not with the line with which the song begins, but which the song wanders and meanders all the way to hit - the punch line, the hook. A song that should have been titled as “Dheemi Dheemi” gets “Hairat” as the title. Why? Do the composers intentionally work towards a hook line and build a song around it? “A hook line is supposed to be strongest part of the song and it is something that instantly catches the listener’s attention. But, we don’t consciously compose a hook line for a song. It just happens with the flow of the song. For example, Aankhon mein teri from Om Shanti Om is basically a four line melody, but the phrase Ajab si eventually became a hook. People remember it as Ajab si song, but we didn’t compose it keeping that in mind.”

However, he agrees that the unique, addictive phrase - ‘Ah Ha Haa Ha Haa Ha’ and ‘Hi Hee Hi Hee Hi’ in the song Anjaana Anjaani ki Kahani came about when they were toying with the idea of doing a title track for the film. “It is the title track of the film. It was the last song to be recorded for the film. We wanted to play with the words Anjaana and Anjaani, and that is how the hook Anjaana ah ha and Anjaani e hi happened. It sounds a little different. It is a new idea, basically.”

Singers and Lyricists

More and more film composers are turning singers these days. They not only sing their own songs but also sing for the other contemporary composers. Both Vishal and Shekhar’s singing abilities are on par with any professional singer. There has also been some criticism from some popular singers that the composers reserve the best song for themselves. “I will tell you what happens. When we make a song, we prepare a rough scratch of the song, just to get an idea of how the song is sounding. We sing the songs in our voice and record the scratch versions. A professional singer can definitely do a better job at singing the song, than the composer himself. However, sometimes, your voice just locks with song and we just want to keep it like that.”

And they also write the lyrics of their songs. “Actually, I haven’t written any song before this. I have written just one line - Tu na jaane Aas Paas hey khudha in Anjaanaa Anjaani. That is my only lyrical contribution to this film industry so far. Vishal has written the rest of the song. I have started writing. I feel pretty good about it. It is a great feeling. I haven’t tried to write it, but it is sent by God like how he sends the composition. If it has to happen and if I am meant to write in the future, then, Insha Allah, I will start writing.”

Aaas Paas Khudha

Spirituality. The one thing that is common to most of our Indian film music composers is that they are deeply spiritual. “There is no philosophy for a music composition. If I can write, if I can compose something, it is because he (God) sends the tune to me; I just pass it on to people. A very few people get that opportunity. I am so lucky”, says Shekhar. Can an atheist not be a great music composer? “If you don’t believe in god, then you should not do anything in life” replies Shekhar in a firm voice.

The discussion drifted to the song itself. “Aas Paas Khudha is a song of hope. Nowadays, people easily lose hope. The song comes at a very crucial point in the film.” And then he told something which I haven’t heard any composer saying in an interview. “Hitesh Sonik, who arranges all Vishal Bharadwaj’s songs, is the arranger of the song. We are working for the first time with him and he has done a beautiful job.” There it is - A composer giving due credit to an arranger. We do see the name of the arrangers on CD inlays but I haven’t heard composers coming out and speaking about them in the interviews.

The mention of an arranger and Hitesh Sonik popped so many questions in my mind. How significant is the contribution of an arranger in a song, only the melody of which is written by the film composer credited for the music of the film? Why do our composers go to separate arrangers to arrange their songs? Why can’t they themselves arrange their songs? These are some of the questions that one can ask to most of the Hindi film music composers today. However, I restricted myself from throwing these questions at Shekhar. Despite all strings, synthesizers and Sonics of Sonik, to me, the melody of “Aaas Paas khuda” is vintage Vishal-Shekhar. They also know that, which is why Shekhar is confident enough to talk about Hitesh Sonik’s contribution to the song.

Non-film Albums

Vishal and Shekhar compose music. They write lyrics and they themselves can sing their songs. That is a deadly combination of talents to do a non-film album. “We have been planning to do one for last 10 years but we just don’t have time or maybe it is just that we both are too lazy.” No. They are not lazy. I remind Shekhar about the hip-hop album they did with Abhishek Bachchan. “Well, after we did that Bluff master track, Abhishek Bachchan recorded about 6 to 7 songs, but they are still lying in our studios. It is a fantastic, lovely album. Hopefully, when Abhishek has the time and if he could come to our studio and finish the rest of the album, we would get to hear that soon.”

Moreover, they also have a music label of their own, through which they released Raghu Dixit’s debut album. “Yes, we have a music label and we have an artist called Raghu Dixit whose album we released and it did really, really well. We are still looking out for singers and performers, basically looking for a combination, someone who has all three qualities, who can write the songs and also perform. We have now shortlisted a few of them and we will be working on the album soon.”

Director’s Composer

There is just too much of Guitar in Hindi film music, right now. Club song, Sufi song, rock song, Romantic ballad, Hip-hop - most of the Hindi film songs fit into one of these genres. Isn’t it all beginning to sound repetitive? “Music is always based and made for a script. It is always made for a Director’s vision. Today, we have to make sure that the music is in character of the film. Whether a song should be a rock song, club song or ballad, it depends on the script and the director’s requirements. All directors have their own taste. For example Farah Khan loves massy music, popular music. We know the director’s really well because they are all close friends of us. Even when we don’t work, we meet up each other.” Vishal and Shekhar seem to have a great rapport with all the directors they have worked with so far.

Unplugged and Remixed

I remind him of the brilliant unplugged versions of the songs they included in their recent soundtracks. It comes like a breath of fresh air amidst the cacophonic remixes. “Unplugged version of Aaas Paas Khudha in Anjaana Anjaani is Siddarth Anand’s idea”. Shekhar reiterates again. “At the end of the day, it is all directors’ vision. We just put the music together. The idea, vision comes from the director of the film and that makes the music sound interesting. Siddarth has also used it beautifully in the End Credits of the film.”

And the remixes? Shekhar doesn’t like remixes. “Right now, with due respect to people who are remixing, I personally have problems with remixes, especially when it is done for our songs. I don’t agree too much with the idea of having remixes. Commercially speaking, I do believe that the remixes get a huge response when they come out. Obviously, the original song gets more popular when the remix gets popular. If it is done well, it will definitely take the original song to a bigger level but if it is done badly, it can just murder your song completely.” So, no input goes from the composer to the DJ who is remixing? “We get to be a part of it at times, but mostly, once the album is done, the music companies go ahead and do 2 or 3 remix songs on their own.”

Reality Shows

Vishal and Shekhar have been part of many reality singing talent shows on Television. “The earlier Sa re ga ma pa (anchored by Sonu Nigam) is the real music show. Now, there is too much drama happening. But, I can also understand the commercial side of it.” That is a surprisingly honest opinion coming from someone who as we speak is part of one such show. “But, this time in Sa re ga ma pa there is a fine balance of real music and entertainment”.

But, do these singers get a career after the show ends. Does the show in real life go on for them after their life in reality show ends? “Ofcourse. We have used singers from such talent shows in our songs. Kamal Khan from current Sa re ga ma pa has sung for us in Tees maar Khan. Amanat Ali, Raja Hasan, Aneek - all of them have sung for us. The one, who really pursues music, will definitely make a career. Those who lose focus on music because of the fame, and popularity, unfortunately there is no future for them”.

Live Concerts

There is a sudden enthusiasm in his voice when I say “Live Concerts”. “Live concerts are pretty crazy. It is an amazing feeling. We just played a concert at a college in Hyderabad. There were around 10000 people. We kept the microphone on the other side. We performed songs from Anjaana Anjaani. People were singing the lyrics of the entire song from the beginning to end. That is the most beautiful feeling you can have as a composer, when you are on stage. People are singing the song from beginning to end, even before the film was released.”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Score in the Fore 2010




2010 was extremely eventful with respect to background score in Indian films. 2010 brought the score to the fore, at least to some extent. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced the inclusion of a category for ‘Best Background score’ in its yearly National Film Awards. And most deservingly, composer Ilaiyaraaja became the first ever recipient of the award in this category (Composer Johnson did win National Awards for his background score, but there was no formal category for background scores then). He won it for his Symphonic score in ‘Keralavarma Pazhassiraaja’. Ilaiyaraaja’s score in ‘Nandhalala’, the only Tamil film that released with Ilaiyaraaja’s music, deserves a National Award. Why not simply name the award as ‘Ilaiyaraaja Award for Excellence in Background Score’ and keep him out of competition? He is far way ahead of anybody else in the business.

For the first time, a composer (A.R.Rahman) released audio clips of background score of the film (Jhoota Hi Sahi) before the release of the film, in his facebook page to promote the film. Every single Tamil film soundtrack (Raavanan, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya) of A.R.Rahman got a second release, extended with the inclusion of background score pieces of the film (Think Music is planning to release Endhiran background score too). For the first ever time, an Indian composer’s (A.R.Rahman) Indian film background scores were performed by Royal Philharmonic orchestra in a concert in London. Yet again, A.R.Rahman is strongly in contention for Golden Globes and Oscars for his stupendous ‘127 Hours’ score. As part of the promotional activities, A.R.Rahman gave lots of interviews and spoke in extreme lengths about how and why he chose each and every instrument used in each and every cue in the soundtrack.

In 2010, Indian film makers chose A-list Hollywood composers like Gustavo Santaolalla (Dhobi ghat) and Hans Zimmer (Ra.One) to score music for their films. Many Hindi film soundtracks were released with one or two themes from the background score of the film. ‘Khelein Hum Jee Jaan sey’ had a few more. Euphony and Universal Music Group released a compilation of R.D.Burman’s popular film background score cue in a CD titled ‘Pancham Unexplored’.

Amit Trivedi, who won the R.D.Burman Award for New Music Talent in 2010, is fast emerging to be a truly wholesome composer. From his interviews, it is clear that Amit Trivedi is probably the only popular composer in Hindi film music now, who wants to do the background score of all the films he composes songs for. In Amit Trivedi’s films, the line between songs and the background score are blurring. Udaan, in my opinion, deserves every film award given for Best Background score in 2010.

Salim-Sulaiman, the torch-bearers of background score in Hindi films, composed background scores for 7 films (Paathsaala, Kites, Anjaana Anjaani, Teen Patti, I Hate Luv Storys, Ashayein and Band Baja Baarat) in 2010. I haven’t seen any of the 7 films and would be watching ‘Band Baja Baarat’ soon.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the filmmaker turned composer with ‘Guzaarish’. He composed only the songs and not the background score. He, who finds it tough to communicate the requirements of the songs to a composer, has no problems whatsoever in communicating to Tubby-Parik for the background score. When receiving the GIMA award in ‘Best Background score’ category, for My Name is Khan, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy gracefully thanked Tubby, who assisted them in the background score.

Except for the haunting Piano theme (composer – Rooshin Dalaal) and some spoof music in the first episode, ‘Love, Sex aur Dhoka’ had no background score. Ram Gopal Varma (Rann and Raktha Charithra) continues to be incorrigible, when it comes to abusing the background score. Dhobi Ghat (Gustavo Santaolalla), Happi (Ilaiyaraaja), Nadunisi Naigal(No background score), Aaranya Kaandam (Yuvan Shankar Raja) are the films I am immediately looking forward to, for their scores.

Notable Background Scores (among the limited number of films I saw in 2010)

Udaan – Amit Trivedi
Ishqiya – Hitesh Sonik
Raavanan / Raavanan – A.R.Rahman
Nandhalala – Ilaiyaraaja
Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya – A.R.Rahman
Endhiran (Robo) – A.R.Rahman
Naan Mahaan Alla – Yuvan Shankar Raja
Aayirathil Oruvan – G.V.Prakash

Also, 2010 was an eventful year for www.backgroundscore.com too. I learnt a lot.

Listening to Nandhalala



Sethupathi Arunachalam, the Editor of solvanam.com asked me to write about Nandhalala background score in detail for Solvanam. I wrote this three weeks ago and it is finally published now. I wrote it in English (will post the English version in this blog later) and Sethupathi himself has beautifully translated my article in Tamil. 2011 couldn't have started any better. Thanks to Sethu.


Nandhalala is an Ilaiyaraaja musical, in which the background music dances to the tunes of the emotions in the visual drama. Mysskin has used the background score as a narrative tool. While Mysskin narrates the obvious story through visuals, not so obvious layers of the story are narrated through music. The music, in Nandhalala, is minimalistic in orchestration, though very strong in melody. There is definitive melody in every single piece of music in the film. Ilaiyaraaja never restricts himself to just creating the overall mood and atmosphere. His music never stays at a distance from the characters in the film. Ilaiyaraaja’s score is the film.

The soothing sound of an undisturbed water stream sets a meditative mood upfront in the opening credits of the film. The calmness it sets in, primes us for all the musical silences and silent symphonies of Ilaiyaraaja heard throughout the film. The film is a journey of a boy (Agi) and a boy in a Man (Baskar Mani). They are in search of their respective Mothers, though for entirely different reasons. The journey of theirs isn’t as peaceful as that of the water stream – yet.

Agi is standing in the middle of the frame. He isn’t facing us. He is wearing a school uniform. Behind him, we could see other kids walking out of the school with their parents. There is absolute silence. We don’t get it yet, neither does Ilaiyaraaja give it. Within few seconds, we understand what the situation is, who this boy is and why he is standing alone. Ilaiyaraaja begins to play the main theme (Agi Theme) of the film’s background score, on Piano, in here. The theme reveals its complete melody on Piano. Soon, a solo violin picks up the melody and plays it to evoke sympathy. The change in the instrument is significant because there is new information in the visual. Agi is all alone now. All other kids in the school are picked up by their parents. None came for the boy (Agi) under focus and so the Solo violin.

Agi is starring at his Mother's photograph. He is longing to meet his mother. In here, Ilaiyaraaja begins to play the main theme on flute for Agi’s yearning. Agi hears the sound of a baby crying loud, outside, in the middle of the night. He runs out of his house and towards the stranded baby. He doesn’t ask why the baby is crying. “Where is your mother?” is the first question that comes to his mind. He has been crying within, with the same question in his mind. Like how, the theme shifted from flute to Violin in the opening scene, the theme shifts from the flute to violin, in this scene too. The destination is Annaivayal; that is where his Mother resides. There is no hint about the journey yet. Or so I thought. But, Ilaiyaraaja does hint it in this scene with the theme ending with a new flute piece, which seems to be contemplating about the event that just happened. But, what is the hint? To know, we need to shift focus on to the other character in the film - Baskar Mani.

Baskar Mani is mentally-challenged. His mother leaves him in a mental asylum for treatment and she never returned. He too wants to meet his Mother, but for a different reason. On just another normal day, while roaming inside the asylum, Baskar Mani hears the voice of another ailing patient, who keeps moaning and calling “Amma”. The next day, that voice is dead. In here, when Baskar Mani contemplates about what he just witnessed, Ilaiyaraaja plays the flute piece which he played a while ago, for Agi’s contemplation. Maybe, these two incidents are the triggers, which give them the reason to start their journey in search of their respective Mothers, and nothing in the film suggests this but Ilaiyaraaja’s music.

Ilaiyaraaja provides varied themes for Baskar Mani’s characteristics that recur throughout the narrative.

A dark melody on the bass registers of a flute becomes the theme that plays for the actions of an angry man in an otherwise child-like Baskar Mani. It is first heard in the film when he beats up a thief and saves Agi. Baskar Mani gets angry if someone calls him “Mental”. In the film, someone does call him that and Ilaiyaraaja aptly repeats the theme of anger when he physically assaults the one who just called him so.

There are ample moments where Baskar Mani’s actions evoke a smile - when he steals the horn from the Lorry, when he casually breaks a beer bottle on someone’s head, when he makes freaky noises at night to scare the truck drivers. In all these scenes, music is heard before he does that which he eventually does, but when he actually does it there is absolute silence in the soundtrack, which is why the humor works as well as it does.

Baskar Mani collects and saves coins for his journey. A short phrase of chirpy vibraphone melody links all the scenes, in which Baskar Mani collects coins from various people. It is first heard when Baskar Mani asks money from a person, who has come to the asylum to meet his Son. It is heard when Baskar Mani tries to steal coins from Agi’s box, and it is repeated when he returns the box back to Agi. The melody along with the visuals evokes the intended smile, but there is far more significant information tagged with this theme – a short Synth melody with which the theme ends all the time.

Baskar Mani has been collecting and saving coins all the time, because he knows that he needs money to travel to Thaaivaasal, where his Mother resides. That short Synth melody is nothing but the first few bars of the musical theme of that of the Journey. When Baskar Mani escapes from the asylum, Ilaiyaraaja plays loud percussion bangs. When the shot cuts to focus on the red flowers in full bloom, the music heard is a breezy Synth piece that beautifully underlines the joy of liberation that Baskar Mani’s is enjoying now. The music in this episode of escape too ends with those few beginning bars of the Journey theme.

By subtly playing the few bars of the theme in all the relevant scenes, before the start of the actual Journey, Ilaiyaraaja repeatedly hints at the great journey that Baskar Mani is soon going to embark. When Agi and Baskar Mani begin to walk towards their destinies, for the first time, the theme is heard in its entirety on Oboe and flute. Ah! The journey begins. The Journey theme is heard throughout the film, whenever they resume the journey after meeting a stranger or an incident or an accident and the subsequent halt.

Ilaiyaraaja plays quite a lot with the Journey theme throughout the film. The most thematically startling variation in the theme happens with the beats that accompany the melody. When the piece is first heard, the beat that accompanies the melody sounds quite tentative. The percussions are still figuring out the rhythm of the melody that it is accompanying. The percussions are struggling to find its feet in the ensemble. It isn’t confident of making peace with the melody yet. This is quite exactly how uncertain we and they are about the rhythms of their journey and the probabilities of reaching the destination. However, the rhythm gradually develops a pattern on the go, like how they gradually come to terms with the uncertainties of the journey.

Baskar Mani and Agi have a conversation about their reasons for embarking on this journey. When Baskar Mani asks Agi about what he will do when he meets his mother, Agi says, “I will just hug and kiss her once”. After Agi replies, Ilaiyaraaja aptly uses an exclamation mark with a solo flute and then the journey resumes with the Journey theme.

Their journey is interrupted by caste war within a village. They had to take a route off the main road. A crippled stranger becomes their guide. Promptly, Ilaiyaraaja begins to play the Journey theme, when the three of them begin their journey. Now, in here, it is essential to note that the rhythm pattern is totally at ease with the main melody of the Journey theme.

The crippled stranger repeatedly falls down because the stick that he is using for support could not hold on to the uneven ground. The crippled starts to cry; he hates his life and more importantly his Mother. The focus of the narrative shifts from the journey of the two main protagonists of the film to the journey of their new company. May be that is the reason why, in this scene, when the crippled guide resumes his journey after the fall and cry, the Journey theme is heard without its ever evolving beat pattern but with a curious layer of strings.

So far, we heard the main melody of the Journey theme, only on Oboe, but when Agi and Baskar Mani reach Annaivayal and begin their door-to-door search for Agi’s mother, the theme gets a new colour. The theme is promoted from a solo instrument to a large orchestra with flute, oboe and strings singing the melody together as an operatic coda to the journey of Agi. Agi’s journey may end here is what the music seem to suggest.

Fate has other plans, though. The journey theme never returns back to its original form after this. Baskar Mani is burdened with the knowledge of Agi’s mother; he has lost his innocence. Agi is deeply hurt as he could not find his mother in Annaivayal. Their state of mind will never be as happy and optimistic as it was in the beginning of the journey.

The shift in the tone and mood of the characters is all the more evident when Agi and Baskar Mani resume their journey from Annaivayal to Thaaivaasal on the highway, with Bike Riders, because, in here the journey theme is heard fully on a flute and there is no trace of Oboe anywhere in the piece. In fact, the journey theme never gets the Oboe back.

The moment has come. We and Baskar Mani are going to meet Agi’s mother. The Journey theme that was playing loud until now has to come to a pause. There is absolute silence when Baskar Mani enters a house. We realize that Baskar Mani has found Agi’s Mother’s residence. Agi’s mother meets Baskar Mani. Strings subtly sneaks in with a familiar music theme, which we couldn’t recognize yet. She takes Baskar Mani inside the house and starts speaking to him. We don’t hear what she tells him. The theme – let us call it as the yearning theme - music expands on a large string orchestra with each layer of violins playing melodies that counter those on the other layers. The music pierces the visuals with its hefty emotions and forces us to sympathize with the pain of Agi, who wouldn’t get to meet his mother and would be shattered to know that his Mother is not in Annaivayal. This is not the first time we hear the yearning theme in the film.

Yearning theme is heard throughout the film, in many scenes of varied moods and emotions. It is heard for the first time in the film as an Oboe solo, when Baskar Mani cries after beating up a stranger who just called him a “Mental”. It subtly sneaks in when the crippled guide scolds his mother for being the reason of his painful existence. Intriguingly, the same theme again plays when he notices that the doctor, who just treated him, is also crippled and apparently he learns a life lesson there. It is heard when Baskar Mani stares without blinking the eye at the statue of Mother Mary. It is heard again, when a Python is shown making its own journey, without disturbing the deep sleep and the journey of the film's protagonists. Yearning theme comes a full circle when it plays in exactly the same form in which it was first heard, again in the scene in which Agi yells “Podaa Mental” to Baskar Mani.

Throughout the journey, Agi and Baskar Mani meet strangers from various walks of the society. There are moments where Agi and Baskar Mani get to help these strangers. Though what they do is relatively small, a help in need is help indeed. Ilaiyaraaja creates a theme to play in all such scenes where Agi and Baskar Mani’s innocent love and kindness are on spotlight.

A girl falls off from her bicycle. Baskar Mani with all his innocence walks up to the girl and lifts her dress, to see the wound. She slaps him. He tries again. She slaps again. When he tries again, she lifts her hand to slap but stops midway. The innocent tone of the voice helps the girl realize the pure intentions of Baskar Mani’s action. Ilaiyaraaja begins with a mild lullaby on guitar, which soon turns into a tender accompaniment to the soul stirring solo flute piece that sounds all the warmth, kindness, love and serenity existing in the universe. The same piece plays when Agi and Baskar Mani help an old man, who is selling tender coconut in the highway.

We get to hear Agi’s theme again after a long gap in the pre-interval scene. The orchestral version of Agi’s theme booms large when Baskar Mani holds Agi in his arms like a Mother and walks out of Annaivayal. Agi’s theme is also heard in few other crucial moments in the latter half of the film.

Agi and Baskar Mani are now accompanied by another woman. Baskar Mani saves her from an old man, who has been trying to possess the woman against her will. Nasser, who falls asleep while driving a truck, comes as a savior here. The entire scene is filled with breezy strings playing Agi’s theme and other than the music, we hear only the sounds that are relevant to the story – the crashing sound of the vehicle that topples off the road and the sound made by the stick with which the angry old man hits the crashed vehicle. While the thematic idea in the music speaks of the inner meanings in the incidents that happen, the dream-like mood in the music beautifully go with the rhythm of the visuals.

Baskar Mani asks the new woman in the journey if she would become Agi’s mother. The woman nods in agreement. Baskar Mani is happy. Now, all the three are at the door steps of Thaaivaasal. Agi asks where his Mother is. He knocks every door in the street. When Agi runs to Baskar Mani and asks where his mother is, Baskar Mani points in one direction and when Agi runs in that direction, the woman, who is also searching for Agi’s mother, comes in the way. Thematically Ilaiyaraaja should have played Agi’s theme or the Yearning theme here, for Agi’s state of mind. However, just like how the whole film unfolds visually like a God’s eye view, Ilaiyaraaja takes a step back from Agi’s emotions. He plays an exhilarating orchestral piece that sprinkles joy in the air because Agi has already gotten a Mother. We, the audience could see. Baskar Mani could see. Agi doesn’t see yet.

Agi, Baskar Mani and the woman are back on a truck. They are on their way back. Coincidence of all coincidences, Agi meets his real Mother travelling in an open jeep with her family. When Agi’s and his mother’s eyes meet, Ilaiyaraaja plays the main Agi theme on strings with a tinge of sadness. Agi lets the picture of his Mother fly off his hands. He turns back. Music pauses for a while. Agi moves close to the woman accompanying their journey. Oboe and flute sing a duet for Agi’s realization. He hugs her, kisses her and accepts her to be his Mother. A solo violin starts to play a heavenly melody for Agi’s acceptance. Everything is back on stream. The life is back to a flow that is as undisturbed as the water stream we saw in the opening credits of the film.

Agi’s theme is heard for one last time with a pleasant Piano accompaniment, when Agi is seen leaving to school with his new Mother. Agi meets Baskar Mani, who is now selling Balloons. Baskar Mani gifts a Balloon to Agi and begins to walk. Curtains down. There are very few sounds that are as divine as that of an Oboe hanging on to a single note, while gradually fading in, in the beginning of the music piece that plays in the end credits of the film.

That is not all. There is still so much music in the film the intricacies of which are yet to be understood. There are also few questions. Ilaiyaraaja plays a complete melody on Synth flute in one particular scene. When the whole film is filled with melodies played on real flute and Oboe, why Synth, only in that scene? Is there really something to read into it? Ilaiyaraaja would simply smile at our ignorance and say, “I don’t know why. It just came to me at that moment. I don’t think too much about it. Do you go and ask a bird about how it flies?”

Nandhalala Score is Loud

It is for a reason why Ilaiyaraaja is the first name to appear in the opening credits of the film. That background score of a film should only be heard in the background and never draw the attention of an audience onto itself is one school of thought. And, in that, I strongly believe.

What is a background score? In a film, at any given moment, we hear three distinct audio layers – ambient sounds, conversations of the characters and background music. Background music is a piece of music, which works along with the ambient soundtrack and the conversations of the characters, to tell a story. To say that a piece of music is in the background, it has to be behind something. In Nandhalala, there is no other sound layer in the foreground for the music to be in the background.

Nandhalala unfolds like one long montage of key moments of a unique journey of a boy and a boy in a Man. There are very few conversations in the film. The ambient soundtrack is also kept very low in volume, with emphasis only on those sounds that are part of the narrative. For instance, in the scene in which Nasser makes a guest appearance, he is driving a truck, but, there is no sound of truck in the soundtrack. We only hear the crashing sound of the other vehicle that wakes Nasser up and the sound of horn that he presses after. Those two are the sounds that are relevant to the story.

In the opening scene of the film, a boy is standing still in the middle of the frame, and at a distance people are moving, but we hear no sound of the crowd behind. Mysskin, in an interview, said that he is not interested in making realistic cinema. However, in all the moments, where there is a prominent atmospheric sound or conversation, Ilaiyaraaja either plays no music or plays what we all call “Background music”.

The volume of the score in the final film is not something that a composer decides. The composer does work on the volume of the individual music pieces that he composes as part of the background score. There are very few sounds that are as divine as that of an Oboe hanging on a single note, while gradually fading in, in the beginning of the music piece that plays in the end credits of the film. The effect of fading in, in that oboe piece, is what a composer marks even while writing the music on the score sheet. A composer can work only to that extent on the volume or loudness of various layers of instruments in the score.

The balancing of the volume of various other sound layers of the film happens in the final mixing stage. It is not the job of a composer. Unlike Hollywood, composers in India are not directly involved in this process.

Moreover, even those films of Mysskin for which Ilaiyaraaja was not a composer, the background score has always been in the fore. Mysskin’s love for background score is evident right from his first film. Mysskin is the reason why the background score pieces of the films Sithiram Pesudhadi and Anjaathey, were released along with the songs on the soundtrack CD.

In Nandhalala, Mysskin has chosen to use the background score as a narrative tool. Mysskin has tried to narrate an obvious story through visuals and not so obvious layers of the story through music. That is that.

The background score in Nandhalala is not a loud background score for the same reason why Ilangaththu Veesuthey in Pithamagan is not a loud background score or why Vaarthai Thavari Vittai Kannamma in Sethu is not a loud background score. These songs have vocal parts, whereas the music in Nandhalala, which is there to serve the same purpose as that of those songs, is purely instrumental. If one can accept the loudness of a song with vocals in a film without any complaints, I do not understand why one must scream about loudness, when the music is purely instrumental.
Wish you all a peaceful New year.

The full version of this article can be read in the book "Moods of Ilaiyaraaja".