In the book “Conversations with Maniratnam”, when talking about the music of Iruvar, Maniratnam says that the idea was to do what they would have done if they were making movies and music in that era, and that is the ground rule out of which A.R.Rahman created what he did in Iruvar. There is a boundary within which A.R.Rahman had to play, but there were no thorns waiting outside to bite him if he does step out. Whereas in Kaaviya Thalaivan, I guess Vasantha Balan asked A.R.Rahman to just travel back in time with all his sophisticated recording console, gadgets and pro-tools, hide behind the curtains and record whatever happened then and there as it is.
A.R.Rahman follows the rule ever so diligently, only stepping out of the zone when it is permissible. Hence, the resultant product isn’t as experimental and rebellious as one usually expects from A.R.Rahman, but the music sounds like one that is immensely tied with the film’s narrative and the overall vision of the film maker. It is pointless to talk anything more about the authenticity of the music for the film without knowing the length and depth of the strokes and the colours Vasantha Balan has used to paint the universe of this film.
A.R.Rahman ticks every box in emulating an era of film music dominated by K.V.Mahadevan and M.S.Vishwanathan. Rock and roll – Check, Smooth Jazz – Check, Clarinet – Check, Kanna, Karna and Gaandeebam - Check, Vibraphones, Xylophones, Marimbas, Bongo and Conga drums – Check, check and check. But, of all, the biggest check box to tick is the melody — the free flowing, honey dripping melody that flows smoothly from one section to another in the song without ever throwing any quirks at the listener. There is no space for a Phir Se Udd chala here. There lies the real challenge for Rahman, because when Rahman realised that everyone else has caught up with his ways and means and can do what he does, he took to quirky melody pattern to distinguish his music, but here he can’t use that tool. The melody has to be instantly likeable, hummable and also closely follow the drama in the narrative and the narrative in the drama. People watching a stage musical drama live wouldn’t have heard the song before the performance or carry a cassette or CD with them home after the performance to listen to the songs again, to decipher the layers, quirks and let it grow. There is absolutely no escape this time Mr.Rahman, you cannot knit together in one song various tunes you hummed in your iPhone recorder in your various air trips between London, LA, Bombay, Dubai and Chennai. But, there is not a musical phrase that is not instantly likeable in this soundtrack.
Vaanga Makka Vaanga invites us to a bygone era with a beautiful thogaiyaraa section where a harmonium diligently follows the main vocal melody typical of stage drama music. When I first heard the song I was wondering if Vasantha Balan managed to tame the rebellious beast within A.R.Rahman and made him stick to sounds of that period, but I was relieved when I heard the synthesized sound layer that kick starts the main song, and this layer is the secret key to the energy of the song. Rahman always manages to lay a unique percussive layer in this type of folk song with multiple percussion instruments playing various rhythm patterns on their own and creating an altogether fresh rhythm pattern when laid one over the other. And Thavil and A.R.Rahman are at it again! Rahman always manages to do something uniquely catchy with Thavil. The pattern of strict straight notes in the first line and classical inflections in the following line in each verse in the charanam is that typical A.R.Rahman’s quirky compositional style. But, that quirk makes the folk and classical fusion sound a little forced and not seamless enough in this song.
When the drama artist whose profession is singing and dancing on stage, falls in love with a real life and sings a song for and with his real love in his fantasy, what would that song sound like. Rahman thinks it would sound like a classic M.S.Vishwanathan melody. Hence we got the exquisite Yaarumilla and jazzy-breezy Aye Mr.Minor in the soundtrack.
Yaarumilla’s simple and affecting melody gently melts and glides through and through like chocolate syrup rolling down on a swirl of soft vanilla ice cream. The song hits its pinnacle of beauty at Adhu Oru Egaandha Kaalam and I can’t explain in words what happens within me when I listen to these two lines; and the ensuing lines that descends to “Kaadhal, Kaadhal, Kaadhal, Kaadhal” is sheer perfection in melody making; it couldn’t have taken any other path that is better. Shwetha Mohan is a colossal talent. Her rendition in this song is the proof. Impeccable singing! Rahman seems to have picked the female vocalists (Shwetha Mohan, Saasha Tripathi, Bela Shende and Vani Jayaram) carefully for the delicate tonal quality of their voice — a soprano voice sweet enough to sound like the female singers of that era and yet isn’t too shrill at higher registers.
Tender, jazzy and breezy woodwinds in the prelude lead us gently into the musical universe of M.S.Vishwanathan. Aye Mr.Minor is immaculately arranged by A.R.Rahman that organically brings together every little tone and sound of a M.S.V brand of romantic duet song. The omnipresent Mandolin, the quintessential bongo drums, string section that float beautifully around all nooks and corners of the melody, the ah-ha-has and oh-ho-hos, accordion and the obvious swing in the melody - A.R.Rahman nails it perfectly.
Rahman sets a collection of verses from Thiruppugazh to a serene melody; a melody with beautiful little variations throughout as the song progresses from one verse after the other all filled with words written to fit to a fixed meter that could easily turn a song made out of it musically monotonous. I heard some traditional renditions of the same Thiruppugazh verses and was amazed by the amount of clam and lightness Rahman brings to the idea of devotion, without diluting the intensity of the indulgence and romance that walks hand in hand with it. Vani Jayram’s voice sound pristine and adds to the divine aura, the song with its beautiful Veena motif in the background attempts to create.
Sollividu Sollividu is a fierce call or cry against the idea of war. Mukesh’s singing (who became who he is by singing Ullathil Nalla Ullam in ever stage he has ever been on) is terrific and impactful. Rahman goes for a straight melody not ornamented with any of the clever, complex sangathis that songs like these made in those times were full of. Rahman makes a strong statement here, a statement that Syed made in Super Singer by singing Vidai Kondu Engal Naadae in the final round or Rahman himself made when he chose to sing the way he sang Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo in MTV Unplugged. With Rahman, it is never about how intelligent or complex your composition is. I wish this song were longer by a minute or two.
I don’t know if I would hear a song this year that plays out with as much gay abandon as Sandi Kudhirai (Ok, there is Afreen in Hundred Foot Journey). A.R.Rahman, Haricharan and Pa.Vijay are on full throttle here. Melody relentlessly shifts gears; Retro orchestration goes all crazy and harmonically haywire; Unstoppable flow and play of words, and Haricharan's (a brilliant choice as the voice of Kittappa for all the songs in this Soundtrack) assured delivery of the various dynamics the song requires — the song is a bundle of limitless joy.
I haven’t seen any musical stage drama live in my life, my references are only that of such sequences in films. Paandiyan Naan Irukka from Thillana Mohanambal is an all time favourite, in which, you don’t hear any instrument other than what you see on the stage, but in Alli Arjuna, A.R.Rahman seems to have persuaded Vasantha Balan not to impose this constraint, but he doesn’t step too far out like he did in Pal Pal Bahari in Swades.
Composers of that era, achieved all those varied emotions and transformations in moods required in such drama purely through melody with just a single percussion for rhythm and an accompanying Harmonium closely following the vocal melody, but A.R.Rahman takes comparatively easy route to reach the destination. He gets a real Harp, at least ten different percussion instruments, assorted classical plucked strings, 40-piece string orchestra, a little brass and a bunch of other sounds along with the melody to convey the drama, even though the melody is strong enough to express everything on its own with minimal aid from the accompanying instruments.
Rahman doesn’t do raw. He wants every little corner of his food plate beautifully garnished. It has to sound sexy, vibrant, glittering and colourful. Rahman’s Alli Arjuna is not a street drama staged by a drama troupe with limited means; it is mounted on a magnificent scale. Rahman manages to keep the soul of the song intact amidst all the peripheral sounds, though, on an absolute Rahman scale, this is a very minimally arranged song. This is not lack of confidence in the power of one’s melody in its bare form; instead it is the care a creator takes of his creation to ensure that it reaches as many ears as possible. He is striking a balance between authentic and aesthetic without compromising the core – the emotion. All his predecessors have done it and he is just following the legacy. I heard an unplugged version of Alli Arjuna in my mind, with just a Tabla for rhythm and Harmonium to play supporting melodies played by other instruments around the vocals; believe me, the song still holds it all together.
Alli Arjuna follows the conventions of the format of the episodic stage drama musical narrative. Characters express themselves in extempore musical verses by singing a free flowing melody that doesn’t sit within the confines of a preset rhythm. Then they intermittently jump into a song set in a groove that acts as a recurring motif that each character returns to after musically wandering off the groove with their thoughts. Neatly structured and water tight, Alli Arjuna is a thorough musical triumph and is aided abundantly by Vaalee’s entertaining lyrical narration of the love story of Alli and Arjuna.
Despite following a conventional path, Rahman leaves his stamp wherever possible, like in that Thavil rhythm that kicks off the drama, that pattern screams Rahman, and the way Haricharan sings Nenju porukkudhillayae is typical Rahman, who discovers stress points and points of musical inflections in Tamil words we never knew existed in the word before.
I would be listening to Kaaviya Thalaivan songs for a long time. A.R.Rahman delivers what is required of him with absolute poise and panache.