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Saturday, January 1, 2011

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".


Rangabalaji said...


As usual your analysis is amazing...Your closing line...Do you ask a bird how it flies..applies to you as well...Thank god v r living in internet era to understand the genius thru people like u. Thanks a ton..


Aakarsh said...

Amazing post. I must commend the effort you put in...Collecting all the pieces and writing about each of them, with the original files playing right there during explanation... i admire your tenacity and patience. I am eagerly waiting for the DVD of this film, so that i can watch it with subtitles and understand it.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! What a magnificent post. I almost imagined the how the movie could be with IR's music. Unless Nandalala releases with subtitles I can't watch it. :(


saturan said...

aah! what a writing! you are truly genius and superb.we,the follower of your blog wish you very happy and prosperous new year.you have started this 2011 with the bang. you are climbing brilliant .......... loads of credits awaiting for you.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

rangabalaji, Aakarsh, Astithan, saturan - Thank you for your kind words. :-) Wish you all a great year ahead.

Ganapathy Ram said...

Yet another beautiful article suresh. I always understand unknown hints of raja only from ur blog ,in this the thing about the trigger for their journey is one such .

U are one of the reasons i listen to Background scres in movies , and to an extent even understand some things :)

Happy new year :) . Wish this year gives more of Ilayaraja for us :) waiting for Happi now

Sundar said...

My goodness what an analysis .... Very Very minute..... Thats an amazing attempt to dissect a score Mr.Suresh... Going by YOUR analysis... I find Nandhalala's Dissected score to be fit for a FULL-TIME Hollywood Score... I cannot imagine Raaja Sir adding his experience to a full-time score... Would be like John Williams scoring a Mani Ratnam movie......

Karthik said...

What an effort man. I appreciate your passion for good music and appreciating without any bias.
Your effort in writing the details, viewwing the movie many times to bring out the nuances in to you article, the patience and passion for the same is mind blogging.
As I have read the Tamil version translated by Mr.Sethu and your english version, I can tell, both of you have not lost any word during the exercise.
I wish you all success.
When can you for Dalapathy( in detail like this) ,pithamagan, Mahanadhi etc.
Lokking forward to that. I know it takes only few hours for us to read, re-read absorb and enjoy, but you will need lot of time.
however, like many of Raaja fans and fan of your, we are greedy.