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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Leo Coffee to Liberation - Film Scores of A.R.Rahman

1. Leo Coffee

Leo Coffee may not be the first advertisement that A.R.Rahman composed music for, but it is the jingle that put on him the spotlight so bright so that Maniratnam could not help but notice. From those few seconds of jingle music, it was evident that Dilip had in him, what was needed to become A.R.Rahman. Even in those 30 seconds long piece of music, there is a definitive musical motif. The piece is structured with a well defined beginning where the motif gets introduced, a transient middle that sustains the mood set by the main motif, a neat ending where the theme reprises.

It is early morning. A traditional south Indian wife is doing her chores. A Veena plays a serene melody that sounds as traditional as the woman and fresh as the hot brewing coffee. She puts the coffee powder in a container that collects the decoction. The strokes on accompanying Tabla are hesitant. The Coffee is still in the making. A flute plays a flourishing melody, with which Rahman gives a musical nod to the group of birds that are flapping their wings off for a breezy flight in the morning light.

Meanwhile, when the woman goes to do her other jobs, the piece drifts from the main theme and plays to the surreal montage. The cuts in the visuals are quicker, and fittingly an energetic Thavil rhythm replaces the lazy Tabla strokes. Also, there are no pauses between phrases in the melody. Coffee is ready. When she brings the Coffee to her man, the main theme reprises again and brings the musical piece and the visual montage to a most satisfying closure.

We do not know for sure whether the music for Leo Coffee was composed for the visuals, but while watching it now it is difficult to assume otherwise. We do not know if composing music for jingles helps a musician to become a song composer, but if it is done in the way it is in Leo Coffee advertisement, it sure will help them become a film music composer – the kind who writes music for images in motion. If I listen to such a jingle now, I would think of the composer as someone who could be a decent film score composer.

It is an extremely challenging and daunting task for a jingle composer to write background music for a full length feature film, which typically is 150 minutes long. A.R.Rahman himself admitted in an interview that he was quite scared about scoring for a full length feature film. We may never get to know whether Maniratnam thought about the background score of the film when he chose A.R.Rahman for Roja, but Rahman spell the same magic in the background score of Roja as he did in the songs.

Maniratnam believed in Rahman. Roja happened. You are reading this book.

Leo Coffee to Liberation - Film Scores of A.R.Rahman

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Listening to Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai

My admiration for Ilaiyaraaja’s background score in Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai grew when I got a chance to watch the original Malayalam version of the film (“Aniyathi Pravu” Music Composer - Ouseppachan). We often talk about films getting elevated by Ilaiyaraaja’s background score. His score in Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai is one of the best proofs of that. It also reassures the fact that the directors do not have much of a say in the quality of background score that Ilaiyaraaja writes for the film. It is the quality of the content that dictates the quality of Ilaiyaraaja’s background score. This film is another example for how better Ilaiyaraaja understands the medium of cinema than anybody else, and sometimes his is better than even the director of the film.

Ilaiyaraaja has used almost all of the background music scoring techniques that we most admire of his, in this film. The melodies of the songs become motifs of the film's background score. A unique aural identity is given to the film, with the musical score having a coherent tonal pattern throughout the film. The omnipresent music precisely follows the shifts and cuts in the moods and actions on the visuals. The music is entwined with the film so much so that one can never say whether the background music or the film in itself have in it, all that it takes to move a viewer, as emotionally as it does.

Melody of Songs as Motif – Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai is one of those few films where the melody of a song has all that is necessary to be the main motif or love theme of the score of the film. It needs as much experience and expertise as Ilaiyaraaja to use these melodies, repeatedly, at the right moments in the film, but without any of it sounding monotonous. After having composed a beautiful melody like Ennai thalaatta Varuvaala, any composer would be tempted to use it to the maximum throughout the film. There is a difference, when Ilaiyaraaja does it. Ilaiyaraaja clearly knows that job of a score composer is not just playing lovely music in the background. Background music scoring is playing apt music. Ilaiyaraaja achieves aptness in score effortlessly with his orchestration skills. He orchestrates the same melody in varied ways to fit with the slightest of changes in the subject on which the main motif travels on throughout the film. The subject could be an emotion, a gesture, a character, a place or a recurring situation in the film. The variety in orchestration is one reason why we do not get bored of the recurring musical themes in Ilaiyaraaja’s films. Ilaiyaraaja’s romantic songs always have a melody, which could evoke both exhilaration of moments of hope and the doom of the moments of despair. One could use it for either mood, and it would aptly fit. The melody of the song Ennai Thalaatta Varuvaala is as romantic as it can get when used for romantic scenes, and is as painful as it can sound, when used to underscore the pain of separation.

Ilaiyaraaja always creates a unique pattern or palette of sound for the film with his background music. There are so many sounds that are unique in the background score of Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai. The most notable one being Ilaiyaraaja's prominent usage of synthesizers for the first time in his career. The mix of Ilaiyaraaja’s melody and Synth sounded so fresh and unique. In fact the main love theme of the film has a signature Synth layer on loop. Though Ilaiyaraaja has used a lot of Synth stuff for the first time in this film, he does not allow the vastness in the variety of sound that Synth provides, to overtake the soul of the melody. Ilaiyaraaja has tried to bring out emotions even in these Synth sounds. The sound of flute and violin used all through the film is not the typical ones that we hear in other films scored by Ilaiyaraaja. The use of Bhavatharini and Arun Mozhi’s vocals is also very different; they sound like echoes of emotions from the deep inside the mind and soul of the characters.

The most fascinating of all aspects of Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai background score is the precision with which Ilaiyaraaja punctuates the visuals with his music, and the mind-boggling details in each layer of the orchestration. With his precision and detailing, Ilaiyaraaja captures even the slightest of details in the visual narrative of the film. This precision is the biggest differentiating factor and the reason why Ilaiyaraaja’s Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai is more emotionally engaging than Ouseppachan’s Aniyathi Pravu.

To understand the monstrosity of Ilaiyaraaja’s score, one has to move beyond from the generic overall perceptions to the specifics of music and its meanings in each and every scene of the film.

Jeeva meets Mini in a book store for the first time. Their first meeting happens like how it happened and at times still happening in most of Indian films. They stare at each other for a while. There have been innumerable Indian films in which a love story begins like this. But, not many times before, the emotions that the two go through for those few seconds were expressed as beautifully as Ilaiyaraaja's background score does it in this film. The unusual state of ecstasy that the characters attain is underscored by free flowing notes on Synth piano, and the accompanying vocal of Bhavatharini aptly sounds the innocence and serenity of the moment in which a seed of love is sown. In a flash, they return to reality and realize that they are in a book store. Their eyes disengage. Mini walks out of the accident spot and starts to move around the book store. She looks again at Jeeva from a distance to check if Jeeva is still looking at her. The flute that follows plays to the pleasant confusion they get about their own feelings and the heart ticking rhythm stirs a curiosity about what is going to happen.

When again both Jeeva and Mini accidentally pick the same copy of a book titled ‘Love and Love Only’ from the shelf of the book store, Bhavatharini hums the melody of the song Vizhiyil Vizhi Modhi Idhaya Kadhavondru Thirandhadhey – the lines of Pazhanibharathi that exquisitely describes in Tamil everything that happened a while ago. And the song begins. Using the melody of a song in the background score of the scenes that precede the actual song is one of the often used techniques in Indian films, but here it plays at the right moment, for right duration on the right instrument and above all, with a reason.

Ilaiyaraaja uses the melody of Vizhiyil Vizhi Modhi song again in the scene in a restaurant where Jeeva gets to meet Mini for the second time. The trick is to allow one thematic idea to recur until Jeeva and Mini move beyond such moments of accidental meetings, and take their relationship to next logical step. In this scene, when Mini is surprised to see Jeeva in the same table in the restaurant, Ilaiyaraaja uses a small sound bite to break from silence in the soundtrack. Ilaiyaraaja does not use the theme music immediately. He could have easily played the humming of Bhavatharini again here, but there is no sufficient time, the focus soon shifts to the other characters in the scene. Ilaiyaraaja uses Bhavatharini’s humming exactly when Mini leaves the restaurant and turns back to see if Jeeva is still looking at her, and that is when the whole restaurant episode gets its meaning through the music.

Mini meets Jeeva. She requests Jeeva to put an end to his actions against her brother. Does Ilaiyaraaja play the main love theme of the film in its entirety at least in this moment, when Mini is talking to Jeeva for the first time? No. Not yet. It is all in Mini’s hands or rather heart. The relationship has not reached the stage where Ilaiyaraaja could reveal the main love theme of the film, but also it has reached a stage where he cannot use Vizhiyil Vizhi Modhi melody anymore. Ilaiyaraaja has to play something that fits this transient stage. The melody of the song Ennai Thalaatta Varuvaala was always going to be the main love theme of the film. Ilaiyaraaja begins to play on Guitar, a melody that sounds like a derivative of the melody of Ennai Thalaatta Varuvaala song, when Jeeva after discussing the issues with Mini’s brother shifts the conversation to about him, about Mini and them. When Jeeva, in an attempt to explain the extent of his love, says, "Naan unnai aayiram murayaavadhu pathiruppaen", the music precisely shifts to the film's signature Synth pattern. That was exactly the music played, earlier when Mini looks at the book "Love and Love only" in the book shelf her bedroom. Mild strings in the background gradually shifts the mood of the moment, as the music shifts the focus on to Mini, who is getting worried about Jeeva’s love for her.

Now, this whole conversation is not happening in a coffee shop or a public road. It is happening in a picturesque place. The characters are standing in the middle of a view point, where the tourists would prefer to stand and take pictures with the greeneries around. Ilaiyaraaja plays a breezy melody on the flute and strings to add to pleasing ambience in which these romantic conversations between Mini and Jeeva are set and shot. The ambient piece of music leads the way back to Bhavatharini’s voice that hums a brief melody of wonderment Mini experiences, precisely when Jeeva explains Mini why he cannot forget her – "Pona jenmam", "vittai kurai thotta kurai" and all that.

We know for sure that Jeeva is madly in love with Mini, but Mini has never been open about what she feels for Jeeva. The scene, in which we get a solid proof of Mini’s love for Jeeva, is the scene in which Ilaiyaraaja most appropriately plays the Synth pattern of the main love theme of the film for the first time on Mini. The music begins precisely when Mini turns to look at a book in the book shelf in her room, and the camera zooms in to show us the book she looks at. The book is "Love and Love only".

Mini meets Jeeva again. After Mini completes saying what she came to say, Mini asks Jeeva if she can leave - "Povattuma". Ilaiyaraaja plays a piece in which every note plucked on guitar or blown on flute hesitates to proceed further. It is played to sound Mini’s hesitation to leave. Jeeva says yes. Mini starts to walk away from the place. Mild strings and cello echo Mini’s disappointment in leaving without having a conversation. Jeeva and Mini walk together. Jeeva begins to talk. Ilaiyaraaja plays a piece of music that triggers a contemplation just like how Jeeva’s words trigger in Mini’s mind and just like how each line of Jeeva applies a brake to Mini’s walk, a two-note Synth bass piece plays as a brake to the contemplative melody that was playing when Jeeva spoke. The action happens in a loop in the visuals and so it does in the background music too.

The main love theme i.e., the melody of Ennai Thaalatta Varuvaala is used as a piece in the background score for the first time in the film in this conversation. The theme plays on flute precisely when Jeeva says, “Nee sumaiaya irrukkae” (You are a burden). The string section with a dominant cello section takes over precisely to play for the pain of Jeeva, when he says “Vedhanai”. When Jeeva asks uncomfortable questions to Mini about what she feels for him, in the background, a flute plays a melody that is as confused about the melody that it is playing as Mini is in that situation. When Jeeva agrees to give time to Mini to make her decision, the relieved expression in Mini’s face is enhanced by a harp glissando and by a soothing string section playing an operatic coda to the conversation.

Just a few seconds before, the love theme (Ennai Thaalaatta Varuvaala melody) was used for the pain of Jeeva. It is now played as a piece of ecstasy and romance, when Jeeva says ‘Un manasula enna irukkunnu enakku theriyum’ (I know what is in your mind). In the ecstatic version, of the theme, rhythm pattern that accompanies the melody is one that sounds like the amplified version of the real sound of the beat of the heart; whereas, in the other version that plays for Jeeva’s pain, the sound of the beat pattern is subdued and an additional Synth layer is to the itching presence of Mini in Jeeva’s mind.

The next day Jeeva is waiting for Mini’s arrival and reply. Mini decides to express her love to Jeeva the next day but her family’s trust in her puts her in dilemma again. This dilemma and Mini’s decision to avoid meeting Jeeva are why Jeeva is going through those painful waiting moments. Thus, for Mini’s dilemma, Arun Mozhi hums the main love theme with a tinge of sadness and the same follows for the Jeeva waiting scene too. It is Ilaiyaraaja’s way of establishing a link between a sequence and its consequence.

Jeeva is trying hard to forget Mini. Meanwhile, Mini is slowly gaining confidence to accept Jeeva’s love. The voiceless visual montage showing the transformations of the characters is accompanied by a differently orchestrated version of the main love theme. The montage comes to an end with Mini coming to Jeeva’s room. The shot of Mini standing at the door steps of Jeeva’s room, shown to us as seen from the eyes of Jeeva, blends so well with the Bhavatharini’s vocals in the background. The most fascinating aspect of the score in this moment is that the love theme – Ennai Thaalaatta Varuvaala melody – is heard on Bhavatharini’s voice for the first time. It is the musical equivalent of saying that Mini’s accepting Jeeva’s love for the first time, and it is also the first time she is going to admit it. The mild strings in the background that sounds the emotion of Jeeva on seeing Mini again brings in a sense of anticipation about what is going to happen.

Jeeva and Mini are now alone in Jeeva’s room. Both Jeeva and Mini stay at a distance and are shy even to look at each other’s eyes. Flute plays titillating stream of notes in staccatos in sync with the rhythm of Mini’s batting eye lids. Bells twinkle and a new Synth organ theme begin when Jeeva walks towards Mini. The main love theme takes over and creates a romantic aura when they begin their conversation. Both Jeeva and Mini are in loss of words to express their emotions and so is Ilaiyaraaja, who pauses when the overwhelming excitement of the moment seals their conversation. The Synth Organ theme resumes precisely when both Jeeva and Mini look at each other and begin to talk. This scene is an excellent example of precision and the impact of Ilaiyaraaja’s musical pause.

Jeeva is escorting Mini in his bike to a nearby bus stop. When Jeeva applies a sudden brake to stop the vehicle, Mini’s chain gets locked to Jeeva’s shirt collar button. A beautiful Synth Piano piece plays to the butterflies and the batting eye lids when together Mini and Jeeva try to remove the chain. There is a sense of urgency, because Mini has to catch the bus. The music, here, is not for that state of urgency. It is for the physical intimacy that the process of removing the chain naturally brings them to. Let us call this Chain theme. It is a crucial link to the main narrative twist that happens at the end of the film. The same theme is again played in the scene in which Jeeva playfully chases Mini to touch her. One of Mini’s brothers witnesses this chase and misunderstands the whole situation. The same Synth Piano theme is played at all the crucial moments of turn in the narrative. Chain Theme links the most insignificant incident in the film with the extremely significant part it plays in bringing the story to its logical end.

The next day, Jeeva meets Mini again. The background music to the conversation that follows is again a page from Ilaiyaraaja’s “How to write background score for a film” manual. The seamless transformations in less than a minute-long piece of music that unobtrusively traces the emotions in Jeeva and Mini’s conversation is to be heard to be believed. The piece begins with a whole new Piano theme, sprinkling the aura with enough romanticism. In the conversation, when Jeeva says, “Love and Love Only”, the theme that was constantly looping in the background thus far on one octave is pushed to an upper octave, sweetening the mood in the music further. Bhavatharini comes back with her ‘ahs’ to sprinkle a heavenly sense of wonderment precisely when Jeeva says “Pona Jenmaththu thodarbhu” and the accompanying harp glissandos add further to that mood. When Mini worries about her family’s acceptance, Ilaiyaraaja shifts to gloomy strings and suddenly when she becomes optimistic sitar is brought to play a melody of relief. The conversation ends with Bhavatharini’s ‘ahs’ and harp, when Mini gets awed by the amount of love and affection Jeeva has for her. And then they see a butterfly.

Ilaiyaraaja has always given his best when he gets an opportunity to compose for the flight of a butterfly or in general for the feeling of flight. While in conversation, Mini sees a butterfly in the garden nearby, and she asks Jeeva to catch it. A sparkling melody on Celesta and the strings create a heavenly stir in sync with the rhythm of the flap of the wings of Butterfly. The strings slowly intensify to create a slight curiosity when Jeeva moves close to the butterfly. When the butterfly escapes, the whole orchestra, breaks out to play melodic phrases of enchantment together with celesta and strings playing to the sense of exhilaration in the flight of the butterfly.

The butterfly episode is the last moment when we see Jeeva and Mini is romantic mood. Mini’s brothers soon come to know about Mini’s love for Jeeva and the narrative takes a serious drift in its tone. Mini and Jeeva decide to run away from the family. Ilaiyaraaja plays quite conventionally in all the chasing scenes, and scenes that show the reaction of Mini’s and Jeeva’s families. There is not much space for romance and so no significant moments for Ilaiyaraaja to unleash his genius. When, for the first time, Mini without a trace of smile on her face and with her eyes full of tears says, ‘I love you’ to Jeeva, Ilaiyaraaja plays the main love theme on a serene flute injecting the much necessary sensitivity and soul to the sentimental visual telling.

Jeeva says to Mini that there is only one he knows who can help them in this situation. Mini asks who it is. When Jeeva says, ‘my mother’, Ilaiyaraaja plays a gentle Sitar melody filling warmth in the aura. It suddenly brings a sense of relief both to Mini and to the audience.

Jeeva and Mini decide to get married. The whole village is preparing for Jeeva and Mini’s marriage. The whole episode is filled with music, just background music. The percussions and Shehnai bring in the necessary festive mood. The music shifts to orchestral strings and flute that plays on a thin line between gay and gloom, when Jeeva and Mini are alone and in contemplation. The music seamlessly shifts to a comic interlude for Manivannan’s action and all of it ends on a happy note with a flourishing flute piece. Meanwhile, Jeeva and Mini decide to part ways and go back to their respective families.

The background score in the scene in which Mini and Jeeva part ways is one massive stroke of a genius. We have heard the main love theme – the melody of Ennai Thaalaatta Varuvaala in varied orchestral forms throughout the film, but the one that is contextually orchestrated for this scene is something that only a genius like Ilaiyaraaja can do. The melody of the theme is left incomplete deliberately - only the phrases of melody on the words Ennai thalaata are heard. We want the cue to end comfortably with the melody of the Varuvaala part, but Ilaiyaraaja does not allow it. It is exactly how we feel about the pair that is parting ways in the visuals. We want them to be together, but they do not. They are parting ways, and their life seems to be just as incomplete as the melody in the theme that plays in the background.

Jeeva finds that the Mini’s chain that once got stuck in his shirt collar button is still with him. Jeeva and his family go to Mini’s house to return the chain. The background score of the scene that follows could easily be one of the all-time best scores in Tamil cinema. The chain theme plays on Synth Piano again to rebind the broken links. It also fits perfectly for Mini’s excitement when she comes running out of the kitchen knowing well who the guests are. The awkwardness evident in the eyes of Jeeva and Mini’s brothers when they look at each other is underlined with bites of strange electronic pad beats. The same beat bite recurs when the kids in the house ask Jeeva if he is Mini’s fiance. The music that plays when Mini’s mother meets Jeeva relaxes the overall tension in the moment and sprinkles a cordial and calm aura between the characters in the scene. Silence again when Mini comes out of the kitchen with a tray of Juice glasses to treat the guests.

Srividhya is speechless. She is stunned by Mini’s beauty. A violin begins a melody with a classical tinge when Jeeva walks towards Srividhya and it continues to play when Mini serves juice to all guests. The violin piece along with its gentle rhythm enhances the overall sweetness in the ambience further. While we savour the violin piece, Mini has served juice to all the guests except for one – Jeeva. She hesitates for a while, before walking towards Jeeva. Ilaiyaraaja’s strings play a disturbed version of Ennai Thaalaatta Varuvaala melody and stir up curiosity when all eyes are on Mini and Jeeva, when Mini walks toward Jeeva. Ilaiyaraaja shifts suddenly to the melody of the lines Thathalikkum Manamae from the Ennai Thalaatta Varuvaala song. All this while, Ilaiyaraaja has been playing the melody of the line Ennai Thalaatta Varuvaala as the main love theme of the film, but in here, he chooses the melody of the words Thathalikkum Manamae over the main line. The words that the melody brings back to our memory and even the melody perfectly echo what Mini and Jeeva are going through within, in that moment.

When Jeeva’s family prepares to leave, sober strings and hesitant beats sound the strange sense of incompleteness in the minds of all the characters emotionally involved in the moment. Mini’s mother asks Srividhya to bless Mini, who is going to get married soon. Srividhya is hesitant to go near Mini. When Srividhya walks up to Mini to bless her, a traditional aura is spread with flute, sitar and Tabla. When Srividhya opens up and asks to send Mini with her, banging strokes for the reaction shots of all the characters, fittingly emphasize the sense of shock and surprise in everyone’s face. When Mini’s mother agrees to Srividhya’s plea, the moment of exhilaration is elevated by another classical piece with a violin and flute running together on ecstatic stream of notes. The theme pours like a blissful rain from a musical heaven. The strings and the flute piece play when Jeeva looks at Srividhya as if asking, "Why you did this to me", and soon all of it seamlessly come back to exhilarating violin piece. I do not know if any composer in any part of the world would have conveyed the relief of the characters and in turn the audience at this moment, better than how Ilaiyaraaja did.

Ilaiyaraaja and Ilaiyaraaja Only.