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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tamasha - A.R.Rahman, Irshad Kamil, Imtiaz Ali

I like it when a song’s end is punctuated with a bold musical period, instead of a series of dots diminishing in its size, for, arriving to a definite musical period requires a song to make its organic way to its end, which provides a musically satisfying closure, whereas, the fading dots — a musical riff gradually fading into silence, hints at an easy or rather lazy shortcut to touch the finishing line. Every song in A.R.Rahman’s latest movie soundtrack Tamasha has that perfect end, and that is a naive way of mine in gauging the completeness of an album. Matarghasti has that perfect end not only at the end but also at the end of each section of the song leading to the next; the flow is endearing and comforting. However, without harming the innate flow, Rahman throws in a surprise in the third act, where the song breaks away from its infectious jauntiness to a tender melody with a nostalgic tinge of the songs of yore. With an irresistible hook, Mohit Chauhan’s swagger in the voice, sprightly plucked strings of all variety that is out there — this song is a bundle of joy that delivers on its promise in every second of its length. This is a song that makes me want to gently pinch the cheeks of it and smile at it as if it were a cute baby continuously starring at me with a sparkle in its eyes and innocence in its smile. Matargashti is a spin-off of Masakkali, but one that easily cuts its umbilical cord off from its source and finds its own identity quite soon.

However, it must be said, finding new by lanes in already travelled paths while making melodies is turning out to be a daunting task. The effort is very evident when Rahman turns to the signature bhangra motif in the interludes of Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai, where the melody goes zig-zag in its path to find something cleverly new on its way. I love it. I don’t know what Mika Singh brings to the song, which no other singer would have, except for his blocked nose. There are some refreshing instrument choices in the arrangements, like the boldly mixed bass guitar and god-knows-what-instrument sounds with bhangra beats, and the frentic percussive crescendo at the end is sheer madness that screams the songs out of its monotony.

Speaking of refreshing arrangements, the heavenly opening of Tum Saath Ho teaches a thing or two on how its done without doing much. I would like to call that looping phrase or riff the piano drops. Preceded by an affecting piano melody and accompanied by immense silence, the piano drops is sheer serenity. Reminded me of the short flute riff that carried on its shoulders the entire Dheemi Dheemi song in 1947: Earth. As for the song itself, it is the one haunting melody of pain every love story longs for. More often than not, in our film songs, the technique of doubling the voice in two varied octaves has mostly been used as an additional ornamentation, but in here, it is part of the emotional fabric of the song. Arijith Singh’s vocal timbre in different pitches — besides the exquisitely tuneful melody and Irshad Kamil’s poetry — brings a whiff of fresh air to the way the emotive premise of a song of this genre is often delivered. Besides, the mixing is just right, the neither of the vocal layers sound too close or too far from us or from each other.

Arijith Singh (along with Sashwat Singh) gets to lighten up in the addictive Wat Wat Wat, a slight and mid-tempo bhangra, a genre for which A.R.Rahman still manages to find a refreshing rhythm pattern. Song doesn’t get complacent with it's captivating rhythm pattern, instead it soars when it takes a soft and sweet melodic turn in the middle. There is nothing more comforting in movie music than hearing a conventional melody sitting tight and right in a foot-tapping rhythm, and in the respect, Wat Wat Wat is one of the most comforting listening experiences in recent times.

This being an A.R.Rahman album, how can everything be so easy, comforting, and instantly accessible, it has to go far and beyond, and Rahman needs his space to indulge after having given you what you want and he creates that space with the second half of the soundtrack.

With theatrical Chali Kahani, Rahman returns to one of his favourite swinging games (Thee Thee, In Lamhon Ki Daaman Mein, Solli Vidu Solli Vidu, Naanae Varugiraen, Pal Pal Bahari, Idhyam Nazhuvi) where he gets to jump between storm and slumber. Sukhwinder Singh is perfect here; he whips up the storm in the way he sings the staccato lines with a biting teeth and force, and equally effective in contrast is Haricharan and Haripriya’s quiet singing of a heartening melody. The classical-orchestral instrumental sections aren’t musically complex harmonies but are a unison where all the sections of the orchestra and chorus perform same melody in the same or adjacent together, but because the melodies are exquisite, layering aesthetic, and the production values crisp, it is effectively grandiose. It just takes a drag and drop of a virtual box in a software to choose a specific instrument for a specific section in a song, and that brings with it a million possibilities and I don’t think the refreshing choice of an Accordion on the fore against a full-throttled orchestra in the final crescendo of Chali Kahani could be one such drag-and-drop happenstance.

Neither are the array of instruments playing variety of short tunes one each for an instrument (including the irresistible Naa-Naa-Na hook from Matargashti) seamlessly woven together in the sprightly Parade De La Bastille. The opening of the track comes from a totally different dreamy space with Rahman crooning a short melodic riff with middle-eastern inflections and with so many instruments clamouring around and trying to imitate what the voice is singing. That is a soundscape still only Rahman can paint.

And sometimes he can use his soundscapes to stall things and do nothing for reasons I cannot fathom, like he does in the only interlude in Safarnama. There is nothing much happening in here musically, a lot of voices circling around murmuring the motif of the song, a guitar going totally extempore after having started with a defined theme. But, the song itself is a melodic trip albeit short. The long stretched phrases in each melodic line kept me thinking; does every song about a journey or about a philosophical search have that? Feels like a musical technique (along with right accompaniments like in this song) that helps to immediately sing the premise of the song’s narrative. It works and how well it does I got to know only at the end of last song, and of the album - Tu Koi Aur Hai, in which after wandering for far too long amidst muddled chorus and directionless strings orchestra, the song returns to Safarnama, defining the song the home of Tamasha.

The direction Rahman takes in Tu Koi Aur Hai seems to be his latest favourite, where he lets the melody take a shape while phrasing around each word in the lyrics and its expression, with no respect to any musical rhythm or meter. The song lingers on each word before moving on to the next and is in no hurry to shape its final melody, or rather there is none to be shaped. There is just stillness, and we move from one moment of stillness to the other and you never know what will happen next, and through the journey Rahman touches some affecting emotional nodes but somehow Tu Koi Aur hai feels a notch below Dil Gira Daftan or Rehna Tu or even Moonlight in its overall impact.

A.R.Rahman always has a simmering urge to rebel with conventional song structures and arrangements, but when Raunaq released he mentioned that it is important to have classic, conventional songs in ones repertoire and that explains the whole range of songs (Kahaan Hoon Mein, Saans Mein Teri, Dil Beqasoor, Kismet Se Tum, Innum Konjam Neram, Malargal Kaetten, Nazar Laayae, Unmai Orunaal Vellum, Chinna Chinna Nakshathiram) he made in recent times with conventional melodies and modest orchestration with no quirk in its overall design. There is still a lot of beauty to be found in these musical terrains where many of Rahman’s predecessors and contemporaries have been and done that. In Tamasha, Rahman strikes a fine balance, while mostly sticking to simple and comforting templates in the melody, goes all out for freshness, vibrancy and extravagance with lush and seductive sound palettes (like he did in “I”) in the arrangements, and am I complaining. Having seen what Imtiaz Ali did with Rahman’s quiet and modest Highway music, I can’t wait to see Tamasha. And I hope Rahman’s journey with Imtiaz Ali continues for long.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

OK Kanmani - A.R.Rahman

Parandhu Sella Vaa. It could have been another Hai Rama Yeh Kya Hua - with its restless rhythms and raaga based melody that sounds like a song Rahman conjured for the visuals of the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho coming to life to make love. It could have been a Maja Maja Maaja (Jillunu Oru Kaadhal) or a Thazhuvudhu (Anbe Aaruyirae) loaded with tribal rhythms and many musical moments filled with incessant moaning that goes with the idea of making love as a mere carnal pleasure with no bigger emotional heft whatsoever attached to the experience. Or it could have been all about the breezy romance, the fun and froth in the moments when a couple in love live together for the first time - Kaadhal Sadugudu (Alaipayuthey). Or it could have been something that ambles between the quiet slumber and passionate crescendo like In Lamhon Ki Daaman men (Jodha Akbar). In OK Kanmani, Rahman thinks of something refreshing for the situation in question and gives us the song of the soundtrack - Parandhu Sella Vaa. He sets the experience of intense physical intimacy to the ecstasy of a bird freed of a cage after years of imprisonment and its never ending flight after that higher and higher above the clouds. Bits and pieces of musical elements from all the other aforementioned songs are in here too — a softly thudding tribal rhythm, the musical moaning, mischievous mix of voices and sounds in the backing orchestration etc, But, they come together to paint a kaleidoscopic soundscape that entirely belongs to this song and this song alone.

Song has an interesting structure. It starts off with a gentle and cheerful foreplay section, a shaker, a peck-on-the-cheek sound loop, and a melody that keeps repeating, he does something and she does the same, no one knows where all of it is leading to, but soon a gentle rhythm kicks in and sets a groove to the action implying that they have taken a step further ahead. And she takes the lead and starts moaning melodically and it is so beautiful and classical that he might reach his peak without another touch. He moans along too but his is restrained and just enough to calm and bring her a new notches down from up above. Everything takes flight to a higher emotional plane sooner when he goes Nanaindhu kollavaa Mazhai Illamalae, and to an even higher and stronger emotional plane when a deep cello section joins as she goes Midhandhu pogavaa megha thundu pol. And that is where it stays afloat on Parandhu Sella vaa, Parandhu Sella Vaa. After a phase of passionate action, they jump to a frothy, playful phase for a short while when the song shifts to the most ecstatic musical moment of the whole soundtrack. Saasha’s scat singing backed by a cute and chirpy pizzicato strings in this section gives me an indescribable high every single time I listen to the song. With Kadandhu Pogavaa Boodham Aindhayum and a grand choir backing the lines, the song shifts to the emotional plane again, and then it doesn’t end, it just stays there. Nobody is in a rush to hit the climactic orgasm. They want to fly and fly and stay afloat savouring every micro second of the experience without having to reach any pointed destination. I just like that.

Rahman’s in OK Kanmani is light music. Lightness is the overarching mood and feel and this aura of light is sometimes easily mistaken as superficial. And the lightest of all that is light in the album is Aye Sinamika. With relentlessly strummed guitars and acoustic drums, a variety of e-nstruments and the cheerful chorus interludes, the song creates an infectious positive vibe and is a bundle of joy. That everything in the song keeps circling far too long around so small a musical pivot is my only gripe, could have had a little more meat. Kara Aatakkaara also has similar problem, meanders a bit and though has many interesting parts doesn’t come together well. I can’t deny feeling disappointed when the song quickly turned to Tamil rap, because I was so hooked to the Kaara Aatakkaara section when the first teaser of the movie broke out with it, and I have been eagerly waiting to hear what comes after that.

Rahman is always after a sense of musical and conceptual balance within a song, within songs in an album and within songs of similar genre in his overall repertoire. It is in Prabhu Deva’s movies you will hear the slowest of Rahman melodies. There would always be a Mellisayae to switch from Romeo Aattam, or a Naalai Ulagam Illaiyendral to go to after No Problem, or a Ennavalae after Errani Kurradhaani. There would mostly be a carnatic section laid on club beats in most of his jaunty dance music. Thirikita Dhaana motif in Pappu Can’t Dance was to balance the crass loudness expected in a party song. The classical sargams in Yaakai Thiri was to give a musical heft to the harmless fluff in a party song. And maybe the overt carnatic flavour in OK Kanmani music is for the same reason. And in OK Kanmani too, Rahman is after a musical balance within the songs and between the songs and he is able to achieve that without it being detrimental to the core mood and musical premise of the song. Maybe I am stretching the theory too far, maybe all of its comes from what the film needs but maybe not.

There Ulaa is an interesting exercise in Rahman’s penchant for balance. The song’s structure is dangerously fragile with scattered fragments of musical phrases and long stretches of pauses in between. A listener doesn’t get anything to hold on to easily, apart from the addictive techno beat that is deliberately played on a tempo higher than that of the melody. Each and every phrase should be able to stand on its own to make the song feel tighter. And also all of it should form a sweetly melodic and sensible musical structure when the listener is able to clearly map the whole journey of these fragments of musical phrases in their mind. Rahman pulls it off like he does every time. That female solo in the middle of the song is such a beautiful carnatic crux to build the song around.

Mental Menadhail is the only straight forward peppy techno track in the album that is not bothered about being all out fluff though Rahman tries to give a softer melodic bend to all the straight edges in the melody in its female version. First time I heard the female version, felt it sounded better, but have gone back to Rahman’s version now. Somehow the female version has subdued the fun and sound inhibited compared to the freak-out Rahman’s version.

I can’t pin point to a specific aspect but there is something totally magical about Naane Varugiraen besides the obviously sweet, strong, raaga-based melody and the exquisite classical inflections in the way the syllables of the sung words are split, swirled, stretched and squeezed inside Saasha Tripathi’s seductive vocal cord. Is it the element of electronica in the backing orchestration? But that is standard ornamentation considering Rahman’s standards. Or is it the constant chase and catch drama that plays out between the melody and the percussion? And while I question all these questions on the experience of the song, Rahman points me to its telugu version Yedho Adaganaa Yedhainaa Adaganaa, and listen to it yourself to know what inherent musicality of a language does to a melody. Sundara Telugu! And so is music of A.R.Ameen’s Arabic in the calming Maula Wa Salim. Can I get a karaoke version with just the chorus to use for my meditation?

But, the question that remains after listening to each new Rahman album - Where is the surprise? Where is that never-heard-before moment? Most unexpectedly I found the answer for these two questions in Malargal Kaettaen - a very deceptively simple and conventional sounding song in the album. Listen to the path Chitra takes when she sings Unaiyae Tharuvaai the first time, it is not the route a melody usually takes when it is presenting itself for the first time, it is an improvised version, a route it takes after having gone through a conventional path for many times, but that is what we get the first time and only in the second time Unaiyae tharuvaai takes its most obvious melodic route. And the never-heard-before moment arrives when Rahman joins Chitra, and again I can’t explain why, but Rahman’s voice and the way he sings does something that nothing else could have done to the song. And only when Rahman joined that I truly understood the beauty of the melody in its entirety.