Audio releases in Kollywood have changed remarkably since the coming of YouTube. Taking a cue from international album releases, singles from film audio albums now hit computer screens weeks or even months ahead of the film, and do most of the heavy lifting in pushing audiences to the theatres.
Just look at ‘Azhagiye’ from the eagerly anticipated Mani Ratnam relationship drama, Kaatru Veliyidai. Released to much revelry among fans, the song notched up over a million hits. This song and others on the soundtrack were surely one of the factors responsible for the great opening weekend collections of what turned out to be a box office flop.
But Tamil cinema isn’t just stopping with marketing techniques from the global music industry. From song structure to genre influences, Tamil film music is seeing a sea change. Rap and hip-hop have become just as common as gaana paattu, and melodies and harmonies are also making a strong case for themselves.
And with the growing eclectic taste for inspiration from around the world, the range of composers with unique music styles is also growing. From just one or two popular composers dominating the entire industry, a new wave of wizards is now levelling the playing field.
Today the industry can boast of at least a dozen tunesmiths such as Yuvan Shankar Raja, Harris Jayaraj, D Imman, S Thaman, Gibran, Santhosh Narayanan, GV Prakash Kumar, Aniruddh Ravichander, Srikanth Deva, Hiphop Thamizha and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, who have carved a niche for themselves in Tamil cinema.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Ilaiyaraaja’s vice-like grip on the industry was so complete that the release of Mani Ratnam’s Roja, with music by the now legendary AR Rahman, became an epoch-making event. I still remember that Roja was the first cassette (yes, these were still the days of audio cassettes) I played on my new Sony Two-in-One.
Even at top of his game, Rahman never kept as tight a hold on the industry, leaving room for a music director like ‘Thenisai Thendral’ Deva, the composer of the urbane ‘Gaana’ songs, to become an overnight star.
And with Rahman deciding to restrict himself to only a couple of albums a year in his post Oscar phase, the playing field has been open for some time for other names. That we’ve got a long line of potential crown princes instead of a new king, is indicative of the expanded space for younger talents in the industry.
This eruption of talent is, at least in part, the result of the larger new wave in Tamil cinema. Independent filmmakers, who come from outside the established studio system, carry new composers onto the big screen, even as they seek to carve out a space for themselves.
So you have a Pa Ranjith who’s willing to hire Santhosh Narayanan for his debut feature, Attakathi. Young music directors like Santhosh are much more adept at adjusting their work to the demands of various genres of movies, and holding the audience by tinkering with the forms of songs.
Santhosh’s work also uniquely adapts itself to the lyrics overlaying it, so that the words seem to burst forth from his melodies, as in ‘Agayam Pathikittal’ in Madras, giving listeners a freshness and kick that’s a novel experience in film music.
Or consider Jakes Bejoy, a sensational composer from Kerala, who scored the background music for the songless, critically acclaimed film, Dhruvangal Pathinaru. Bejoy’s music displays a feel for the pulpy police procedural and stays beneath its surface, satisfied only to accentuate and highlight the movie’s thrilling moments. Little attention is drawn to the score itself. A few years ago, hiring Bejoy would not have been a viable option for the director and producer.
In turn, younger music directors also draw forth a larger pool of singers, as talent and hard work grow ever more in demand versus simply recognisable or famous voices. For many of these singers, reality television and the proliferation of singing contests has opened up numerous platforms from which they can be found by young composers seeking fresh voices.
Of course, it’s not as if industry connections have suddenly ceased to matter. So you do find an Anirudh Ravichander (who is Rajinikanth’s nephew) or a GV Prakash Kumar (who is Rahman’s nephew). Yet even these composers have had to find new terrain to conquer.
Anirudh, for instance, found fame with the viral hit ‘Why This Kolaveri Di’ when he was just 21. With lyrics by Dhanush, the song quickly became one of the biggest hits on YouTube. The composer has since paced himself nicely over the years with music for Velaiyilla Pattathari, Maan Karate and Naanum Rowdy Thaan becoming chartbusters. Anirudh is known for his experimental style of music, combining sounds from different regions. He also provides a platform for young and upcoming singers, even as he sings for other composers himself. The song ‘Mersalaayitten’, from the film I, was composed by Rahman and sung by Anirudh.
GV Prakash Kumar has cemented a place for himself in the industry by choosing unusual stories that go onto become big hits, and moulding his music around them. Right from his debut film Veyil through Aadukalam, Kakka Muttai and Visaranai – he has found his niche in a diverse set of movies with strong stories that have found both mainstream and critical success.
But you also find a number of other composers who’ve found their way into the industry after perfecting their skills in the advertising industry or through television. D Imman, for instance, spent years composing for Tamil serials before making his foray into films with Thamizhan. And then he had to wait several years before his breakthrough album for the film Myna.
And there has also been a steady growth of artists who became composers after spending years with a band. So you have musicians like K, who made his debut with Mysskin’s Yudham Sei and went on to score the music for films like Pizza and the sensational Malayalam film, Annayum Rasoolum. K was only 12, when he first start playing for a band.
The members of Madley Blues, similarly, scored the music for 2013’s Sutta Kadhai. Vishal Chandrashekar, who used to perform with 5.1, has composed the music for films such as Jil Jung Juk, Appuchi Gramam and Santosh Sivan’s Inam. Siddharth Vipin, another entrant through the band route, has scored the music for Naduvula Koncham Pakkatha Kanom and Hello, Nan Pei Pesuren.
As the digital explosion grows, audiences have begun to move away from tried and tested musical formulae for the next fresh thing, that could have influences from classical to folk to hip hop, rock, jazz, African folk music, or electronic dance music or whatever new genre imagined. And in that burst of desire for new sounds and unique compositions, there’s a massive opportunity that Kollywood has begun opening itself to.